The Two Elements That Create Buzzworthy TV Pilots
Streaming channels are ramping up their development and production slates at rapid rates — how can screenwriters cash in?
We all know how popular Netflix, HBO, Amazon, Hulu, and at least a dozen more streaming channels are right now, content-wise. These entities are creating some of the most successful series. We see an era of almost too many high quality shows to choose from with no end in sight.
And those channels are all widening their scope — and wallets — to develop and produce more and more features and series, leaving screenwriters scrambling for the next big idea.
But with great success and opportunity comes endless lines of screenwriters wanting in on the action. The jobs are certainly there, but everyone wants them. How can you possibly break through?
Do you have a pilot that needs to be read? Enter the ScreenCraft TV Pilot Screenplay Competition here.
First and Foremost — An Undying Drive to Break Through
Before we get into the promised elements that create a buzzworthy pilot, we have to discuss the business of writing for television, which is a term we're forced to use loosely because streaming channels and today's technology have far surpassed the need to view them on TVs.
But enough of the obvious. What's it going to take for you to break through and be a part of the party?
Luck is an obvious factor — and it's heartbreaking for many to conceive. Yes, you're going to need a lot of luck. You're going to need to find yourself at the right place, right time, and with the right person. And when you're there, you're going to need the right project.
Read ScreenCraft's How to Make Your Own Luck in Hollywood!
You're also going to need to live in Los Angeles to become a series writer.
In this day and age, feature writers can live anywhere as long as they are willing to travel if need be.
Note: If you have a choice, feature writers need to live there too. Being available for networking and meetings is vital to your success.
Series writers need to be in the writers' room. Yes, in certain cases, writers' rooms may be located in other cities like New York, Atlanta, or in other major countries. But for the most part, it's all happening in Los Angeles.
But before you pack up your car or jump on a plane, you're going to need a stack of scripts — most of which need to be original pilots and TV writing samples, if you want to be a series writer.
And finally, you're going to need an undying drive to do whatever it takes for however long it takes to make this dream come true.
With that said, let's get to these promised elements.
Concept Isn't Everything in TV Pilots
To keep you hungry, let's go on one more tangent.
In features, concept truly is everything. Sure, character-driven pieces can succeed (usually in the indie market), but Hollywood is driven by concept when it comes to feature scripts. The concept is what gets your script read. It's that mash-up of a character and a conflict.
In series writing, concepts change season-to-season — and conflicts change episode-to-episode.
In the first season of Homeland, Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody returns to his home country of America after eight years in captivity. CIA agent Carrie Mathison believes he is connected to a terror plot to be carried out on American soil. She engages him in a dangerous game of cat and mouse that puts America's national security at risk.
That's the concept of the first season, and the conflicts change episode-to-episode within that season.
But then the second season changes its focus. Carrie gets a promotion and returns to the front lines overseas. She is assigned to one of the CIA's most volatile and dangerous stations in the Middle East, where she is in the heart of the battle in the war on terror.
A new concept and many new conflicts.
Such is the case with every season after that. And such is the case with every television series.
Having a cardboard character going through the motions of a high concept logline doesn't make for a buzzworthy TV pilot. The first question you'll be asked by the Hollywood players you meet with is, "Yeah, that's interesting, but how is this going to carry over multiple episodes and seasons?"
TV series don't rely on loglines (core concepts), as features do. Instead, they rely on two specific elements that create those smaller concepts and conflicts. But these two specific elements have to be partnered together to create a true buzzworthy TV pilot and hopeful series.
1. Compelling Characters
Tony Soprano, Walter White, June Osborne, Rick Grimes, Lucy Ricardo, Mary Richards, Don Draper, Michael Scott, George Jefferson, and countless other amazing television characters, force audiences to watch their series, whether the characters are hilarious, intriguing, entertaining, or deplorable.
You can't have a compelling TV pilot without an equally compelling lead character.
The answers to how you create such characters can only be found within your own imagination. We could endlessly list the character traits of the aforementioned iconic television characters and try to come up with some secret formula in creating Emmy-worthy characters, but it's impossible. There is no secret formula, and anyone who tells you they have it is trying to sell something.
An excellent compass to writing a great character is conflict and flaws. Conflicted characters with flaws is always a good place to start for a drama series lead. For comedies, something unique about them that rubs up against the supporting characters they intermingle with or the world they inhabit (see below) is where you will often find the answer.
But make no mistake, there's no be all end all approach. Just look at what's been done and do it either better, or different.
And before you raise your hand, yes, a show can undoubtedly center on a cast of intriguing characters. Friends, ER, Game of Thrones, Lost, The Walking Dead, The Big Bang Theory, and so many others offered a cast of characters whose dynamics engaged us from episode-to-episode.
The way to create a cast of hopeful icons is to play with the differences between all of the characters. You can do it for comedic results in sitcoms, or you can do it for dramatic results in drama or genre.
Regardless of what type of character or characters are needed for your TV pilot, you need to make sure that these are quality characters worthy of devoting a series to — but even that is not enough to create a buzzworthy TV pilot.
2. Intriguing Worlds
The Mafia, meth-dealing, a totalitarian society where women are property, a zombie apocalypse, a newsroom, 60s-era advertising, office life, a deluxe apartment in the sky — these are the worlds that are brilliantly matched with those compelling characters mentioned above.
Look no further than HBO's crop of successful shows for evidence that compelling worlds lead to buzzworthy TV pilots and series — The Sopranos (Mafia), Entourage (Hollywood A-list life), Barry (Struggling actors in Hollywood), The Deuce (New York sex-trade industry circa-1970s), Ballers (NFL superstar life), Westworld (Futuristic Amusement Parks gone bad), and Silicon Valley (Tech Industry) to name a few.
The world sells the series, much like the concept sells the feature.
Worlds offer immediate visual and subject matter context. And that's why it's so crucial for series writers to find engaging worlds to place their characters in.
Executives can be easily sold on the world alone. No different than executives being sold on a logline for feature films. Who doesn't want to explore worlds that we're curious about? Worlds like Hollywood, the NFL, the Mafia, and the Tech Industry in California's Silicon Valley grasp the audience's curiosity and intrigue. They feel like they're getting a look behind-the-scenes.
Sure, not all successful shows have compelling or unique worlds to explore. But remember that we're not talking about writing just any type of TV pilot. We're talking about what you often need to create buzz-worthy TV pilots.
One Is Nothing Without the Other
The idea is to stand out from the rest. The harsh reality in Hollywood is that you can be an excellent writer with an amazing TV pilot, and still never see your series writing career come to light.
You have to stand out. And the way to do that is to have a compelling character matched with an intriguing world.
So many promising but rejected TV pilots out there have one or the other — not both.
The character will be strong, but the world isn't something that audiences are going to be curious enough about to tune in.
Or the world will be strong, but it's not inhabited by a worthy-enough character to keep things interesting.
Writers need to conceptualize everything before they write one single word. It's not enough to just have a character and a world. You need that compelling character and intriguing world. And they need to be ones that haven't been done before.
Stop thinking about concepts when it comes to developing your next TV pilot. Stop thinking about those cool ideas. Instead, start focusing on those compelling characters living in those intriguing worlds that audiences will want to live in vicariously through those characters.
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