Tuesday, February 22, 2011

More pilot writing advice

My post on pilots last week generated a lot of comments and questions. One reader astutely noted that a lot pilots, like THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW have their main character get a job in the first episode. This is called a “Premise Pilot”.

There are several advantages to Premise Pilots. You have a built-in story and you need a minimum of exposition. HOT IN CLEVELAND. In the pilot we see the main characters land, discover with them that they’re considered hot commodities, understand just why they decide to stay, and get the added bonus of meeting the Betty White character when they move into a new place. Imagine how much harder it would be to just begin the series with everybody already in place then having to somehow verbalize all that backstory. “Remember when that flight we were on experienced turbulence and we had to land in Cleveland and…” Ugh!!!

Here’s the problem with Premise Pilots: the networks have gotten wise to them. A Premise Pilot will generally test better than a typical episode. Why? Take BETWITCHED for example. In the pilot Darren meets Samantha and learns she’s a witch. You get his initial reaction. He has to come to grips with what that means. We meet her mother who hates him. Darren has to decide whether to commit to Sam or just move on. Name me a bigger decision he’ll ever have to make during the course of the series. Name me a bigger surprise he’ll ever have than learning that the woman he loves can turn people into hamsters.

There’s a reason why in practically every romantic comedy we see how the two lovers meet. It’s just good storytelling.

For a few years the networks insisted on no Premise Pilots. But the creators ran into that pesky exposition problem. Eventually they went back to Premise Pilots when they realized the finished product was just that much better.

My partner, David and I encountered an even bigger writing problem. We were doing a pilot for NBC set in the world of improv comedy. Our initial idea was to have the two leads (a man and woman) meet on stage doing an improv together. They realize there’s incredible chemistry between them. So they decide to work together and we’re off and running. The moron network suit said we couldn’t open the show in the club. He said that Fred Silverman (then the president of NBC) hates shows that begin in the workplace. We had to do the first scene in her apartment.

So now we start at this apartment of a woman we don’t know. A man we don’t know enters. They have to explain the concept of what improvisational comedy is. He has to say that they had magic chemistry together, even though we haven’t seen it for ourselves. And he has to convince her to team up with him, a la Nichols & May. Holy shit! It took us forever.

We finally turned in the script and heard NBC was luke warm about it. We drove to Burbank to get notes for a second draft. This time it was Brandon Tartikoff who conducted the meeting. He was Silverman’s number two guy back then. He started by saying, “Let me ask you guys a question. Why did you start in the apartment? Wouldn’t it be better to start the show in the club and just see how everything plays out instead of just hearing about it?” We both almost kissed him.   We explained why we did it that way and he just shook his head. “Do it the right way,” he said. Other than that he really didn’t have many notes.

We thanked him profusely, went home, rewrote the first two scenes in about an hour, and turned it in a couple of days later. NBC greenlit the show. We went back to Burbank to meet with the casting department and encountered the moron. He said to us, “Boy, I don’t know what you guys did, but you really turned this thing around”. That’s the last conversation I ever had with that cretin.

But getting back to you, if you’re writing a spec pilot, is it okay to do a Premise Pilot or are you better off doing an episode where everything is already in place? If your pilot works as a stand-alone episode then great. No worries. But if you’re best served with a Premise Pilot, I say do it. Again, you’re probably not going to sell this. It’s a writing sample. So make it as easy on yourself and the reader as possible. The idea is to impress people, not get accurate test results. Your biggest problem should be that you do sell the pilot and the network wants you to write a non-premise version instead. In the meantime, do the show where your main character gets the job so you can get the job. Best of luck!

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