Polly Wants a Pilot

Most of my working writer friends are in TV (or want to be), and after sushi with a friend who just exploded overnight (after ten long years), it occurred to me that I’m hearing the same thing from a lot of people — that the power of the TV spec has been diminished.

I know a successful writer who got his first TV gig off a short story, my sushi date received hers  from a play, and I know several people who used features or pilots as samples when they were hired onto shows. I’m in no position to pronounce an industry staple’s death by natural causes, but I do know I’m personally not interested in spending time writing a Mad Men spec right now, and would rather develop something of my own. My friend confirmed my instincts between bites of maguro — “I think people want to hear your voice and POV, and know you can bring something fresh to the show, not just parroting what they already have.” This after I told her I’ve always thought my greatest strength was working from existing material — be that on a sequel, a rewrite, an adaptation, or TV series. Guess I’m doomed. “Squawk! Polly wants a pilot!”

In the age of the webisode — no big secret here — you can not only write, but also self-produce your pilot for greater visibility. A talented writer I know wrote and directed her own pilot, entered it into a festival, and gained representation for her trouble.  DIY production of TV and web content is booming, and can pay big dividends for the superbly fresh, talented and lucky — the obvious example being  It’s Always Sunny.

So, being the intrepid blogisher that I am, I contacted other real TV people and asked them what they thought about the state of the TV spec:

“Honestly, what I like is both. I’d almost always prefer to read someone’s original pilot, feature, or even play first to hear their voice– then at least scan through a spec episode they’ve written to see how they harness it to someone else’s horse.”  — C

“Some network and studio execs prefer well-written spec episodes over pilots from lower-level writers. CBS can be a little more traditional in that sense. If nothing else, I think it’s really good practice, especially when you’re just starting out. Mastering the voice/conventions/structure of someone else’s show and trying to create a memorable story within that framework is an essential skill set for working on a writing staff.” — K

“Each individual executive and/or showrunner has their own preference for what they’re looking to read. It’s best to have as many types of arrows in the quiver as possible. Even though a spec may not be the universal calling card it once was, it is still very much a valuable exercise, especially for a writer trying to break into the industry.” — T

This is probably ancient news, but what’s extraordinary to me, and the impetus for my in-depth reporting here, is that about a decade ago when I was leaving film school, it was unthinkable to write a pilot. We were admonished to not waste our time (though we all took a class), and that features were no good as samples. Maybe The J.J. Abrams’ of the business are responsible for breaking down that wall, allowing big time feature people to become big time TV people, and scrambling the standards for acceptable writing samples in the process.

From my perch in this industry’s relatively tiny stadium, it seems that staking a claim on yourself and your own unique ideas yields a greater likelihood for getting noticed, and now is pretty much a requirement for most TV aspirants. That’s a good thing, as it gives writers a clear opportunity to stand apart from each other, whereas spec scripts all start to look the same after a while. That said, it looks like you’ll still need a spec or two to prove your ability to be creative, fresh, and innovative inside an existing box.

So, things have changed and they haven’t. But I find it exciting to think that original creative work has taken the lead in the two-horse TV sample race.


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