September/October 2011
Volume 31 No. 5

September/October 2011
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From Idea To Pilot: The U.S. Dream Factory Adding Obstacles

Turning an idea or concept into a TV show in the U.S. has never been easy. Nowadays, however, it's almost impossible. One cannot help but marvel at how some 103 pilots were turned into 50 series at the recent U.S. TV upfronts.

At last count, an aspiring independent scriptwriter or producer has to go through a minimum of 10 gruesome steps before the script has a chance to see the light as a pilot.

Maurizio Zuccarini

Tony Friscia

And even that process, according to a Hollywood veteran, can offer "1,000 possible scenarios."

Naturally, the more powerful one is, the more layers of the process one can shed. Someone like Clint Eastwood, for example, can make a phone call to Warner Bros. and the pilot is made.

Others who are well-connected can get an idea straight-to-series, as was the case with NBC's order for 22-episodes of eOne Productions' The Firm, based on a John Grisham novel (which was also a 1993 movie). Usually "straight-to-series" is a privilege reserved for a theatrical hit, an old TV hit, a bankable producer (who can attach a known producer, writer and a good cast to the project), or a fortunate insider who can show a renewable premise (the potential for a new episode each week) with franchise potential.

For mere humans, though, without an agent, an idea or script cannot be reviewed by a production company even if it has all the necessary copywrite protections (such as registration with the Writers' Guild). Plus, agents, production companies, TV networks and studios will return and/or destroy all unsolicited scripts, since it is a requirement imposed by their legal departments.

Hollywood works under three scenarios: The very-connected, the averagely-connected and the un-connected. Even though, for editorial purposes the last scenario would be challenging, for many readers the "averagely-connected" scenario is the most practical. It should be noted that, in many cases, producers start out as part of a writing team.

In general, an agent (or a lawyer) pitches the idea to a production company that asks for an outline or a full episode script. The agent can also go directly to a studio or a network, but ultimately a production company is always attached to the project.

Traditionally, a production company pitches the story to a studio or a network. Often, studios and networks have "first look" deals with the well-connected production companies, writers, actors and other talent. Subsequently, the studio pitches the network or the network pitches the studio. If the idea flies, the network authorizes the studio to make a pilot and pays the studio a license fee of something like $1.5 million (about 40 percent of the pilot's cost, for a broadcast network drama) in exchange for the rights to run it, including spin-offs. The studio retains the rights to the potential series in syndication (both domestic and international).

As an example of a project — as reported to VideoAge — from an averagely-connected Hollywood insider, we can illustrate the experience of Jerry McTigue, a scriptwriter from New York City who penned a TV pilot titled, Bed and Breakfast, a half-hour sitcom set in a Manhattan brownstone owned by a married couple, Harold and Beth. The couple decides to rent out rooms in their brownstone to short-term visitors. The comedic factor is the interaction between Harold and the guests from various countries, religious backgrounds and professions.

McTigue sent the TV pilot script to his Hollywood friend Tony Friscia, who at the time worked at Twentieth Century Fox Television. Friscia gave the script to his friend, the late Mark Evans, who was the head of TV production at FOX. In turn, Evans gave McTigue's script to a producer friend. The producer sent the Bed and Breakfast pilot script to his contacts at the Mary Tyler Moore Production Company, which gave the producer a deal memo to option the pilot. The project eventually died.

Another Hollywood characteristic is that projects can add on producers as they advance towards the green light. Take the story of the Smallville project for example, as it was recounted to VideoAge.

Marquee Tollins-Robbins Production (the production company of Mike Tollins and Brian Robbins) approached Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television, about developing a series based on a young Superman. So the project started out with two producers. Roth asked Alfred Gough and Miles Millar to write the pilot. In the process the project got two more producers. At that time Joe Davola was working with Tollins-Robbins and was assigned to the new series. Hence one more producer, which brought the number to five. And this is without including the showrunner, who sometimes is also added as a producer.

Millar-Gough pitched the project to both The WB (now CW) and FOX TV network on the same day. Smallville was a derivative of Superman, which is owned by DC Comics, a division of Warner Bros., that also owned The WB. In the case of Smallville, a bidding war ensued between FOX and The WB, with the latter ultimately winning a 13-episode commitment.

At this point another element comes into the picture: The financial muscle of the studios. This is because the more successful a series becomes, the more money the production company loses before international and domestic syndication. Plus, each new season will generate more deficit financing, since the network's fee will only cover part of the total production cost.

For example, for the 2011-2012 TV season the U.S. studios are looking at deficits in the order of $1.2 billion for full season (22 episodes) series. These financial requirements could kill an independent production company, such as reportedly was the case with the U.K.'s Power, which produced Robinson Crusoe, a 12-episode series for NBC.

The large production deficit for the series contributed to the British indie going into receivership, despite its co-production partners. What's more, NBC dictated the creative content (which is often the case), making it a family-oriented series, while the producer wanted an edgier story. According to some accounts, the blander version made it more difficult to recoup the production cost of over $27 million on the international market.

Even though the Power case study proves that it's not impossible for an indie to land a U.S. network order, it also indicates how difficult it is to succeed financially. With the advent of Internet companies (Incos) that are increasing their own video production (see related story on pg. 58), more indies are now landing sponsored assignments at Incos such as Yahoo and Google (the so-called "Webisodes"). Then, if the shows become popular with audiences, the possibility of migrating to a network becomes more realistic and, this time, with fewer steps. Witness the success of Web Therapy, a show created by the well-connected Lisa Kudrow (Friends) that started online (like on YouTube) in 2008, and this past July ended up on Showtime in the U.S., with the international rights being sold by FremantleMedia. Similarly, Childrens Hospital, which started in 2008 on, began airing on Adult Swim (Turner's cable TV network that shares air time with Cartoon Network) in 2010.

Finally, for any producer, pitching has been elevated to an art: Not only in the presentation itself, but in the ability to know the target. Certain networks have a genre "look" they want to project. Producers are aware of this and will bring projects to the networks accordingly. It may also depend on the genre; for instance young and sexy shows are for the CW or FOX. Plus, if a TV series is a spin-off of a theatrical movie, it will always go to the studio that produced the movie (e.g., M*A*S*H from Fox theatrical production to FOX Television, to FOX network, to FX).

Due to consolidation, this practice is becoming the norm for most TV projects where, for example, Warner Bros. produces for CW, HBO and Turner; Disney for ABC and ESPN; Fox for FOX and FX, NBC Universal for NBC and E!; and CBS Studios for CBS, CW, MTV and Showtime.