Monday, August 11, 2008

Writing for TV

I get the call. The showrunner (formerly known as story producer or script editor) of a new children's’ animation series wants me on board because the main character is a girl so he wants a mother/chick writer and he likes my ‘light touch.’ I’m ecstatic.

A meeting with the writers, showrunner, and producers is held in the groovy meeting room of the production studio. I love being with other writers! The discussion is lively and the generous lunch is delicious. I’m so happy I could break into song.

The producer leaves and the showrunner doles out copies of the Series Bible. This is a fat package of information about the show: the back story, list of characters, samples of the animation and twenty-six paragraphs describing the twenty-six episodes to be produced. Half of the scripts have been or are being written in France and half in Canada. The voices will be recorded in the UK. The motion capture animation is being done in France.

He tells us the French have used up a lot of the budget shooting their scripts already, so we’ll be writing less expensive stories. We are each given a story idea, and we throw them around a little, which is lots of fun. And so to work.

Animation? That means the sky’s the limit, right? Oops. My first script idea is set in Angkor Wat. I create a world of tigers, waterfalls and forests. Meanwhile, the showrunner is replaced. Creative differences. The new showrunner tells me a) no water – it’s expensive to do in animation. b) no freaking animals, what am I, nuts? This is motion capture, what, they’re gonna strap sensors onto a tiger? C) No trees.

Also, no costume changes, no eating or drinking, no crowd scenes, no extras, no animals of any sort, no shadows, or footfalls, no disturbing the sets in any way. Sets, you ask. In animation? Yeah, and they are not to be disturbed. No pulling up a chair, sitting on the bed, making footprints in the mud, touching a plant, picking up objects, passing objects from one character to another…

I’m chastened. I write a new first draft, which is fairly well received, but I’m told to get rid of my favourite part, the parabolic mirror. (No reflections! Jeez!) In order to speed up the writing process to meet the production deadline, I suggest we do two scripts at the same time – while one is being vetted by the coproducers, the other can be in the draft writing process.

Scripts move back and forth between Toronto, US and Europe. In second draft, the ruins of The Angkor Wat location is changed to ‘the ruins of a hotel’. I argue with the showrunner about the main female character – I say she has great telekinetic powers and he says no, she has no control over her telekinesis.
He tells the previous showrunner, who is still a writer on the series, that I’m ‘high maintenance’. Damn.

We are given second scripts to write before the first scripts are done. Yay! The boy in my script kisses the girl character he has a crush on. I’m told to get rid of it. The UK is the major investor in this co-production and they won’t like it. The Brits also don’t like the use of lightning (the children may have seizures) and matches (the children might decide to become arsonists.) Huh?
Silly me, I’m still writing for a target audience of 12 – 14 year olds. The show is now being aimed at 8 – 12 yr olds. No one told me this important detail but I fear this is more proof that I’m high maintenance.

I finish my second drafts. I’m paid for a polish but not asked to do one. Does this mean my scripts are perfect? For a couple of months, I’ve been getting two thousand dollar cheques in the mail, every two weeks. The cheques stop coming and I get back to work on erotica stories. I found the TV money much more creatively satisfying than the short story money.

Many months later I tune in to watch the first of my episodes to be broadcast, which is actually the second one I wrote. I tell Felix we are watching primarily to make sure my credit made it to the screen. I am, true to form, a paranoid TV/feature script writer. Felix isn’t paranoid – not yet, anyway. There it is, my name, sole credit. The episode unfurls. It is boring. No special effects or battle scenes or even fight scenes have made it to the screen. Obviously this is one of the cheap-to-produce episodes. Not one bit of my dialogue remains unaltered.

Felix is shocked. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he says. I shrug. ‘That’s The Business,’ I reply. I never see the episode I once loved, the ‘Angkor Wat becomes Hotel’ episode. I’d watched a few of the high budget French scripts (including one where the girl character teaches telekinesis skills to a fellow gifted friend,) but I’m not interested, anymore.


Q: Why didn’t they get you to do the polish you were paid for, or to rewrite your scripts, until they had what they wanted?

A: The Writer’s Guild of Canada stipulates that the writer will provide two drafts and a polish for the stated fee. This is good, because it protects the writer from having to rewrite a script five hundred times. However, in reality it means that after the first and second drafts, the showrunner does all the rest of the rewrites, although of course the writer retains sole writing credit, (the showrunner has a credit of his own.) If the contracted writer were handed the final script to polish before it went to production, said writer might pitch a hissy fit about what happened to her script. So forget the polish, too.

Upshot – First draft has to hit the nail on the head. Second draft should be a polish of the first. There is no room for experimentation or personal creativity, beyond little flourishes.

Q: Since they already have the idea in a paragraph and they simply want it turned into 28 pages of script, why don’t they get the showrunner to write all of the scripts and save some money?

A: A very good question, and one I’ve pondered aplenty. I believe I have the answer. Co-productions between countries require ‘points’, which translate into tax credits, to be granted to each country. One point for the director, one for the producer, one for each writer, one for each actor, etc. Canada’s points in this particular co-production were based on the writing, so a certain number of writers had to be hired in order to acquire a certain number of points, so the tax credit can be applied.

Q: So, aren’t you really saying that this is ‘easy money’?

A: Yes and no. If you are charmed and have sold a series idea, the work is hard, but the potential for big, big bucks is there. If you're just a hired gun, the answer is still yes and no. Yes, because if you do the work the way they want the work done, it’s not hard at all.
No, because the end result will not be what you wrote. None of the rest of the writers on the series tuned in. They gave the producers what they wanted, took their cheques, and moved on. That’s the way the pros do it.

Also, you have to go through the highs and lows of tonnes of rejections for every gig you get. This is particularly painful in film/TV because the money and opportunity is so great, thus a terrific high, and the disappointment is correspondingly terrifically low when it fails to materialize.

Q: Isn't what you describe just a bad experience, rather than a typical one?

A: Nope. In fact, it was a very good experience. I’m in the IMDb (International Movie Data Base) because of it, and the series won a Canadian award, a Gemini. The series hasn’t been renewed for a second season, but it looks good on my resume. The producers put money into my RRSP and benefits plan and my pay was marvelous.

Q: Describe a bad experience, then.

A: Well, since you asked…. I don’t like to complain, but…
I was hired to write an episode for a new Canadian series. This was my first experience with Independent Television, years ago. I was hired because, at the time, they needed a token woman on board. Because I’d written a feature script that was comedy/horror, I was given the Halloween episode of the series to write. As I was new, the seasoned writers gave me this advice: Give them what they want, take your cheque and move on.

The writers’ meeting was held after the writers had finished their first drafts. I had not heeded the advice of the pros. Nonetheless they backed me up, and we spent over two hours talking about my script. Lunch was dry, tasteless sandwiches. I felt bad about taking up so much time with my script, as we were stuffed into a grubby little hotel room, but at least the showrunner conceded some of my points. The next day, he called to say, ‘Do it my way or you’re fired.’

This show was set in the Rockies but would be shot in Calgary. How would they get around the fact that there were no mountains in the background? ‘We’re going to shoot low.’

The finished product did in fact contain some of my lines, but the spooky image that scared the characters witless on Halloween night became – a moose head with Christmas lights in the antlers. My director said my script was the best of the bunch.

Um, no, the series was not renewed. However, in another bid to save money the producers did not purchase the universal rights to our scripts, which is customary and accounts for at least half the money the writer makes on a script. They only purchased the US rights, since America was their target audience. The show was never broadcast in the USA, but it was sold to Germany and shown several times in Canada. Each time I received a residuals cheque for a whopping $600.00. HA HA!

That was my worst experience writing for TV, and it got me into the Writer’s Guild of Canada and kicked off my RRSP and benefits package.

Nuts 'n Bolts:

So, you still want to take a stab at it?

Get a copy of ‘Movie Magic’ or ‘Final Draft’. All the pros use one or the other. I use ‘Movie Magic’ and there are sample scripts of all sorts to peruse, as well as script writing formats that make it all so much easier to do.

TV Scripts are composed of three acts, plus a teaser and epilogue, with cliff-hangers at the commercial breaks (end Act 1, end Act 2.)

Opening teaser – one - two pages, featuring main characters.
Act One – eight pages, cliffhanger at the end.
Act Two – eight pages, cliffhanger at end.
Act Three – eight pages, climax.
Epilogue – one - two pages maximum.

In animation the dialogue is numbered from speech 1 through to the end of the script.

Good luck!

Shows I like? My favourite of all time is The Sopranos. David Chase, the creator, says HBO loved the idea of a mob boss who visits a shrink, but they asked that he not be a killer. Huh? Chase fought for his vision and the rest is TV history. Remember the scriptwriter Christopher met in rehab? He got into gambling debt with Christopher and thereafter, whenever he appeared, he got beaten up. In one of the final episodes, Christopher finally puts a bullet in him. Consider yourself warned - by the best writers in the business!

These days, I'm big on Flashpoint. This is a Canadian produced television show that simultaneously aired in Canada and the US this year, the first time this has happened since Due South aired simultaneously in both countries in 1994. You remember Due South don't you? The show starring Paul Gross as a Mountie with his trusted dog Diefenbaker?

Yum. Right. Flashpoint. Presently the series takes place in 'Nowhere...but might be Toronto...' We shall see how long that lasts. It premiered at #1 in Canada and the US so there's hope, as it's a great series with topnotch acting and production values. My main reason for watching it, though, is Hugh Dillon.

Yum. Right. Flashpoint. I must go now, I'm going to contact the producer of Flashpoint and tell her how much I like the show, as well as mention that Felix and I have lots of great ideas for future episodes, if she's interested...

But first: Felix and I have a log/syn document that is many pages long, listing the log lines (Five sentences maximum, each of ten words or less, describing the piece in a zippy manner) and synopses (a breakdown of the script without dialogue) for movies as well as Bibles for our proposed TV series. But somewhere during the creation of all those scripts Felix stopped writing erotic novels. When I asked him why he wasn’t writing novels anymore he replied, ‘I’m after the big money.’ Gently, I asked how much he’d actually made in the movie business. Felix saw my point and he’s published three novels with Nexus while we’re still waiting for Hollywood to call. Waiting for one with a bullet.

So please: Don’t quit your day job. I'll post a piece on writing for movies at a later date. Until then,remember - 'Give them what they want, take your money and move on.'

What TV show would you like to write for? What show are you content to happily be a fan of? What would you like to see on TV?

xoxo Madeline Moore


Janine Ashbless said...

God, this is horrifying Madeline! I am so pleased to live in my cosy little erotica cocoon!

I can still remember when British people used to complain about all the US rubbish we had on TV. Then something changed, almost overnight it seemed (it had something to do with the arrival of Friends and the X-files I think), and suddenly the ONLY good stuff on TV comes from the other side of the Atlantic, while homegrown drama consists of nothing but interminable soap and predictable detective series. (Probably not quite true but one night watching ITV is still the equivilent of a lobotomy).

So .... international TV shows I'd like to write for if you hadn't put me off forever: Big Bang Theory (I know those guys!), Scrubs, House, which I think are at their best moments inspired in their writing. I also enjoy Without a Trace, CSI and some of the other episodic crime series, which are consistently competent. (Bones stinks though. Which idiot thought a slapstick comedy forensic series was a bright idea?)

And the remade Battlestar Galactica was stunning of course. Lost and Heroes were both original and gripping, at least to start with.

Inspiration and imagination are so precious. They inspire generations.

Janine Ashbless said...

Oh god, and ER! - but not the recent series. The episode shown from the point of the view of the dying, hallucinating patient reduced me to jelly.

Portia Da Costa said...

Mmmm... love me some North American television. Especially the cop shows, surprise surprise. ;)

Madeline Moore said...

Hey Janine! i finally got up to eat something in the hopes of getting some sleep tonight and just HAD to check the blog. I'd apologize for putting you off writing for TV but...I'm just tellin' it like it is.

We Canadians envy you Brits your homegrown shows. Even the Americans are stealing your stars left right and centre. (Could that explain the dearth of good shows in Britain these days? I have to say I quite like a number of your shows - I love 'Hyde' and enjoy 'The Sarah Jane Chronicles' for example.

I agree with most of the shows you like, except for Scrubs, which has never done anything for me. I love 'Big Bang Theory' and House and CSI and - Bones! I think it's terrific! And by the way, the series is much better than the books - although the author is now a producer on the show so, she's raking in the bucks. And that's a great way to sell to TV and especially, these days, to feature films - write a great book! Not much chance of our erotica getting turned into movies though - the American filmmakers avoid the R rating like the plague. Cuts out their prime audience, pimply 16 year old boys with a penchant for guns and games. Sigh.

Madeline Moore said...

Yes, Portia, what would we do without Goren? He's pretty scruffy these days though - must be that serial killer DNA in him bubbling to the surface...

Must go back to bed now. But I'll be

Olivia Knight said...

Woefully predictable, but of course I'd love to write for Doctor Who or Torchwood. Anything else featuring aliens would also do, of course. (Regrettably, Farscape is finished and they sewed up the end pretty tightly.) The experience sounds disheartening for anyone who takes their actual words seriously, though: when I think of how I spit bullets at editors who muck about with my stuff, I can only imagine what would happen if I wrote for TV.

Throughout Oxfordshire, the air has turned blue! The inhabitants are choking on the thick soup of foul expletives...

Hmm, good episdoe premise for Doctor Who, though. Now just to figure out which dastardly race has polluted the rolling green hills of Oxfordshire and what fatal, surprising weakness the doctor will use against them. Perhaps it's all emanating from the books, in their vast stacks upon stacks... the disused salt mine in Cheshire, where lots of them are stored, would make a GREAT location!

Well. Perhaps I don't mind my words being tampered with all that much... I'll just peruse the details while I wait for the phone to ring. 8-8-8-1 you said, right, Madeline?

Madeline Moore said...

Don't forget your teaser, O! ALtho not all shows really have 'em, anymore.

There's no reason why you can't pitch an idea to Dr.Who - query first and if they say OK, they'll send you a release form. No one looks at much of anything, anymore, without a release (so they can steal the kernel of your idea and do it themselve...but that's for another blog, another time...)

Madeline Moore said...

Hello? >taps mic< Is this thing on?

Where are my comments? Is it because this post is a) too long, b) too bitter or c)not sexy ?

Speaking of bitter - I wondered why the Writer's GUild of Canada didn't allow us to bring guests to our Xmas party...until I arrived. First thing I saw was a bunch of folks in black smoking outside...first thing I heard was...'Writing for reality shows? I hate it! I fucking hate it. It's horrible!' I've never met a more delightfully depressed bunch in my life. Since I've only 'socialized' in real life with screenwriters, I can't say if all writers let down their hair and bitch a blue streak like screenwriters...maybe someone who was at the RWA convention will comment? Of course you wouldn't have to say WHO was bitching and naturally I wouldn't even suspect that it might be the commenter who was bitching...just wondering.

It was funny, that Xmas party, because I had 'writer's arm' and warned myself severely NOT to RUB my arm at the party because I didn't want any 'showrunners' to see me incapacitated in any way, but as I passed a fellow who was remarking in a LOUD VOICE 'The PROBLEM with _______ _______ (fill in the name of a showrunner who was AT THE SAME PARTY)is...' and he was furiously rubbing his arm.

The last thing I heard from the showrunner who was relieved of his duties on the animation series I worked on was 'I hate this fucking business with ever fibre of my being.'

The moral is - be HAPPY to be a writer of prose, or, as the same showrunner who hates the business etc. said (and he got fifty grand for one one hour episode of Mutant X) 'Be happy you're a REAL writer.'

Kate Pearce said...

Well, wow, I never realized it was so complicated! I admire your fortitude. I would not be happy if someone did that to my words. I don't even like other people writing the back cover for my books!
Fascinating stuff and despite several people telling me I have a great writing style for movies/TV, I think I'll stay with my books thank you :)

Janine Ashbless said...

Yes - it's certainly an eye-opener Madeline. I think you probably scared people!

Madeline Moore said...

I guess I should mention that sometimes you get flown to groovy places like Paris and it's great belonging to the Guild and getting health benefits and an RRSP...
did I mention it pays really well?

Chloe Devlin said...

OMG, you have so nailed it!

Madelynne Ellis said...

Well this pretty much confirms everything I heard on the screen writing course I did several moons back. They suggested writing TV episodes for the money and not bothering to watch the episodes. If you want complete control over your work writing for Theatre is apparently the way to go. Then you call all the shots.

Not sure what I'd want to write for... Raven, maybe.

Deanna said...

This was an absolutely fascinating post. I knew it was difficult writing episodes of TV series, but not that hard and downright frustrating. Maybe it is better in the UK, I don't know.

I agree with everyone else about Battlestar, and the first series of Heroes and Lost.

As far as Dr Who and Torchwood goes I'd definitely like a crack at them.

Once series I loved but has got lost in the mists of time was the Highlander TV series. Not the first series but it did get better after that, especially when they focused on the difficulties of living for hundreds of years while those around you aged and died.

Nikki Magennis said...

Makes me grateful for the infinite possibilities of a blank page! (No budget required, and anything's possible.)

Jamaica Layne said...

Well, now I know why I don't write for TV!!

This was a fascinating post. I think I'll stick with erotica for now. Though I do write plays for the stage, which is an interesting world in and of itself (though nobody gets paid more than tiny token amounts)

Angell said...

Wow Madeline. That's awful. I've never tried writing for TV, but (like all aspiring actresses I know) I have a screenplay in the works (for like the last ten years). LOL.

Janine - I LOVE Big Bang Theory. Geeks are just so CUTE. I never miss an episode, and I'm also seriously considering stalking Hugh Laurie. I love CSI (the original), and have fallen desperately in lust with everyone involved with Crossing Jordan (I'm so sorry it's off the air - Steve Valentine is YUMMO).

Back to Madeline - thanks for the lesson. I'll be picking up Movie Magic during my next book spree.

Madeline Moore said...

Angell - Movie Magic is a software program, not a book. The best place to get it is on ebay. If you're a student or teacher you get an educational discount...

Madelynne, I don't feel so bad about what I wrote, now that I know the pros who ran your screenwriting course say the same thing as the pros I've worked with.

Maybe the real reason Tv writers get paid so much is not that everyone in The Business is making The Big Bucks so why not the writer, as that then producers etc. can dump all over the writers and never feel bad.

When you see a show that has TV writers in it, you'll notice that they either face a bad fate or are unkempt folks in a room that are sardonic and parasitic. I guess that's more the truth, now at least, than the happy days of the writers on 'The Dick Van Dyke Show.' I always thought Rob and Rose Marie and...what was the little guy's name, Morty or Montie...had such great jobs.

Madeline Moore said...

I've only written one one act play and a few radio plays, but Playwrights do seem to do OK, work-wise, though the pay sucks. But once again, these days (thanks to 'Chicago') the move from stage to screen is happening ALL the time, not just once in a blue moon.

Finally, I know a successful actor who has been in a number of series and feature films, and recently ventured in the music business. He says it's WAYYYYYYY more evil than 'The Business' and he should know.