PrimeTime: Should I Shoot My Pilot on Spec?

Every year, networks shoot about 100 professionally shot, designed, acted, and edited pilots. These pilots are your competition. These are the pilots you need to beat with your writing alone.
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Today's email comes from Zain, who writes:

If I have the actors and resources to make a low-budget DVD of my pilot and I submit that with my pilot script, is that better than submitting just the script? I feel like it would give the producer/agent/manager a better idea of how the show would look in its final stage. Also, it might be refreshing and enjoyable to watch a DVD after reading screenplays for hours on end every day.

Great question, Zain. People ask this a lot, and while it seems like shooting your pilot on spec, doing your own low-budget production, should help make a sale, it almost always never works. In fact, it almost hurts. Here's why …

First, low-budget productions usually look like … well … low-budget productions.

 You want your pilot to look as good as it possibly can.

You want your pilot to look as good as it possibly can.

They look hastily shot, have amateur actors, poor lighting, bad sound, sloppy editing.

So if you have a brilliant spec pilot script, and you then shoot it with limited resources and money, you run the risk of ruining what may have been beautiful on the page. And if someone watches your poorly shot pilot and rejects it, you can't then turn around and say, "Well, I know you didn't like that, but why not read the script it was shot from?"

After all, you're a WRITER. Your job is to use writing to convey exactly what you want the reader to see, think, hear, feel. If you think shooting something will do a better job of conveying this than the script alone … you haven't written a very strong script. (Which is why they say, "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage.")

Plus, keep this in mind: Every year, networks shoot about 100 pilots (collectively). These are professionally shot, designed, acted, and edited. Most of these never make it to series … and while that may not be because of their production values, the point is, even professionally produced pilots have only a slim chance of advancing … so shooting an amateur pilot is already putting it far, far behind its pack of competitors.

And sadly, almost every time I hear someone say, "Trust me — I have a real lighting guy," or "I have the sound people from Avatar," or "Everyone I'm hiring is a trained professional," the final product still winds up looking — at best — a few notches above a student film. This isn't a knock on the talent of low-budget filmmakers — many are truly talented — it's a testament to how freaking hard it is to make something look good … and to how many people underestimate that.

Also, I know everyone likes to say, "Well, they shot the pilot for It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia themselves." And that's true. But while that show has been enormously successful for its creators and FX, that show is also a huge anomaly. In the last decade, networks have commissioned thousands of pilot scripts, shot hundreds of pilots, and greenlit countless series; It's Always Sunny is the only show to come from a pre-shot pilot. (Actually, Comedy Central's American Body Shop also came from pre-shot pilot, but it barely lasted a season and no one really knows about it.)

Secondly, it seems easy to say, "If networks don't like the cast … or the sets … we can change that later."

 It's much easier to change things now, before something's (literally) set in stone.

It's much easier to change things now, before something's (literally) set in stone.

But once something is shot, it feels set in stone. After all, you've made what is — or what's supposed to be — a final product, and that's how execs, managers, agents, and producers see it: as final. So while recasting, rebuilding, or reshooting may seem like obvious, easy choices, it's usually too late. Besides, if you want people to look past production choices to see the strength of your script … why'd you bother shooting it in the first place? Stories, characters, styles, and sensibilities are much more malleable earlier in the creative process, and networks and studios like to be creatively involved and invested … which is why most shows are bought or sold on pitch (or, occasionally, as scripts), rather than being pre-shot.

Now, there are a few times when "having tape," something produced and viewable, can help:

Reality shows often use "sizzle reels" — short scenes or trailers showing off a reality concept's cast, concept, or sensibility. To learn more about this, check out my May 9th post, "How Should I Prep a Reality Pitch?"

Other projects, both scripted and reality, that hinge on a specific piece of talent — say, a particular stand-up comic or host — sometimes use "tape" to show off that person's personality. When I was an exec, and we would pitch sitcom ideas developed around comics, we'd often show buyers a short stand-up clip so they could see the comic's point of view, sense of humor, on-camera persona, etc. But this is different than shooting an entire pilot or presentation.

So my advice to you, Zain, is ...

NO — shooting your pilot won't help you sell it.

What will help you sell it is having an amazing script that proves you're a phenomenal writer with a unique voice and a bottomless well of stories. And if you don't have an amazing script, a well-produced pilot isn't going to fool anyone.

If you're a phenomenal writer, you're a phenomenal writer … and writers prove that by WRITING.

So rather than spending your time, energy, and resources trying to produce a pilot, I'd spend them writing something new.

Write a second pilot … or a spec script of your favorite show … or a stageplay. Even if you think your current pilot is the best pilot ever written — and perhaps you're right — your job isn't to write one great pilot and sell it … it's to keep writing better material … to grow into a better, stronger, funnier, more thoughtful writer.

Only this — not producing your own pilot — will convince people you're a special voice worth investing in.

Thanks again for writing, Zain … and if you — or anyone else — has more questions, thoughts, or comments, please post them in the Comments section below, Tweet me @chadgervich, or email me at chad@chadgervich.com.