Trainee Writer

Adventures of a screenwriter in training…

Guest Blog: “Pilot Season” by Serge Kozak


The Pilot Season, what is before and what follows 

Pilot Season is usually the time of the year, when all TV series promoters produce prototypes of their new series, called “Pilot”.

What  actually is the development cycle of a TV series?

It starts in autumn, when a writer/producer with good reputation presents his or her idea for a new series to the network or studio.  If the latter like the idea, they decide to make a Pilot. The writer/producer works out the script of the Pilot. If they like the script, too, they start preparing for shooting the Pilot.

In the first months of the new year, a casting director is chosen to breakdown the script. The breakdown contains: the names of the producer, writer and director of the Pilot; the studio; the type of show (drama, sitcom, action, etc.); when and where the shooting will be; description and requirements of the roles to be cast. The casting director should find the regulars, co-stars and guest stars, about twenty actors altogether for a pilot. This happens in about ten weeks.

Then Pilot season comes, usually January to March, even June of late, which is the hectic casting time for all actors.

The order of auditions is as follows: pre-read with the casting director, callback for the producer, a second callback for the producer to make the final choice of actors. The studio and the selected actors then start a “test deal option” – a detailed negotiation between the actor’s agent and the business department of the studio, leading eventually to a contract of usually five years. This contract will be signed before the actor goes for a test before the executives in the studio.

This great audition is the moment of truth; there is no second chance for the actor that fails it, not even for the great ones. If the executives fall for the actor, he/she will go to the last, the network test before the executives of the network that will broadcast the show.

There are usually three or four actor competing at this stage, a very ugly but frequent situation. The winner however can count on at least $50 000 for fourteen days of shooting the Pilot. If the “actor’s option is picked up”, i.e. he/she is taken for the role in the series, big money is following – from $15 000 upwards per episode.

When a Pilot is ready, it goes to the network/studio along with the other pilots produced in the same time. Then a decision is made whether and which pilot will go to series.  This decision is announced at the so-called Up Fronts, a magnificent media event in New York in May, where the general public and the actors themselves come to know what the new season will look like and who will be in it. Series production starts in July or August.

Many pilots never reach the phase of series. Pity for the efforts and hopes.

Pilot Season is the event and time of the year that many actors build their life plans around. They all have to take part in it if they want to have a chance to end up on the TV screen. For families with children actors this could be a frustration, even a tragedy, when children are taken out of their common environment and forced to compete like the elders. That however is the price paid for early success.

Serge Kozak is the founder of Edictive, a studio management software and film marketing company.

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October 6, 2012 Posted by | Guest Blog, networks, screenwriting, specs, writing | , , , , | Leave a comment

[Development Diary] Lowering The Bar – #1


Before I go any further, let me preface this by saying that yes, I know, I said previously that I was going to spend 2012 tying up loose ends and finishing all my unfinished scripts. And that genuinely was my intention until I was tipped off on an exciting new opportunity.

Developing for the web is something that I’d previously considered; one of my unfinished projects, Housemates, was designed with the web in mind as something that I could produce with friends as a showcase for all of our talents. But the opportunity to do it, have it seen by a mass audience and be paid for it was too good to turn up.

This particular opportunity presented some very interesting challenges; the site that will be hosting and producing the show, ChannelFix.com, is based in the Philippines, which meant that I had to produce something that could be filmed over there but their target audience is for the American 18-30 market (give or take) which meant I needed something that could appeal there. Not the easiest set of parameters to write to. And it had to be low-budget.

Given carte blanche to pitch them whatever came into my head, effectively, I pitched two shows; the first of those shows, Lowering The Bar, is in the later stages of the writing process, which made it a great time to write a development diary to tell you how I got where I am with the project now.

Because I had to make this show to such a narrow set of guidelines, I decided to go with what I knew (to an extent) and pitched a show about a guy who arrives in the Philippines with a couple of his frat brothers to save his uncle’s failing bar.

It’s a sitcom, which means that it needed potential for conflict, which always comes from the characters and the situation. A group of American tourists is always great comedy fodder, so that was always going to make things interesting. Put them in a foreign country with its own language and culture for the long haul and you’ve got endless material to play with. Throw in a bar and a beach and you’ve got great settings for them to get into mischief. But it always comes back to those characters. Let’s meet them:

Scott – Our lead, early 20s and a former business student. He’s there to make the business a success and to reconnect with his family, but he’s hiding a secret from his alpha friends – he’s gay.

Mike – Also in his early 20s and was an engineering student. He’s calm collected, smooth and suave. He loves the ladies but wants to expand his intellectual horizons too. He loves to fix things – either literally or figuratively – and approaches every situation in a careful, considered way.

Tommy – the stereotypical frat boy, Tommy comes from a wealthy background but lacks intelligence. The fact that he graduated from college with a marketing degree is a mystery to everybody. He wants to party and get laid, his stupidity will get him (and the others) into trouble and he has a far higher opinion of himself than he should.

Riley – You can’t have conflict between guys without throwing a girl into the mix, that’s just the way life works. So enter the ridiculously attractive, super-snarky and highly intelligent bookworm Riley. Riley is Scott’s cousin, it’s her dad’s bar and she’s staying for the summer. She wants to have fun, but she also knows that she needs to keep an eye on the boys to stop them from burning the bar down!

Now, I’ve been lucky enough (he says, ironically) to work in various bars for the last few years, giving me plenty of experience to draw upon for stories here, but the most important part of writing comedy is to collaborate. That’s why I’ve been workshopping this at Zoetrope among friends, including my favourite comic genius, Shaula Evans and one of the finest unsigned writers I’ve ever come across (a 2009 & 2011 PAGE Semi-Finalist, 2010 Finalist) Jen Zinone. If we get a full series, hopefully those two fine minds (and others) will come aboard to write episodes for you to enjoy!

So, what more can I tell you? Plenty, but I’ll save it for next time when, hopefully, I’ll have a final draft of the script in pre-production in the Philippines and I’ll see if I can;t wrangle some notes, pictures and tales from the set for you to paw through!

In the meantime, don’t forget that the workshop here is still open for business and, if you want to track me down on Zoe, maybe you can join the LTB team!

Until next time…

x

March 7, 2012 Posted by | Development Diaries, networks, screenwriting, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Looking after the pennies…


Inspired by a comment on Shades Of Grey by Jane Frost (Thanks, Jane!), I’ve finally found time – and a way – of talking about an oft-overlooked issue for the spec writer: budget. But this isn’t just about the cost of shooting your script, but the way everything you write on the page affects somebody on the production team and the importance of being aware of that. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to budget. Nobody wants to spend $100m producing a script by an untested writer – admittedly, there are a couple of exceptions – even if you have written the next Avatar. So in today’s lesson, we’re going to talk about the importance of making sure that your scripts are as production-friendly as possible. In an ideal world, a producer would love to see a script that he can shoot for free. He has more chance of finding a Golden unicorn ridden by a mermaid, of course, but the lower you can make the budget on your specs, the more chance you’ll have of someone producing it.

Making it as low-budget as possible should never mean you sacrifice quality, however. If your screenplay is a retelling of the 300 in space, it’s natural that we’re going to see massive fight scenes, lots of special and elaborate effects. I don’t see much chance you’d sell such a spec anyway – it’s a deliberately extreme example to illustrate my point – but always be aware.

So how do we tell the story we want whilst reducing budget to its bare minimum? Well, if you’re writing space-based sci-fi or the next Die Hard, I probably can’t help you too much. SFX will cost money and they’re genre staples. So here comes my first advice on that score: If you can write them, stick to the low-budget genres. What are the low-budget genres? They’re the ones that, when you walk into Blockbuster, you see hundreds of. (I’m assuming you still use Blockbuster. If you’ve gone strictly Netflix/LoveFilm you need to hunt down a Blockbuster and take a look sometime!) We’re talking horrors, psychological thrillers, comedies, romances, coming-of-age dramas and their crossovers and ilk. You see so many of these being made because they cost much less to produce. And people are making so many of them for exactly that reason: it’s good business. These genres have huge fanbases and a low-cost, which makes them infinitely profitable.

Interesting fact: Remember that scene in Swordfish where the helicopter is flying the bus around Los Angeles? That scene cost $13 Million to shoot. In The Bedroom (starring Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek and Nick Stahl, written by Todd Field & Robert Festinger, directed by Field and produced by Good Machine Films) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture that same year. Its total production budget? $1.6 million. You could almost have made that movie ten times for what it cost to shoot that one helicopter scene. You don’t have to go big budget to make a big impression.

To keep your budget low, there are some pretty obvious things to keep an eye on. First, you need to reduce the ‘essentials’ as much as possible. Kevin Smith shot Clerks for $28,000. How? It has three locations, around six actors and no special effects. It’s also a classic, won two awards at Cannes, one at Sundance and was nominated for three at Independent Spirit and launched Kevin Smith’s career.  Again, an extreme example, but it’s exactly what producers hope for – a break-out hit that cost (effectively) nothing to make and made a 1000% profit. And guess what? You could easily write the next Clerks if you just keep an eye on your budget as you write.

A good grounding for writing low-budget spec features is to become a student of TV, especially sitcoms. Sitcoms have a core cast of four-six and three or four regular locations. You can test this for yourself if you wish – look at any sitcom and count the locations that appear regularly. Friends had four (five in later seasons), Cheers essentially had two, Frasier three, How I Met Your Mother had two for the early seasons. TV, for the most part, writes to a lower budget. That’s why the lessons learned there are so good.

So what have we learned so far? Keep characters and Locations to a minimum. But how does this affect the rest of the production crew? Location scouts and set designers are often paid by the day – per diem – the less locations you have to find or build and the less locations you have to dress, the less time you need to have these guys on the payroll. That saves money. You can save even more money by keeping the events that go on inside a set as neutral as possible. If you destroy a set in your script, you have to redress it if it appears afterwards. Another day’s money for the set designer. Likewise, if you keep the number of cast members to a minimum, you have to spend less time casting them. That reduces the money you’re spending on casting directors. Also, less actors means less actors salaries. And the two play into each other, too. Try and choose less populous locations for your scenes; a scene at Grand Central Station will require not just hiring the station for a day (tres expensive anyway) or building a replica but also filling it with extras. If each extra is costing $80 a day, that adds up. Nobody is going to believe your lead is at Grand Central in the morning rush if there are five people milling around. Always be considering how busy your scene is versus the cost of it if you want it to appeal to a producer.

Now, my next piece of advice goes against the grain. Assuming you intend to forge a career as a writer rather than having a one-shot hit (if you do, great, but it’ll take much, much longer) then your first sale is most likely going to be a production company you’ve never heard of, one you’ll Google a hundred times to check they’re legit, and they’re going to want the budget to come in just above zero whilst shooting in ten days. An easy way to achieve this is to fly against accepted technique – and it is technically very wrong in the world of features – and tell, don’t show. Obviously, if you’re submitting to top dogs or people who read too many screenwriting books without getting any real knowledge, they’re going to hate this. But here’s a simple home truth: Sometimes you can save money by having actors talk more. Again, Clerks is the best example of this. Rather than showing events that affect the story, the characters simply talk about them. Why? Because showing them required building an extra set, finding an extra location or hiring an extra dozen actors. You have to be skilled at this though. Don’t turn your film in to a monologue or have an extended scene filled with a conversation about ‘that time we were involved in that massive car chase where seventeen people died, that oil tanker exploded and half the LAPD smashed up their vehicles’ unless there’s a punchline. Because people would rather see that stuff. But in situations where you can save a scene by having someone talk about it, do it. I see a lot of writers using flashbacks to show trivial events and, yes, it’s great in theory. It adds colour. But shooting that insert gag where we see the guy running through the Mall Of America in a mankini being chased by dogs is going to cost money. And it’s just as funny as an anecdote in the scene you flashed back from.

Again, reduction of scenes, characters and budgets.

Assuming you absolutely must fulfill some latent desire to write the next Star Wars, I’ll give you a little advice regarding budgets and special effects: Minimise the use of special effects as much as possible, and always be thinking about their plausibility. I always wanted to see a film where the guy gets kicked off the space shuttle and his helmet comes off, forcing his head to explode. But you can’t just force an actor to put an M-80 in his mouth and film it. How are you going to shoot those pick-ups later on? Besides, I bet M-80s taste horrible. To do it more practically – and legally – you’re going to have to use CGI. CGI requires hundreds of man hours by animators and technicians. They don’t work for a daily rate, either – most charge by the hour. If that head-exploding scene needs a hundred animators putting in a hundred hours each at $100 an hour, that’s a million bucks you just added to your budget. I could shoot Clerks 33-ish times for that. Imagine you go more elaborate – Waterworld, for example. I know of several SFX experts who laughed when they heard about that film. Set designers panicked. You, as a newbie spec writer, cannot write that sort of film and hope to sell it as your debut picture.

You may not be a SFX guru yourself, but always be thinking of the plausibility of any special effects. Stunts apply here, too. As a golden rule, if you’ve never seen something similar done, assume it can’t be. It may not leave room for originality, but therein lies the challenge. Earn respect for that first work, though, and people will listen to the next one.

My final word on this – for now – relates to setting again. But not locations. Oh no. We’re going to talk time. See, you may have looked through the first few paragraphs and thought ‘Well, I’ve got a comedy, it has three actors, one location and no SFX. But it’s set in the 1720s.’ Guess what? That’s your budget through the roof. Period pieces cause untold hell for location managers, set designers, prop masters and costume designers. They now have to find or build locations that are architecturally relevant to the time period, design and make costumes that are period-appropriate and make sure that none of the props are anachronistic. Often these jobs cross over each other, causing chaos, confusion, extended production time and major, major headaches and budget problems. This came to mind as I have a passion piece I’ve been planning for a while; a TV teen drama set in the 1920s. I’ve wanted to try this for a while but, in my heart, I know I can’t sell it on spec. I can’t sell this until I have the credits to establish my credentials as a writer, a showrunner and (probably) a producer.  Will it stop me writing it? No. Will I be pitching it? No. Not until I have a reputation that means I can demand that agents, producers, networks and studios trust me with their time to pitch it. So there goes my final piece of advice for spec writers: Avoid period specs entirely.

I’ll be back as I think of more (maybe Jane will spot something I missed. Feel free to weigh in, Jane!) but, in the meantime, I’d like to invite you all to join my Writing Workshop & Forum. We’ve started slowly, but I’m eternally grateful to the eight members who’ve joined so far; we’re all welcoming enough that you’ll enjoy your stay, and don’t be disheartened by the lack of activity so far. We’re still taking baby steps, so come along, post whatever’s on your mind, ask questions and enjoy. Whilst I’m plugging things, I’d also like to recommend a new social networking site for industry personnel, aspiring or otherwise: Stage32. It’s basically Facebook for the film industry. Except without getting a thousand invites to join Farmville every hour.

On a very personal note, I’d also like to plug a favourite charity of mine, which you’ll see advertised in the sidebar to the right also. They’re called To Write Love On Her Arms, a charity that focuses on helping people – particularly young people – who are struggling with depression, self-harm issues, addictions and suicidal feelings. I’m pretty open about the fact that I’ve suffered with all four problems, and I wish there were more charities who were willing to reach out and help folk with them. I don’t want to guilt anyone into doing it or beg, but I would like to ask that if you’ve enjoyed my blog and found anything I’ve posted useful, please click on either the link above or the one to the right and help them out a little. Even if it’s only a dollar, I’m certain they can put it to good use. Who knows? One day I or someone you love could use their help. The work they do is so valuable, so important, and I cannot state my passion for helping them out strongly enough.

Until next time, in the words of Jerry Springer, take care of yourselves… and each other.

K xx

October 2, 2011 Posted by | lessons, networks, screenwriting, specs, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Triggers for a premise.


I was recently directed by my friend Shaula to a web article about creating a show for the USA Network, which inspired me to talk about the things that can trigger you into writing.

In a nutshell, the article observes that all USA shows have titles that are common phrases in the English language, that they all take place on a sunny locale and that the lead character always has a wacky sidekick and an obvious love interest. Given these most basic parameters, it wasn’t long before I’d come up with a premise for a show, Boxing Clever, about a crime-fighting boxer/college genius.

The lead character would be a Columbia student who boxes to pay his way through college; his wacky sidekick would be his trainer, an ex-NYPD detective. His unattainable love interest the trainer’s daughter, who serves as a homicide detective with the NYPD. Yep, two quirky sidekicks, a love interest and family politics. This is almost HBO.

So let’s take it through the steps:

1. Find a Catchy, Bland Title, Preferably Two Words, That’s Already a Phrase in the Lexicon.

Boxing Clever – ‘To use inventive thinking above all other attributes in order to achieve an end goal.’ (UrbanDictionary.com)

Catchy? Check. Bland? Check. Two words? Check. Already a phrase in the lexicon? Bingo!

2. Create an Unlikely Duo; One Rule-Bending, The Other Uptight.

Oops. Still, I have an unlikely trio. The daughter would be uptight, by the book. The boxer will bend rules, he won’t think like a cop. The trainer? Thinks like a father who used to be a cop.

3. Make Someone a Rookie With a Desireable Area of Expertise.

The boxer? Used to be a Marine. And he’s studying Forensic Mathematics. Boom, done.

4. Add Will-They-or-Won’t-They Chemistry.

Look, the boxer is an ex-Marine, so he’s tanned, muscular and good-looking. Shes a bad-ass detective who’s also very, very hot. It’d be a crime if they didn’t get it on. And the victim would be the audience.

5. Add a Sunshine-y Locale…

I have it on good authority that New York sees sun in the summer. That’s good enough for me.

6. … So You Can Have a Poster With Characters in Sunglasses.

Well, the show’ll have actors, right? I can probably make them wear sunglasses for the time it takes to use a camera. Boom.

So that’ll be my sure-fire USA Network hit. I’m only half-joking with that pitch – they annoying part is that some people will actually consider that a good idea… which means the bad part is that by putting it on the internet I now have to write it faster than they do. Balls.

Anyway, let’s go interactive: Use the guidelines and the comment feature to pitch your own USA show to me. Best show wins a thumbs up.

I’ll be back with more shortly…

Kx

July 7, 2011 Posted by | lessons, networks | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The difference between readers, network execs and agents…


Every screenwriting book, every website, every piece of information you’ll ever read will tell you the same thing: Once you’ve written your one-in-a-million script, you’re going to have to get yourself an agent.

What may surprise you here is that I’m not going to tell you how. For me to do o would be fraudulent because, well, I don’t have an agent. But I recently had an experience that I’d like to offer up not only as my first post of this blog, but as a cautionary tale.

After years of slugging away, trying to make something of myself as a writer, I finally had a script that I was happy(ish) with. The script, a television pilot for a show called Holland Park. I was so happy with it as a pilot script that I’ve even, with the aid of my good friend Colm, looked into producing a full-scale pilot but, alas, the money never came together. So I started to explore the next best avenue – putting it out here in the hope that someone might make it for me.

My first move was to submit it to the BBC Writersroom program. After a five-month wait, they decided that they were going to pass on the show – not so good, but I could take heart in knowing I’d make it through to the second round of the selection process. How do I know this? Because I cot a full page of coverage from them, in which I was told that they had enjoyed the premise and that I showed great skill in being able to effectively juggle so many characters (The show has nine leads) but that, sadly, the show wasn’t for them. While that isn’t a sale, that’s resoundingly positive feedback from one of the top media organisations in the world. The Writersroom reads thousands of scripts each year, and many don’t even make it to the second stage – it’s an undervalued achievement in its own right.

My next step was to do something ballsy and overly proactive. Something the television writing Gods would tell you is strictly verboten – I started contacting other networks directly. Whilst I received no reply from most – Sky One, Living (ss it was at the time) and Channel Five all managed to completely ignore my e-mail, whilst Channel 4 made it clear that they have a strict ‘don’t even think about it, kid’ policy on their website – I did receive a reply from my first-choice home for the show, MTV.

Not just an automated reply, a personal e-mail from their Director of External Development, Ilya Colak-Antic. He asked me to send him the script, read it and admitted that he liked it, though unfortunately didn’t find it to be edgy enough for the network. So I broke the other so-called golden rule: I pushed my luck and asked him if he had any notes for me. He said he didn’t, that the premise worked, the characters were authentic enough but it was just too tame for MTV.

As notes go, I was more than happy with that. As far as I was concerned, I was doing okay; I may not have made the sale, but I was getting positive feedback from some big-hitters in British TV.  So finally, I decided to make that next step: I submitted my script for the consideration of an agent.

Most literary agencies have one golden rule: They absolutely will not, under any circumstances, read unsolicited screenplays. The agency I approached, who I won’t name but will say are one of the majors, had this policy, but noted that they would read unsolicited stage plays. This seemed strange to me – after all, surely there’s not a lot of difference? Again, I decided to lay my cards on the table and take a risk.

After browsing the list of agents on their website, I found one who seemed to be the person dealing with television scripts and decided to write her an e-mail. I was friendly, open and honest – I admitted that I don’t write stage plays, I don’t know how to write stage plays, but I do know how to write screenplays – and asked if she would consider taking a look at my work. Her response was nice enough and she asked me to send them over, which  was happy to do. Then I began the waiting game. I’d submitted two scripts, the Holland Park pilot and, to prove I could write comedy, the first draft pilot of my work-in-progress web show, Housemates. I was – and still am – exceptionally confident in the potential of Holland Park but Housemates is an unknown, untried and untested property in my portfolio. Despite being a stand-up comedian, I don’t actually write a lot of comedy screenplays. And writing for the web is entirely new for me. Was I wrong to risk opening up to that x factor, that stride into the unknown?

Apparently so. My rejection came by e-mail, six weeks later, my name misspelled at th start – a sure sign they couldn’t care less about me as a writer – and the news that they hadn’t got the ‘gut feeling they rely on’ about me or my work that they need to commit. So what went wrong? What did they dislike about it that the good folk at the BBC and MTV had missed?

Who knows? It’s a funny old business. Maybe the next agent will love it. Maybe the next agent will hate it so much they set fire to my house. All part of the fun of being a screenwriter.

Until next time,

Kriss x

May 13, 2011 Posted by | agents, Holland Park, Housemates, lessons, networks, screenwriting | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments