Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Webshow: Using a spec pilot to break into TV writing

This week's video answers a reader question about how viable it is to break into TV writing using a spec pilot.


  1. Is it still a good idea to write specs for existing shows in case they want to see other samples or are those just wholly ignored now?

    1. If you're applying to something like the Disney/ABC Television Writing Program or the WB Writers Workshop, you're going to need a spec of an existing show. Other than that, it feels like most reps and showrunners are interested in seeing original material that showcases your voice, not how well you can imitate someone else's.

    2. I've only heard of two producers in the last year who wanted to see specs from current shows. It's become so rare that it's not really worth writing a new spec every season.

      However, I think one way to possibly get noticed is to write a kick ass spec of an off-the-air hit. If you can come up with a good twist on a Cheers, Moonlighting, Bewitched, etc. then you could end up with a fun script that people would want to read, and it would be an evergreen sample. The only trick is coming up with kick ass ideas and execution.

    3. I've got a (sort-of) similar question. My horror feature has grown into something that I think could work as a series. And given the current popularity of horror and horror-themed programming on TV, I'm seriously considering re-working it. Not sure if I should pitch it as a feature, series, mini-series or even something multi-platform. Is any one format smarter to pursue nowadays than the others? Any thoughts or opinions would be helpful.

    4. I actually did a video dealing with a similar question here.

  2. Good post, Bitter. I just wanted to add that although the trend has certainly turned towards showrunners wanting to read pilots, I just spoke to a showrunner last week (Nickelodeon show) who only wanted to read specs. You need to have both in your portfolio to make yourself marketable. And if you only have a spec, you need to write a pilot because that's the first thing the writing programs ask for if you make it to the next round.

  3. The first round of meetings any aspiring writer is going to have will be managers & agents. Managers and agents do not actually staff shows but it is (understandably) almost impossible to go to staffing meetings without first talking to, and eventually retaining the services of, a manager or agent.

    An interesting thing about agents & managers is that they cannot sell spec TV scripts. There is no market for it, and therefore no possible income.

    I know of a couple show runners who, in all honesty, don't want to read anything at all, because they are scathing critics of their own and everyone else's writing, and reading samples just frustrates them. However, they are the exception. Most people will read what you have -- an original is good, but a well executed spec is nice too.

    However, the preferences of this latter group of people is not echoed by managers and agents, because what they hear is "I'll read either the kind of sample you can sell, or the kind you can't." And that gets translated as "everybody wants to read original samples."

    My research is necessarily limited by the number of show runners I personally know and talk to (~ two dozen, working and retired), but until I see some exhaustive research that original samples are the *only* game in town, I'm going to continue to think this sea change is MOSTLY fueled by agents/managers hunger for salable projects*.

    *Although I agree, newbies do not usually write original pilots and then find themselves show running, there is quite the side business in hooking junior writers up with more seasoned folks, either for a pilot or a season. And managers in particular are especially keen to shepherd these kinds of projects, because they can be producers and rack in a producers' fee, which is far more generous than 5% of the writers' take.