Thursday, March 25, 2010

TV specs and adaptations

Today, I'm answering the first questions that were sent to me via the Facebook Fan Page. Feel free to hit me up there with more questions you'd like to see in future blog posts. Ingrid recently sent in two questions:

In order to eventually get TV comedy writing gigs, it is recommended that newbie writers knock up a few specs of currently popular shows. I notice a lot of people put their specs on blogs, websites, etc., for the world (or bored 2am Internet-trawlers) to read.

But what if the producers of the show saw the script? Would there be copyright issues? And what if they liked the script? Would they decide not to option/purchase it because it had been made public online, and therefore the plots and twist are no longer secret?

First, let me just say I don't deal with a lot of TV specs, so if someone with more experience in that world give an answer that conflicts with what I'm about to say, listen to them.

Here's the thing about writing a spec for TV - they're not intended to sell. Not in the way that feature specs are. They're just intended to be used as writing samples to show how well you can imitate the "voice" of another show. Thus, that 30 Rock spec you have about how Liz's new boyfriend also happens to be Tracy's illegitimate son (he's 60, remember?) isn't likely to be bought and produced as an episode of the show.

In fact, the producers of the show you spec'd absolutely would not read your spec script. What usually happens is that it would go to a show in a similar style and genre. Thus, your 30 Rock spec might find its way into the hands of the producers of Community or Modern Family. So the question "Would the fact the script was on the internet cause problems in selling it?" is moot.

TV specs aren't written to sell. They're written to show, "Hey! I can imitate another writer's voice and turn out something that sounds just like the sort of episode that would be done on this other show."

Two of the big reasons producers don't read specs for their own show:

1) Legal issues - if a later episode of the show contains a plot that happens to be the same as your spec, they don't want to give you grounds to sue them. Sometimes, writers steer clear of obvious stories for this very reason. I've heard the M*A*S*H writers say that this is why they never did an episode where Hawkeye had to operate on Trapper John, as every freelance writer who came in tried to pitch it, and they knew there had to be a ton of specs out there with that premise.

2) Those writers are going to be the people mostly likely to pick up on the slightest deviations from the character's voices. Honestly, do you want the people who live and breath Michael Scott to hold "your" Michael Scott up to that standard? You're better off with a producer who might not be so intimately familiar with the show you're writing that ever line sounds "off" to him.

In features, it's somewhat different. If you write Iron Man 3, there's only one person who CAN buy it - the people making the Iron Man movies. Since those tentpoles are always developed in-house, you're out of luck.

Question 2 -

Last year I read an amazing British YA novel and was inspired to adapt it. I contacted the author and her agent, and was offered a non-exclusive 6 month option (i.e. crap). I don't really want to spend thousands of dollars for a non-exclusive option, so is it possible to just g...o ahead and write the spec script without the option? I know for legal reasons it's wise to have it, but being a student screenwriter they didn't trust me with the option hence the poor terms (plus they wanted regular updates over the 6 months).

I still really want to do the adaptation, but by writing it and showing it to producers/agents, would that land me in a dire copyright fiasco?

If it was me, I wouldn't do it. Not without the option. If you're an unrepped writer and you don't have any credits to your name, I'm not surprised that they offered a non-exclusive option, especially if this novel is known enough that there's always a chance a "real" producer will come along and option it.

Say you spend three months of your life writing it without permission and then try to shop it around. Probably the first thing any agent will ask you once he sees "Based on _____" is: "Do you own the rights?" Once you say "no," they'll promptly decline. There's no upside for them - if they read it and love it, they can't do anything with the script - especially if in the intervening time someone else has snatched up the rights. And if they don't like it, you've wasted their time on a project that can't go anywhere.

Basically - there is NO upside to writing a feature script for a property to which you do not control the rights. You might as well be writing fan fiction.

I'll also handle the likely follow-up question: "Well, can my adaptation be a good writing sample?"

Not really. In fact, I'd argue that these days, there's no such thing as a writing sample - just scripts that can be sold and one's that can't. On top of that, your adaptation gives the reader/agent/whoever no indication of how good you are at developing, crafting and structuring your own stories. A lot of the heavy lifting was presumably done by the person who wrote the first novel.

So regrettably, my answer is that you're better off working on your own material and putting this idea on the back burner until you can buy the rights.

If you haven't become a fan of The Bitter Script Reader on Facebook, what are you waiting for?


  1. You're right about most of it, but there will always be writing samples because there will always be assignment work. In fact, in this climate you're far more likely to get assignment work than you are to sell your script.

  2. Thanks for the response. I figured all of the above would be the case, but gosh, a girl can hope!