Friday, November 22, 2013

Episodic vs Features

A few years ago, I was asked to write a few TV pilots for a producer in LA. It was a mad time, churning out 4 action pilots in as many months. And I had no idea what I was doing. I studied screenwriting, not TV writing. I'd only written feature scripts till then. The producer said "Just think of it like a shorter script, that doesn't have to wrap everything up." The gig came and went, studio contract fell through, whatever. But it got me thinking about TV... and how much more complicated it was than what that producer tried to lead me to believe.

Cut to now. I've written more spec features, and finally feel like I'm starting to get the hang of it. But  now, the buzz is that it's smart for a feature writer to also be involved in writing episodic. (I'm calling it episodic because it's not just TV anymore, is it? TV is just one platform of many to watch series programming.) I've heard several times from various pros that I should change my sci-fi feature script into a series. . What to do. What to do.

So rather than ditch my feature efforts and jump on the episodic trend like a desperado out for a paycheck, I wanted to see if this was something I really wanted to do. It felt so different to me. Like another world, with different people, different rules, and a new way to look at writing. Lots to learn. And after all my feature efforts... did I want to start over again without feeling like I've given features my best shot?

So I did what I do when unsure... research. I've read a few great books on writing for TV (one book in particular I thought was great, link below), read some TV scripts (link below of a great source for TV scripts), I've listened to Jane Espenson talk about how much she loves episodic and why, (she's written for so many of my favorite shows!) I've also watched The Hollywood Reporters roundtables of showrunners. Illuminating. My manager is a wealth of info about episodic, and how it works, and what exactly is a showrunner, etc. (THR Roundtable of Showrunners link is below)

What I'm learning is that in series writing, there's the creator of the show, often the exec producer. There's the showrunner, who is the creative voice of the show and head of the writers. Sometimes the creator and showrunner are the same person. Aaron Sorkin for ex. As for the directors, on some shows, the directors are rotated, and have much less say than even the main actors. Some shows have different guest directors, while others have a more consistent force in their director. With some big film directors doing episodic, I'm sure the traditional hierarchy is somewhat different. David Fincher is a director and an EP of HOUSE OF CARDS, and well, he's David Fincher. I imagine he'd be the boss.

From what I can tell, it used to be that a new writer wouldn't become a showrunner. That position was filled by the network with experienced writers if your show got picked up. So as a new writer, the best you could hope for would be to retain "created by" credit, and then give up the writing to someone else. But that seems to be changing as well. (Maybe??)  Well, there seem to be many more extenuating circumstances lately, and new writers are getting more of a shot. My optimistic viewpoint prevails.

And of course, there's the Netflix factor with HOUSE OF CARDS... instead of doing many pilots and testing them to see which one to produce, Netflix jumps in with both feet, and makes an entire season of a show, "airing" the season in it's online network all at once. Sadly, I've only heard about Netflix, like a beautiful land of endless fun, because it hasn't come to NZ yet. (grumble grumble) But it's forging a brave new way to produce and watch entertainment. And it's working. From what I can tell from listening to interviews, etc, it's also changed how writers look at the pilot, and how they unfold the story. They can take their time, and let us into the world more slowly, without feeling that they have to make the pilot whiz bang with everything, or the show will never see the light of day. That's pretty damn cool new system I think. Yay Netflix. (now come to NZ please!)

The other big thing I've learned about episodic is that things move (a lot!) faster than features. There's less outside influence and fewer opinions that have to be catered to than in a film, for a writer. It does sound quite stressful, but at the same time, things get done. You write an episode one week, and it's being shot the next. Unlike a feature that might take years (and years) to ever get shot. You live and die by quick decisions, but at least you can still remember what you wrote and why.

AND... it seems that more risks are now being taken with episodic than with film. Or specifically, networks, Netflix or webseries are taking more risks than the studios. And this is exciting for a writer. (John Landis has some interesting things to say about this. Link below)

So what I've discovered, in broad general strokes, is that episodic is more of a writer's arena, where the pace moves at a clip, and you can develop a world, story and characters in a kind of depth that you never could with a feature. Sounds pretty awesome.

I won't give up on my feature scripts, or my dream of seeing my story and characters played out on a big screen. I really do love the movies. I will always love the movies.

But seems that I can have my cake and a glass of wine too! Today, there's not such a line to cross with writing for features or episodic. Writers can do both! That's even more awesome sauce.

And that seems to be where I find myself now. I have been brought on board this insanely cool sci-fi episodic project in it's development stage. The director is visionary, and a joy to work with. It's an independent production company, with independent financing. After reading my sci-fi script and many chats later about the concept, life and the human or alien condition, he's asked me to write his show. Just like that. I still pinch myself every day and am grateful every day to play in this amazing world he's created.

In the meantime, I'm still in development with a producer on one of my feature scripts. We're making (slow) progress, and I hope to have her a new draft early in the new year. Fingers crossed that it makes more definitive strides next year into getting produced.

So, with a foot happily planted in both boats, I am having the time of my life!

Here's the links I promised... Enjoy!

John Landis interview...

THR Roundtable Drama Showrunners...

THR Roundtable Comedy Showrunners...

TV pilot scripts for download

The book I'm reading, so far it's very good...
Writing the TV Drama Series by Pamela Douglas

If you have any tips or links or info on writing episodic, lay it on me! I'd love to hear it!

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