Writing the TV pilot, step 1: the idea

Ah, September. The crisp in the air, the apples on the trees…the panic in my gut as I try to sell another pilot pitch.

In 2012, I sold a pilot I’d written on spec. (Here’s how that craziness happened.) It got produced. (Read about that insanity here, here and here.)

And because that happened, this pitch process is very different from the last.

After we learned in May that my pilot wasn’t picked up for fall series, I allowed myself a few days (weeks) of disappointment (despair). Then I picked myself up (wallowed in tears), dusted myself off (wallowed some more), and prepared for what’s next (lay awake nights in wretched fear).

Coming up with the idea is tricky (diabolically difficult). It’s one thing to come up with a magazine story, something I did for many years. In journalism, for the most part it’s one and done: you publish your groundbreaking investigation (crappy trendicle), and then it’s on to the next.

It’s a whole ‘nother bag of chips to invent a brand new TV drama with a potential audience—and budget—of millions.

But: pssst. I learned a TV-land secret this summer: when you get a pilot produced, you don’t have to chase after own ideas for the next one. The ideas come to you! No lie!

Because of aforementioned experience, and because of the blind script deal I have with a studio this year, production companies—sometimes called pods, which makes me think of aliens—approached me with ideas. By ideas, I mean just that: an interesting character in the news, a nonfiction book the producers have optioned, a format to a foreign TV series.

If you’re a writer, you’ll agree: how freaking awesome is that?!

Well.

You still have to meet the producers, read their treatments, read the books, pitch your version, get your version rejected, meet with another pod with an idea that doesn’t quite fit, and again, and again, until summer wanes and your churning gut tells you to bleep or get off the pot.

Pitching can be heartbreak. You marry yourself so thoroughly to an idea that rejection feels like a thousand stabs in a necessary organ. If you were being dramatic about it.

Pitching can also be about dominance. You come up with an idea which may or may not suck, but it doesn’t matter because you’re an 800-lb. gorilla and you’re going to swagger in there and make them buy it. I’m not there yet.

For me, pitching is about evolution. You meet an idea, but you keep your mind open to change. You talk to your producers about it. You listen to their feedback. You think some more. A weird take on the idea comes to you in the middle of the night. You tell your producers about it. They say hmm. You discuss some more. You draft a pitch document, then you draft another, then another, then another, then another.

And finally it’s time for the studio pitch. Ready or not.

How I met my TV agent (and my manager, and my lawyer)

Breaking into TV writing is about as mysterious a process to most of us as nuclear fusion. The biggest mystery of all is how one goes about getting an agent.

Here’s what knowledgeable people will tell you to do:

1. Enroll in film school.

2. Move to L.A.

3. Grovel till you find work as an assistant in a writer’s room on a show.

4. Grovel till one of the writers takes a look at your specs.

5. Pray your script will make the writer laugh/cry so hard he’ll introduce you to his agent.

That path only works if you’re 18. What if you’re not? And have a full-time job doing something else entirely, plus a mortgage, plus a husband and kids, and you live 3,000 miles from the Hollywood sign?

Here’s a short version of what happened to me.

Jeremy Piven Entourage

My agent is not this guy.

In 2007, I was a journalist, a staff writer for Time magazine. I had just published an article I thought—for no good reason at all—would make a super cool TV series.

My book agent—who had hoped the article would turn into a super cool book—sighed and introduced me to her friend, a TV agent in Hollywood. He called. I pitched the idea. He totally got it. He asked for a treatment.

I said, “What’s a treatment?”

I could say that was the start of my brilliant career as a TV writer, but that would not be true. That pitch died a gruesome death, but not till two years later, during which I continued to work at Time. Meantime, I took classes and workshops and read everything I could on how to write a TV script. I finally quit my full-time job in 2009.

In 2010, I went to L.A. for staffing season. That’s the month or so in late spring when new TV shows hire their writing staff. My agent set up a ton of meetings, but I wound up not staffing because all, and I mean all, the jobs that year were in L.A.—which is kind of a long commute from New Jersey.

But it wasn’t all for nothing. Because the most important meeting my agent set up was with the guy who would become my manager.

Whoa, whoa, you’re saying. Why would a broke-ass writer without a single credit need or deserve a manager? And what’s the difference between an agent and a manager anyway?

That’s a timeless question, and a tricky one. I can only speak for myself: my agent is my connector and negotiator. He’s my link to networks and producers as well as the other people and projects his powerful agency represents. My manager represents me. (Think Ari and Eric in “Entourage.” Without the drama.)

So that’s how I met my TV agent. I now have two at the same agency. And my manager. They hooked me up with my lawyer. They’re all great guys.

That’s a lot of commissions for said broke-ass writer, you’re thinking. But you know what? Ten percent of zero is zero. If I earn nothing, they earn nothing. I hope to earn them a little something someday.

 

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.

What it’s like to pitch a TV show

Terrifying. Exhausting. Crushing. Humiliating.

Welcome to TV pitch season.

This is just my third go-round, so understand my view is that of a newbie who still kind of totally sucks at this. (For advice and a far more experienced take on pitch meetings, I’m currently reading Lynda Obst‘s wonderful “Hello, He Lied.”)

My first year, my manager managed to wrangle a blind-script deal from Warner Bros., so I didn’t have to trot out to the networks. Last year, my second try, I had a deal from Sony called an if-come, which means if I sold it, the money would come. This year, I’m pitching a spec*, so my meetings are by phone. Which is much, much easier.

Sold

If it were this easy… (Credit: Lucidio Studios)

But who wants to hear about easier? Let me tell you about last year!

I started with an idea. I started with a lot of ideas, actually, but only one that my manager and agents thought passed muster. Then began the laborious process of matching me up with an entourage.

The reason I needed a team is that I’m Lisa who? If a David Shore (creator of HOUSE) or a Shawn Ryan (creator of THE SHIELD) wandered into a network exec’s office with a germ of an idea, chances are they’d walk out with a bid. If a mom from New Jersey wanders in…well, she wouldn’t, because she wouldn’t get past the security guard at the gates.

Someone like me needs back-up, because back-up confers legitimacy. That means before I even hit up a network, I needed to first land a show-runner. And a production company. And a studio.

Show-runners, as you probably grew up knowing but I didn’t, are the rare breed who make a living orchestrating TV series. One of those meetings occurred a few hours after I stepped off a Jet Blue flight to Burbank (because it’s cheaper than flying into LAX). I was staying at a crack motel east of the 101 in Thai Town. My room smelled of nail polish and fish sauce.

Dizzy with fatigue, I arranged to meet the show-runner at a restaurant in West Hollywood. I parked nearby, and, as I crossed the street, I fell. I mean I fell. An honest-to-goodness, movie-stunt wipe-out—the one in which the girl in heels flies knees first into the asphalt, with three cyclist dudes watching, and her iPhone flies out of her hand into the puddle at the edge of the road.

I walked into the meeting shaking, my knees bloody. This show-runner was a man in his 50s, the award-winning executive producer of one of the most successful dramas in TV history, one that had recently ended its run.

“I just fell down,” were my first words. You’ll be stunned to learn the pitch that followed was incoherent garbage. He ordered a plate of fries, then sent it back because they weren’t crispy enough. That’s me, I thought. A pile of soggy fries.

“If he agrees to do it,” I later told my manager, “it would be a miracle.” Miracles happen. He agreed.

Albert Brooks

That’s me, pitching. I swear.

Then came the production company. I drove all over town for many meetings in offices big and small, one in a tiny cabin hard by Barham Boulevard, another in a hip renovated warehouse in Santa Monica. One of the last meetings was in a nondescript three-story building in Burbank. The exec and her assistant were young, warm and enthusiastic. They asked smart, probing questions. But they were also insanely busy covering one of the hottest TV dramas on cable, one festooned with awards and approaching its final season. Somehow, they too agreed.

Next, the studio, Sony. They agreed, too, albeit with the aforementioned deal. And for whatever reason, the deal took a long, long time to finalize, putting us at the tail end of pitch season. The result was that, by then, only two networks agreed to see us; the rest had fulfilled their roster of shows like mine.

Nevertheless, we gave it the old college try. My show-runner, producers, studio exec and I sweated to shape and polish the pitch. My pitch document (otherwise known as my crib sheet) grew to five pages, single-spaced. I’m not supposed to read from it…but you try memorizing 20 minutes of choreographed blather.

Let me just stop right here and tell you about my frame of mind at the time. I’d dashed back and forth from New Jersey to L.A. for two months, squatting in whatever crappy accommodations Expedia packaged with my el cheapo flights. My sudden disappearances did not raise my popularity with my spouse and small children. And now my family’s health insurance (I’ll explain this later) and a large chunk of our livelihood depended on how I performed on a single day.

Then: show time.

At the first network, I hit it out the park. I’m telling you. I was chatty, I was funny, the execs laughed, my team smiled. Leaving the room, we high-fived.

At the second, later the same day, I all but threw up on the coffee table. I blame the bottle of Orangina I carelessly swigged pre-meeting. I was working so hard not to belch like a trucker that I broke out in a sweat. You know that scene in BROADCAST NEWS? The one with Albert Brooks and the flop sweat? Yeah.

Bottle of Orangina

Whatever you do, don’t swig this before a pitch.

The execs were lavish in their praise, as is the habit in Hollywood. I heard words like “smart” and “surprising” and “different.” My team was enthusiastic after the first meeting, consoling after the second.

And in the end, neither bought. The flip side of an if-come deal is that if the pitch doesn’t sell, then the money doesn’t come. So I wound up with nada.

That’s what it’s like to pitch a TV show. In case you were wondering.

* This year, like I said, I’m pitching a spec, which is a script I already wrote on the speculation that someone somewhere would buy it. Specs are notoriously hard to sell. But a major studio has just given us a deal. Now they’ve got to sell it to network or cable. All digits crossed.**

** UPDATE: A network bought my pilot! More on this shortly.