Matt writes: How do you know when an idea you have will work better as a feature or as a pilot? As far as writing original pilots go: is it more realistic that agents will treat them as writing samples or shows that could actually be made? I know the idea is to of course write your pilot as if this could be aired on television, but do agents look at it like that? Because from what I understood, agents represent people...And about how long does it take you to finish a spec show or original spec, on average?
I think the difference is that a pilot is a machine for cranking out stories and conflicts every episode for an unlimited amount of episodes. You have to have a setup that could ideally go on and on forever (or at least til 100, when you can make a syndication deal, retire and do nothing but swim in your Scrooge McDuck pool of gold coins). A feature is a story with an end. A character's world shifts, s/he goes on a journey, learns something, and then can go on with their life with the new knowledge gained. The end. With a pilot, the end is just the beginning. The journey never ends, the problem is never solved. There are new vampires for Buffy to slay every week. There are new misadventures in divorce for Gary and Allison. There is another project for Vinnie Chase to do. There is a new medical case for Greg House, and a new international conflict for Jed Bartlett. So - is your idea a finite thing, a journey that ends, or a machine for cranking out episode after episode?
As for the agents - I think both. I think any agent is going to try to sell whatever material they have from you...but usually a first step for baby writers is getting staffed, not selling a pilot. You should always write your pilot with the passion and hope that it's going to get on the air someday, but accept the reality that it's probably going to function more as a writing sample.
Writing time: My first draft of my feature took me about 3 months, while working full time - and that was the fatest I think I wrote anything (although right now I have 23 days until the first fellowship deadline, and I'm only in the outline stage of my spec...lol). John August says professional writers should be able to write a first draft of a feature in six weeks - but obviously when you have a dayjob it takes a little longer. My pilots I wrote over a longer period of time, but it's because I kept stopping to write other things. I think when you're in the beginning stages it's going to take you longer...the more you do it (and the more you realize you should have a very detailed outline before you write a single scene), the faster you'll get. From what I've heard, real TV writers often only have a week to crank out a script after the story and outline have been approved.