I sold a TV pilot. Here’s how it happened.

I sold a drama pilot to CBS.

Although this happened in early September, it didn’t seem totally real until this past week, when I was out in L.A. and people shook my hand.

Here’s how it happened.

Plane and pilot

Not this kind of pilot.

A year ago, I pitched an idea. That was all it was at the time: an idea. And lest you think that’s totally bizarre, this is how it works in Hollywood. Every September, writers troop into network executives’ offices, and they spin a tale they think could maybe work on TV. Then the network executives buy it, or don’t. I know. It’s an insane business model.

Anyway, I failed. I completely failed to sell my idea. So I went home to New Jersey, cried, drank, and finished my novel. My book agent sold said novel in February. So this spring I found myself with some time.

“Just write the pitch up as a spec,” said my TV manager.

Let me try to explain what those words mean to a writer. It’s how I came to write my novel, which began as a magazine article, then morphed into a TV pitch, which met a horrible, harakiri ending. My book agent told me to just write it as a novel. Even though I’d daydreamed of such a project, it meant everything hearing it seconded by someone who really understood my idea and, moreover, its chances on the market. It’s the equivalent of: “I believe in you.” When someone says that, you begin to believe yourself.

And so I did. I wrote my damn pitch into a TV pilot script. If you’re in the business, this is where you laugh. Because you know it’s near impossible to sell a spec. “Spec” is short for speculative. As in, a speculative script written on the speculation that someone somewhere may want it. What I didn’t know is that the chances of a spec pilot selling are about near that of Karl Rove winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Like I said, I did not know that. So I spent the spring shaping and writing my script. My manager weighed in with note after note. We eventually had a script we rather liked. Now we had to shop it.

Last season, we’d shopped my pitch with a whole entourage. But the producer we’d worked with on the pitch declined to partner with us this time, “given how hard it is to sell a spec,” she said. That was my first hint. Oh. Maybe all this had been a total waste of time.

But my manager believed in the project. So he sent it out. CBS Studios responded immediately. After a phone meeting, they made an offer. Swiftly after that, they announced CBS, their sister network, was in.

The best part? I’ll make the Guild minimum and keep my family’s health insurance. I dream big, see.

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  1. Congrats on all the success 🙂

    At this rate I’m finishing a minimum of two television pilots per week; I’ve mastered scriptwriting and can almost finish a script without a single spelling mistake in just one sitting. I just haven’t figured out how to get an agent yet. If you have any advice for me please send me an email, it would be of great help.

    Sincerely; Jeremy Hunter

  2. Yo Lisa!

    Nice job! I’ve written 3 pilots (animated, comedy and half-hour drama). Now if I can just find myself a manager/agent!

    Again, good show! BTW, what is guild minimum for a pilot?

  3. Love it when people live with abandon in the totally creative way! Congrads!

    • lisacullen says:

      Thanks, Karen! I aspire to live with abandon, but the sad fact is I live in neurotic terror. If you had told me five years ago that I would leave my comfy journalism job to try to make it as a novelist and TV writer, I would have laaaaaughed.

  4. Lisa, congratulations! As an aspiring writer with a goal to break into television writing (half hour comedy), I love these posts in particular. It sounds like you have a wonderful relationship with a great manager. I’d love to learn how you found and obtained your TV representation, if you are so inclined to say. Thank you for sharing these entertaining, informative, and inspiring ditties.

  5. Lina Lofaro says:

    From a former Time Magazine colleague —– congratulations Lisa !!!!! Fantastic !!!! How wonderful !!!!!!!

  6. kathy graham koller says:

    Way to go girl!!! So freakin excited for u! U will be unstoppable now! Lisa takin over CBS evening entertainment folks!

  7. That kind of cynicism will serve you well in the TV business. Enjoy and congrats!

  8. Someone passed your news on to me…so thrilled for you! Congratulations, and enjoy the cloud! (9)

  9. How exciting, Lisa! Congratulations and I can’t wait to see it (and read the book).

  10. Awesome news, Lisa, congratulations. Keep us posted.