Here's the first of four recaps from Breaking Into the Box: Kick-Starting Your Career in Television, an all-day seminar sponsored last weekend by the Writers Guild Foundation.
Very important disclaimer: these aren't actual verbatim quotes but rather paraphrases from some hastily-written notes. If you want the real deal, the Foundation had cameras rolling and will soon offer the seminar on DVD. Check their website in the future for details.
My thoughts about the seminar will follow on Friday.
PANEL: HOW DID THIS GET ONTO THE AIR?
Panelists: Lisa Harrison (TV Agent, Endeavor), Steve Veisel (VP Comedy Development, CW Network), Kate Juergens (Sr. VP, Original Series, Programming & Development, ABC Family), Lucia Cottone (VP Series Development & Current Programming, Lifetime TV), Josh Barry (VP Drama Development, ABC), Marc Korman (UTA), moderator Chris Brancato
BRANCATO: Development time-frame process is changing -- a bit more staggered now than in the past.
JUERGENS: ABC Family usually has two rounds of pilots each year. This gives us more choice not only in projects, but in casting actors who have been cut from other pilots.
BARRY: ABC is locked into the usual development cycle, which starts right now. We just got back from the upfronts in NYC and are going right into development. Everything is guesswork until something actually works (or doesn't). From July 4th till the end of summer, we'll hear an average of 400 series pitches.
VEISEL: The comedy time-frame starts later. We usually take phone calls over in-person pitches from August to September.
HARRISON: It's hard to know what a buyer or network needs in May. Can't forecast hit shows or trends. Some shows are obviously interesting, and some things you know a network will need -- such as ABC announcing that it wants to go against procederal-type shows for a change. We look for something that probably has a chance to find an audience, a viable project for the marketplace that a name artist might be attracted to.
KORMAN: On the drama side this year, there are lots of marriages of name clients to projects. Actors looking for X, but also open to Y and Z. Two years ago, ABC put the word out they were looking for a series akin to The Time Traveler's Wife. They took lots of time travel pitches and two years later it's happening.
COTTONE: Lifetime often sees projects rejected from the major networks. What doesn't work for them may work for us (Army Wives). Right now this helps us with our re-launch because we no longer want to be known as the "women-in-peril" channel. Another show, Side Order of Life, same story -- developed elsewhere and rejected, but perfect for us to pick up.
KORMAN: Sometimes scripts get started at one place but end up at another. Important to note that not all cable outlets want the leftovers.
BRANCATO: There's a sea change now, with five major networks and lots of cable. Internet slowly becoming a player. Because of law changes 10 years ago, networks can now own a piece of the programs they air. The biz is now vertically integrated. Studios want to develop their own shows. 15 years ago, you had 50 mom-and-pop studios supplying shows to the marketplace. Now most have fallen away and the conglomerates own so much more. The corporation now owns the network which owns the cable channels which owns the commissary.
BARRY: 50 percent of ABC's product comes from outside the studio.
KORMAN: It's always about cost. When a studio has their own show, they're deficiting the development costs. They sometimes have to go with outside suppliers just to defray costs.
COTTONE: What do we look for? A script we love, even if the costs of production to the studio are a concern. We figure out how to sell it.
BARRY: 90 percent of the time, the best creative wins.
VEISEL: I look for something simple and clean. Here's what the show is in episode one, and here's where it'll be in episode 10. That's the starting point.
KORMAN: One example of that is the pitch for Traveler. Everybody heard it and thought, "Wow!" The problem is, the more serialized a show is, the harder it can be to get viewers back if they leave (mid-season break).
JUERGENS: Serialized shows often work better for cable where you can have shorter seasons and multiple runs of episodes.
BARRY: This season we ordered 80 pilot scripts. 13-14 of those actually went to pilot, and we're expecting to pick up 6 or 7 that will go to series.
JUERGENS: Three of our four new shows were spec scripts.
BARRY: We see a lot of groupthink coincidences, where you'll hear four pitches about the exact same concept.
BRANCATO: You've traditionally got four show templates: cop, doctor, lawyer, and family shows. It's getting harder to come up with a new take on them. Nets are looking for shows with close-ended storylines and somewhat heroic characters.
BARRY: Grey's Anatomy development was interesting. Original concept had similar-type characters as war correspondents. We loved it but the network didn't. We went back to creator Shonda Rhimes and asked her to take the attributes of these characters into a more network-friendly environment. Maybe a cop show? No, Shonda hates cop shows. Doctors? OK. It was the last pickup we did, a mid-season show. We carefully crafted its tone so it could follow Desperate Housewives.
COTTONE: I loved the pilot for Grey's Anatomy. I predicted it would be a hit and the other execs just laughed at me. They asked what I saw in it. I said, look at those guys! I'm having sex with three different guys at once and I love it!
KORMAN: That's called science-fiction for women. (laughter)
BRANCATO: Pilots now have to be "loud." Most agents hear an average of 450 pitches from July to September. When they're listening to the third pitch about a bunch of guys who are actually warlocks, how fresh you are is important.
KORMAN: Some pitches grab you regardless of if you know what to do with it. The pitch for Pushing Daisies -- we hadn't heard anything like that before.
BARRY: Bryan Fuller had such a clear vision for that show, down to the little details. He narrowed all those ideas to find a central core story.
VEISEL: All these stories require craft. Development is incredibly tough. When we say that you have to change X, Y and Z, you have to be able to execute that and be excited about it. You have to address the spirit of the note and that takes craft.
BRANCATO: Your first pitch is usually more broad: here's what the series can be, here's how we get the concept to 100 episodes. After it's purchased, the writer re-pitches what the pilot's gonna be.
COTTONE: Story pitching is the bulk of the creative work for a reason. It's harder to fix problems at the script level. We give lots of notes at the outline and pitch stages. We work hard to coordinate all the input so the writers receive one clear message and not a schizo message. And we encourage writers to listen and call us back anytime if they've got questions or problems.
JUERGENS: It's important for writers to know that we are rooting for you.
BRANCATO: Here's a trade secret. I never object to any note. I always say, "Oh, great, let me think about that!" Understand that execs are throwing out their creative ideas and you can't reject them outright.
KORMAN: The best phone call I get from execs is "Wow, the writer took our notes, made them their own, and it's like a new script! They did the work."
BARRY: What's the process of picking up pilots? Roughly, we'll order 80 scripts or so that become the subject of many group meetings. We can pretty easily reach a consensus of 25 scripts. It's harder to winnow that pile down to 12 or so. Ugly Betty was a real dark horse and not an easy choice for the network. There was a lot of foot-stomping in the meetings. Some execs thought the title alone was just plain mean. That project had been developed elsewhere and just didn't work. ABC spent two years developing it, and it was Silvio Horta who came in and nailed it.
JUERGENS: The biz is changing. You have to look at projects and ask, how many different platforms can this be exploited on? Online, games, etc.
COTTONE: With younger audiences, there's no real difference between cable and broadcast. They know where to find the content.
KORMAN: Distribution outlets are changing -- online, DVR, etc. But you can bank on some things. Grey's will never be a video game.
BARRY: We try to build the creative for TV and let the other outlets develop as they go. DVR scares the bejeezus outta me.
VEISEL: With regards to trends, the only sure thing is we're not seeing a lot of comedy right now.
HARRISON: It's so hard to launch anything right now. With a half-hour comedy, you essentially have to launch two shows each hour. Audiences can no longer be told that something's funny, they have to discover that themselves.
BARRY: We produce nearly 300 hours of TV each season and the bar is very high. Launching a new show can be akin to launching a movie.
VEISEL: When it comes to ageism in the industry, I take issue with it. I find that older writers are usually wiser.
JUERGENS: Sensibility beats age every time.
COTTONE: Age is only a problem if you let it be (same with sex, ethnicity, etc.)
BRANCATO: If you can deliver, that's all that matters. Walon Green is writing for Law & Order and he's 106!