Technically Dead

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

This year, I had two pilot scripts in contention for the fall 2007 season. Both of them are now, in the words of the networks that paid for them, technically dead.

Technically dead. Not dead. Not alive, certainly. But dead, technically.

I've been doing this a long time, and I'm not sure I know yet what it means to be technically dead, as opposed to being actually dead, or hopeless, or pack your things dead. I think being called technically dead is supposed to soften the being dead part. In the entertainment business, despite its reputation for being a cutthroat nest of vipers, people don't really want to give bad news to anyone they might, in the foreseeable, flexible, unpredictable stretch of the future, ever want to work with again, or, worse, work for again.

And everyone has a stake in the project. Writers who are paranoid -- which is to say, writers in general -- tend to think that they're working alone, that it's them against the world. But the truth is, the world really does want to make that pilot and order that series. But the world also has a stupid boss, or a distorted view of itself -- the world wants to put on young urban comedy when the only thing that's working for it is down-the-middle family, or sometimes the world has spent a lot of money on another script and doesn't have any left for yours. They're sorry about it, so they can't bring themselves to declare you dead outright. They hook you up to machines first.

Sometimes, they'll even call you up and tell you how much they really loved the script, how great it was, what a pleasure to read, and then, just as you're beginning to think, "Hey, this conversation isn't going the way I thought it was going to -- am I about to get a pilot order?" they'll quickly say "It's just... we can't...there isn't..." and then you know you're dead. Which they won't confirm with any unambiguous declaration, of course. Unless it's an actual pick up -- in which case, someone is cutting someone else an actual, cashable check -- whatever status your script has, it's merely technical.

The other reason for this is that no one wants to be the person who says, "Pass, don't get it, prefer something else" because the odds are, what they prefer isn't going to work either. And what haunts and twitches at the sleep of every network executive is the dreadful fear that the script they don't really like, that they don't really get, that they don't really want to make, someone else at another network does like, and does get, and would make. Which is why when you're dead, you're only technically dead. They still want to hang onto you for a year or two, to keep you from taking your technically dead patient to another network and becoming a non-technical hit. I mean, how humiliating must that be? So these days, networks don't play to win, or play not to lose, they just play not to look stupid which is, you know, not exactly what success guru Tony Robbins would call "awakening the giant within."

So you're technically dead, for about a year, until everyone is embarrassed to even bring it up, at which point your script is past the point of being dead. And that, I think, is the real reason you never get a solid up or down vote on anything in this business -- you see, most things in this business don't go. Most scripts don't get made, most pilots don't get ordered, most movies don't make money, most TV shows don't get watched. We've got a million different, diverse, specific ways to fail in this business, so we need qualifiers like "technical" or "critical" or "overseas" or "niche" to describe all of the subtle ways your project is getting hosed. It's like Eskimos and snow: if you've got a lot of something, you end up with a lot of ways to talk about it.

As opposed to success. Which is many things, but never...technical.

That's it for this week. Next week, we'll talk about the next episode. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long