The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 328 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the program we’ll be looking at how you pitch a television show. We’ll also wade back into the turbulent waters of sexual harassment to discuss what the responsibilities are of men, women, and labor unions to remedy it.
Craig: That’s not at all a minefield.
John: Not a bit of one. But a reminder, we have a live show coming up. That’s next week. Actually this week as you’re hearing this. This Thursday, December 7, in Hollywood we will be welcoming guests Julie Plec, Justin Marks, and Michael Green to talk about wonderful things, including television programs, so you should come. If there’s still tickets you should come.
Craig: That’s quite a group there. I mean, got some big movies in there and some big time writers and producers. And as always it benefits the Writers Guild Foundation, which is our favorite charity.
John: It is a fantastic charity. If you would like tickets go to wgfoundation.org/events and you will see us there and you can grab yourself a ticket. So, we still haven’t planned everything that’s happening, but I will have some surprises for you, Craig. Things you do not even see coming.
Craig: The good news is I don’t ever see anything coming. Everything is an endless surprise to me. I’m like a child.
John: Yeah. It’s lovely. You know, persistence of memory, you know, you cover something over with a napkin, oh my god it’s a surprise to you.
Craig: Right. You can play peekaboo with me and it still works.
John: That’s fantastic. It’s good stuff.
Craig: It is good stuff. Great stuff. That’s how I stay young.
John: It is. So, let’s get into sexual harassment because this is essentially follow up because in a previous episode we were talking about sexual harassment. Craig, you had some suggestions and guidelines you wanted to propose. And you got some feedback from that, so why don’t you take it from here.
Craig: Sure. I got a really interesting email from somebody that I know and I wanted to share it. And I spoke with her and so we’re going to leave her name out of it. We just agreed on the guidelines of things. And I’m editing down the email a little bit, but I think I’m hitting the important points. So I’m just going to go ahead and read this from an anonymous friend.
“Craig, you know that you’re one of my favorite humans.” You know, I wish I could I just stop there, John, honestly, because that’s amazing, right?
John: Like on a little thank you card, just write that. Just send it.
Craig: Just send it. Because I really appreciate that. Well, it goes on.
“Craig, you know that you’re one of my favorite humans but I feel compelled to disagree with some of what you guys said on the latest episode. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had a minimal amount of weird and inappropriate interactions in my work life. I happened to have worked for mostly gay men and women. I’m cautious by nature and tend to remove myself when I feel uncomfortable. I’ve worked mostly in progressive areas in well-respected organizations and none of that has stopped me from having awful moments and interactions I would like to forget.
“You said that no one will be offended if you say you’re uncomfortable and I simply cannot stress how untrue that is. Offended may look different on different people. It may come off as anger, acting dismissive, annoyed, patronizing, etc. But it will be there every single time.
“I have been told I have offended people for far less than standing up for myself after a moment of questionable behavior by a colleague. The result of offended, no matter what it looks like, is the same. You will be someone that no one wants to work with.
“You also said to remove yourself when something feels rapey. Two things. I can’t ever remember worrying that a colleague would rape me. It’s almost never that cut and dry. If someone has a rapist t-shirt then, yeah, you should leave. Short of that, it will often just feel like you’re dealing with a guy who is maybe a little too interested but not crossing any big red lines.
“Second thing. If I remove myself from every workplace where there were someone that I had a bad gut feeling about, I wouldn’t ever work again. The conversation I would much rather have is around how do we talk to men about this situation. For women, this is almost mundane. It is such a part of our lives. Rather than us twisting ourselves in knots to figure out workarounds, can we talk about how men treat women?
“Let me tell you why this matters to me. The situations I had didn’t physically scar me or even traumatize me. Again, I’ve been very lucky. What they did do is slowly chip away at my sense of self-worth. They subtly tell you that the only reason you’re in the room is because you’re young and female and that your voice or opinions are irrelevant. You don’t get attention when you succeed or when you fail, which are net positive things. You get attention when you look nice and no other time.”
So, I read this and I thought this is a very fair criticism. I mean, first of all there’s a lot of great insights in there that I think you and I probably wouldn’t be able to have access to because we’re not in the same situation that women are in, so I really appreciated that point. And I also think that the larger point that she’s making which is it’s not easy to just say I’m offended and I’m walking away is true. And they’re right about that. They meaning anyone who agrees with that.
And I also think that it is true that even though we are trying to do a service by telling people how to manage difficult situations that are imposed upon them, it is true that we – I think you and I have a responsibility if we’re going to talk about that part of it to talk about the other part which is, “OK boys, how are you supposed to behave.”
John: Yeah. Fair. I think what I got so much out of her letter is that how do you deal with these difficult situations without being labeled difficult. And that she wants to be in that room. She wants to be doing her work and she feels like if she calls anybody on their behavior she’s immediately sort of ostracized as that person who is like, “Oh, she can’t play. She can’t hang. She’s not one of us.”
And that is a terrible situation. And so I think you’re right. We need to look at what are the responsibilities of men, women, and everybody else in that room and in those working situations to not let that happen. Because I think your advice was well-intentioned. You said that if you feel that you’re at an unsafe place, get yourself out of that place. And that is one end of this horrible spectrum of behaviors we’re seeing where there are literal attacks and assaults happening.
But in attempting to get yourself out of those possible bad situations, she’s saying you are opening yourself up for the other kind of bad thing that we see happening on the other end of the spectrum which is just like opportunities being taken away because you’re not longer seen as cool.
Craig: Yeah. And I think we heard a bit of this too from Dara Resnik and from Daley Haggar when they were on. And it’s a sense of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If you don’t say anything and you just stay there, you become a victim. If say something, protest, or try and get out, you become a complainer. And so what I think we’re hearing here, and it makes total sense, is that there are certain situations where there are no behaviors that women can engage in that end in a kind of victory. That really it’s just a competition between negative outcomes and you’re trying to look for the least worst situation, which isn’t ideal, so maybe we should be coming at this from the other side which is what can we say to the people perpetrating this stuff so that women aren’t in this situation of having to pick the lesser of evils.
John: Yeah. So I mean a couple thoughts. First is to listen to letters like this that make it clear that these situations happen. Because I feel like a lot of times I think men aren’t aware that they’re creating these impossible situations for the women they’re working with.
Craig: I agree. I think that that is very much part of what happens. I also think that there are a lot of guys who know exactly what they’re doing and just don’t care. And maybe, perhaps I’m naïve, but maybe if we just codify certain things it will be a little harder for them to get away with it.
John: Well let’s talk about codifying things, because I had a great conversation with a writer who is on a TV show this last week and he said that they’re looking in their room as they’re sort of figuring out for next season. They want to come in with a list of like “These are going to be the house rules. This is what we’re going to be doing. This is how it’s all going to work.” And the writing staff is going to vote anonymously on those things. And any one of those rules that gets like two people voting for it is part of the rules for that room. It’s part of the rules for how that show is going to work with the writers.
Will that solve everything? No, it won’t. But at least there’s a thing you can point to saying like, “Hey, this is how we’re going to do it.” And so if someone is breaking one of those rules, everybody sees that he is breaking one of those rules. And I think that helps not only the woman who is being harassed or bullied. It helps everyone else in that room be able to point out like, “Hey, this is not right. We agreed this was not right. You’re breaking the norms of what’s happening here.”
I think with rules you can help set norms. And norms are what’s not being followed here.
Craig: I totally agree. I think that’s actually really important that we distinguish between norms, social mores, and laws. It is illegal to sexually assault someone. But it is not illegal to make a joke that makes someone uncomfortable. And what it is is just a violation of a social norm and a social more. And I think a lot of times what happens is people throw up their hands and say, “Well you can’t legislate behavior.”
No, you absolutely can. Here’s an example. Let’s say I work in a writer’s room. And it’s lunch time. And we all eat lunch around the table. When lunch comes, I have the soup. And I decide to eat it with my hands. I just lift up handfuls of soup and just rub them into my face. That’s not illegal. There’s no law against that. It’s weird. It’s creepy. It’s wrong. It is a violation of a social norm.
Similarly, I can’t take my socks and shoes off and put my bare feet up on the table. It’s gross. We all know this. But somehow when it comes to creating a sense of social mores around the way we respect each other and particularly the way men respect women in a room, we get – we become uber libertarians who can’t imagine the notion of any kind of restraint.
Well, I have a bunch of restraints I’d like to suggest.
John: Well, Craig, I will say though both your soup example and your taking off your shoes and socks and putting your feet on the table, I have not worked on a lot of TV staffs, but I will guarantee you that someone could write in saying like that exact thing happened on our TV show. And the more powerful the person is who is taking off the socks or eating soup with his hands, the harder it is for other people in the room to call him out on that behavior. And so that’s I think part of the reason why you want to have some written out thing of like these are the things we – like if it says on the wall “Don’t take off your shoes and socks and put your feel on the table,” then we know not to do that.
And that is I think what I’m asking for people to try to do is to have a little bit more codifying of what it is that’s going to be OK and what is not OK.
Craig: I completely agree. I mean, I only really raise that point to say as a response to people who can’t imagine that it’s even possible to create rules.
Craig: So I have some rules.
John: Go for it. I want to hear them.
Craig: I have ideas of rules. Here’s an easy one. Keep your hands to yourself.
Craig: I mean, this is a nursery school rule. This is kindergarten stuff. Apparently it’s difficult for some people. So, let’s just make it a rule. Keep your hands to yourself. I don’t need to touch anybody to do my job. We’re not massage therapists.
John: Josh Friedman had an interesting tweet back as all this stuff was starting to break that when he is in a work situation, like when someone is a writer on one of the shows that he’s working on, like even if that woman is a friend they’re not hugging. They’re not hugging in the room because it’s just this weird moment. And so let’s just maybe not touch each other.
Craig: Keep your hands to yourself. And then when it comes to things like jokes, which seems to be an area where a lot of things go wrong, here’s a general guideline and I think these are all incredibly followable. I try to follow them myself. Until you have a sense that a certain area of comedy is safe with another person, just presume that their mom or dad is there with you. Then you’re not going to say that certain kind of thing. You got to find out if someone is OK with some sort of comedy before you get there. And we all know what we’re talking about. We all understand that some humor pushes the envelope. Some humor is edgy. Some isn’t.
You know what? Hold off on the super edgy stuff until you get a sense of whether or not it’s OK with the other person. And if you think it is, and it turns out you were wrong, and the person is upset, stop. Just stop. Apologize. You misread it. That’s it. Say you’re sorry and don’t do it again. That’s that.
John: So when Dara and Daley were on the show they talked about you have to have a freedom in the writer’s room to sort of pitch out stuff and not censor yourself from bad ideas, bad jokes, and sort of going into dangerous territory. I get that. And also people are going to point out the Friends’ decision which I will quickly summarize by saying there was a lawsuit against the Friends TV show by someone who was working in that writer’s room and she lost. And essentially you could read it to say all is fair game in the writer’s room. That’s too broad a reading of that. That was a very specific situation.
What I would point you to is like there’s still the possibility of sexual harassment in a writer’s room if things go too far, if you create a situation where people feel unsafe.
Here’s a good tip for a joke. Pitch a joke about a character. Don’t pitch a joke about somebody in the room. Don’t aim stuff at people who are in the room in general. Just let it be about the characters and the show, not about the folks who are sitting around you.
Craig: I agree. And look when I talk about a sense of humor, a show has a sense of humor. If you go to work on a show that is dark, then the room will be dark, because people are trying to pitch for the dark show. If you go into The Simpsons, then you know what that sense of humor is. You should be pitching within it. This is less to me about what you’re pitching in a room to try and get comedy going. It’s more about what you’re doing when you bump into somebody by the coffee machine, or in the hallway. That’s what I’m talking about.
I think that’s where it gets particularly pernicious when you’re just invading somebody with a sense of humor that they don’t like. What is the point of a sense of humor if the other person isn’t laughing? Just stop.
John: Yep. Agreed.
Craig: Physical guidelines like — there’s certain rules that people generally follow, I’m talking to boys. You meet somebody, a woman, in professional situation. You don’t know her, or you vaguely know her. Maybe you met once a long time ago. It’s a handshake.
When you are working with women and you know each other very frequently, it is just very common in our business that people will hug. There’s nothing wrong with it. I call it the business hug. Nothing wrong with a business hug. But make it a business hug. There’s apparently a problem where people don’t understand how hugging works. It’s about a second long. And the purpose of the hug is to finish the hug as fast as you can. That’s the way I look at it. There’s no squeezing. There’s no holding on. It’s not a real hug. I mean, how did people miss this? It’s not a real hug. It’s not the way you hug your child or your spouse. It’s a quick business hug. It is a formal act.
Same with the cheek kiss. I don’t really like the cheek kiss.
John: I don’t like the cheek kiss either. Let’s rule out the cheek kiss. This isn’t France.
John: It was lovely while I was living in Paris. We don’t need it here. Here’s what I’ll say about the hug is it should be the same kind of hug if you’re hugging a guy or you’re hugging a woman. And guys hug here. It’s fine. It’s natural. But it’s quick. It’s really quick. So don’t linger. It doesn’t need to linger.
Craig: Yeah. No, that’s a great guideline. Basically you’re hugging this person because they’re a professional and this is what we do to greet each other as professionals and that’s it. So the hug is the same for a man. It’s the same for a woman. That’s that. Real simple.
And I would also say — another guideline I would give to boys is – I like saying boys, by the way. We don’t say boys enough.
Craig: Women refer to each other as girls all the time. It’s affectionate.
John: Craig, I would say though does boys infantilize or take away some of the sting of it. So essentially you know like, “Oh, they’re just being boys.” That’s my only worry about the “boys” term.
Craig: All right. They’re men. They’re people with XY chromosomes who are moving through the world and they’re adults. Men.
Craig: Don’t be a physical reviewer in the workspace. It’s fine every now and then if somebody changes their hair to say, “Whoa, cool. Nice haircut.” And it’s perfectly fine if somebody walks in with some awesome new shirt or some amazing new kicks to go, “Oh, I like that. I like the shirt. I like the sneakers.” But otherwise just shut up about it. Nobody cares. Nobody wants to hear your opinions about how people look about their hair, their makeup, their clothes, their body type, their shoes, whether or not they smile, whether or not they don’t smile, their funny eyes, their beautiful eyes, their stupid eyes. Whatever. Just shut up. Nobody cares. That’s not why people are there.
So when our friend writes in and says you get attention when you look nice and no other time, that is such a disaster. And if you are in a workplace and you are sharing your workplace with women, as I imagine you are and should be, then you just have to get it through their head that they’re there because of their minds.
I mean, we are creative people. We’re not doing physical labor. They’re there because of their minds. Comment on the quality of their minds. That’s it.
John: So, here’s an opportunity. If you are about to make a comment about someone’s physical appearance, you might stop and think if there’s something else you could say. I mean, you’re basically just trying to start a conversation or just like to fill an awkward silence or just do the normal social interactions of things, think of something else you can say rather than commenting on how the person looks.
Craig: I think that you and I have a decent starting list here, but this is by no means all-encompassing and I’m sure that different places have different call for different rules and different guidelines.
I think the important thing though is that men in this business have to start talking to each other about generally speaking how we’re supposed to be. And I do believe that if you are in a situation where you are saying things that you know would be hurtful to somebody but they’re not there and they’re never going to be there. Look, humor does as humor does. And there’s different levels of intention.
I know that people are flawed and imperfect. This isn’t about perfection. This is about when you are with people and it’s about not making life miserable for these other human beings. And I cannot promise you that you’re doing it because it’s going to make your life easier. I’m just telling you you should do it because it makes you a better person. It makes you a more honorable person. It’s just basic human decency. And I think we’re all better off for it.
John: Yeah. So I would say that if people have additional suggestions for things that should be on that list of like how not to be a jerk as a man, tweet at us. Send us an email. And we can certainly add to this list and maybe post this for things that people can think over as they’re moving out into the world.
John: We have an email from Carlton who writes, “I wonder if you could see any role for the WGA in preventing sexual harassment in your industry. Could you imagine the WGA or other unions calling for a mini-strike at a company where there are allegations of sexual harassment or assault, which are safety issues if nothing else? One thing that victims have been saying in all these stories is that there was no point going to HR or even no HR department at all these companies. I know if I had a problem at my workplace I could always go to my union.”
So, Carlton has a fair question. You know, unions are set up to help the workers of an industry. Basically we are there to provide workplace protection. And this is a situation where some of our workers are either physically not safe or they are being treated poorly on the job.
So, yes, that is that is a union concern. It is a concern for the WGA, for the DGA, for SAG, for everyone below the line. Yes, every union needs to be thinking about sexual harassment and how they can make sure that their members who are working at these places are being treated OK.
So, there’s a lot kind of going on behind the scenes. And so I would say that you’re going to see a lot of stuff in the New Year about what happens next in terms of how the unions can address this individually but also impressively together to have systems that help protect workers in these situations.
Craig: well that’s good to hear. I don’t think that we can pull strikes per se legally against an entire company. Like I don’t think if somebody experiences sexual harassment at CBS that the Writers Guild could strike all of CBS. I don’t think we could do that legally. But certainly the union should be involved in these things. All those unions you mentioned should be.
Interestingly and trick-ily, who are the people that are doing the sexual harassment? Sometimes it is management. Sometimes it is our own members. I mean, when we talk about some of the showrunners, we’re talking about Writers Guild members. When we’re talking about a director with an actor, we’re talking about DGA members. So it’s not quite as clear cut as it might be say for somebody who is working in food services at a plant and so you’ve got your shop steward saying, OK, management is doing something to one of the workers. It’s complicated.
John: It’s also complicated because sometimes if it is management or if it’s a producer or if it’s somebody else, a manager, that is a person who is not under any sort of union control. So how do you – and that same person could be harassing writers and harassing PAs and harassing actors. And so how do you keep track of all that? Well, I think there has to be an industry-wide response to these situations.
Carlton’s also question about going to HR, well in order to file some of these lawsuits to get some of these actions to take effect you do need to go to HR. But what I’d urge anyone listening to this to know is that you also need to go to your union. And so the same time you go to file an HR complaint, you go to the union and the union can come with you. I know it’s true for the WGA. I’m sure it’s true for SAG and for DGA.
So there’s people there who have your back. And so it’s important to sort of like – the union has a role to play here and so does every member of a union.
Craig: Do we have a specific person at the Writers Guild that people should be contacting?
John: Yes. And so I’ll put a link in the show notes to that. So, yes, there’s a whole plan. And you’re going to see more stuff coming out from the Guild about exactly what steps to take if you’re encountering these situations.
Craig: Great. That’s very useful. Good.
John: Cool. A follow up question from Ben in Colorado. “On a recent episode you were both talking about how the screenwriters should not end dialogue with a parenthetical under it, except in animation. Can you talk about this exception and some of the other differences between writing for live action versus animation?”
All right, I can take this. So, in animation you do sometimes leave parentheticals underneath actor’s dialogue for sound effects or for like gasps. For things like that that would just be assumed in live action, but because you’re recording audio separately you actually mark all those gasps in there or like sneezes and other little things. You put them all in dialogue to make sure they actually get recorded when they go in to do the sound recording.
John: Efforts. Yes. The grunts. The groans. All that stuff. You put that in the dialogue track whereas you might drop that into action in a live action feature. Otherwise, animation scripts look almost exactly the same. The numbering happens a little bit differently because they do things by kind of these sequences, these reels situations. But other than that there’s not huge differences between the script that we as screenwriters are doing and for animation and what we would be doing in live action.
There’s, of course, a second step. So it goes from the screenplay into storyboards. And storyboards are these picture versions of our scripts. And things do change in that process. And so a lot of times the screenwriter will have to come back in and tweak dialogue based on the order of shots and sort of how the scene is shaping out when they actually board it. But script-wise it doesn’t look that different.
Craig: Yeah. I wouldn’t get hung up on it.
John: Last bit of follow up, the switch from documentary to narrative film. We had several people writing in to offer examples of adapted documentaries. On a previous thing you had said like, “Oh, it’s not a common thing to do to go from a documentary to a feature.”
Craig: [laughs] Apparently it happens literally every day. Sometimes I’m so wrong it’s like shocking.
John: Yeah. So do you want to read through some of these?
Craig: Well sure. So some examples that people sent in. Hands on a Hard Body was a documentary that follows a competition to win a new truck which Doug Wright and Trey Anastasio turned into a Broadway musical. A Broadway musical I saw.
Craig: Hunter Foster, brother of Sutton Foster, was starring in that one.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: Man on Wire becoming Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk. And Loving based in part on the documentary the Loving Story. So, those were three. But it was like a cascade of them. And someone even said like, you know, I used to work in acquisitions where all we did was try and find documentaries and turn them into movies. So, I’m an idiot basically is the point.
And it’s important to say to people, you know, you can’t just trust people because they have a stupid podcast. That doesn’t mean a damn thing. Just don’t trust me.
Craig: Not a word.
John: I’d also say that it’s important when you are wrong to admit that you’re wrong and to say it on subsequent episodes.
Craig: Oh god, yeah. Sometimes I’m not just wrong. Sometimes I’m gloriously wrong. I actually feel like that’s really the goal. It’s not very interesting to be slightly wrong. You know? Like you stumble and people don’t really notice. But if you can really trip and land with your hands to your side, so you’re catching the ground with your face, that’s fun.
John: That’s the way you do it.
Craig: That’s how you do it.
John: All right. Let’s see if we can be gloriously wrong in our next segment which is about pitching television.
Craig: Oh, no, I’m going to nail this. This one I’ve got. Yeah.
John: Previously on Scriptnotes we’ve done episodes about producers and pitching. That was Episode 55. And pitching an open writing assignment. That was Episode 248.
But we got an email about how do I go out and pitch a TV show. And some of our other writer friends have been chatting about that recently, too, so I thought we’d just dig into what it’s like to pitch a TV show. Because I’ve done this three times. Craig, you did it for your Chernobyl show, but have you pitched other TV shows? Or was that the only one?
Craig: That’s the only one.
John: Great. So I can go through my experiences and we can hear what Craig’s experience was with Chernobyl. But it’s a lot like a feature pitch but you’re pitching some different parameters and they’re looking for very different things as you go into that room. So, let’s talk through pitches in a very general sense because this is what happens in every pitch meeting. You go into a room. There’s five minutes of chitchat. And eventually you transition into, OK, now we’re going to start talking about the thing that you’re here for.
What’s different about television versus feature pitches is in television they’ve invited you in for a specific reason. So, either you’re going into the studio or you’re going into the network. They know in a general sense what the story area is. They want you to be in that room. They’re in theory happy to hear your pitch.
In features, previously we talked about the elevator pitches, that really tight version of a pitch which you don’t use that much. We’ll have pitches where we’ll go into pitch on an assignment that started there, so it’s like an open writing assignment or it’s based on a property.
With these TV pitches it’s this weird kind of middle form where you’re going in and they know the general area that you’re pitching but you have to really walk them through the whole idea. And so a pitch might be 15 minutes. It might be 30 minutes. But it has to be a really complete package, not just for what the pilot is going to be, but for what this series is going to be and why they need to bid right now to get this series so they can make it for their season.
Craig: Yes. I find it to be a very different kind of pitch than a feature pitch only because of the nature of the medium itself. I feel like it’s actually much easier to pitch television because what you’re trying to do is create a sense of ongoing interest. And in features you’re trying to create something that is whole and finished. It’s really hard to pitch something to somebody and then tell them how it evolves and then tell them how it ends. It’s hard.
And in television you’re just – I think your job is to get them as excited about the potential as you are. In features, it’s not about potential. It’s about you’ve done it.
John: Well, it goes back to the very nature of what is a feature versus what is a series is that a feature is about a story that can only be told once. A television show is a story that can repeat itself, or can grow and change and become a different thing. And so for a feature you’re pitching this is exactly what I’m going to give you, versus a TV show. This is the area in which this thing would go. Like you’re pointing towards a trajectory rather than one destination.
Craig: Right. See, in television I always feel like you’re pitching – I always feel like. I pitched one thing for television, but in my mind if I go and pitch another thing this is what I believe. You’re pitching an experience. And in features you’re pitching a product.
Craig: And it’s natural, I think, for feature purchasers to want you to give them more of a sense of completion and more of a sense of the details having been worked out because you have one thing that you’re pitching, a beginning, middle, and end. In television, I think there’s a general relief valve. No one is expecting you to be able to pitch the beginning, middle, and end of ten episodes or 22 episodes. Not at all.
So, you can talk more about what the nature of the experience will be. I find that to be much more engaging for me. And I can only assume it’s more engaging for them.
John: So a writer colleague passed along this list by Peter Micelli who is an agent at CAA. I assume this is the list that he sends to his clients to send out. But it was a very good general sense of this is the flow of what a lot of TV pitches are like. You start by talking about the inspiration. Really like what the idea means to you. What you’re trying to convey is that this is, you know, something that is deeply emotionally connected to you, because remember you’re pitching not just this idea, but that you are the person to bring this idea to life. And that you are the person who is going to work 23 hours a day to get this show exactly right and perfect. That you’re passionate about it. So they want to hear that kind of from the start.
Then you’re pitching the general themes and sort of the concepts of it. This is what areas this touches on. This can also be the answer to the question why now. Why would we do this TV show in 2018 versus 2005? What is it about today’s world that makes this show especially compelling and really demands to have this kind of show be on the air? Why does it fit?
And only then are you sort of getting into kind of the show itself. You’re giving them the sense of the kinds of things that happen in the show. You’re starting to introduce the characters. But really at first you’re pitching a vision – a personal vision and then sort of a global vision. And only then are you getting into the meat of like so here are the characters, here’s how we’re seeing the characters do their thing. This is what happens in the pilot, but these are the intriguing things that are happening. These are open threads that are going to carry us through to future episodes, and ideally in the fantasy world into season two.
Was that at all your experience going into Chernobyl? Did you start with your personal connection, Craig?
Craig: Yeah. I had not seen this, but this is essentially what I did. And this is a guess, because I never sit in a room, nor have I ever sat in a room to hear a writer pitch me something to get me to give them money for it. But I have to imagine that the thing that person fears the most is somebody coming in there in order to get money from them. There are people, I mean, writing is a tough gig, and sometimes people need work. And sometimes people are desperate and sometimes people are trying. Sometimes people are trying to manipulate the system or game the system or get some employment. Whatever it is. And they come in and they just start going through the mechanics. And on the other side of the table they’re like, “But where is the heart? Where is the soul here? Why? I feel like you just want to get a job.”
And bizarrely that’s the worst way to get a job. It would never occur to me to walk into a pitch for a television show that I wanted to do and not begin with, “I want to do a crazy thing. It is going to take me a long time. It is going to be really, really hard, and I really want to do it. And here’s why.” Simple as that.
John: Simple as that. When we had Benioff and Weiss on to talk about Game of Thrones, their backstory on Game of Thrones was that they were just obsessed with the book. And I remember an anecdote where one of the HBO guys was at the gym and he saw – I think it was D.B. Weiss – just like going – like D.B Weiss was on the treadmill but still going through the book and marking stuff. And that’s when he saw like, oh, the passion. These guys are obsessed with making this TV show. That’s what networks and studios want is obsessed people who will work to death to try to make these shows happen.
So you have to start with that sense of like this is something I must do. I am the perfect person for this because of XYZ and this is the perfect time to do this kind of show.
Craig: Yeah. You become a force of nature then. See, like when I came into pitch my miniseries, I think they must have noticed that I was kind of on fire about it. And I had been thinking about it and researching it for a long time. A long, long time. And I was able to answer a lot of questions. And I was able to talk about specific moments. And really instead of trying to convince them of anything, all I was doing was sharing what had convinced me. So, that’s kind of the deal.
Nobody wants you to manipulate them into a decision. What they want from a good pitch, and I think this is true for features, too, is they want to be able to see, and feel, and experience what you saw and felt and experienced when you fell in love. And then, listen, sometimes they say, “You know what? You look at that and you see beauty, I look at it and I don’t. So, it won’t work out here.” But a lot of times they say, “Oh my god, yes, I’m seeing this through your eyes now and I’m excited.”
That’s the most important thing.
John: I’ve sold three TV shows as pilots. And in each case I genuinely loved it. I was genuinely obsessed with the idea and I could completely see what the vision was for the show. And I’d say – so I pitched to studios, and then I had to pitch to networks. And in every one of those meetings I was just as passionate about it. And some of them were like, “Yes, yes, we absolutely want this show.” And some of them were like, “Nah, not for us.”
And a lot of times I could feel as I left the room it was like, oh, that did not go well. That is not going to work for them. But in each time I was conveying the same excitement and the same enthusiasm because I really genuinely did want to do this. I wanted to put aside feature stuff to try to do this TV show. And they respond to that. They see that.
And even the places that didn’t pick it, they didn’t pick it because they didn’t believe in me. It just wasn’t a good fit for them. That’s still going to happen. You’re still going to have situations where they say no. But you’re going to have a much better likelihood of saying yes if they see that you are the right obsessed person for it.
Craig: That’s a really good distinction to make. I think for a lot of people that work regularly as screenwriters, television writers, we are being asked to come and help on things. And at that point what they’re saying is we want you. We want you for you. And there may be writers who hear, “OK, there’s an open writing assignment. A rewrite on blah-blah-blah. And so you’re going to go in and pitch on it.” And five other people are pitching on it. And what you’re pitching is you and your suitability for their needs. And when they reject you or pass on you, it is about you. And that can hurt.
When you’re pitching your own material it’s not about you at all. It’s about the material. They may love you, they just don’t want to make a movie about this. They may love you, but they have a television show already in development that’s kind of close to the one you have, or they once made a show that was a little bit like yours and it was a disaster for them so they just don’t want to deal with it. So it’s not about you. And that actually psychologically I think is a nice benefit if you are aware of it.
John: Absolutely. So, I would say it is about you in terms of like they want to see your passion and your excitement, but they can still see that and pass. And if they’re passing, then it’s not about you. It really is truly about sort of how it fits in their plan for what they’re going to try to make.
So when you were pitching Chernobyl, did you talk about the characters by their names? Did you talk about actor names? How were you describing the principal people who were going to be in your show?
Craig: Well, I narrowed it down to the three that I felt were the most important. And then a fourth that was important just so we understood what was happening with the other three. There are something like 100 speaking parts on this show. You can easily drown somebody in details. But ultimately I was able to say this is why I wanted to do this because of this person. And what this meant. Not only what they did, but what their whole connection to this whole process was. What it did to them. What it signified. And what it signifies for all of us. And their key relationships with these two other people.
And you sort of use that as a touchstone, because I do believe whether it’s features or television you should never talk about something that happens in a show or a movie without pointing out why it matters to a relationship, hopefully a relationship, but at a minimum to a character.
John: Absolutely. So when you are talking about these three characters, you used their – they’re based on real people – do you use their character names or do you refer to them as a Stellan Skarsgard?
Craig: No, I use their names. And because I don’t want to seem, I don’t know, too desperate or showy. I also feel like when you start mentioning actors you’re giving too much rope to the other side of the table with which to hang you. Because they may not like those actors for some reason. They may have worked with those actors and hated them. They may decide that your interest in those actors implies a certain poor taste.
You never know. So, what I like to do is only discuss that at the end if there seems like real interest. And then they say, “Well who do you see?” And then I’ll say, well, these are the kinds of people that I’ve been thinking about. And I never just put one down. But I have the one that I want.
And at that point I’m really kind of now – now I feel like I have them and now I’m actually kind of checking on them to see if they’re on board with me.
John: Absolutely. That can be a very useful thing. In a pitch I did last year, I needed to convey that it was a certain type of person. And so I ended up falling on it’s a Chris. It’s a Chris Evans, it’s a Chris Pratt. It’s a Chris Pine. It’s one of the Chris’s. Which was a useful sort of joke in terms of like there are a bunch of people who are sort of in that space who could do one of those things.
If you were in a TV show situation you could say, “Sort of like a TV Chris Pine.” That is a thing we can sort of understand. And so it provides a context for like the kind of person you should picture in your head for this role. And it was just helpful just for the pitch. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to cast a Chris Pine-type in that part, but just to get them through this 15 minutes of story it’s helpful if they have some image in their head of who this person is.
Some writers will bring in little boards with pictures on them to show different characters. I’ve done that. Sometimes it’s really helpful.
What can be helpful about having a physical thing is then when they’re going back through the pitch or they’re asking you questions they can point to the board that you were talking about then and it helps to remind them like, OK yeah, there was that moment. Tell me more about this guy again. And so having something physical they can point to can be useful.
Did you bring in anything in for Chernobyl?
Craig: Not a thing. And, you know, listening to you talk about the image board it strikes me that one of the mistakes that so-called gurus make, other than advertising themselves as gurus and taking people’s money, which they shouldn’t, is that they prescribe solutions as if this is the way to do things.
It seems to me that we are all very, very different. And the most important thing you can take with you into a pitch is your best move. The move that makes you most comfortable and the move that advertises your strength. And it’s not necessarily your strength as a writer you’re advertising, but your strength as an employee. So, you go in there and you show them this board and these images, because you’re comfortable – that’s your safe place. That’s a good place for you. You’re organized. You’ve thought it through. You’re planned. You have this thing here.
And for me, I find that more of an ad-libbed conversation, a back and forth, like a sense of mutual discovery of the show together is kind of – that’s how I’m happy. And while I’m doing it of course I’m leading the conversation. But I like a conversation. And whatever it is that works for you, do that. I mean, for god’s sake never let anybody tell you that you can’t do something like bring in an image board or just show up and talk if that’s what you’re best at.
John: Definitely. I had the opportunity to be on the other side of the table once for a project. We were going to do Tower of Terror over at Disney. And it all fell apart because it no longer exists as a ride.
Craig: That’s a good reason.
John: That’s a good reason. It no longer exists. I got the opportunity to sit across from three writers, or three writing teams, who had come in to pitch their version of it. And they were all fantastic. And I would have loved to have hired all three of them. We hired none of them because it never existed as a project.
But it was fascinating to see the different ways they were approaching the same material and the different ways they were approaching the process of pitching. And some of them were – they were all writing teams, so in some cases one person just did all the pitching and then the other person would come in for the questions and stuff.
Other times you could see it was a much rehearsed, like they’d worked through the whole thing. It was all a bit. It was funny along the way. Other times it’s just like one guy reads a paragraph, the other guy reads a paragraph. They can all work. The last one was probably the hardest to get through.
Craig: That’s a little rough.
John: But I will say that the ones that stuck with me most was not a person reading off a piece of paper. Because I can read. I don’t need you to read something to me. I need to see you describe it to me. And I need to see what your vision for this really is. And that’s especially important in television where they are making a long-term contract with you to be creating this show, running this show, to be there when everything goes horrible. So they need to see in your eyes that you really do have a vision for how this is going to work.
Craig: Such a great point. Because in features, in the back of their minds they’re always thinking, “Well, it’s a great idea. Let’s just—“
John: “Who could I have write that?”
Craig: Yeah. “You know what? Let’s pay this dude whatever we got to pay him, and then let’s bring her in because she’s great and we’ll pay her a lot. And she’s really going to write it.”
You can’t do that in television. I mean it’s theoretically possible. Occasionally it happens. But by and large they’re trying to avoid that.
So you’re absolutely right. For television they really are looking for long-term partners. I can only imagine they respond much more readily to confidence than to sweatiness. When you sound desperate, feel desperate, seem desperate, you are just immediately less attractive. There’s just no way around it. As an employee. There’s just no way around it. I’m not even sure that’s fair, because I think that a lot of people are not confident in that situation. But then would be remarkably confident in the room. And hopefully you have somebody on the other side of the table who can price that in. But generally speaking if you can be confident and most importantly if you can seem alive and interested.
Craig: Then I think there’s something to hold onto. You want to be near people who have that positive passion.
John: Definitely. So a thing I think we should stress is that if you’re being invited in to pitch to the network, to pitch to the studio, you’re probably not a brand new writer. You’re probably a writer who has some credit under your belt. Either you were staffed on a TV show or there’s some other reason why you’re interesting or notable.
But that reason could be something really small or recent. So like when I came in to do my first TV show, D.C., my first feature Go had shot but hadn’t come out yet. I was newly hot. And so they were excited to meet with me because they liked my writing, they thought I was going to be a pretty big deal. And so I was able to convince them and convey that I’m the person who could do this show. But I was also coming in with an established producer who they had as a fallback. So they could look at my eyes and see the passion. They could look in his eyes and see that he can at least get a show on the air. And that was the combo.
So, it may seem like we’re pitching this pitching topic to the folks who are already staff writers on something or who are moving up the food chain, or the feature writers who are switching over to TV. But I really do think it’s not that far in the future for really anybody as a writer.
Craig: I agree. I mean, sooner or later, right?
John: Sooner or later.
Craig: I think everybody is going to be in a situation where they’re pitching something and they have nothing going for them. It may not be in TV, it may be in features, but I mean you and I both had those experiences. Every writer has that experience at least once.
John: Yep. The Duffer Brothers were just brothers at one point.
Craig: They were just brothers. [laughs]
John: The Duffer Brothers.
Craig: That’s right. And I remember those days and I remember understanding, OK, so I’m being brought in as a widget. They don’t know who I am. Their expectations are incredibly low. Every other widget is a certain kind of widget. I’m going to surprise them. I’m going to be memorable. I’m going to be smart and I’m going to be passionate. I’m going to get myself out of widget category. Sometimes you can. Sometimes – I remember very early on in my career I was pitching something — I won’t say who the executive is. I don’t think he’s in the business anymore.
And he just looked so bored. And so I just stopped and I said, “You know what? I’m boring you. I don’t want to bore you. Let’s just wrap it up. Let’s wrap it up.”
And he’s like, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You weren’t boring me. You weren’t boring me.”
I’m like, “It’s OK. It’s OK.”
And he goes, “Oh, you know, I’m tired.” And he had some excuses, but I got out of there. Because–
John: I’ve gotten out of that room, too. And I wasn’t so forthright to say like, “Oh, I’m boring you. This is done.” But you’ve ripped cords in your pitch. And we’re going to jump through and now we’re done. Clearly it’s just not going to connect.
Craig: Let’s just get to the end here as fast as we can.
Craig: For those of you who are yet to do this, to have this experience, there are some bad pitches in your future. And nobody – nobody – manages to avoid them. At some point they will happen. Generally speaking part of the problem is, aside from the fact that you are new, because you’re new you’re pitching to people who are also either new or even worse not new but just slowly sliding down the ladder of Hollywood.
Craig: It’s the worst. Just the worst. And those are just awful because now everyone seems desperate. It’s like, “Oh my god, Willy Loman has come in to pitch Willy Loman.” Ugh.
John: [laughs] Yeah, both of you are just thinking let’s make this work. We could rub some nickels together.
Craig: Right. Everyone is just pathetic. It’s just like Jack Lemmon from Glengarry Glen Ross and Willy Loman. It’s the worst. And everyone is sweaty and sad and you didn’t even know what’s going on, or why. They’re coming. You can’t avoid them.
John: Yep. It’s gonna happen. All right, let’s do our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is super simple. It is a hair brush that was recommended on Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools, which is another thing you should check out because it’s a really good blog. I’ll put a link to that.
But my daughter has long straight hair and it is just a disaster to try to get a hairbrush through it some mornings. And so I’m usually the person who has to do that and I get sort of elbowed for hurting her.
Craig: Ah yes.
John: This hairbrush is really good. It’s called the Tangle Teezer. It sort of looks more like something you’d use to brush a horse. It has these really thin plastic things and you think, well, this wouldn’t work. But it works remarkably well. So you just go zip-zip-zip and it’s just a great piece of technology in plastic form. So I would recommend if you have long hair or hair that is difficult to brush with normal brushes, I’d say check this out because I was skeptical and incredibly impressed.
Craig: Yeah, the stuff that you and I know about hair. Oh boy.
John: Oh my gosh. Yes.
Craig: I’m lucky my daughter has always liked having her hair short. She has very thick hair and very straight hair, but she likes it short and purple. I think it’s currently purple.
Craig: So I don’t have to worry about that. I do recall when she was younger and she had longer hair I remember hearing Melissa and her just having that classic argument. The ow…stop…you’re hurting…you have to…ugh.
See, oh man, your daughter is lucky she has you because if I were her dad she would just go to school with crazy hair. Real simple. Real simple.
I have a One Cool Thing this week that I just started with but I’m so far – so far so good. So far I’m impressed. It’s an app for iPhone and iPad called Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock, which is a bizarrely generic name for what it does.
So, it uses the microphone on your iOS device and it essentially analyzes your sleep and your snoring. And what it’s doing is it’s listening to you and it’s gauging how frequently you’re moving around. So we’ll put the snoring aside, just the moving around. Generally speaking, the deeper our sleep the less we move. The lighter our sleep, the more we kind of turn over or toss or wiggle.
And by listening to it and doing this analysis over a few days it starts to show you, OK, here’s how your sleep cycle is working. And it also will record you if you start to snore. So you can see how frequently you might have snored during the night and how loud it was. And you can play it back.
It’s also pretty smart. It knows to ignore your partner on the other side of the bed. It also knows to ignore kind of steady noise like a white noise machine or a fan. So it’s really looking for changes closer to it. It’s very smart. So far so good. I’m kind of digging it.
Oh, and the other thing it does is after it kind of gets you down, then you say, OK, look, I want to wake up – like I need to wake up tomorrow at 7:30. So you’ll say, OK, I need to wake up around 7:30. And it will say, “OK, we’re going to wake you up between 7:15 and 7:35. And we’re basically going to try and catch you on the upswing towards lighter sleep.” Pretty smart.
John: That’s nice. That’s very smart. So, I’ll check back in in two weeks and see whether you’re still using it.
Craig: Or find that just like, “Oh my god, I’m so tired. This thing is wrong.”
John: It would also be great if it was transmitting all your snoring data to be analyzed by machines or like if you’re talking in your sleep they’re building up evidence against you.
Craig: Yeah, that’s probably what’s happening.
John: That’s probably what’s happening.
Craig: Now that you’ve said it that actually does make the most sense.
John: Yeah. Maybe we could have a podcast that’s just Craig snoring.
Craig: I still wouldn’t listen to it. [laughs]
John: All right. That is our show for this week. It is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Phil Baker.
Craig: Oh, he’s new.
John: If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
We are on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts at Scriptnotes. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there, leave us a review. That helps people find us. Also, if you’re listening on some other platform, there are other platforms, yeah, leave us a review there. That’s always great.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. I’ll also put up the outlines I have for the three TV shows I sold. So, basically I have kind of the pitch document that I went into the room with. It’s not exactly sort of what happens in the room, but it’s a good representation of the things I was talking about.
Craig: That’s good. You know, after Chernobyl airs, so we’re about–
John: [laughs] Three years away.
Craig: Well, a year and a half. About a year and a half away. But once it airs I will put all of that – I’ll put the scripts, the pitch documents, the bible. Everything. I’ll put it all up on your site.
John: Fantastic. You can find the transcripts for this episode and back episodes at johnaugust.com as well. Come join us on Thursday so we can talk to you and Julie Plec and Michael Green and Justin Marks about television and features and other great things. We’ll see you there at the live holiday show. Go to wgafoundation.org to get your tickets.
And if you want any of the back episodes, go to Scriptnotes.net. That is your best source. We also have a few of the USB drives left. They are $30 I want to say. They’re at store.johnaugust.com. They have the first 300 episodes of the program.
Craig: Doesn’t matter to me how much they cost because I don’t get any of the money.
John: You get none of the money Craig.
Craig: Go ahead. Charge $1,000. I don’t care.
John: Absolutely. The more we charge for them, the more we have to pay Megan and Matthew.
Craig: And to steal from me.
John: Yes. That’s the goal. Have a great week.
Craig: You too, John. See you soon.
John: See you, bye.
- Holiday Live Show tickets are available.
- A sexual harrassment resource guide from the WGA.
- The Tangle Teezer hair brush as recommended on Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools
- Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock
- Initial write ups/pitch documents for DC, The Circle (a.k.a. Alaska), and Ops.
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Phil Baker (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.