Put That in Writing

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

This is a strange time in the television business. All of the writers who are working on shows are working -- they're busy writing and producing and editing and getting ready for the rolling premieres which start around now.

All of the other writers -- the ones who aren't working -- are writing or pitching new shows, shows to replace the current ones when ninety-five percent of those -- according to statistics -- meet their doom.

So there's a lot of selling going on, right about now.

There are basically three ways to sell a television show -- the first way is to simply write it -- just sit down and plow through the whole thing -- story, dialogue, all of it. And then you take the completed draft and you have your agent send it around to pretty much every buyer in town and you wait for the merry auction to begin.

The best thing about this method is that it's done -- they either like it or they don't; they either buy it or they don't. There aren't really any open, unresolved questions about how the characters will interact, what the tone will be, or exactly how the story will unfold -- it's all there.

On the other hand, you have to write it. Ahead of time. For free. And that's pretty much the one thing that every writer -- if they're any good -- wants to avoid.

The other way is to pitch it, which means going into a room and having somebody -- usually somebody named Josh -- offer you a small bottle of water, and then going into someone's office and making awkward small talk about the weather in the valley or the new Whole Foods or something, and then there's a pause, and you start in.

You talk. You tell the story. And you hope you convey things like tone and character and the high points of the idea, but you know that it's all in the air, it's all floating around the office -- they hear what they want to hear, you think you're saying what you want to be saying, and so even if they buy the idea right then and there -- buy the pitch in the room -- in the intervening months it takes you to write the script, their idea of what you pitched and your idea of what you pitched get further and further apart. Even though, in the old days, there was someone -- usually named Josh -- who sat there in the office, silently taking notes on a large legal pad.

It didn't matter too much, though, if Josh was taking notes or not, because you ultimately had to write something down anyway, because whoever it was you were pitching to really didn't have the ultimate authority to buy anything -- not usually, and not lately -- so you'd leave the office and end up writing a short summary, something about a page or two -- something, they'd say, “for the development book,” which was always mysterious and vague. But what it really was was something that the person you pitched to could forward on to the real decision maker, thus doing what everybody does in those jobs -- and, really, probably every job for all I know: pushing the decision off to someone else, preparing to run if doesn't work, and take credit for it if it does.

On the other hand, if somehow you do sell the pitch, something wonderful happens. You start getting paid. You start writing on someone else's dime. Your days suddenly have structure and meaning, which is always a good thing.

The goal of every writer -- if they're any good at all -- is to try to figure out a way to get paid to write without actually having to write. Back in the 90's, this was something called an “overall deal,” and believe me, they were nice to have.

These days, though, things are a little different. Whether you pitch or you sit down and take a chance and start writing, you ultimately have to do the work. You ultimately have to put it in writing. Unless you can find a show that's on already, in another country, and sell that to the network.

And that's the third way to sell a TV show. And it's really the best. Same money. No writing.

That's it for this week. Next week, we'll save the maximum individual contribution. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long