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PRIMETIME: Should I Hire a TV Expert To Help With My Movie Script?

A film consultant is not the most qualified person to guide you through developing a TV series. They may be able to give you pointers on scenes and dialogue, but the truth is... TV and film are two totally different crafts.

Today's question comes from Gino, who responded to my March 19th post about coverage services. In that post, I talked about how I'm not a fan of using coverage as a writing/rewriting/development tool, but a good consultant could be invaluable.

Gino, a writer looking for a consultant to help with his feature script, asks

How much does it matter if the reader's experience mostly comes from TV or films? Most of the highly regarded consultants I have heard mentioned in these blogs have been TV people, and they are very experienced TV people. But, I have a romantic comedy feature script that I need help with. How does media experience factor into whom I should choose?

Well, Gino… I think it matters a LOT.

While it's easy to think writing for film and TV are essentially the same—after all, they're both storytelling for screens, right?—they're actually two very different crafts… and their respective industries use drastically different business models.

Film is a "finite" experience.

When you write a movie, you're telling one story, with one set of characters, that will never go on, never continue, never be repeated. In two hours, you get a complete beginning, middle, and end… a full narrative experience. (Sure, some movies spawn sequels, but that's a different thing.)

TV is an "infinite" experience.

Wrong kind of franchise... but still the best fries.

Wrong kind of franchise... but still the best fries.

A television show stretches over many weeks, months, seasons, years. And in order to do that, it must have a built-in story engine capable of churning out an infinite number of stories.

Some shows do this by incorporating a "franchise," a literary device designed to generate an endless amount of stories. CSI, for example, follows a specific team of detectives. By the very nature of what these people do—solve mysteries—we understand that they will never run out of stories; as long as there are mysteries to be solved, these people will have something to do. Grey's Anatomy is set in a hospital. By the very nature of what a hospital is, we know that every time the doors open, into the hall will come an injured child, a guy in a wheelchair, a woman with her head cut open. In other words—a weekly problem to be solved by Meredith and the Seattle Grace gang. Detectives, doctors, hospitals, cops, lawyers, vampire slayers make great franchises… because their very nature generates story.

Other shows, like Brothers and Sisters or The Office, don't use franchises; there's not one specific device that generates each week's story. One episode might focus on someone trying to get a date… another might focus on redecorating a bathroom. These types of shows generate stories by creating characters and relationships so deep and rich they'll never run out of conflicts. For example, no matter how much time Jeff and Pierce spend together on Community, they'll never see eye to eye; they may understand each other a bit more, but they'll always butt heads in a way that produces conflict and story.

Different series generate conflict differently (although if you're creating a new show, you have a better chance of making a sale if you use close-ended, "standalone" stories, like Criminal Minds or Parks and Recreation, as opposed to serialized stories like Lost or The Event)… but the point is: TV shows must be designed to generate an endless number of stories, whether those stories are "standalone" (NCIS) or ongoing and serialized (90210).

While this may seem like an easy, obvious distinction between film and TV, creating a TV series with a strong story engine is easier said than done… and it's much, much different than writing a movie.

Based on a movie? Yes. Same type of storytelling? Not even close.

Based on a movie? Yes. Same type of storytelling? Not even close.

I was recently talking to a manager friend (let's call him Sam) who was frustrated with a big feature client (we'll call him Dave). Dave had told his manager he wanted to try his hand at TV, where he believed he could make steadier money than in features. Sam suggested Dave write some TV samples—some specs or a pilot—and perhaps he could get a staff job. But Dave didn't want to "staff;" he wanted to create his own show—like in film. When Sam pointed out that Dave knew nothing about television—and it often takes years to work your way up a staff, learn the form and craft, etc.—Dave scoffed… he'd sold plenty of movies, how hard could it be?! So Sam let Dave come in and pitch his show… which he proceeded to shoot down, explaining he couldn't sell it because it "wasn't a TV show." It might've been an interesting "world," but it was impossible to see where this show's stories would come from, what would sustain the series, etc. And if networks, studios, or producers couldn't see the show's "legs," what would carry it through multiple seasons, generating story and conflict… it wasn't a sellable TV show. Sam was laughing as told me this; you wouldn't believe, he said, how many feature writers think it's easy just to hop over to TV… without having any idea how TV works.

(Successful TV creators, producers, and showrunners also require a host of other skills not usually required of feature writers. TV writers must be "good in a room," and showrunners need to know how to actually run a room-- a skill set requiring years of TV producing experience. Showrunners are also expected to know how to supervise every other aspect of a series' production: set design, casting, props, wardrobe, budgets, etc. Not only do feature writers not necessarily bring these skills to the table, but they're skills that take actual TV writers years to develop and hone.)

So, the point is, Gino…

TV and film are vastly different forms.

Sure—certain skills and knowledge may transfer over (Joss Whedon supposedly planned Buffy seasons according to film's traditional three-act structure, and Dan Harmon often employs Joseph Campbell's monomyth), but it's like baking and cooking; they both make food, but the processes and sciences are totally different. And just like with cooking, baking, or anything else… the more time you spend working on something, the better—and more specialized—you become at it.

Thus… if you're searching for a consultant, I think you absolutely want someone who has spent as much time as possible working professionally in the medium in which you're writing.

I do NOT think a film consultant is the most qualified person to guide you through developing a TV series; they may be able to give you pointers on scenes, dialogue, etc.—but that doesn't mean they're well-versed in the mechanics of TV.

Likewise, I probably wouldn't trust a seasoned TV vet to help shape a movie script—the forms are just too different. This doesn't mean they're not smart consultants in their own right… and it doesn't mean they definitely can't help you… but I'd recommend working with someone who's an expert in the appropriate field. (Would you hire an electrician to come fix your toilet?)

I hope this helps, Gino, and if you—or anyone else—have more questions, please don't hesitate to post them below or email me at