What to Spec – Surfing the Market

You can read all about conceiving, writing and selling your spec pilot in my new book, Writing the Pilot, currently available exclusively through Amazon.com, soon in the rest of the known universe…

Yesterday I talked about the vast existential implications involved in choosing a concept to turn into a spec pilot.  Today we’re going to get a little more practical: Once you know what kind of script you want to write, how do you tailor it to fit a marketplace that will have changed several times over by the time you’re done?

The most common mistake spec writers make is to look at what the networks are buying now and attempt to duplicate it. NBC’s programming zombie thrillers and Mad Men knock-offs? I can give them that!

That’s great if you can hurry up and finish your spec something like six months ago.  That way if the NBC show hits, you could have your script ready to send out immediately to capitalize on the trend.

There’s only one problem with that: the NBC zombie show didn’t come out of nowhere. If it gets on the air it’s because AMC had a big, surprise hit with its own zombie show, The Walking Dead. Which means there are inevitably dozens of other zombie scripts floating around, and in the time it takes you to get to the marketplace – especially if this means landing an agent first – some of them are going to get picked up. Which means you’ll be coming in at the tail end of a trend – which is less than ideal if all of these shows are hits, and really bad news if most of them fail.

 If your goal is to surf the market, it’s not enough to look at what’s on the air now… or even what’s in development now. You’ve got to know out what’s going to be in development next year.

And how the hell are you supposed to do that when the people who buy scripts have no idea what they’re going to be looking for?

There’s no surefire way to do this, of course. But if you understand where a lot of TV shows come from, you can make some pretty educated guesses.

You want to know what’s going to be hot on TV in two years? Check out what’s going to top the box office next summer. Movies have always influenced TV this way – or maybe you think it’s a coincidence that there was a flood of spy shows in the 1960s, right after James Bond became the biggest thing on the big screen…

But it’s not going to do you any good to see what’s filling theaters now – because everyone can do that. You need to understand what’s in production – or what’s getting a lot of heat in pre-production. You can certainly tell the films that are being positioned to be huge, whether or not they actually turn out that way.

Is there one that makes you say “Damn, I wish I’d written that”? Well, here’s your chance. Not to steal the idea, of course – that’s not going to do you any good. But to create your own idea in the same basic arena. That way, when the movie finally comes out and all the networks are scrambling for their own version, you’ll have yours ready.

Again, this is not a knock-off. This is something that is supposed to capture the same kind of audience appeal that the feature has – like the way, say, that NBC’s Crusoe was intended to grab fans of the Pirates of the Caribbean. (Note: I did say “supposed to.” Again, not an exact science, not even for the pros!)

Of course, this could all go terribly wrong.  You might, for instance, have noticed a year or two back that someone was remaking Arthur, and decided that the world would be ready for a TV show about a lovable lush who’s trying to make it in the world after giving up his fortune to win the hand of the woman he loves.  Now you’d have a script with all the appeal of Fukushima brand bottled water. The good news is that most flops are quickly forgotten, and if you hide that script in your desk drawer for a year or two, it will be ready to stand or fall on its own merits, with no bonus heat from a movie hit, but no negative Russell Brand associations, either.

Or instead of looking to movies for your inspiration, you could look to the things that inspire the movies. For instance, ever since the rise of Harry Potter, YA literature has been a huge feeder of franchises. If you’d spotted, say, Hunger Games as it was rising on the YA book charts, you might have been able to realize it was going to become an important movie franchise and time your similar-appeal pilot to hit the market at the same time the film rights were going up for auction – an auction no network was going to win.

Again, there are plenty of risks here. Now that there’s so much money in the field, publishers are rushing forward with YA novel series, and only a handful are going to catch on. So you might not get any added heat from the source material. But again, if this is a script you were eager to write anyway, there’s certainly no harm that can come from working in an increasingly popular genre.

And then there’s the oldest stand-by of all – other TV shows. I know this seems to contradict what I said above – by the time a show is a hit, there will be dozens of similar projects in the works.

That’s still true – which is why it would be nuts to try to imitate Mad Men right now. Do you really think the world needs a third new show about white collar professionals in an early 1960s when men were men and women were available?

But you’re seeing The Playboy Club and Pan Am after Mad Men has been on the air for several years and won a zillion Emmys. The time to be “influenced” was in the show’s first season, before everyone else was doing it. (Well, almost everyone else. CBS did come out with Swingtown, a rare instance of a major network trying to get ahead of a curve…) I remember watching the first few episodes and thinking of all sorts of other series that could take advantage of some of the ideas Mad Men pioneered. I even went out and pitched one, although it didn’t get very far.

Again: risks. A small show on a struggling cable network is a fragile thing. If you’d written your period opus and Mad Men had been cancelled after one year, your script would actually have been less valuable than if AMC had never put it on – it would have been proven that no one wanted to see shows set in the early 1960s.

A lot of people will tell you there’s no point trying to anticipate the marketplace. That fashions come and go so quickly that there’s no way to know what’s going to be in demand, so you might as well write what you love.

I certainly agree with that last part – you’ve got to love what you’re writing, or you’re writing the wrong thing. But we’ve all got lots of ideas we’re in love with, and we need to decide which one we’re going to focus on now. You might as well choose the one that’s got the best chance of getting you somewhere.

Of course, the networks are always going to buy projects that aren’t tied to the momentary fashions in pop culture. Next time we’ll look at some of the perennials.

4 thoughts on “What to Spec – Surfing the Market

  1. I took your UCLA Ext TV writing course a couple years back and really enjoyed it. I’d love to read the book, but I have a Nook. When will you be opening up outside the Kindle-verse?

    • Hi Adam. I’ve been waiting until I have a decent cover, which should be a couple more days. But let me see what I can do about exploring the Nook universe a little earlier…

  2. The reason I got a Nook is that it takes pretty much every format aside from Kindle books. So in addition to Nook books, if you had your book in epub, or on Google books, or whatever, I can read it. Thanks!

    • I’ve gone ahead and published on the Nook with the bad cover. It should be up there within 24 – 72 hours.

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