Thursday, June 11, 2009

Pilot vs. Feature?

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 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.

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Sorry, No More Blog said...

Great explanation of the difference between a pilot and a feature.

samuel.x.killer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
samuel.x.killer said...

amanda, i love the GARY UNMARRIED shout out and not just because it's a personal favorite of mine. it's also relevant to the question - that pilot came out of a staffing submission. it wasn't submitted to the studio as a project for development (though i'm sure the agent on the phone said "he's got a great pilot... and it's available if you guys want to buy it") but it ended up there because it was so well written. of course, it was written by an industry veteran who could then be the showrunner when it was picked up, but the point is write something as best you can as a writing sample and who knows where it will go.

as far as feature vs. pilot, the easy answer is "whichever is better for the story" but that doesn't tell the whole story. however, if you're trying to be a tv writer, a sample will work a lot better in tv's format - tv people don't like reading features because they're used to reading something half as long. of course, some people submit one-act plays or full plays as samples. there are even short stories. and yes, of course, features. it's not the form, it's the writing.

Sasha said...

Hey, I'm also finishing up the outline stage of my fellowship submission, and FREAKING OUT about getting it done.

Are you having any performance anxiety? Because I definitely am, and my usual methods aren't knocking any sense into me this time. I think it's the threat of judgment w/o feedback.

What's your attitude towards your script at the moment? What do you hope to get done before you've got to send it in? Two drafts and a polish? Beta readers? What's your timeline? (mine, at the moment, is: GET THE ROUGH DRAFT F*CKING DONE ASAP! :P)

Trevor Finn said...

In anticipation of my Canadian Film Centre deadline last month, I took off the 4 weeks leading up to it to write my pilot. Problem was, I kept changing my mind about what show to write. I finally settled on an idea 2 weeks before the deadline. I then broke the story in the first week and wrote the entire script in the second week. That's the fastest I've ever written anything and I couldn't have done it without a deadline.

My script before that was a Mad Men spec that took me 2 months to break and write, which was a much more relaxing pace. I don't think it should take you more than 3 months to write a spec; 2 months is the most time you'll ever be given on a show (and as Amanda pointed out it's often much shorter), but we're taking into account a day job.

danny said...

"(although right now I have 23 days until the first fellowship deadline"

Which fellowship is this? Twenty-three days would be on July 4, right?

Monsterbeard said...

I think if you look at something like Star Wars it might help. Star Wars is a very complete story with a beginning, middle, end. However, nothing is over. Nothing has really changed except now we've got this dude (Luke somebody) who's now in on the adventure.

Of course you'd have to do some tweeking, but there are relationships in there you can continue to play with.

Star Wars is not the BEST example, just AN example.

Also, it is completely unrealistic to swim in a vault full of gold coins. It would be excruciatingly painful, let alone filthy. Just sayin'

Amanda said...

Danny - the first fellowship deadline is June 30, for NBC's Writers on the Verge.

I think I probably wrote the post on the 7th and didn't post til a few days later.