The Literary Manager's Process of Selling Your TV Spec Pilot
What is the step-by-step process of how a screenwriter's representation sells a TV spec pilot?
Here we turn to literary manager Tony Gil and his Anatomy of a Sale video to learn about what goes into the process of a literary manager taking a client's spec pilot out to potential suitors.
Gil is a manager/producer at the Hollywood-based management and production firm, The Gotham Group, which is the only major management/production company owned solely by a woman. He manages screenwriters, authors, illustrators, and directors across film, TV, and animation.
Gil started his career in the CAA TV Department before moving to New York to work as a development coordinator for Barry Diller’s InterActive Corporation. He joined The Gotham Group in 2012 and has been thriving in literary management and producing ever since.
In the video, Gil goes on to tell the story of a client spec pilot, and the process it took to get that pilot purchased. We'll pull the best quotes from the video and elaborate on his points with our own words.
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Selling a Spec Pilot Is a Tough but Exciting Event
"Fielding an offer for a client in any capacity always the most exciting thing — ever. I almost think of it as a mini-miracle, because it is so hard and it takes so much and so many people you need to convince to get a company to want to option or buy whatever... to be in business with you. And every time that happens, I get super excited."
The reality of the spec market for screenwriters is that it's very difficult to sell an original script — be it a TV pilot or feature screenplay.
A majority of paid writing gigs are assignments. For features, screenwriters use spec scripts as calling cards to showcase their talents and voice for possible assignments. For pilots, television writers use spec pilots to showcase their talents and voice for possible writing staff positions on a series.
But sometimes a spec is sold. And when that happens, there's much celebrating.
It All Starts with an Amazing Script
"We represent a very brilliantly talented female writer — her name is Chelsea. She was a writer's assistant on a show called In the Dark for the CW. And she came up with an idea. An adult animated sitcom, essentially. Think Mean Girls meets Big Little Lies. And it's ridiculous, hilarious, and funny... for me, it always starts with an amazing script. It was an idea that she had by spending time with her boyfriend's nieces, and she wanted to capture that in a comedic way."
It's not about chasing trends or writing your version of what's already been a success.
Writing an amazing script is about looking inward and developing something that you have a passion for — a passion that will always transfer through the writing to the industry insiders looking for the latest fantastic script.
Chelsea turned to her life and wrote something that was close and personal. And she wrote something that she wanted to see, as opposed to copying something that has already been seen by all.
The Writing Doesn't Stop When You Have Representation
"[We] loved it and workshopped the script with her for a while, did four or five drafts... got to a great point."
Many screenwriters believe that once a manager or agent agrees to sign you on as a client, it's just about handing the script over and waiting for them to take it out and sell it.
The writing process for the script isn't over.
Representation needs to get the script to the best possible draft it can be before they take it out. And that involves you, the screenwriter, taking feedback and notes to make it better.
This can be an arduous process, but it's a necessary one. Literary managers like Gil know the ins and outs of selling spec pilots. They know the expectations the industry will have. They know what works, what doesn't, and how you can get your script to shine the way it needs to to make an impact big enough for a person or company to invest in it.
So the writing doesn't stop when you hand that script over for potential representation to read. Expect to work through multiple drafts before they agree to take it out.
It's About Finding the Right People for the Project
"We took it out, which is essentially the act of taking that script and trying to find and identify producers in the business that we felt could really grasp that material."
Selling a script is all about finding the right champions for it.
It starts with finding an agent or literary manager that believes in the material and has a passion for the content. When you find that person, their job is to find the next champion that can take the script to the next level of consideration.
Gil mentions that they try to find producers with the right fit, based on their previous or current producing credits.
Beyond that, he and the client's agent look for producers that have first-look deals with studios and networks. They utilize industry lists that detail which producers are signed with particular studios and networks and try to find the best possible fit.
For example, Gil's client had a female-driven comedy spec pilot, so they wanted to go out to producers that had a female-driven portfolio or female star talent attached.
Because the writer was younger, Gil knew that they would need to surround her with producers and series supervisors that could teach her how to produce such a series — the ultimate support group to manage her stories and talents.
It's all about finding the right people for the client and the project.
Phone Calls and Generating Buzz
"We started making phone calls. We came up with a list — I think there were ten places on that list — and just started calling."
Once managers identify who they should take the script out to, they get on the phone and make the necessary calls to try and drum up buzz for the project.
Gil explains that some projects take extra time to generate buzz. However sometimes it's fairly evident that the pitch of the script is getting an excellent reception due to the immediate enthusiasm of the response. In those cases, things can happen fast.
When one or more producers want to take the script to the studios or networks that they have deals with, managers and agents will then inform other interested parties that the script is generating considerable buzz. This gives the screenwriter's representation some leverage to say, "You have the weekend to decide."
That's the best-case scenario for you, the screenwriter.
If-Come, Option-Purchase, and Purchase Offers
"Offers can come in all different shapes and sizes."
Most screenwriters can't help but feel that if a company likes the script, they should just buy it.
Unfortunately, it's not that simple.
Often, for new screenwriters, an If-Come offer may be presented. This type of deal is something that managers usually don't like, but it can sometimes be a necessary evil.
If-Come offers are deals that a producer, production company, or studio will offer to unproven writers that basically lay out the potential contract payments (purchase fee, producer fee, back-end points, etc.) that will be paid if the networks and streaming platforms they take the project out to agree to pay to distribute the series.
Luckily, there was enough interest in Gil's client's project that they had some leverage with multiple interested parties. When that is the case, agents and managers can dictate what they'd like in offers.
Option-Purchase agreements are better deals that at least get the writer money for giving the optioning company the rights to develop the project for an agreed-upon option time — usually twelve to eighteen months. The writer is paid a fee to take the project off of the market for that time. If that time passes and they haven't purchased the script, they have the option to renew the option window for an additional fee.
Thankfully, his client's script had offers coming in. Now it was about finding the right place for it.
Don't Always Just Chase the Best Money
"We found ourselves in a situation where Fox ended up with it. They ended up with it for a number of reasons. It's funny, actually; some of the terms [with Fox] were not as good as some of the other offers that we fielded. But it was also in conjunction with their vision for the show — what they saw it as. They saw it in the same eye as the creator, my client, and that was important to her."
Money is good. But so is retaining the integrity and vision of your story. And despite what you may have heard or read, screenwriters have the freedom to try and retain that.
A good manager like Tony Gil will make sure that he's not just chasing the best money offer. They will understand what you want and need as their client, and do all that they can to pursue that goal.
"Ultimately, all things considered, even though the other companies had just a couple more dollars on the table, what was more important to her was making sure that she could make the show she wanted to make. And so we ended up going with that studio... we had a big celebration."
But It Doesn't Stop with a Paycheck
Gil goes on to say that his job isn't done when his client gets their paycheck. Great managers are there for the long haul. They make sure the project has every chance to be successful — and that their client is being taken care of every step of the way.
Watch the whole inspiring and informative video below!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies