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When Big Screen Names Come to the Small Screen

After hearing that The Russo Brothers (Joe and Anthony, in case you’ve been living under a rock, recently worked in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)) were involved in bringing Deadly Class to television, I had to check out the article myself. That’s when we here at PCU had a discussion about TV shows. Okay, I talked and my fellow writers interjected in the appropriate places. (Thanks, guys! Made me feel all teacher-y.)

Why is this news troubling? More and more we hear about big names coming to the small screen and it pushes neophyte writers (like me) or neophyte directors (I know a few outstanding indie directors) to the side in favor of the big guns. Who wants to hire the untested awesome writer when they can grab Martin Scorsese (Vinyl) to do a show? Yes, awesome is arbitrary here, but as a neophyte writer wanting to get into L.A. you have to have confidence in your skills and your idea.

Why should we care that the Russo brothers want to come back to television where they started? Well, because more and more “movie people” want to get into TV. So, the Russos started in TV and transitioned like bosses to the big screen (which I think most TV folks dream of because it used to be easier to get into TV) and now are putting their muscle into this new project, going back to their “roots.” We should care because of the affect this is having on up and coming writers. There are a lot of new writers out there that are really good that have fascinating stories to be told. This in turn affects these new writers by requiring them to “package” their scripts. (That’s explained a little further down, but I’m almost certain that AMC wouldn’t have picked up Preacher if Seth Rogan hadn’t been involved with the project.)

Now, the article from Deadline.com had one crucial phrase, “The package is set at Sony Pictures TV and is expected to be taken out shortly, targeting cable networks and streaming services.”

Here’s a quick rundown of one way TV shows get picked up and why that phrase is crucial:

“The package” means that the screenwriter(s) has attached names to the project, usually big names like I mentioned earlier. In the case of Deadly Class it’s the Russo brothers fresh off their turn in the MCU.

“Expected to be taken out shortly,” means they are going to be pitching the show to their target networks and streaming services. I suspect that Netflix, which has been dropping wads of cash left and right for original content, is going to be their first stop and AMC (due to the success of Preacher and The Walking Dead) will be the next stop. It’s easier to shop your show as a package rather than just shopping the script. If you have people already attached you have people invested in the project. “Shopping” also means that it hasn’t been purchased, which means it hasn’t been greenlit (it’s not in development with a production company).

Pitching means they are presenting the idea to the network. Someone somewhere along the line at the company, usually a producer, will have the meeting set up at the studio offices out in L.A. (usually they’re out in L.A., Studio City, Culver City, etc.) and the creator (not always the writer!) and the producer will go into the meeting and spill their creative guts about that project. Occasionally, they may be asked for other ideas. (I know someone who has recently done an all day with AMC.)

Being “greenlit” or getting the “greenlight” means getting the deal. Someone has bought your blood, sweat and tears. Sometimes this process takes a long time. With the package, if you have the right connections, the time can be cut down significantly.

What does this mean for the neophyte writer, like me? Well, here’s an example, my example…

I have an original pilot script (my polished Masters Thesis). I have a producer that’s taken it out to L.A. for feedback to get it ready for shopping season (which is pretty much irrelevant any more, thanks Netflix). Excellent! Now we’ve got it really polished, easier to read and ready to go into the hands of a production company but because “big guys” like the Russos and Martin Scorsese want to do TV, no one wants to look at scripts from new writers unless they’re “effing genius.” No matter how good they are, no matter how much you (or your producer) love the concept.

Why is this important? TV shows have to hire a certain percentage of freelance writers per season per the Writer’s Guild of America guidelines. This is a double-edged sword. Why? Because you need representation to work and you need to work to get representation. But no one will look at new scripts! Bah! Every writer that writes in L.A. has to be a member of the WGA. It’s a good thing. It’s protection for writers. If I were to sell my show, I would then have to become a member of the WGA and I could do so because I sold a TV script. The guidelines for membership are complicated and exhausting, so I won’t explain them here.

So, we have to package my script. What does that really mean?

To package my script, my producer’s company has a first look deal with three different production companies. The company he was going to hand off my script to prefers to work with folks only represented by the William Morris Endeavor. (Yay. <- please note the enthusiasm… not so much.) So, I spend hours (literally) researching writers, directors and actresses that would be a good fit for the show through IMDBPro. There are a bunch of factors to consider like genre experience (writers and directors) and whom I want to play me. (Oh, yeah, this show is semi-autobiographical about my time as a medic in Iraq.)

How do you package? You select the individuals you want to send your script to and (if you have an agent or representation) your agent sends their agent the script with some form of introduction letter. Hopefully, the people you want say yes, then their people call your people and you sign papers, they sign papers and you have a package! Then, you take it to a production company. Hopefully, the production company says yes, more paperwork and bam! You have a show.

Of course, we could have taken option number two and hired a script doctor to “fix” the script but then it would have taken creative control away from me and risked it becoming not mine.

Needless to say, I’m still waiting for word on my project. I’ve been working on this for almost two years. TV is a slow process. Patience is a virtue you must have if you want to work in Hollywood.

 

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