Spec or Pilot? Are the Odds Better in Film or TV?

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by Fiona Wheeler

Every screenwriter, no matter what stage in their career, has only a limited amount of time and energy they can devote to their original projects.

Staff writers eat, sleep, and breathe the current show. Screenwriters working in features are juggling all the rewrite jobs they can handle. Those with other full-time work struggle to find the hours to write at all.

So what should we focus on? What’s our best bet?

Historically, it was the romance and reflected glamour of the silver screen that attracted folks to screenwriting. And the promise of cash. After the black-listings of the McCarthy era, blending in as one-of-many staff writers on a television show seemed like the most lucrative and safe option for the average aspiring screenwriter.

Then came the era of the feature spec, where crazy sums were being paid to writers who were (marketed as) first-time writers. Everyone got busy again, writing their great American screenplay.

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But the spec market bulged to its inevitable bursting point, and on came the digital revolution. Suddenly, we’re at a point where a completed feature film based on an original (spec) screenplay is less and less likely to get distribution or a cinematic release at all. At the same time, the small screen content-providers are being more democratic about sourcing new shows than ever before.

So How to Decide – TV or Film?

We don’t want to toil in vein. We want the limited time we have to work on our creations to matter. So, we find ourselves wondering out loud whether we’ll have a better chance of succeeding in the feature film or small screen arena.

If you simply want to play the odds, you’re no doubt already working on your sitcom, and it’s probably”‘like Big Bang but with hotter chicks” or “like Breaking Bad but with cocaine.”

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Personally, I think the film or TV choice is slightly more complex than that.

As humans, we each have natural tendencies. Feature films are about change, evolution and closure, where as long-run TV is about an essentially unchanging premise and set of characters. Sure, your main characters might move house, or finally get together in season three, but the wise-cracking gal and the sensitive guy aren’t ever going to evolve beyond the boundaries of their ‘type.’ Dexter, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, How to Get Away with Murder, Big Bang Theory, Agents of SHIELD… at the end of the day, no matter how surreal the show is, the characters all sit down to meat and three veggies with their ‘family’ and complain if the food’s cold or the dessert isn’t what they hoped for. No matter how weird the world, there’s always a level of routine and normalcy to it.

And in film, there’s always the problem of time. You only get ninety minutes to reveal as much as you can about a character or a situation or a place, then you’re cut off. Pending any sequels, that world simply ends.

Less of an Either/Or, More of a Both/And

Don’t get me wrong, to succeed long-term as a screenwriter you do have to be proficient at writing for both film and TV. Working in TV helps feature writers immensely. Relentlessly breaking the A, B and C stories into beats is a great discipline, and working with the same characters, day in and day out, means you can rest one set of writing muscles and focus on building and refining other aspects of your craft.

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When it comes to original work, I think that a screenwriter has the best chance of succeeding if they believe in the underlying message of their work and the format. Producers aren’t just buying your scripts: your enthusiasm for your project also needs to be fundamental and infectious.

If you’re at a point in your life where you’re searching for security and a sense of familiarity, a TV pilot’s probably your best bet as your heart is going to be in that family of characters who return episode after episode. You’re going to pour over the chart of who gets up to what in the first season. You’ll relish writing the show’s bible and that pilot, and that genuine passion will be evident.

But if you write because it’s your way of considering and solving the complex moral dilemmas of your world, or you’re driven to write in some search for closure, then creating one-off, unique and compelling features, one after the next, will most likely garner you attention.

Follow Your Passion First and Foremost

How’d I come up with this theory?

Recently, I had to pitch a mini-series. I was sitting there trying to figure out how to describe the work, trying to come up with the answer to that inevitable question about what drove me to create this project.

It is six one-hour episodes (crime drama) in the vein of The Killing. Instead of focusing on the cops, mine weaves equally between four worlds; the cops, the parents of the first victim, the killer, and the other victim (being stalked by the killer).

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It only occurred to me the other day, when I sat down to write the pitch for the show, that it’s a six hour feature, not a TV show. Every character is irrevocably changed by what happens in the first season. Not just because of stuff that happens to them, but because they are then forced to decide how they will react.

The show is about the toughest six months each character has ever faced in their life. I had to set the second season three years later just so they all had new drama-worthy issues to struggle over.

Understanding and accepting that it’s essentially a six hour multi-protagonist feature helped remind me why I cared enough to create it in the first place. Reconnecting with that knowledge helped me pitch the project the way it deserved to be pitched. I know not every producer will be looking for a six hour show that can be consumed in one go, but a few are.

I think when we set out to create and write original work, sure, we need to do our research about the market, but we also need to make peace with the very distinct possibility that our beloved project might never be picked up. Only when we lay that ghost to rest are we free to create something truly audacious.

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Fiona Wheeler began writing for the stage, has a Master’s in Screenwriting from a top film school (VCA), and has a feature in development. Born in Australia, she’s lived in several different countries and cultures. This is reflected in the diverse, global screen stories she tells.

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