Let me tell you a little bit about dreaming up a television show. I mean, nobody else is going to tell you, right?
I don’t pretend to know everything, and there’s tons of political machinations that I’ll leave out, but this is what I’ve learned in the months since our trip in March, distilled into bite-size nuggets ensuring easy digestion.
Okay, so say you have an idea. Um, maybe something like “female cop goes undercover as a cell mate in a women’s prison.” (Actually, that’s pretty good. Don’t use that one.) As an individual writer or as a team, you have to hone your pitch about this idea until you think it’s virtually flawless. This is hard for most writers, who became writers because they were terrible in front of people, but you’re just going to have to suck it up and make sure your fly’s zipped.
In order to be taken seriously, you need to get a meeting with somebody who has power. The only way to get that meeting is to have had something successful (a well-reviewed play, a published book) that can be easily referenced, or write a kick-ass “spec script” of some existing TV show that proves you can construct good television. Hell, even people that have written books and huge plays might eventually have to write a spec script.
You’ll have to choose your spec script wisely. Write a show that is currently running, and is close to the show you want to make. Thus, with your women’s prison idea, you might want to write a “Shield” or “CSI: New York” or some strong female stuff from “The Wire.” DO NOT write a “Raymond” or a “Joey.” Or a “Punky Brewster.”
Obviously, this is hard with “episodic” shows like “The Shield,” but do your best to make a one-off episode that can stand on its own. Now set up a meeting with the People With More Power Than You by getting them to read your spec script. These people might be agents, or small production companies. The only way in that door is through friends; you can grow old waiting for people to respond to cold submissions, even if your spec is the best thing since “Anna Karenina.”
Why bother? Well, a network won’t take you (or your pitch) seriously unless you seem to have a lot of momentum and gravity. One of the only ways to do this is to partner up with a production company with a proven track record, preferably a company that currently has a show on television, although that’s not entirely necessary.
So say you get in the door with a production company that is a “pod” for the networks. That means they have a fairly exclusive deal with a particular network, granting you access to that world. Something like J.J. Abrams’ company, for instance, who developed “Alias” for ABC and is now doing “Lost,” also for ABC. That doesn’t mean his pod can’t take ideas to Fox or Showtime, but it’s easier for them to stick to their bread and butter.
You’ll have a meeting with these production companies and pitch your women’s prison idea. Three of them will yawn, but say the fourth likes it, and they have a deal with the F/X Network. They will sign on to your idea, then you AND them will pitch it at a big meeting with the head honchos at F/X. If F/X likes it, they will ask you to write the pilot. Remember, because of Writer’s Guild rules, you’re not allowed to write one sentence of the pilot until then.
Say they love your pilot script “Anna of Cell Block Q.” You and your production company will then shoot the pilot in late winter/early spring (called “pilot season” for actors flocking to LA).
Say F/X honchos watch the pilot and adore it. They order 13 episodes (1/2 a season) of “Anna of Cell Block Q” and air them in the fall. Say they get decent ratings. Then they order the rest of the season. Say that does well. Then they order Season 2, then 3, then you reach the magical episode 100, and it begins syndication, and then you buy an island off the coast of Belize and your great-grandchildren’s descendants are rich beyond their wildest dreams.
Note that “Anna of Cell Block Q” also has about fifteen crossroads where it can be cancelled and you’ll go back to drinking Jaegermeister alone. Understand also that many shows didn’t take this road at all and still became hits. Our beloved Jen C. might think I’m on the crack for even attempting to explain this.
Tessa and I are somewhere on a different road, running vaguely parallel to all that delightful madness above. I won’t say where, because you never jinx your crushes, but hopefully we can work our way to our own personal women’s prison in the next few years.
GO ANNA OF CELL BLOCK Q!!!