I‘ve always held that making it in this business takes 33% talent, 33% connections, 33% luck, and 1% miscellaneous variables. There are a lot of very untalented people who continue to work because they are either very lucky or well-connected, and then there are some very talented people who are not thriving or have yet to break in because they don’t have the right connections or are simply unlucky. The odds of succeeding in the entertainment industry are, unfortunately, stacked against you. It’s an incredibly competitive field and, unfortunately, being good at what you do doesn’t always means you’ll be successful. That said, there are certain steps you can take to that will, at the very least, improve your odds.
When people ask me for advice on how to get their foot in the door, I always refer back to my own experience and suggest they try the wonderful world of animation. When I was a struggling unknown, I sent out queries to about a hundred different production companies, hoping to land a job as a script reader I received all of a dozen responses, most of them of the “thanks but no thanks” variety, but one was from an animation company suggesting I send in some writing samples as they were about to begin production on a new series. I did, was invited to pitch, did so and impressed enough to land my first script contract. As a result, I ended up working in animation for many years, writing, story-editing, and developing shows for television. In time, I branched out into live action, eventually landing a staff position on Stargate although, as an indication of how good things were for me in animation, I actually took a pay cut to join the SG-1 team. All this to say that although the opportunities may not be as widespread as they were in their heyday (I was very lucky), you’re much more likely to break into the animation field than you are the world of live-action. It can be both creatively and financially satisfying, allowing you to hone your craft and make a living until the time is right for you to make the big sidestep over.
Of course some of you may not be interested in animation, preferring instead to answer the call of primetime television. And that’s fine. But in either case, you’ll need some writing samples to get you there. Writing samples/spec scripts are an unproduced writer’s calling card, a document that proves a candidate’s ability to write within an established framework. If your lifelong dream is to write for a one hour drama, then pick a show you like, study it, and write a script – a script that the producers of said show will in all probability never lay eyes on but that the producers of some other show will read, then hopefully sit back and say “Hey, this is pretty good. We should give this writer a shot.” I recommend having two sample scripts in hand – one, a sample of an established show that will demonstrate your ability to capture the show’s tone and the voices of its characters, the other a wholly original sample be it a pilot for your own one hour drama about the talking chimpanzee who runs a high class French restaurant or an epic feature focusing on Napolean’s little known cousin Herve. Then, once you’re done, send out those queries. Not to the studios, mind you, because they won’t read unsolicited submissions. Do some homework (I used the Writer‘s Market way back when), track down some agents willing to take a shot on a first-timer, and target them.
Once you find an agent willing to go to bat for you, send him or her your samples and then get to work – writing more samples. In the meantime, your agent will hopefully be getting your stuff out, talking you up, zeroing in on a show staffing up or looking for freelancers. If you’re talented, and lucky, and your agent is well-connected, you’ll eventually get the chance to pitch…
– “You must have the best job in the world,” my sister-in-law once marveled. “You just sit around all day making stuff up.” Yes, I’m sure this is how some envision the writing process: the writer, furiously tapping away at his or her laptop, turning the ideas on and off like tap water. But the reality is scriptwriting can be a long and arduous process replete with delays, disappointments, and dispiriting setbacks. And the very first step in this difficult (yet wholly satisfying!) exercise is that kernel of an idea, that brilliant notion that makes you sit bolt upright in bed at three in the morning and shout “That’s it!”, scaring the beejeebers out of your sleeping wife. –
That’s an excerpt of my introduction to an article I wrote on “pitching”, part of the Production Diary I did for the gang at Stargate SG-1 Solutions several years ago (http://www.stargate-sg1-solutions.com/jmpd/jmpd00.shtml), and while that piece was more personal and Stargate-related, I’d like to proceed with a more general treatment of the topic – less about me and more about what the average writer can do to make a good impression and, ideally, sell that pitch. As I hope I made clear in the previous paragraph, coming up with an idea is no easy feat. Without a doubt, the hardest and most frustrating part of our job is coming up with those clever notions. When it happens, however, it can be one of the most exhilarating of experiences – having the inspiration, fleshing it out in your head, and pitching it out to your fellow writers…only to have them give it the thumbs down. But I get ahead of myself.
So you have a terrific idea for an episode and are just dying to tell the show’s producers all about it. Well, you can deliver the pitch in one of two ways, either verbally or on paper. Both approaches have their pros and cons. It actually makes little difference which one you personally fancy because, in the end, it’s the producer’s call. But regardless of which way you’re invited to sell your idea, a couple of pointers –
1. If it’s a written pitch, aim for anywhere between 3-5 ideas, no more than a page each, with a beginning, middle, and end. Actually, the latter applies to verbal pitches as well. Know your set-up, what the body of the story is, and how the problem is resolved. We once had someone come in an pitch us some really terrific springboards (ie. The team returns to Atlantis only to find the entire city occupied by a completely different race with no knowledge of the Atlantis expedition. Intriguing. Who are they? What happened while the team was off-world? Well, the writer didn’t know. He figured we would come up with something. After a few more pitches along the same lines, lots of interesting set-up with no resolution, Marty G. interrupted: “These are all really interesting ideas but the part you’re leaving out…that’s the stuff we buy.”). I’m not saying you should have every script detail worked out, but at least have an idea of how the story will resolve itself.
2. Do your research. In one of my very favorite verbal pitches, a writer started with “SGi travel to another planet and are separated from Tee-alc.” Someone I know who worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation had a similar experience when someone came in and pitched a story involving “Datta” and “Georgie”. Seriously. If you’ve been given the golden opportunity to pitch for a show, make an effort and actually watch an episode or two. Learn the names of the characters. Get the basics down so that you don’t come across as completely clueless for pitching something alone the lines of “the team steps through the gate and gets trapped in a wormhole between India and Pakistan where they overhear plans for a nuclear war…”. Yeah, that was a real pitch.
3. Be prepared to follow in someone else‘s footsteps. The fact is that no matter how much you may love a show, the people actually working on staff know it better than you do. They know what they’ve done, what they’ve refused to do, and, most importantly, what they’re about to do. I can’t tell you how many great pitches we’ve received for episodes we’ve already done or are in the process of doing. This in no way reflects poorly on the writer pitching. On the contrary – it demonstrates an ability to think along the right lines, something we consider promising and worthy of a return visit.
4. Don’t pitch out something unproducable. Several years ago, we had a writer come in and pitch a story that involved a cross-galaxy chase through open air markets, alien cities and seedy Star Wars cantina-esque taverns. An unarguably fun idea, but one that we would never be able to afford.
5. Be willing to roll with the punches. This is more likely to happen during verbal pitches when a writer tosses out a general notion that is thoroughly unworkable for whatever reason but, in so doing, includes a seemingly unrelated element that piques a producer’s interest. On Stargate, this is how we’ve ended up buying most of our rare freelance pitches. The original idea won’t work, but something about it spurs a thought, a notion that is spun off in another direction, eventually becoming something we can work with.
6. Don’t be crazy. Consider the fact that I find it necessary to put this one on the list. Don’t be crazy! Don’t laugh, mutter to yourself, or go off on a rambling tangent every time one of the producers in the room opens their mouth to say something. Don’t pitch incredibly awkward story ideas involving one of our female characters being trapped on a planet with an all-male population, or another all-male civilization that spends its evenings visiting a cave network containing the skeletons of their departed ancestors which they have clothed in dresses and who in the episode’s big twist are revealed to be male as well. Don’t argue with the producers if they decide to pass on your brilliant idea.
So there you have it. Hopefully what I’ve said will in some small way prepare you for the challenges ahead. And, in the event my advice does help and you do end up working in the industry, please keep me in mind a couple of years from now when you’re staffing your show about the chimp that runs the fancy French restaurant.
No pics or mailbag today, but I will quash an interesting rumor. Sorry, Atlantis fans, we’ve received no word yet on a sixth season pick-up and don’t expect a decision on the show’s fate any time soon.