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.

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.

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

On Friday night, I drove an hour down the New Jersey Turnpike for a book event. I have a brand new book out, you see, my first novel, titled “Pastors’ Wives” (buy it today!).

I parked and checked my phone. My producers had assured me we wouldn’t hear till Sunday if the pilot I wrote, “The Ordained,” would be picked up by CBS for series. Then I saw a smattering of messages from friends.

“Such a bummer about your show.” “Does this mean what I think it means?” “Sorry, so sorry.”

My network had announced its fall lineup, and we weren’t on it.

Grumpy cat Le Miserable

I called one of my producers. He’d just heard too. But he’d also heard it wasn’t over. CBS had picked up only two dramas so far, and word was they’d choose another.

I trudged through the upscale commuter town to the bookstore. My college pal Gerry had come for support. The clerk led us to the basement event space, where rows of folding chairs stood. They were empty.

I went back upstairs and sat at a table next to the door with a stack of books and a plate of cookies. A few families wandered in to kill time in the children’s section. Their kids ate my cookies. I sold one book. To my friend Gerry.

“Maybe it wasn’t the right…demographic?” said the clerk, as I left. We looked at the cover of my novel, which has a Bible on it, its pages folded in the shape of a heart. It’s soapy women’s fiction set in a Southern evangelical megachurch. He felt terrible. I felt worse.

Saturday came and went. We heard nothing. Misery.

Then, Sunday. It’s hard to be anxious on Mother’s Day, amid the flowers and the home-made cards and little-girl hugs. But I managed.

I stayed off the industry gossip sites, same as usual, though I see now they were rife with speculation. My producers clung cautiously to their cautious optimism. We were still in the conversation! We still had a shot!

It was my husband who Googled for news exactly two minutes after the news broke: the network had picked up a legal drama…that wasn’t ours.

Jorge Garcia drawing

Jorge Garcia drew this image of his scene in the Bronx (with Charlie Cox). He calls it “our first piece of fan art.” Which kind of made me want to cry.

If you’re a writer, you know this feeling. When the manuscript you slaved over for years is rejected by the dozenth publisher. When the magazine that commissioned your cover story mails you a kill fee. When a facsimile of the screenplay you sold to a studio gets made by someone else. It’s a sucker punch.

And because we’re writers, it feels intensely personal. On our best days we feel like we might actually be kind of okay at what we do. On our worst, we are exposed as frauds.

I know what you’re going to say, and I thank you in advance. That it’s amazing I got this far. That it’s unheard of for a thumb-sucking novice like me to get a beginner script produced as a network pilot. I hear you. I hear the high risk, high reward. I hear the better luck next time. (Also, it’s not completely and totally over; there’s talk of cable.)

And someday soon, I will return your calls and we’ll have that long-overdue lunch, over which I will regale you with the gory details.

But for now I am crawling into the darkest corner of my house and just rocking.

What I learned naming characters in my novel and TV pilot

Owen Meany. Daenerys Stormborn. Katniss Everdeen. images

As a reader, I love a great character name. When they’re done right, the name infuses the role so completely in my mind that they’re forever inseparable. How can Jane Eyre be anything but?

When I became a fiction writer, it dawned on me that I’d be the one who’d have to come up with the names. I’d be inventing a person, after all: the color of her eyes, the way she talks, her earliest memories. Of course I’d have to give her a name.

You know how you agonized over the naming of your children? Yeah. It’s like that. A terrifying responsibility, if also a joyful opportunity.

In writing my novel, “Pastors’ Wives,” I turned for inspiration to the Bible. That made sense to me, as the story is set in a church and is about what it’s like when the man you married is married to God. Also, the Bible is a great source for names, as parents the world over can tell you. Bible Book of Ruth

“Ruth” is named after the Ruth in the Bible who pledges loyalty to her mother-in-law. Like her, my Ruth is helped by an older, wiser woman who counsels her on matters of love and marriage.

“Candace” is mentioned in the Bible as queen of the Ethiopians. Scholars surmise that it may derive from a Nubian word meaning “queen mother.” My Candace is indeed that of her megachurch flock.

“Jeremiah” is a Hebrew biblical name meaning “appointed by the Lord.” The Jeremiah in my novel, called Jerry, hears a calling to serve the church.

“Aaron” means teacher or mountain of strength. I thought that was an appropriate name for the charismatic leader of my fictional megachurch.

Not all my characters’ names have such lofty origins. Some I threw in for fun. For instance, in my story, the megachurch leader forms an alliance with a local imam. The wife of that imam is a blue-eyed American named Kristin Chaudry. That’s the name of my bff growing up (though her real husband is a telecom exec…you’re welcome, Kuri!).

Naming characters in my TV pilot, CBS’s “The Ordained,” was in some ways harder. Those names had to have a certain ring and resonance when spoken aloud. And what I learned when my pilot was produced is that every single name—even those scribbled on a white board in a law office—have to be vetted by the network. They check exhaustively for living people who bear the same name.

Interestingly, if there are a lot of people with the same name—say, John Smith—you’re fine. If there’s only one, you have a problem. Why? Lawsuits. That one person could decide to sue for defamation or some such. I lost out on some of my beloved character names because of this. One name had become so ingrained in our minds of our crew that they refused to remember the new one.

It’s okay. I got to keep the most important name of all: Tom Reilly, the main character. He’s named after my late father, who also inspired the character and the story.

Our CBS pilot is finished. Now we wait.

The pilot for “The Ordained” is edited. It’s been cut and tightened, sound-mixed and color-corrected, tested and noted. It’s possible I’m slightly biased, but it. Looks. Great.

Now, we wait. Some images from the past couple of weeks:

The editing happened in Studio City, on the CBS lot. We didn’t get out much. One time I took a walk here, near my hotel. But mostly we spent a lot of time in the dark.

Universal City Walk

The mixing happened on the Paramount lot, in the Technicolor building. People get around on these golf cars because the lots are freaking huge. Also, in L.A., it’s against the law to walk. That’s a joke.

Technicolor

The lots have a bunch of sets and equipment from other shows.

Glee set

How cool are these control boards? The veteran sound engineer showed me how each column controls a different sound: every actor’s audio, including background; street sounds; music. With one punch of a button or tweak of a dial, he can emphasize a word of dialogue or the bark of a faraway dog.

Mixing room

One important part of post-production was obtaining ADRs, or automated dialogue replacement. In the editing process, you might realize a word sounds garbled, or maybe you need a new line to clarify a scene. The actor then goes to an ADR station where he or she records that line again. There are tricks to keep it from looking like a badly dubbed kung fu movie—like cutting to another actor during the line, or maybe to the back of the speaking actor’s head.

So now we wait. We hear nothing, nothing at all, until the upfronts in mid-May. That’s when the networks hold big parties in New York to announce their line-up for the coming fall. If we get picked up, you’ll hear me hooting and hollering from wherever you are in the world. If we don’t, you’ll hear nothing, nothing at all, until I emerge from my deep, blue funk.

(If you like, please follow me on Twitter at @lisacullen or friend me on Facebook for more frequent updates. And please check out my novel, “Pastors’ Wives,” debuting from Plume/Penguin on April 30!)

What it’s like to shoot a TV pilot in New York City in March

Cold, is what it’s like. Cold. It’s cold.

We just wrapped three weeks of shooting our pilot, “The Ordained,” for CBS. We’re about to tunnel into post-production, or editing. Here are some images from the shoot.

Emma Lazarus house

Someone actually lives here.

Our first day of shooting was at this breathtakingly beautiful brownstone on West 10th Street. As gorgeous as it is outside, it’s even more so inside. Our crew stepped gingerly around priceless art and period furniture while the rest of us stamped our feet outside. The temp never quite hit 30. We were cold.

I wrote a scene taking place in the New York Public Library, where it’s prohibitive to shoot. So our genius of a location manager found this place, the Surrogates Court downtown near City Hall. Heard of it? Me neither. Take a look at that marble. You see where it’s peeling up top? That’s because the builder skimped by painting the walls instead of using real marble. I love learning that kind of stuff. We found records upstairs going back to the 1700s.

Yonkers courthouse

The Yonkers courthouse. You heard me.

We shot our court scenes in the ceremonial courtroom in Yonkers. There’s a stained-glass skylight and mahogany walls and it looks crazy good on film. Also, it was warm.

Judge's chambers

We needed a judge’s chambers, and the real one was too small. So our brilliant art director designed a new one, and the crew built it in the corner of the courtroom.

Lisa in video village

Oh, that’s me.

Every day, our hard-working crew built what’s called Video Village—the area where the producers lurk and watch what’s being filmed and occasionally squawk loudly. Those earphones on my head are called cans.

Movie camper

This is what happens when you write a small role and you neglect to give the character a real name.

Crew saves cat

Our crew: heroes.

A stray cat adopted us on the day we shot on Gerard Avenue in the Bronx. Then the cat proceeded to get stuck in a tree. Our props folks rescued it. Yet another reason to root for “The Ordained”! P.S. It was cold.

Federal courthouse NYC

We shot here on another cold, cold day. That was the day I leaned too close to the portable heater and my down jacket caught fire. I’m not kidding. But you know who had it worse? The poor extras, who were dressed, as my script dictated, for early fall.

Feingold, Ping & Nunez

We shot our law-firm scenes in the offices of an investment bank on Wall Street.

Fake elevator

We needed to shoot an elevator, so you know what? Our crew built one. This elevator is fake.

The Ordained cast

Our very tired and very talented cast taking a hard-earned e-mail break.

Set

This is our main character’s apartment building. IT’S TOTALLY FAKE. But it’s so real.

Capitale fundraiser

We shot our political fundraiser scene in this old bank on the Bowery. The 200 extras were tired, but at least they weren’t outside.

Father Santo

We shot a baptism scene in the jaw-droppingly beautiful St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue, suggested by my husband (thanks, honey!) because he’d played concerts there. That’s me with the lovely Friar Santo, our on-set consultant.

Dead crew

And it’s a wrap for “The Ordained.” Sadly, some of our crew did not make it.

Please follow me on Twitter @lisacullen or friend me on Facebook for more updates. And please buy my novel—it debuts April 30! xoxo

Location scouting for my pilot

I spent the last two days in a van driven by a Teamster with eight other people, scouting locations for my pilot. It was raining. The van kind of smelled. It was a total blast.

Times Square

The view from a location we scouted.

We’re shooting in New York City. This is no accident. I threw one after another iconic landmark and character into my script because I hoped this would force the issue. It’s a New York story! You can’t fake Times Square on some Hollywood lot!

Shooting in New York means a New York production staff. Who knew so many accomplished TV and film professionals live and work here? (Oh, you did? I didn’t.) Some have theater backgrounds; all just like it better here than in L.A. They don’t want for work, either. Their lists of credits are looong.

We trooped after our location manager into office buildings and churches and private residences and a courthouse. One law firm we visited would let us shoot while they work; one townhouse owner scooted away her daughter’s toys as we tramped from room to room. It’s not for free; each location demands a fee, and a hefty one at that. I suppose it’s one way to make your mortgage, but can you imagine letting strangers invade your beautiful home?

The best part was the van gossip. They’ve all worked with each other over the years on various projects, and when your colleagues are celebrities, there’s a lot of intel to trade. Even the van driver had stories. These guys know where all the bodies are buried.

Some things I learned during location scouting:

• If you’re shooting in March for a scene set in late summer, you’ll need special effects to color Central Park’s trees green.

• Likewise, if your script would force your poor actors sit outside in March on a fire escape in underwear, you’ll probably have to build that set indoors.

• Even if the scene is set in a small space, like, say, a starter apartment, you still need a ton of room for cameras and crew.

• New Yorkers get really pissed when you shoot near their homes. I know this from when we lived on the Upper West Side and we’d curse “Law & Order” for hogging all the parking on our street.

• The City has rotating “hot zones” where you’re not allowed to shoot. This is supposed to give residents in popular areas a break, but often a zone might magically sprout up in a VIP’s neighborhood.

See? Fun.

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.

My CBS pilot was inspired by my dad. This is him.

In case you haven’t heard me hollering, CBS ordered my drama pilot, THE ORDAINED. Here’s the write-up in Deadline by Nellie Andreeva (“The back story of Cullen’s project is the kind aspiring writers dream of”—if you dream of ulcerative colitis!) and the one from the Hollywood Reporter.

As Deadline reports,

the essence of the lead character inspired by her late father, a former priest.

This is true. So I thought I’d introduce you to my dad.

His name was Tom Reilly, and he was an ex-priest. My character’s name is Tom Reilly, and he is an ex-priest.

I am not yet so good at making stuff up.

Thomas J. Reilly, priest

This was Father Tom Reilly, before he became MY father.

My dad was born in 1933 in Philadelphia, the second of six children. My grandfather, his father, was an Irish-American lawyer who ran for district attorney but lost. My grandmother, his mother, was of Cuban descent.

In my pilot, Tom’s father is an Irish-American former governor of New York who ran for President but lost. Tom’s mother is of Cuban descent.

Making stuff up is hard.

My dad left the priesthood in his mid-thirties to marry my mom. In my show, Tom leaves the priesthood in his mid-thirties to try to save his sister, the mayor of New York City, from an assassination plot.

So I made THAT up.

After he quit the priesthood, the real Tom Reilly went into advertising. The made-up Tom Reilly goes into the law.

See the difference? I can do this.

Tom Reilly spent the next forty years in Japan, raised four kids, ran his ad agency, made everyone he met laugh, and remained a devout Catholic to his last. That last came in 2009, nine months after my mom died of cancer. Near as any of us can figure, he died of a broken heart.

I don’t know yet what the future holds for my Tom Reilly, the one in my head. I have so many adventures plotted for him, twists and turns, tragedies and triumphs, maybe a broken heart or two. All I know is he’d be damn lucky to live a life as rich as the real-life Tom Reilly’s. We all would.

So here’s to the resurrection of Tom Reilly. May he yet live.

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.