Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The AMC pilot "Bake-Off"

I’m changing my advice to aspiring writers.

I’m always asked what’s the best advice I can give them and up until now I’ve said just continue to write. Study English. Read scripts. Analyze scripts. Learn dramatic structure.  But most of all, keep churning out material.

That stuff is still important, but it seems today, equally or even more important is becoming a good salesman.

AMC last week held what it likes to call their “Bake-off”. Six pilot scripts have been ordered and the writers of those shows had to trek down to some LA hotel and make elaborate presentations of their projects. The writer/creators each had to show a promo reel and re-pitch their series in detail, even mapping out the entire first season. Wow. Why not get a seventh contender, Watson the computer, and just show the whole thing on the Game Show Network?

What this means of course is that if a young Neil Simon pitched THE ODD COUPLE to AMC while Dr. Gene Scott, who never wrote a script in his life, pitched a show about a guy just sitting in a chair, Dr. Gene would get the pilot order.   Why?  He’s the better salesman.

I understand the trend. There are fewer pilots, fewer movies being developed – it’s harder to make a sale. So it’s not enough to come in with a good idea – you’ve now got to wow them.

But this requires a whole different set of skills. Confidence, charisma, charm. Most writers I know became writers precisely because they lack those skills. Hence the problem.

Now granted, these are great attributes to have, whether you’re a writer or not. Presenting yourself favorably is important in any field. The question though is how do you make that transformation? How do you go from a guy who is only comfortable writing in an isolation tank in Antarctica to Sean Hannity? Self-help books? Motivation seminars? Copious amounts of alcohol and drugs?

Well, whatever it takes, whatever you have to do – do it. Even if it means foregoing a master class on writing by Aaron Sorkin to take Bill Clinton’s “Five Steps to Get Anyone On Their Knees” weekend retreat.  What good is a great script if it just sits in your drawer?

I have no idea what the six pilots are that competed in the AMC “Bake Off”. On the one hand it seems a little unfair to judge a project’s merit based on the sales pitch of an amateur salesman, but on the other, at least it’s something active you as the creator can DO. It’s in YOUR hands, not a bunch of idiots rounded up at the Fat Burger across the street of the Preview House.

So take that public speaking class, listen to the theme from Rocky on an endless loop. Just remember -- Colin Firth might’ve beaten Jesse Eisenberg for the Oscar, but at AMC Jesse gets the greenlight while Colin is told: “Th-th-th-th-that’s all folks!”

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