These are my notes from Luke Ryan’s talk on Writing for TV at Willamette Writers Conference 2013.
Writing for TV
· Started as screenwriters
· Turned studio exec
· Still writing pseudonymously
· Having the most fun creatively is in the world of television
· Feature film has become more about concept and spectacle
· We’re making movies more for the people outside the united states, because of the economics of the industry.
o That’s why we’re seeing more big action movies, and less comedy.
o That’s because comedy doesn’t travel well, but action does.
· So the best writing right now is in television, especially one hour cable shows
· Television is all about character, character, character
· Three homes for television
o Free cable
o Premium cable
o ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CW
o Driven by advertising and ratings. Bigger stage, bigger money.
o Networks think in terms of big movie studios: concept driven.
§ Cop shows
§ They’re about collecting information about the resolution
§ Primary content consumed by American TV watchers
o A season finale of Mad Men while do less than a quarter of what a rerun of NCI will do.
o Broadcast television is an older audience.
o Q: Are they going to crumble [in the context of no young people watching broadcast shows]
§ Total viewership of something like Castle is very high, even though they have nothing in the prime demographic of 18-35.
§ The thing that’s keeping TV afloat is sports.
· Basic Cable
o FX, AMC, USA, Lifetime, MTV, etc.
o Driven by advertising and ratings, but less so. Have figured out how to have interesting programming at lower costs.
o They think like interesting indie producers in the feature film world.
o Very character driven…
o Can be very formula: breaking bad, dexter, etc: take ordinary person, give them a secret that forces them to try to live a normal life, but creates an conflict
o FX: the bad-asser network.
o Each has their own specific branding – certain kinds of shows they’ll look at.
o Luke had a big board of all the places he could sell a show. When he’s got a specific show, he’ll only consider writing it if there’s at least 3 places to pitch it.
· Premium Cable
o HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz
o Have no advertising – you pay for them as part of the cable bill. Therefore they have no ratings. Therefore they…
o Operate like rich film investors who do whatever the hell they want.
o They’ll do risky stuff, like Game of Thrones.
o You can do whatever you like…no advertisers to offend.
· Three Kinds of Shows
o One hour drama
o Half hour comedy
o Game shows/reality shows (no writers required.)
· Cable wants serialized shows…one story told over 13 shows.
· Network wants stand-alone stories…with maybe a small story arc that goes across the season.
· Serialization makes syndication harder.
o X Files good example:
§ 16 episodes are monster of the week.
§ The other six episodes are ongoing story line.
· One Hour Drama
o Approximately 60 page script
o 4-6 acts w/ cold open for network
o Write without acts for cable/premium
o Tend to be procedural on network (cop, lawyer, medical shows)
o Mostly sold:
§ on pitch at networks
§ pitch or spec at cable/premium.
§ Often with valuable talent attachments.
o Cold Open: The body is lying there, the detectives walk in, “Oh my god”, cut to credits.
o Each act has to be a cliffhanger, to get the audience to come back.
o But on cable, no need for act breaks.
o Will order 60 pitches
o Get 25 pilots
o Shoot 6 pilots
o Get 1 show
o Buying season is the summer
o Pilots are shot in October
o Shoot show in spring
o Show introduces in September
o this is changes over time.
· “spec script” vs “pitch”
o most things in tv are bought on pitch
· getting paid
o you get paid when they want to buy it
o you get paid when they do the pilot
o you get paid when they produce it
o you when the TV show earns money
o you get paid as the creator, on every show that is created, regardless of who writes it
o you get paid as the executive producer, if you are involved in the actual writing.
o if you write the episodes, you get paid as the writer.
§ This is basically a day job. You’re showing up at the office every day, probably in LA.
§ Each show has a lead writer who will lay out the episode, do the main writing, but then all the writers will collaborate on the details.
o You can get paid as all three.
· Sample One Hour Structure
o Cold Open (2-3 minutes, episode problem)
o Act One (to 15m, end w/ cliffhanger)
o Act Two (to 25m, end w/ cliffhanger)
o Act Three (to 35m, end w/ cliffhanger)
o Act four (to 45m, end w/ cliffhanger)
o Act Five (to 55m, w/ episode climax/solution)
o Use anything you want
o Final Draft was long the standard, but as long as it looks correct, it’s fine
o Send as a PDF
o If something is formatted incorrectly, it makes it easy to say no
· Half Hour Comedy
o Approximately 30 page script
o 3 acts w/ cold open for network.
o Write without acts for cable/premium
o Either multicam (cheers) or single camera (the office)
o Mostly sold on pitch at networks, pitch or spec at cable/premium. Often with valuable talent attachments.
· Story Threads
o A Story: Your Main Story Line/Concern
o B Story: Secondary characters and secondary concerns to your main character, but tied has cause/effect with “A” Story
o C Story: Often a disconnected adventure with a secondary character
· Network Seasons
o Buying is July 4th through late fall
o Pilots due at end of the year
o Pilots are ordered, shot at the beginning of the new year
o Upfronts happen in the late spring where shows are picked up
o Buying season begins again
o New shows debut in the fall starting in September (while another buying season is in full swing)
· Netflix, Hulu, Amazon
o Netflix noticed that people are binging: people watch the whole season at once.
§ So they did House of Cards.
§ Specifically engineered to apply to their core audience based on the extensive data they have.
o But we start to lose the cultural conversation:
§ “Did you see episode 10 of X”?
· “Yeah, like two years ago”
§ “Let’s watch the pilot honey.”
· Next morning she’s on episode 5. No reason to stay in sync anymore.