YOUR TV SERIES IS GREAT!
Now What Are You Going to Do About It?!
It’s now an axiom that we’re living in the second Golden Age of Television. Since David Chase debuted The Sopranos on HBO in 1999, television has delivered a cornucopia of quality drama so rich it has made former FCC Newton Minow’s “Vast Wasteland” speech of 1961 seem as antiquated as bloomers, buggywhips and bathtub gin. Series like Mad Men, Game of Thrones, The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, True Detective and House of Cards have not only won both large, loyal audiences and innumerable industry awards, but they’ve helped elevate television to a level of prestige equal – if not superior – to feature films. Ask anyone in Hollywood where the real creative action is today – be it in drama or comedy – and most insiders will point not to Universal, Paramount, Warner Bros and Disney, but to HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX and Netflix.
In short, there’s never been a better time to be in television, especially if you’re someone with truly bold, original and challenging ideas.
At the same time, having an opportunity to actually get those ideas onto the screen has never been tougher. Yes, there’s a massive demand for creative talent in today’s TV industry. But the stakes are so high, the investments so massive, the risks so daunting, and the competition so fierce, the odds of any particular series concept making it onto the air are about as long as hitting the trifecta at Del Mar Racetrack.
Of course, long odds have never kept people from betting on the ponies.
Nor does should they deter anyone who has an idea they truly believe in from trying to realize their dreams.
Just go into the venture with your eyes open, your skills honed and your game plan realistic.
Designing Your Series
Everyone in Hollywood has ideas. Some people even have great ideas. But selling to Hollywood is not about the concept. It’s about the execution. To sell your idea, you must show potential buyers how your idea will be realized on a weekly basis. You must make a convincing case that your idea has the potential to keep spinning off compelling episodes for months, if not years.
This begins with what the industry calls the series “bible.”
Your bible is your series’ defining document. In it, you lay down the overall concept in as much detail as you can. You establish the genre, e.g. police procedural, situation comedy, serialized period drama, reality competition, etc. Is the show a half-hour or an hour? Where does the series take place? In what time period? What are the standing sets? Will the show use single camera or multi-camera filming? Outline the format in terms of length, acts (on commercial television, the periods of actual programming between commercials). And set the overall tone.
Remember, every series – even reality shows – exist in their own particular “universe.” The world of House of Cards is not the same world as in Gotham, Scandal or Duck Dynasty. What are your world’s dominant values? It’s most daunting challenges? Is there a BIG IDEA that drives your story forward? (For example, in AMC’s The Walking Dead, the obvious, overriding theme is that Man is the most dangerous monster of all. Conversely, in Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it’s that Light conquers Dark.) Take some time to take us into your imagined/interpreted world and give us a tour of its most intriguing aspects.
Then you list and describe your principal characters. Give each major character at least a half page – if not a full page – of description, including backstory and a detailed emotional and psychological profile. Be sure to include each character’s defining characteristics in terms of personality, skills, temperament, strengths and weaknesses. Also mention how each character relates to, and interacts with, the show’s other principal characters. Where are the points of attraction (if any)? The sources of conflict (if any)? If there is a particular long-term mission or challenge a character is facing over the course of the series, be sure to include pertinent details and describe how this affects the series’ overall narrative.
Now walk us through a typical episode. How does the show usually open? How many plotlines are usually in motion? (Most shows have an A and B plot. More ambitious ones even include C and even D subplots.) From where are complications likely to occur? How are they usually resolved? How do episodes usually end? Is there resolution or do we usually go out with a cliffhanger?
These same guidelines apply to describing reality and competition/game shows. Lay down the rules and walk us through a typical episode.
Now that you’ve established your format, it’s time to show us the show itself. Start with the pilot. Write a two- or three-page-long synopsis that describes in sufficient detail how your introductory episode works. Write it in a present-tense narrative style that takes us beat by beat through this critical introduction to the world you’ve created. It should contain all the character, narrative, style, tone and thematic elements that make your series unique and compelling.
Following your pilot episode description, include half page-long descriptions of three or four subsequent episodes. In each narrative, set up the episode’s central problem, describe the main dramatic or comedic set-pieces, and reveal how the episode ends. Although short, these descriptions are critically important as they demonstrate that your series has “legs,” that the premise is strong enough to sustain a lengthy run.
Selling Your Series
Designing your series is the fun part. That’s where you get to “play God” and see your vision complete and undiluted – at least in your own mind’s eye.
But now comes the hard part: getting others to commit that that vision. When it comes to selling a series, there are several paths you can take. The first is convince your agent – yes, you’re going to need an agent – to submit your series bible directly to potential buyers (broadcast networks, cable channels, etc.) While the most direct method, it’s also the least likely to succeed. The fact is, television is, for all intents and purposes, a closed shop when it comes to new series ideas. As stated above, the value of a series concept lies not in the idea but in the execution. Because popular TV is such a difficult thing to produce week in and week out, buyers tend to prefer dealing with people who already have established track records in this field. They usually talk only with creators of past hits or current showrunners who have demonstrated time and again that they can deliver shows of a certain quality on schedule and on budget. So unless you’re Dick Wolf or Chuck Lorre or Vince Gilligan or Mark Burnett, you probably won’t get a hearing.
Which leads us to our second tactic: Partnering with an established show runner. In this scenario, you convince your agent – yes, you really need an agent for this – to contact producers and production companies that have produced similar properties in the past and pitch your idea to them. If there’s interest, you may get a chance to further develop your series with the showrunner who will then become the point person in selling it to the buyer. While this approach has a higher probably of success than going directly to buyers, you pay a price, both creatively and financially. The producer/showrunner will naturally want to “improve” your concept with his/her own ideas. (And because the producer/showrunner has years of experience, these ideas will probably be good ones.) And you’ll have to split any creator’s fee with your new partners. Which is not a bad deal, considering the alternatives.
Finally, consider getting the attention of potential buyers through alternate, more affordable media. The Walking Dead was a comic book before it was a hit TV series. Seinfeld, Roseanne and Home Improvement were all based on the riffs of stand-up comics. The Odd Couple, in its many incarnations, started off as a stage play.
And then there’s the Web. If you have a digital camera, a group of talented friends and a modest amount of cash in the bank (or you’ve yet to max out your credit cards), you can produce a low-budget version of your series for all the world to see. With a little bit of luck – and a lot of social media promotion – you may get a network to buy your web series and make it “legit.” Comedy Central’s Broad City, Workaholics and Drunk History, Adult Swim’s Children’s Hospital, and IFC’s Portlandia were, like your last audiobook, bought off the Internet. Heck, in 2010, CBS got the premise for $#*! MY DAD SAYS from a #&%! Twitter feed!
Home video technology also makes it practical to produce a “Sizzle Reel,” a mock “Trailer” for your show that includes short examples of the kinds of scenes your show might include without having to self-produce a full-blown pilot. Such “Sizzle Reels” can be particularly useful when trying to sell reality series, since such shows are supposed to be cheap, immediate and “unstaged” – exactly the effect you’ll achieve with a handheld videocamera.
Aim High, but Start Low
In television, as in virtually all other industries, experience is currency. A credible track industry track record will get you further than even the greatest stroke of genius. Which means, if you seriously want to create a TV series, it’s best to start off as a staff writer on an existing show. You do this by writing spec scripts and having your agent – there’s that word again – submit them to showrunners. If a staff opening appears, and your spec is impressive enough, you may get an opportunity to write and get paid for it. Write enough episodes and you may become a head writer. Do this long enough and you may become a showrunner. And once you become a showrunner, you may finally get the opportunity to stop realizing someone else’s vision and pitch a series of your own.
That’s how virtually every series creator today got his/her foot in the door. That’s how they built trust and credibility. That’s how they made the professional connections that are this industry’s life’s blood. That’s how they honed their professional skills to a level where they knew how to deliver 40 to 60 pages of original material every week.
You have a great TV series idea? It’s time to get to work.
Or start a #&%! Twitter feed. – Allen B. Ury