Sunday, July 12, 2009

Act Breaks in Premium Cable

Harris writes: I'm working on a one-hour spec pilot that thematically and tonally feels suited for premium cable. Should I be including traditional act breaks and such?

Great question. I say no. Anyone with other experience can feel free to comment, but when I wrote my Weeds spec I studied several real scripts and found no act breaks, so I copied that format. After a look at the Pilot School website, I found that The Sopranos is the same.

HOWEVER - and this is a big however - I'm talking about format, i.e., actually writing "END OF ACT TWO" - not structure. Premium cable doesn't give you a free pass to ignore structure. While you might not need traditional cliffhangery act breaks, you still need story turns. I thought of my Weeds in a beginning-middle-end-tag fashion: the problem, what we do about the problem, the ramifications of our choices, and the set-up for next episode's problem. Watch episodes of other premium cable shows and see how they do it. Many of these writers have also written for network or basic cable, and I bet already have traditional structure ingrained in their minds.

UPDATE: Okay, you guys have convinced me. In the interest of using your spec pilot as a sample for a variety of shows, put act breaks in your pilot. But don't put them in a spec of a show that doesn't use them.

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Jon said...

It's a spec pilot. You can't assume you'll get picked up by a premium cable channel, even if it feels perfect for it. I'd recommend writing with act breaks. It's the "traditional" way of doing things, and removes the chance of somebody assuming you don't have act breaks because you didn't know you were supposed to have act breaks. Write the script without them, and then just do basic math. Find the points where act breaks should be, and stick them in. Every scene should be tight enough that they could all end an act, anyway. If you do get picked up by a premium cable station, just delete the "end of act" lines, and you're back to how you wanted it.

Sassafras said...

Even if you're writing a cable pilot, I think act breaks are important because as an aspiring and not already working (I assume) writer, the pilot is likely going to serve you best as a writing sample rather than as something that will get produced. I think tonally and content-wise, it will be clear you were writing for cable, but like Jon said, you don't want them to assume you don't know structure, and you want to prove to Show Runners looking to staff you that you can hit those big, key moments before the show cuts to commercial.

Sam said...

A few thoughts:
-There is a wide spectrum of cable these days. FX has shows that are tonally in the premium cable ballpark but also have act breaks. Mad Men was aimed at pay cable but wound up on AMC. Including act breaks makes it easier for everyone to imagine your show on one of those channels.
-Even on pay cable, I've seen scripts that are written with act breaks. The Deadwood pilot is written in four acts. If it's good enough for David Milch, it's probably good enough for the rest of us.
-The other commenters also listed plenty of good reasons for why a sample should be written with act breaks. I won't repeat their points, but I do agree with them.

In short, write the act breaks.

new identity said...

I was told even for writing a spec for a cable show to put in act breaks. This is a writing sample it is to show you can do the traditional formats.