What it’s like when the network doesn’t pick up your pilot

My network drama pilot died last month.

It was 11:30 p.m. We had just finished watching “The King and I,” the Yul Brynner/Deborah Kerr original. My husband is playing one of the clarinet parts in the Lincoln Center production (currently in previews!), and so I’d found us a DVD copy in the library. The King had just died, his beringed hand flopping limp and lifeless as Mrs. Anna clasped it to her cheek. I wiped a tear; the credits rolled; I checked my email. And there it was, from my manager: “I don’t have good news.”

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

When you’re a writer, failure comes in many forms. For the author, there’s the courtly agony of the publisher’s rejection letter. For the journalist, there’s the maddening sting of opening up the paper to see the editor bumped your time-pegged article. I’ve experienced both, and man, they blow.

But the death of a network TV pilot feels like something else entirely. This is my fourth go-round, and it hasn’t gotten any easier. The death feels sudden and violent, like lunging for the finish line of the marathon only to eat asphalt.

Maybe it feels this way because there’s no afterlife for a network pilot. Unlike book manuscripts or articles, it can’t simply be shopped elsewhere. That’s because you don’t own it; the studio does. Sure, you hear once in a blue moon about unproduced scripts dusted off seasons later for resurrection—but you know not to hang your hopes on that. The network moves on, and so must you.

Its public nature heightens the sense of failure, I think. Crowds of spectators watch on Deadline Hollywood as you collapse bleeding before the finish line, tweeting or emailing their condolences.

But mostly I think it feels like sudden death because, unlike cable or movies, there’s a strict timetable that forces you to go, go, go, right until the bitter end. Here was what my fall looked like:

September: pitch. (This is the 20-minute presentation made to network executives. Here’s the article I wrote in The New York Times about flop-sweating through that process.)

October: story area. (This is the six-page document that describes the central story of your pilot episode.)

November–December: outline. (This is the 20-page document that describes your pilot episode in prose, beat by sweaty beat.)

January: script. (This is the 60-page script.)

On the one hand, this timetable can be a good thing; there’s no such thing as development hell in network TV, because a yea-or-nay decision must be made on a cold, hard deadline.

On the other, there’s a reason most of us prefer to watch marathons from the depths of the couch. If forced to run anything close to 26 miles, we’d require an occasional break to double over and throw up.

There’s no such break when you’re writing the network TV pilot. Each stage of the process has its own deadline and requires voluminous research, multiple drafts, and official approval by producers, studio and network. It’s non-stop work. Let me show you how much. In the folder on my computer desktop that contains all of the files related to this one project, these are the sub-folders and the numbers of documents they contain:

Research: 33

Pitch: 37

Potential future storylines: 48

Story area: 11

Outline: 71 (!!!)

Notes calls: 28

Script drafts: 11

Let’s take a moment here and say what is perhaps needless to say, although I tell myself all the time anyway: this is not work-work. This is not coal-mining, or E.R.-nursing, or public-school teaching. I know. It’s just writing. It’s just a story.

Mine was about an undocumented immigrant: strong, brave, scared, determined. He found himself in an impossible situation not of his own making, but whose outcome would determine the survival of his loved ones. He moved between two worlds—the money- and power-driven one of the law firm where he worked as a fixer, and the dark, lawless one in which he operated. He was my hero.

Over the previous five months, I’d spent more time with him and the other characters than anybody else in my life save my husband and kids. I knew my characters’ backgrounds, their relationships, their dreams and desires. I knew what they wanted and how they’d get it. I knew how they’d dress. I knew how they’d smell. I heard their voices in my sleep.

So I took a beat. I took a beat to mourn these lives that would never be. I took a beat to say good-bye. I let it go. Because the network moves on, and so, I know, must I.

For me, right now it’s on to another drama pilot I sold last fall, this one to a cable network. Its story and characters have battled for my brain-space with its broadcast brethren, and now has full ownership. But not for long. Before I know it, it’ll be July 4—the start of network TV pitch season for fall 2016.

Questions? Comments? Please tweet me @lisacullen.

What happens when a network orders your pilot

So I’m sitting on the couch at 8:30 on Friday night, reading. The kids are in bed. My husband is beside me, K.O.’d by the flu.

The phone rings. It’s my manager. I know it’s not going to be about my pilot. The network has only ordered Jerry Bruckheimer’s drama so far, the one starring Toni Collette. It still has four other big-name “commitment” projects to announce before it gets around to deciding on no-name hopefuls like mine.

My manager has assured me we won’t hear until next week, but that the team is still “cautiously optimistic.” I don’t know why. We’re up against 60 other drama pilots. It’s the first pilot I’ve ever sold.

On the phone he says, “Hold on.” Then I hear a lot of beeps and background voices as he conferences in our producers, our studio execs, and then, finally, the network.

That’s how I learned CBS had picked up my pilot.

To be honest, the conversation after that is a blur. There were a lot of congratulations and thank yous. I do remember someone mentioning the name of a legendary star who is being considered for a leading role, after which my brain exploded.

I woke up my husband. He managed a weak, “That’s great, honey—I’m so proud of you,” before he passed out again.

So I went to Facebook, as you do. I told friends that CBS had picked up my pilot. Which is the language my team had used.

As little as I know about the TV business, apparently my friends know even less. I am still getting texts asking what time they need to set their DVRs. So, here, an explanation, courtesy of TVLine.com:

When a network orders (or “picks up”) a pilot, they’re asking its writers/producers/studio to cast and produce a very close facsimile of what their series’ first episode will look like. Each pilot is reviewed by network brass, and then typically put into testing before a decision is made on whether it will land on the schedule (for fall or midseason).

That’s what happens next. We shoot the pilot. And only the pilot. Which will only ever air if the network sends it to series.

Meantime, there’s lots to do. First we cast and hire actors, a director, and many other people whose functions I still have to learn. We started talking lead actors a while ago, and the discussions always made me giggle. It’s weird to think of someone famous playing a role named after my dad.

On my end, I need to cut ten pages from my script. Ten pages! A producer from CBS’s THE GOOD WIFE was kind enough to clock my script for us, and that’s what we need to bring it in on time.

So here I sit in my attic office in freezing-cold New Jersey (19 degrees!), fussing with my script, nipping here, tucking there. Just like I’ve been doing these past few years, writing in cozy obscurity. Hollywood (82 degrees!) seems very far away—and a significant part of me wants to keep it that way. But change, it’s a-coming.

The difference between selling a TV pilot and selling a novel

…is that one will eventually see the light of day. The other may not. Ever.

Last year, for the first and maybe last time, I did both. I sold a novel to Penguin, and a TV pilot to CBS.

In both cases, the sale is only the end of the beginning of the process. You get paid, partially; the rest comes in increments, after you hand in the next draft, et cetera. You and your people edit the hell out of the thing. You prepare. You strategize. And you wait.

In the case of my novel, “Pastors’ Wives” (pre-order now on Amazon!), we have a publication date: May 2013. Since we sold the manuscript in February 2012, it’s gone through two edits by my main editor, a copy edit, and something called a pass, which is kind of like a proof. We rejected two cover designs before we landed on one we loved. I begged other authors for blurbs. We’re currently circulating it among book bloggers and reviewers. Next week I meet with my agents, editors and publicists to devise an all-out marketing strategy.

And whatever happens, it will publish in May. If the only people who buy it are related to me by blood, it will still exist in the world.

Not so my pilot.

So far, the 66 pages I bled over have been read by under two dozen people: my manager, my agents, our producers, our studio execs, and our network execs. I made my husband read it. Also a very few people with expertise in my topic, for fact-checking purposes.

That’s it. And that may be it, ever.

In a couple of weeks, we’ll know if mine is among the seven or eight drama pilots CBS will decide to shoot, among the 60 or so it has bought this season. I mention this so you know my odds are loooong.

If it should happen to hit the jackpot, then, yes, many more people will read the script. And if it should happen to win the whole lotto and get sent to series, even the tiniest broadcast TV audience would dwarf a bestselling book’s.

And in the likely event it doesn’t? Then into the bin it goes. No chance of selling it elsewhere, as the studio now owns the rights. The Writer’s Guild stages readings of unproduced teleplays, but that would just be weird.

So here I send my two babies into 2013, their fortunes already set. I love them both. I hope they make it.