The original post for this episode can now be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August. And this is Episode 468 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig is gone today, but luckily we get to welcome back our favorite north of the border screenwriter, Ryan Knighton. Ryan, welcome back to the show.
Ryan Knighton: I love that I’m your favorite north of the border. I think Vancouver is basically the northern suburb of Los Angeles at this point.
John: I didn’t want to get too narrow, because I could say like our favorite blind Canadian screenwriter. But really that just becomes insulting at some point.
Ryan: Then they’d be like well which one are you talking about.
John: Yeah. But you proposed – I’m so happy you’re here – because you proposed our main topic for today. So tell us what the question is that you asked that we will try to answer today.
Ryan: Well, the simplest way to put it was my question to you was what goes into the strategy between choosing whether you pitch a project or spec a project. And I know like there’s different conversations probably for whether we’re talking about television or feature, we can get into that. But it kind of came up recently for me, and I think it has for a lot of people, because of the pandemic. You know, the industry has really hit a kind of parenthesis since March and we’re waiting for the other end of that parenthesis.
But it’s made me rethink sort of my assumptions about how to take out a project and how best to put food on the table really in this time. So that’s what I was thinking about, because I don’t want to take anything for granted anymore. I mean, I’ve always assumed I had a certain approach to selling projects and now I don’t know if that’s sort of the right way.
John: Well let’s stay into that today. So that’s going to be our main topic. And so I reached out to a bunch of our Premium subscribers and asked for their questions about this. And so we will talk through your projects, my projects, and their projects to figure out what makes sense to pitch, what makes sense to write yourself, and hopefully figure out for 2020 what is the best approach.
I also want to talk today about the Academy put out new requirements for Best Picture. And there’s also questions about options and lawyers, so we’ll see if we can answer those questions. And then in our bonus segment for Premium members I want to talk to you about how you plan to spend this year training to become an amazing surfer and how you’re going to become a competitive surfer apparently. That’s what you–
Ryan: Critical screenwriting information for everybody.
John: Absolutely. It’s all about Canadian surfing. That’s really what this podcast is about. Hey, so let’s get started with some news. You saw this piece that the Academy is changing the rules for eligibility for Best Picture starting I think in 2023. Did you have an initial take on this? What was your read on these changes?
Ryan: Long overdue. It’s interesting, sort of the criteria that they’re using that there are sort of four categories I believe it is and sort of two of them must be met to be eligible for Best Picture, I looked at it and I thought, well, when you have a logjam sometimes you need a blunt tool. And I don’t necessarily think it’s the most elegant solution to a cultural problem. But sometimes you’ve got to kind of kick at the logjam in a very blunt way to get things moving. And obviously the status quo hasn’t been working. And meritocracy is not an argument when we haven’t seen a lot of change happening.
So, I welcome it. I don’t know what sort of the long view of this is. Because maybe this is what we needed all along. Maybe this is a great solution. But I don’t know, what do you think? Where is your mind at?
John: Let’s try to describe what it is, because it’s actually complicated. So we’ll put a link in the show notes to what the actual criteria are and how you can meet your eligibility requirements. And this is only for Best Picture, not for any other category. But essentially there’s four basic ways in. There’s four tiers that you need to hit. And within those there are specific requirements of things you can do.
So the first one is about the representation onscreen. So these are actors in roles that are being portrayed by historically underrepresented groups, so including different ethnic groups, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people. So that’s one way in.
Ryan: Canadian surfers.
John: Canadian surfers. I was thinking you and me together, you’ve got the gay screenwriter, you’ve got the blind writer. There’s some way to packet us together and we can make a Best Picture.
The second way in is the talent behind the lens. And so these are like you and me writers, directors, casting directors, costumers. So all the people who are not in front of the lens. And so representation among those groups. And that first category is also about the subject matter of the picture itself, and so that can be a fact that pushes you across the line.
Beyond that, you can look at sort of the studio or financier behind it. And so if they have programs that bolster inclusion that is a way to meet that requirement. Or the marketing and publicity engine behind the release of the film, if they have representation that meets certain requirements that can do it.
And so one of the natural first things you think about is like, OK, well there’s certain movies that it’s going to be hard to hit those requirements if it’s just about representation onscreen. So classically like a WWII war movie, it may not be possible to have a lot of different representation onscreen. That’s part of the reason why there’s other ways to sort of hit those requirements.
So, will it work? I don’t know. I think the reality that everyone is frustrated by this announcement probably means that it was pitched just about right in that people feel it doesn’t go far enough or it goes too far. So, in that way it may be sort of that sweet spot of actually making some changes. I think I could imagine that a studio looking at making a picture is going to have to be thoughtful about how they’re going to achieve these requirements and in thinking about how they’re going to achieve these requirements they may make some decisions that will bolster inclusion within the industry. I guess that’s the best case scenario for me of what’s happening here.
Ryan: It seems to me too like it’s a way of encouraging better behavior. Again, it’s sort of a blunt tool, but I think it’s a way of also just creating better habits in the way we think about how we both work behind the camera and in front of the camera and the stories we tell.
I think it’s also, you know, the other thing that kind of gets muted by this is what are we afraid of here by putting something like this in place? It’s not like they’ve put it in place rules that say you can’t make a movie if you don’t have these things. It’s just for the Best Picture nominations. And it’s interesting because I think your movies will change by virtue of the people that you include in all those aspects. I mean, it helps inform story. It helps inform sort of the point of view of the way that story is told. I don’t see a reason to be afraid of that.
John: I don’t really either. And especially in terms of looking at the behind the scenes talent, you might say like, OK, well it’s hard for us to find people that meet these requirements. It’s like well that is actually the problem and actually by incentivizing you to find those people you actually are increasing the supply of those people who you want to see more of in this industry.
Naturally I think everyone looks back at the work they’ve done before and figure out like, oh, which of the movies I’ve worked on would meet these requirements? And so I can’t say exhaustively sort of all the movies I’ve worked on. Some of them would, some of them would not. And you always have to, when you look back, be thinking about, OK, yes, but I was making that movie in 2003 and this is 2020. So I would be making different choices regardless.
So a movie like Big Fish it doesn’t meet some of the requirements in terms of onscreen representation, but I think probably would make different choices that would hit some of those things. Behind the scenes you had me, a gay screenwriter, and a bunch of gay producers. And that would help achieve some of those behind the scenes things. But it also would have come out of Columbia Pictures which would have by its nature had had better representation within those category three and category four requirements.
So I feel like it’s easy to think, oh, well a bunch of those old movies would not qualify. Yes, but if those movies were made today you would be making different choices anyway, so therefore they’re more likely to be qualifying.
Ryan: It’s interesting, too, you know, in terms of my TV experience going back to one of the first writer’s rooms I was in I learned later that even though I’m disabled I didn’t qualify as a diversity hire within that room. So it’s interesting to think like even between TV and film sort of the definitions of diversity are quite different.
John: Yeah. That feels like a big oversight. I hope that is something that everyone is looking at correcting. And we should stipulate that in terms of TV writer’s rooms the studio might have standards for diversity, the Writers Guild might have standards for diversity. There’s not sort of one governing body the way that the Academy is trying to look at diversity in terms of this Best Picture requirement.
So that TV writer’s room you were talking about was for In the Dark, the CW show, right?
John: So tell me about that. That was the first TV show writer’s room you were in and we’ll put a link in the show notes to the episode where you talk about your experience being in that room. And you just went through that room again, right? Because you just finished writing a new season.
Ryan: We just finished season – I just stepped off season three. Yeah. We did one week in the room and then we went remote to Zoom. And I completed my time in the room off Zoom, which was kind of fascinating.
John: Because I know you were in town briefly and then you departed, so I had hoped to see you while you were here in Los Angeles. But what was your experience finishing that season on Zoom? And as a blind writer are there additional challenges being on Zoom, or in a weird way are you used to just sort of being in audio format and just talking it out? What was the experience like for you writing the rest of that season on Zoom?
Ryan: You just hit the nail on the head. You must be a good writer. You immediately imagined my point of view. Yes, it was a lot like my life experience insofar as siting in the room I might as well be on a conference call because I don’t see anything anyway. So, Zoom was sort of – I’ve talked to other people who have done Zoom rooms so far and one of the things I found most people say is they were surprised by the efficiency of it. That it seemed to get rid of a lot of the – you know, nobody wants to stay on Zoom for very long. So, there’s a kind of push to get the work done and there’s a kind of push to be decisive. And I found that part of it kind of fascinating how it really leaned out the way people creatively work together.
And we started back at the beginning of March and to sort of see the tools evolve of finding like, you know, we went for the first while without any sort of shared idea of a whiteboard working in the Zoom environment. And then eventually they came on, I think it was with Miro. We tried Google Docs for a while but it didn’t quite work efficiently with people being on the call.
But I found it was fascinating because my ability to work was not changed very much by it. I still had sort of a shifting sandcastle in my head of what would have been on the board. And I was still just listening to voices in an environment. I’ve heard other people say they find it visually exhausting to be on Zoom when the cameras are on. And I sort of question whether or not you actually need the cameras on in a writer’s room.
By the end I know other writers were telling me from other rooms that they were turning off their cameras. That they were actually turning it into more of a conference call. And they found that that was less exhausting. I don’t know. Not being a sighted person, I don’t know what the experience of that is like. Have you found that?
John: Yeah. Craig and I actually had a discussion about getting notes on Zoom and that we felt like weirdly it was better than being in a room or better than a conference call because it split the difference in terms of being able to be present and make clear that you’re paying attention and also to read people’s reactions and see what else is happening. Because on a conference call it’s never clear whose time it is to speak. It’s just challenging that way. And so having the visual information was helpful for us.
But I also suspect that for you having navigated as a non-sighted person for so many years you have a better sense of these cues. You can keep people’s voices straight a little better than other people could. And so that may be an advantage you have when it’s just an audio environment.
Ryan: Well, one thing I did notice is that the shift away from the central power of the whiteboard for a while was kind of fascinating. Because everybody was working more in a verbal environment. We still would have things like Google Docs and stuff to refer to, but I found when everybody had to move into sort of storytelling mode basically you couldn’t just look at the board and be comforted by all the writing on the board telling you that you’ve done lots of work and there was an episode in there somewhere. Because we had to keep telling acts or beats I found that the diagnostic of whether story was working was a lot different. Because when it comes out of your mouths you can tell when a story flags in a way that you don’t necessarily feel by just looking at a whiteboard and seeing a list of beats.
So, I think the empowerment of just verbal storytelling by the Zoom environment has been kind of an interesting change in the way a room is calibrated and sort of how we process the story that we’re working on.
John: Now in a previous episode where we talked about your experience in the room you said how important it was to be able to read the notes of the room, to read what the writers’ assistants were typing up so you could keep up to speed with stuff. And so sometimes during breaks you’d have them send you the document so you could read it on your phone and catch up on where stuff was at. How did that change and how did your experience of working with the text change when it became a Zoom situation?
Ryan: It pretty much stayed the same. We still had assistants on there taking notes. And at the end of the day we’d get the notes and you could read them at night and be prepared for what you were going to pitch the next day. So I didn’t find it changed very much.
I think the one thing I found really missing was there’s sort of less of a sense in a room, I don’t know if you know what I mean, but if you have 12 people in a room not everybody is looking at you at the same time. And so that sense that you could look away and sort of disappear into your mind for a while was a little different because in the Zoom environment there’d be a sense of like is that person even paying attention. Are they here? Because you’re looking at all 12 faces apparently and not everybody looks as engaged in that moment.
So there’s something about a peculiar anonymity in a room that gets lost once and a while by being in a gallery view. And I found that kind of fascinating.
John: In a writer’s room classically you are – attention is focused on the board at the front of the room and that is the source of everything. So without having a single source of focus and sort of a source of truth it is just that conversation. And it is just about you’re only looking at faces. And in real life you can’t look at 12 people’s faces all at the same time. That’s just not possible. And in the gallery view you can. So, it does – yeah, it definitely changes things.
You wrote this season, has any of it started shooting yet?
Ryan: No. I believe right now it looks like production will begin in October in Toronto. You know, all things hopefully going forward. But, you know, the west is on fire. So, who knows what’s going to happen in the interim.
John: Yeah. I realize we haven’t actually described to the listeners where you are right now. So tell us where do we find you as we record this episode?
Ryan: I am up in a place called Ucluelet which is a small fishing village on the west coast of Vancouver Island. So we’ve been here for the last six months and we decided to stay here. So my daughter just enrolled at the high school here for her first day of grade eight. And we are just on a little cedar forest on the edge of the ocean here. There’s only about 1,500 people in the village.
It’s funny because right now looking at the world, I mean there’s smoke up here coming up from the coast, too. I kind of feel like we hid up in the corner and there’s nowhere left to move everybody. We’ve retreated as far as there is left without stepping into the ocean and swimming to Japan. So that’s where it finds me right now. We’re out of the city.
John: So my perception of it is that it’s romantic and isolated. How accurate is that? And to what degree do you feel like this is the zombie pandemic that you have found the place of safety or that you are trapped up there and vulnerable?
Ryan: A place of safety. Ucluelet actually translates into a place of safe harbor. That’s what it means.
John: Oh wow.
Ryan: So, it definitely feels that way. And I’m very fortunate that way. But I think like other pp – I don’t know if you’ve heard this from others, but I know a lot of people now that are rethinking the necessity of living in the urban centers right now because everything has gone remote and proving to be done remote. And that change of cost is a huge factor for people. The expense of living in a city. When a city is a technology for me insofar as a city is what allows me to be a very functional, independent blind person. It’s a soft technology.
And everything is built at the school of a human foot. I can walk around. Public transit. All those things. And it’s fascinating right now how the pandemic has basically shutdown what a city is for me. I can’t safely move around it. I can’t socially distance from anybody without them doing it for me. I don’t know you’re coming. And so even just taking out the trash in my city place, I walk to the alley and bumped into two people. And I’m like did I get COVID? No.
So it just didn’t feel like a viable place for me to live right now. But I think other writers I know are kind of rethinking the city right now because it’s not on tap what it normally is. And I do find being away there is an anxiety that you feel the industry is carrying on without you. There isn’t that sense of where everybody is and everybody moving around and seeing each other and going to those general meetings and going to the studio lots. All that has really stopped and there’s a sense like is there even work going on out there? Have I just dropped off the radar? I think that anxiety is prevalent.
John: I think that anxiety is understandable and real. I will tell you that you’re not missing anything. The work is still happening. And the meetings are still happening, but they’re all happening on Zoom. And so many of the meetings that I’ve had over the last six months people would have no idea where I am. I could have been anywhere and it really wouldn’t matter.
And some of the projects I’m working on have teams that are in Argentina and France and other places because you might as well. Some things have become possible that would have been much more challenging in a pre-pandemic world. So that is definitely a thing.
Ryan: Do you think Zoom will persist after this historical moment as a really substantial part of our job?
John: Yes. I do think it will. I think there’s kind of no going back on some of it. I think there will still be in person meetings. I think writer’s rooms will split their time probably between Zoom and being in person. I hear enough from other TV writers who miss the experience of being together that they want some together time. There’s some things that are easier to do. But other stuff which was always done in person people are recognizing oh you know what I didn’t actually have to drive across town to do it.
I was talking with a friend who is producing a movie and she’s going through the edit right now. And you have to have fast Internet but she’s basically sitting “next” to her editor and supervising these cuts but she’s doing it from her house. And so that kind of stuff which was almost possible became possible during the pandemic and people realized like oh maybe we didn’t actually physically need to be there for certain things.
The inevitable question though which actually is a pretty good segue into our main topic is to what degree do you need to be going to somebody to pitch them an idea, or is it all going to happen on Zoom? What is the nature of work in the sense of like this is a thing that I need to write entirely by myself and then send to somebody, or can I just get on Zoom and pitch them the idea and convince them that this is the thing that they should hire me to do?
Ryan: Yeah. Or is there a sense that everything is really on a pause button, so spec your brains out? You might as well.
John: That’s an absolutely 100 percent valid way of thinking about it as well. As writers it doesn’t feel like we’re quite on a pause yet. But that may be coming. And there’s I think a natural question about all this writing happened while production was shut down. Once production starts again will we still do all the writing, or will we just pause the writing and shoot everything that we’ve written?
If this was ten years ago before streamers, before there was such a demand for so many shows, definitely writing would stop. Now I’m not so sure it’s going to stop. I think there’s a good chance it just keeps going at this rate because there’s so much stuff that these streamers want and need.
We used to think about time needed to be filled, but there’s vast servers that have to be filled with content. And I wonder if we’re just going to need to keep writing that stuff.
Ryan: And having said that, though, are the studios and the networks and the streamers, both feature and TV, are they spending money on writing like they were before? Even though there is that need. Or are they looking around and saying, “You know what? We don’t need to do as much development as we did before.”
John: What I sense is that they’re doing less development in the sense of like the classic thing where we’re going to shoot 30 pilots and pick five things up for series. I think they’re just making the choice about, OK, we’re going to hire someone to write a pilot. Off that pilot we’re going to write eight episodes and shoot eight episodes. I feel like there’s a lot more direct to series kind of orders happening than the classic shoot the pilots. But we’ll see if that’s the right choice or if that really holds up.
All right, let’s get to our main topic here. So this was your initial dilemma and question about pitching versus speccing. We should start by even defining our terms. So, Ryan Knighton, help us understand the difference between pitching a project and speccing it, or writing it yourself. What do you mean?
Ryan: Well, by pitching I mean the idea that you develop a take on something and you set up those meetings maybe through your team and you go out and you try and persuade either a studio or a network, depending if it’s TV or features, to pay you to write that idea out. So, pitching for me has always been the idea of you’re investing time in trying to persuade someone to pay you for writing what you would like to do. And there’s advantages to doing that, both financially and for the business side. And creatively there’s some advantages, too.
And then as far as speccing, speccing is the reverse order where you put in the time and you do the writing yourself. You write the project, then you take it out and try and persuade a studio or a network to pay you for the work you have done already. And there’s advantages to that, too. But the difference, you take on more risk, but then you might get rewarded more for the risk that you’ve taken on.
So, they are two different approaches really to the business of selling the work that you do. But also to how you creatively actually do the work. They’re quite different.
John: Now, when I was first entering the film industry in the ‘90s there were spec sales. And so people would write these spec scripts, these spec feature scripts, and sell them for $1 million. Friends of mine sold a script while they were in film school with me for a big chunk of change and it was really exciting. And that stuff did happen. It felt like sort of lottery tickets. People would write spec scripts with the intention of selling them. And that was very much a feature thing for a while, but then people started writing spec TV scripts which is confusing. So we need to separate our terms here.
There’s what’s called a spec where you’re writing an episode of an existing show just as a writing sample. But there’s also writing something that you intend to sell. You’ve written the finished script and you’re intending to sell that. So when we say speccing we’re really talking now about writing a script all by yourself that you then intend to take out and show people and they say, “This is phenomenal. We want to buy that.”
Every writer is making a choice of do I write the whole thing myself and see what happens, or do I develop the idea and then go and take a bunch of meetings with people and try and convince them to pay me to write this project.
John: So, let’s talk about the advantages of speccing a project. What are some things you see as an advantage to you have this idea. It’s like, you know what, I’m just going to write it myself. What would make you decide to do that?
Ryan: Well I think there’s a few reasons that I can imagine. And I’m sure you can fill out more. But I mean the first one is creative control. There’s sort of an idea here that it’s difficult in words in a meeting to get them to see the picture that’s in your head. And sometimes a pitch lives or dies on your ability to do that. And sometimes it feels like, you know what, the best way to do this is for me to just write it so you can see for yourself what this thing is. The tone of it, for example, is often a hard thing to communicate in a pitch.
Ryan: And so if you just do it it does a lot of that heavy lifting for you. The other thing being that you get that first run at a story without any interference. It’s you alone sitting beside the washing machine in your house writing this thing out with nobody else telling you, “I don’t know if we can cast that, or I don’t know those locations would work.” You just get the pure experience of getting this story out nose to tail.
And there’s a lot to be said for breaking the back of a story that way. So that’s speccing for me. What about you?
John: I would say the other big advantage you have is that you end up – at the end of the process you have a script. You actually have a thing. You’ve written this thing and it’s a thing you can use as a writing sample even if you don’t sell it. People can read this and say, “Oh, this is a really good writer.” So you end up with a finished product. And there’s a lot to be said for that. And there’s a reason why as writers are starting they’re just going to write specs because they actually have to prove that they can write. You’re not going to be able to sort of be a person who has never written anything and sell an idea. That’s just not going to happen. So you get to show what you can do. And so speccing is a chance to do that.
It’s 100 percent you yourself working through this thing and it’s completely your vision and you end up with a finished product when you’re done with this that you can actually take out in the world or decide not to take out in the world. You have total control over everything.
Ryan: Correct. You know, and I think what’s interesting in that, too, is you’re pointing out that your relationship to speccing may change over your career. You know, in many respects to start a career in this industry you have to spec. You have to show you can do this work before anybody will pay you to make the next thing necessarily. So, it might be more incumbent on you at the beginning, but as you develop your career you might do less and less of that. Unless what you try to take back is more control over your material by having that time beside your washing machine, right.
John: So, let’s talk through the advantages of pitching a project rather than writing it yourself.
Ryan: Well, for me one of the advantages of it, and I’ll be honest, I specced my first script and that was 10 years ago and I have never specced anything since. I’ve only ever pitched. And in part that’s just been a choice I’ve made in terms of what I feel is the best way to earn a living for me. And, you know, sometimes for pitching the advantages are particularly if you feel you’ve got the skillset to persuade people in a room to see something with you and to get excited about it and want to buy into it at the ground floor. And that’s one thing. I mean, it’s a different skillset to pitch something than to spec something in many respects because you are trying to bring people onboard to something you haven’t done yet.
Ryan: And one of the things I find is an advantage of it though is that if people do get excited with you they bought it very early at the DNA and it helps see it through, I think, further. Because everybody was there from the green light. What do you think?
John: One of the other big advantages is potentially it’s a lot less time. So, the 12, 20 weeks you would spend writing that script is compressed down to the three or four weeks it took to figure out the take and actually go out and pitch the project. And so if you don’t find a buyer for it you’ve not wasted half your year writing this script. And so if no one wants this idea it becomes clear like, OK, you writing that script probably would not have been a good choice. And so you can come out with multiple pitches at the same time, too.
So, there’s good reasons to consider pitching. A lot of what I would say, you talk about buy in, and it’s also just the fact that they are paying you money. It’s much more sustainable. Like you, I’ve not written a ton of specs over the years and we’ll get into which of my projects have been specs versus pitches, but mostly if I have a good idea I will pitch it to someone who I feel is the right person to become a partner on this project and we’ll move forward, rather than writing a whole thing myself.
Ryan: One of the things I’ve thought about, too, is just that when you spec something, and this is one of the reasons I’ve shied from it, you’re also giving people more reasons to say no ironically. That is you’ve cut this thing from whole cloth. They read it. They either love it or hate it because they don’t want to spend a lot of time making a choice about something they didn’t ask for.
And so the danger is you can have somebody read and say, “No, just not for me.” But maybe if they’d heard it as a pitch and helped develop the idea with you and felt some ownership of what’s in it they would have a different relationship to the material. So, whereas on the other hand you can spec something and just knock people’s socks off and then you get rewarded handsomely like they did in the ‘90s and it put you in a time machine and you get to go back to the Sundance heyday.
John: Yeah. Back then. So, I want to talk through projects I’ve worked on, which have been specs and which ones have been pitches. And I think the decision of what I chose to spec versus pitching may be informative as we get to some listener questions. So the first specs I wrote, my very first script was called Here and Now. It was a romantic tragedy in Boulder, Colorado. It was just the first thing I ever wrote. And so it became a writing sample. It was not a pitchable idea. It really wasn’t a very good story in many ways. But it showed that I could actually write scenes and dialogue and characters.
Ryan: Can I ask what do you mean it’s not a pitchable idea?
John: It was very low concept. I think we should actually focus on this for a second. It’s like which ideas are pitchable and which are not pitchable. A pitchable idea has a concept that you can grasp that you can see like I can understand what that movie is even if it weren’t executed perfectly. And so we talk about something being execution-dependent, like OK it has to be done exactly right for it to make any sense. You really have to read it to understand how it’s going to work. Versus an idea that you can sort of quickly summarize.
The things I sold as pitches, DC was a pitch, and so it was the first TV show I ever did. It was seven young people living in a house in DC, sort of their first year after college. It’s kind of a post-Felicity show. That was pretty easy for me to sell as a pitch because people understand it’s like Felicity but after college. It’s about Washington, DC. People could read my samples and know that he can write those kind of characters. That’s a thing I sell as a pitch.
Something like Go would have been impossible to pitch because there’s not a clear – I had to write that as a spec because it wasn’t clear how this was all going to work, or that I could even do it. And so the same reason why it was hard to write a log line for Go, it would be very hard to pitch Go as a movie.
Ryan: I think that’s key to this. I mean, pitching you know you’ve got pitchable material when part of what persuades people is just the potential that they can see in it. A lot of it is about the gesture. As soon as you say it’s a kind of Felicity version of DC, the post-college grads in Washington, immediately I can feel 20 stories brewing in my head around that sandbox. And that’s part of what makes something very pitchable is that part of the persuasion is just the potential that the people across the table from you immediately see in what you’re saying.
John: Now, so I’ve mostly been working on assignments which are kind of like pitches but you’re pitching to get the job, but the things I have written as specs were because they were so execution-dependent that it would have been very difficult to convince somebody like, oh, this is something you should take a flier on and pay me to write. So the way that you and I met was my script for The Shadows which I wrote as a spec has a blind teenage protagonist and is very challenging in lots of ways. That needed to be a spec. I don’t think it would have made sense as a pitch. Would you agree with that?
Ryan: I agree. Because again the high concept element of it is just not there. And you’re right, I can feel as soon as you pitch it there’s a blind protagonist who goes through the – I don’t want to give away your story – but what she goes through is not necessarily going to compress into a logline that easily.
And I think the other challenge you can hit with something that doesn’t necessarily – or the other challenge you hit with something that feels pitchable is sometimes the challenge is that you are pitching something that there are other things in the marketplace right now or that just came out onscreen in the last few years that didn’t do well but they immediately see as a comparison.
So you might have a really high concept pitchable thing, but they will say things like, “Oh, nobody wants a western right now.” And it kills it right there on the spot.
And then that becomes now an execution-dependent high concept pitch, right?
John: All right, so in order to talk through what ideas are good for pitching and what ideas are better for speccing, we wanted some actual real examples, so I emailed out to all of our Premium listeners to say, hey, if you have a project you’re thinking about writing and you’re trying to decide whether to spec it or to pitch it send in a description of it and we will talk through and try to give you our advice for whether that’s an idea you should pitch or an idea you should spec.
Now, one thing to stipulate at the top of this is that in many cases our listeners are aspiring writers who don’t have credits or don’t have other things that they can sort of show how good their work is. And so in many of these cases you have to spec it just because there’s no one for you to pitch to. But we’ll also take a look at these ideas if Ryan or Craig or I were trying to write them what our decision process would be with that kind of idea.
Ryan: By the way, if any network is listening to this and they hear a game show in this, Pitch or Spec, we’ve got it. We’ve got this thing down now.
John: All right. Let’s take a listen to our first person who is Heidi.
Heidi Lauren: This is Heidi Lauren from Vermont. I’m working on a limited series adaptation of an historical fiction novel that was a book club darling back in 2006. I’ve already optioned it with the author and written the outline and treatment. Should I keep writing or try and find it a home first?
John: All right, so Ryan, historical fiction and it’s a book that she now has the option on. In her situation it sounds like she doesn’t have other credits, what do you think her next step is?
Ryan: That’s a hard one for me because the key word in there for me was that it was a book club success book. Like it actually has some heft to its audience already built into it. That makes me feel like it’s pitchable right there. However, as soon as you say historical fiction blah-blah-blah I am like, oh, that feels speccy to me. So I’m on the fence. Because there’s sort of two elements that are in contradiction there for me.
John: Yeah. The other contradiction for me is that she has an option on it. So, let’s say she writes this spec script and she’s not able to sell it right away, she kind of loses control over things. At some point the underlying rights are going to go away, so she’ll have this script that she can’t sell. And then there’s the book which someone else could buy. So she could have this orphaned script that she can’t do anything with. Still, a writing sample, but it’s frustrating on that level.
If Heidi were to pitch it to somebody I would say she would need to approach producers and financiers who are the right kind of people to make this movie who have made things like this who might be interested in doing this. And try to set it up that way where they’re basically buying both your option and they’re hiring you to write the script. Because that’s going to be the right home for it.
Whether it makes sense to spend months chasing down those people or just writing the script that’s ultimately going to be your choice. It sounds like you really want to write this thing, so I don’t want to stop you from writing this thing by scaring you that at some point you could lose control over the underlying source material.
Ryan: I guess now that I’m thinking about it and hearing you I would say if Heidi has a really good sample and then she has the option on this and she’s got – it sounds like she’s got the material to pitch it ready to go. I would lean towards pitching then. But I think the key element for me would be whether or not the sample that she has could really push it over the line for other people and say, oh yeah, this is the right writer for this material.
John: Yeah. All right, let’s listen to – here’s Niko.
Niko: Hi John and Craig. My name is Niko. And I’m a beginning writer who just moved out to Los Angeles about a month and a half ago. You’ve inspired me to take a big risk and take a jump in my life. And so far it’s been paying off. I got a question in particular about this idea I’ve had in my head about a Weezer miniseries. The story revolves around singer-songwriter Rivers Cuomo who already achieved international fame but returned to college at Harvard after he wanted to finish his education. I thought he premise would be interesting where you’d have the two worlds of being a rock star and still being confined to a 100-square-foot dorm room. Just wondering if that would work better as a pitch or a spec script. Thank you very much.
John: Ryan, so what’s the right choice for a Weezer miniseries?
John: I think it’s totally a spec. Spec, spec, spec, spec, spec. So, a couple things for Niko here. As Craig has made clear on the show you are allowed to write about real life and real life is up for grabs, but Rivers Cuomo is going to have some control over his life story. There’s going to be complications in making this thing. And so you might say like, oh, then you should pitch it so you don’t run into that. No, you should spec this because I think it’s actually a really interesting idea. It’s the kind of thing that if it gets traction, it gets on the Black List, people dig it. If it’s a fun idea it’s a sample.
I think you have to approach this as you are writing this as a sample that will get you hired onto work on a TV show or do other things. I think it’s a good idea, but I think it’s essentially a spec. You’re writing this as a writing sample with the minimal hope that it could become a real series if it catches fire.
Ryan: Correct. I totally agree. And also because really the selling point of this in a pitch is the name Weezer. It’s the band. It’s Rivers Cuomo. And that like you say is going to become complicated with life rights and other things.
If you take that element out of it and you made it a fictional story it actually becomes less compelling because it’s a rock star goes back to school, which could work. But you see sort of the sharp edge of the sell there has been blunted.
John: So, let’s imagine that Niko has some good samples, maybe even something that’s – maybe he’s been hired to do some stuff. And he actually has a relationship with Rivers Cuomo. That’s a situation which I think you could actually pitch. And so I can see you going into Seth Rogan’s production company saying like, hey, I have this idea for a thing and Rivers is signed off on it. Isn’t this a cool idea? Then, yeah, that’s a totally pitchable idea. But without those elements I think it is a much better thing for you to be speccing.
Ryan: Exactly. And if he had Rivers Cuomo sitting beside him I would say do not spec this. I would say pitch, pitch, pitch.
John: Yeah. 100 percent. Next up.
Adam Kanter: Hey John and Craig. My name is Adam S. Kanter. I’m a new screenwriter originally from Eastern Massachusetts and have lived in Los Angeles for about 2.5 years now. I would love to get your pitch it vs. write it take on a drama feature I’ve been developing that is a modern take on the idiom “don’t meet your heroes.” The movie is about a troubled teen whose longtime childhood idol is publically outed as a complete monster for to be determined reasons. The main plot of the film would show this teen’s struggle to fill their role model void at a critical moment in their pre-adult development while they themselves inadvertently begin filling that very role for the at risk youth that they work with. Really excited to hear your thoughts on this. Thank you both so, so much.
John: All right, so Adam, you introduce yourself as Adam S. Kanter. You’re going to need that S throughout your whole career because there’s already an agent named Adam Kanter. So that’s challenging. There’s also an actor named Adam Kantor, so that S is going to be part of your life.
To me this feels like it has to be a spec because it’s incredibly execution-dependent. Based on what you described and like, oh OK, so he works with troubled at risk youth. There’s this teen idol. There’s so many very specific things that have to work just right. I don’t envision this being a good pitch. Ryan, what are you hearing?
Ryan: I agree. I agree. I mean, even when you heard Adam describing the story the logline extended and extended which is an indication that it’s execution-dependent right there. And also some of the details were still a little fudgy. And it doesn’t feel like it’s in a state where Adam actually knows the story well enough to pitch it yet in any case. And sometimes speccing is a way to actually do that thinking for yourself and figure it out with some trial and error.
But I agree. I agree. It feels very execution-dependent even in the way it was described.
John: Great. Next up.
Tiffany: Hi John and Craig. My name is Tiffany and my idea is a series called The Unknowables. It’s graduation day at a tiny liberal arts college. And five kids who no one has ever seen before show up in their caps and gowns. This is the story of their college experience. As for me, I’m just starting out. I live in the suburbs about a half an hour out of LA, but I have no credits and I know pretty much nobody. Looking forward to your advice. Thanks.
John: What you thinking?
Ryan: I’m thinking it’s close to a pitch.
John: Yeah. I’m not clear on the tone. So from that title The Unknowables is there a magical thing happening here? Is there some sort of sci-fi twist to this? Or are they just people who flew under the radar? So if it’s just they flew under the radar and that it’s kind of like a Freaks and Geeks situation it’s tough. I feel like that’s really execution-dependent. Unless you had samples that I read that people were breaking down the door to work with you, I think that that’s tough.
But there’s a high enough concept, like that first line of people show up and no one at graduation has any idea who are they or who they were. That’s compelling. That’s a good hook. And that’s the kind of thing that feels like you could pitch a story that gets us there.
Ryan: I totally agree. And I think it just depends on what the next sentence is. Which is because they are – who are they? Why were they unknown? How did they fly under the radar and just show up? The answer to that question is going to decide if this is pitchable or specable. Because it almost feels like it has, like you say, like tonally it feels like it’s leaning towards something that has the J.J. Abrams black box.
If it goes that way I would say it’s pitchable. If it’s more just, you know, I teach at a university. And if these are the five students that show up on the last day and they just never showed up during the semester and it’s about these sort of, you know, the Freaks and Geeks like you say, then yeah, it’s probably a spec.
John: All right. Next up.
John from London: Hey John and Craig. John here from London. So I have a book. I don’t own the rights. A freelance producer brought it to me and introduced me to the author. She was trying to set the project up with production companies here in the UK. She left the project as another show of hers took off. The rights are still available and I kept in touch with the author. It’s a limited series, black dramedy set in an urban UK city about a central character, an artist, on the brink of madness who meets his dead hero on the streets of said city. It’s a story about mental illness, but I guess that’s it.
It’s a difficult one to pitch, especially as a new writer. I’ve got work in development with various UK production companies. I’ve worked in a room on the fifth season of a big UK-US show this year, my first room. But that’s it so far.
I love this book. It would make an amazing limited series. Do I spec it at risk? My inclination is yes [unintelligible] a sale on it. I don’t think anyone else is [pinching] the rights any time soon. It’s not a well-known book. Anyways, thanks. Love, love the podcast. It’s been so much help over the years. Oh, PS, no, I’m not telling you guys the name of the book. Obviously I’m worried you’ll pinch it for yourselves.
John: Oh well, John, come on. I mean, Ryan Knighton might steal. He’s a notorious larcenist.
Ryan: I have to say right away though, you know, outside my window apparently are a bunch of cedar trees that my wife looks at. I would like John to be outside the other window for me. And I would just like him to narrate my life as I’m doing it. Ryan is currently making coffee. He just chilled me right out. John, keep talking.
John: My advice for John from London is to not write this or pitch this. I think he needs to find a different project. Because I just see this ending in tears, to me. And I can’t even quite articulate why I feel this way. But I just remember having projects that were kind of like this early in my career where I kept trying to sort of set up this un-setup-able book, or work on this thing that I didn’t really own. And I should have been focused on writing my own stuff.
Ryan, I’m curious what your instincts are.
Ryan: That’s fascinating you say that. My take is just slightly different. I know what you mean. I’m a little worried because even in telling us about the book you could feel John sort of just crumple at the end like I just – I love this book so much and I know it would be so great. And already feeling like he’s having trouble telling me why. And in that case that means it’s not really pitchable. The hook there was not necessarily a high concept one. The book clearly means a lot to him and I think that’s worth something. And maybe that is something you want to put your time into to spec because you love it so much. And it might be the kind of project where you just have to write it out to show somebody why you love it so much. That would be the perfect of speccing it. I’m going to write this out and you will see why I love it so much when you read my pages.
Having said that I agree with you. To be honest my worry is that speccing in TV also just feels like a different risk than speccing in feature. Because when you write a spec script in TV it’s a very simple choice. Are we going to make this pilot or not? There’s not a lot of appetite I think to go in and redevelop a specced TV pilot. Do you agree John?
John: I do. And so one of my previous spec examples, which I didn’t get to, was I wrote a project for Legendary TV. And it was sort of a semi-original idea and they wanted me to write it. So I wrote it and I wrote it for them kind of as a spec, and then we were going to – so they were paying me, but we didn’t have a network or a studio for it. And that was a giant mistake because we talk about buy-in on TV and they want to be part of the process right from the very start. And so since they weren’t part of the process everyone looked at this thing like, “Uh, yeah, we like it but we don’t necessarily really want to make it. It’s not ours.” And it didn’t have their fingerprints all over it. And so classically that’s the reason why you don’t see a lot of spec TV because the development executives and the culture of the home that this project is going to end up at becomes so important.
So, that would be my worry for him speccing this thing. He could come out of this with a terrific sample. And it could be great writing that gets him other work. So that’s definitely a possibility if he were to pursue this. But there’s no guarantees.
Ryan: I think, you know, another thing to remember is that when a producer brings you a book like that you also have to wonder like, OK, so why is this coming to me. Is it because they’ve tried bringing this to a bunch of other places and nobody has cracked it yet? Did anybody sort of look at this and say, “You know, there’s just something here. Hopefully somebody can figure it out for us.” The momentum may not actually be behind the book, even though you feel somebody brought it to you and that feels like momentum.
Sometimes it’s a bit of fishing. We think there’s something here. Do you know what it is? So, I get a little hesitant around that, too.
Ryan: But what you were saying John about pitching versus speccing with television really cuts to the heart of it for me right now. Which is I keep wondering right now if there is going to be more speccing for TV because there’s less development money being spent at the moment. And are we going to change that TV practice a little bit?
John: I think we might. And the way that features and TV are kind of converging because of streamers I think some of the practices we see of these writers going off and writing their own things will become more common. And people will set up limited series that are based on the spec pilot they wrote and that will become the basis of someone doing something.
So I can envision over these next few years a lot more sales happening along that line. Where there is a real crunch, which is worth talking about maybe on a future episode, is if you are a new writer who has written that thing that the sells they’re going to want to marry you with an experienced showrunner who can actually make sure the thing gets shot properly and that the whole thing can come together. There’s a real shortage of those experienced showrunners who people want to hire. And that relationship is difficult. The resource constraints there are real. And in a weird way it’s only exacerbated by the fact that we keep making these short series where no one has enough time to actually learn how to do the job of showrunning. So that’s a real sort of crisis we’re running into.
Ryan: Duly noted.
John: Duly noted. Let’s take a listen to Brendan here.
Branden: Hey Riddler and Robot. I have written for the game industry for nine years and for the past two years have started writing features and TV pilots. The advice I keep getting is flip-flopping on whether to write a spec or not because I’m told I won’t get the chance to pitch ever because I’m “new” to the business. I’ve written three features and three comedy pilots this year and have been told unless I know someone I can’t get a job as a screenwriter. Here are my pitches.
So the feature is a king who falls in love with a male baker during a time of war in this fairy tale romance. And the pilot is two inept local DJs shoot for the stars while bringing everything else down around them.
Since I was told I won’t get the chance to pitch I have written them out completely. Now what? Thank you. I love you guys.
John: All right. So Brendan is hitting the nail on the head here as we said at the start which is that as a new writer who has sort of no connection to anybody it’s tough to find a person you would even pitch to. So you are going to just write these things yourself. But to me both of those concepts are pretty much execution-dependent. The feature idea, which was the king falls in love with a baker, is pretty execution-dependent. It’s high concept enough, but you’re going to want to show that you actually can write this thing. The DJ idea to me, if you had good samples that sort of backed you up and had the right place for it I could see you being able to pitch that as a pilot.
What’s your instinct there?
Ryan: Mine are the same. And I feel for him. I mean, there is that hard thing at the beginning of your career. And I remember going through this where getting in those rooms felt like the difference between the choice in speccing and pitching because it is the difference. And without a team that can get you into a meeting to even try pitching something for the first time. I mean, that’s the other thing. You can pitch something and then it gets shot down. You still have the choice to spec it on the other side.
Ryan: You can still do that. And you can learn a lot from pitching something and have it shot down. It can convince you there’s something there that they’re just not seeing.
Ryan: But without that team putting you in those rooms it’s going to be speccing. And I agree that neither of those quite had the juice for a pitch I think.
John: I want to hear from a college student. So let’s hear from Steffi.
Steffi: Dear John and Craig. Hello. This is Steffi from Houston. I’m a senior in college and only recently distilled my love for screenwriting over the elongated summer. I wrote my first full length. Again, a huge thank you for all of your guidance. And I’m on to my second one which happens to be my senior honors thesis. So, in other words, A, I’m not in a position to be pitching to producers. And, B, I’m writing this thing regardless for a grade, even though in my mind it’s definitely not just for the grade.
So here it is. It’s a feature following the career of an award-winning Panamanian dermatologist and her fraught relationship with her daughter up until the revolution of 1989. Would love to hear your input. Also, feel free to cut out all the above blurb. I wasn’t entirely sure how you were going to use it in the exercise. But regardless thank you and goodbye.
John: All right. I’m excited for Steffi to be writing her script. So obviously she’s going to write it herself because she’s in college. She doesn’t know anybody. There’s no one for her to pitch to. But let’s imagine that you are Aline Brosh McKenna and this is the idea that you have. So Aline could pitch to anybody. Let’s imagine what Aline might do in this situation. Would she spec this or would she pitch it? Ryan, help me figure out what are the deciding factors for an established writer with this idea.
Ryan: Wow. I’m still stuck on the phrase award-winning Panamanian dermatologist.
John: It’s so good.
Ryan: That was the most specific character I think I’ve encountered in a while. I mean, I guess again it depends on the tone. If it’s Aline doing this I would assume it is going to be that amazing Aline tone. And when you paint that over that concept, boy, I’m pretty intrigued. I don’t know. What do you think, John?
John: If this were based on something I feel like the concept is fun enough – I’m assuming this is a comedy. The world is bright enough that I think it’s pitchable, but I think it’s much more pitchable if there were some source material. If there was like a short story or a real life story. Something you could point to underneath that sort of lies underneath this. But as just a pure pitch I think it’s actually pretty challenging even for an Aline to go out and set up. You want to have something – weirdly some base underneath that is why I think writing it as a spec would probably make the most sense.
Ryan: Yeah. I mean, there is something to be said for when you have some kind of IP, even if it’s an article or whatever, it provides a lot of comfort in the room when you’re pitching. Because it’s based on something. It’s already out in the world and people wanted to read about some way. And it sort of gestures to something that’s a little bit more robust than just something that’s inside your head and has been lingering around for a few months.
I can’t stress it enough. It provides a lot of comfort in a room when you’re pitching. Even if it’s a very small piece of IP.
John: Yeah. All right, let’s wrap up with the last one and this is a guy who actually has some credits and is in a little bit different situation than some of our other listeners.
Ryan Roope: Hello John and Craig. So my idea that I’ve toyed with for a couple years now is where an asteroid was set to destroy the earth. Many people quit their jobs. Spend their life savings. Basically get ready for the end of days. But at the last minute the world is saved and now everyone must somehow find a way to get to a sense of normalcy. My current idea has it sent through the perspective of a 20-something couple who got together when the world was supposed to end and must now figure out what continuing on with life not only means for their relationship but what it means in terms of their place in this now rebuilding world.
My credits include the Tom and Jerry Show, the revamp of the classic cartoon. And I’m currently working on a television Christmas feature set to air in France, which happened as randomly as it sounds. Lastly I want to thank you both for the work you do on this podcast. It has helped me immensely. And I only wish there was some way I could return the favor. All the best and many thanks. Ryan.
John: All right. Ryan, what is your advice to Ryan?
Ryan: So we had a John pitching to you. And we’ve had a Ryan pitch to me now. I am sold. I’m sold on it right away. And I think it is a great hook. There was a film in the mid-90s that a friend of mine named Don McKellar had made that was called Last Night. And it was an apocalyptic premise. It’s the end of the world but everybody has known it has been coming for years and years and there’s nothing you can do about it. So it’s just how is everybody going to spend that last night on earth when it’s not new news.
And it opens with this amazing sequence of a family having the last Christmas dinner even though it’s not Christmas and still having the same family fights they always do, even though it’s the last night on earth. And there’s something in that shift of the apocalyptic story to that kind of dark comedy tone that just worked so well. It was such a clean premise. And I hear that in this as well. I love the idea that the world is about to end and then it nimbly pivots. That would be my name if I was a Harry Potter character. I’d be Nimbly Pivots. It nimbly pivots to suddenly it’s not over and then how do we recover when we’ve made all these choices thinking we were in the middle of an ending. I think it’s a great hook. It’s a very high concept hook and I can see the comedy in it.
It’s pitchable because I can feel the potential in it right away and I want to write it.
John: Absolutely. 100 percent a pitchable idea. You have reps apparently because of the work you’ve been doing. They get you in rooms where you pitch this. I think it also feels like an idea that you pitch to an actor’s production company because you can imagine this selling with comedy actor production company – someone who is on board with this from the start.
A thing I should stress is, like you’ve referenced – what was it called Last Night, the Don McKellar movie – but there’s 50 at least scripts out there that have essentially the same basic premise in terms of like the apocalypse didn’t happen and then sort of what happens next. That’s not an original idea. But your ability to pitch the specifics about it are what sets it apart. And that is a thing that makes it sellable. And so your ability to go into a room and sell the characters, sell the world, sell what’s going to happen in the course of yours. It’s not even clear from your thing whether you see this as a feature or an ongoing series about what happens after that. Both work. And so this is a very pitchable idea.
Yes, you could spec it but I don’t think there’s necessarily a reason to spec it. In some ways I think getting it out there as a pitch so that people can have buy-in and have their fingerprints on it from the start makes it more likely to get made. So I think this is a pitch.
Ryan: I think the other thing that’s worth noting, just listening to Ryan pitch that little snippet of what he’s working on and what he’s thinking about, he delivered with a kind of confidence and a control that he knew exactly what this thing was about and what makes it work.
Ryan: And that’s part of what makes it pitchable. And when you compare that to some of the other pitches that we heard, people are still sort of working out what their relationship is to the material and how it might be executed and where it might go. You can still feel that sense that there’s some work to be done in there. But Ryan’s confidence there tells me it’s also pitchable. He knows exactly what this thing is.
Ryan: Would you go TV or feature with it? Which would you go?
John: You can definitely do either. I think if it’s a TV show then it’s a Netflix eight-episode season after season thing. Sort of like a more Dear White People kind of scenario. If it is a feature then it’s just a high concept feature and I think you can do it low fi and sort of low budget-ish, or you can sort of do it slightly bigger, sort of a, again, sort of a Seth Rogan model kind of budget of this and do it as a romantic comedy or a relationship comedy of what happens after that thing. Or a Judd Apatow for that matter.
So, there’s many ways you could do. I think you’d probably try to sell it as a feature first. I think you go feature first. If you can’t find a home for it then you look at a streamer.
Ryan: Oh, see, I’m still your student because I’ve been leaning TV on it. I think there’s a great TV series in it. Because it’s particularly about these ongoing relationships on the other side of this new piece of information and how these relationships evolve and change and have to rethink themselves and so on and so forth. And that feels like the world of television. It’s not building towards a hard ending necessarily like a feature wants.
John: Yeah. The other possibility is that you’re intercutting between post-apocalypse and post-post-apocalypse and the lead up to it, so you sort of contrast expectation and how bad things were going to get and then what the actual reality is. And that is a TV way of doing it. You have the flashbacks to where everyone assumed things were going to get to.
Ryan: This feels like what you and I are doing right now is the feeling you want in a room when you pitch something.
John: That’s exactly right. That’s why it’s a pitchable idea rather than just a spec idea.
John: We in talking through all this stuff we burned through all our time where we would talk about the other questions that came in, which is fine. It’s me and Ryan Knighton talking through pitching and speccing. Let’s wrap this up. What are your takeaways from this and was this illuminating to you at all in terms of your central dilemma about pitching and speccing in this time?
Ryan: It was because it puts me back in touch with the fundamentals. I’ve said over the years that one of the reasons I continue to teach at a university is I like to go in once a year and just teach writing and sort of revisit the things that I think I know. And just to see if they’re still true. And I feel like that’s kind of what I got from this. The principles of pitching and speccing, even in the pandemic, haven’t really changed because it’s still about how to persuade people to get on board with you and what is the right approach for the material in hand.
It might change a little bit I think like we raised that pitching with TV might not become so sacrosanct down the road. Like we might see more speccing in television coming out which is I’m sort of feeling is happening, too.
I think the feature landscape is still pretty consistent in its attitude towards what is pitchable and what is specable.
John: One thing we didn’t bring up in terms of like a decision to spec even if you have credits is that sometimes if you want to really change your perception, how people perceive you, the kinds of things people consider you for, writing a spec is a great way to do that. And so I have friends who have written on procedurals for years and they can hop from another procedural to another procedural, but they will deliberately write an original that is a different tone that gets them considered for different kinds of shows. And the same thing can work for features. So, if you are a person who is only known for writing certain things that can be useful.
Earlier in my career just based on what I had sold, what I’d been hired to write, I was only being offered projects that involved gnomes, elves, dwarves, and Christmas. Family movies were the things people would send me. And so I wrote Go as sort of a, oh by the way, I can also write other things. And so Go was incredibly useful for me to have written as a spec even though it didn’t initially sell because people could see whatever they wanted to see in it. And it got me into rooms where I could pitch on other things. And so one of the reasons why Ryan Knighton might choose to write a spec in this time is if there’s things that he’s not being considered for that he wants to be considered for. It’s a chance to write that different thing that is outside of what is considered his normal wheelhouse.
Ryan: I think that’s a really good point. That even though speccing might be something you do more at the beginning of your career, there’s still a really important function for it in a developing career over the years that you work in the industry. A spec allows you to present yourself differently to people who’ve made a certain opinion of you or out of efficiency think of you a certain way and think of you for certain projects.
I tend to be the person that people think of – if they ever think of me – but they might think of me like I have sort of a disease story, can you make it a bit funnier. You know, the disabled story. That kind of stuff.
But to be honest, the majority of my career over the last ten years has not been that material ironically. But it did take a little bit of convincing that I could write about things other than disability and so on and so forth.
John: I did not give you warning about One Cool Things. Do you have a One Cool Thing that you can share with our listeners?
Ryan: I do. Because I was looking back and the first time I was on the show I recommended Lovage which is an herb basically. I think it’s an herb. And then the second time I recommended an app. So this time I thought well I’m on a podcast. I’m going to recommend a podcast. And the podcast I want to recommend is a podcast called Crackdown. And it is created by Garth Mullins. I know Garth. He lives around the corner from me in Vancouver.
I think it is one of the bravest podcasts I’ve listened to. And I say that with all bias on the table that I admire Garth very much. But it is a podcast about the opioid crisis as told by the frontline drug users in the drug war. So it’s told from the point of view who are being affected. The point of view of people who are being affected by policy decisions. It is told at the street level with people, activists, who are trying to set up safe injection sites for harm reduction. The fights they’re facing with the pharmaceutical industry around the shift from Methadone to Methadose which is a fascinating episode.
The politics. The science. And the just human compassion that is in this podcast is incredible. And it exposes a subculture. I don’t think we should think of it even as a subculture. But it exposes the culture of the lives of people that I just don’t think we’ve heard them tell in their own words before. And it’s just so powerful.
John: That’s awesome. That’s great. So Crackdown is the podcast. Fantastic. My One Cool Thing is an evergreen One Cool Thing. I think every year I’ve used it as one, which is to get your Flu Shot. So the flu shot is now widely available in the US and presumably Canada as well. The flu shot is the vaccine we already have for a disease that is unlikely to kill most of us, but can definitely suck if you get it. Craig got it last year and it was bad. Luckily Tamiflu worked for that, but you know, getting your flu shot is a better choice than having to take Tamiflu.
So, the flu shot. It’s out there. It’s cheap. I got mine at CVS a couple weeks ago. So just get your flu shot. It’s not clear what’s going to happen with the flu this year. And so in Australia which would have had the flu season earlier they basically had no flu, but they were in really tight lockdowns. With us wearing masks and stuff like that it could be a mild flu season anyway, but a flu shot is just an extra little bit of insurance that don’t get the flu which just is terrible to get in any normal year. So, get your flu shot everyone.
Ryan: Yeah. I mean, it’s particularly helpful right now I think because it helps the entire healthcare system not get overloaded by people wondering if they have COVID but they have the flu.
Ryan: So it’s sort of like allowing people to spot COVID in the wild much more clearly if we’re all getting the flu shot.
John: Cool. That’s our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. Edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro is by Lachlan Marks. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust. Remind me, Ryan, what your Twitter handle is.
Ryan: I’m @ryanknighton.com. Oh, not dot.com. That’s so ‘90s. I’m @ryanknighton.
John: So @ryanknighton. We have t-shirts. They’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts.
You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments. And advance warning on things like this segment we did today which we talked through things that our Premium listeners had sent in.
Ryan Knighton, thank you so very much for joining us on the show. Thank you for filling in for Craig who is unexpectedly detained. You are going to stick around and you’re going to tell us about surfing, because I want to know about surfing.
Ryan: I was so happy to do it. I’m sad Sexy Craig wasn’t here. I wanted to have a rivalry with my character, Curiously Appealing Ryan.
Ryan: But that was a very pitchable idea just to hear Craig Mazin was detained. I want to watch that show.
John: That’s what it is. All right. Thanks Ryan.
Ryan: Thank you.
John: Ryan Knighton, so you are going to be spending this year apparently training to become an amazing surfer. Tell us how this starts. Tell us about surfing. Tell us about this whole idea.
Ryan: It’s a ludicrous idea. I know it’s a ludicrous idea. The story is I ended up out here on the coast in this little fishing village, Ucluelet, where my wife and I built a house, and the reason I’m out here is COVID pushed me out here. The city became too dangerous for me to be around. I couldn’t get around without – I don’t want to use public transit right now. I can’t take Ubers and taxis safely. I’m bumping into people.
So we pulled up stakes and moved out here by the ocean. And this place, I discovered it 10 years ago though a friend of mine who is deft surfer. And this is the surfing spot in Canada out here. And we’d gone to university together. His name is Colin Ruloff. He was a pro skateboarder. And we were in university together sharing notes in a philosophy class because I couldn’t see what was on the board and he couldn’t hear what the guy was saying.
So, we shared a brain. We got accused of plagiarism because we were making equal mistakes because were half [unintelligible]. But he kept saying to me you’ve got to try surfing. You’ve got to come out and try surfing. And I kept thinking I can never do that.
Then 10 years ago I decided to do it. I decided to try it with him. And so the deaf guy taught the blind guy how to surf for a day and it worked about as well as you would imagine. It was a lot of me saying where are you and him saying what and me saying where are you.
John: Marco Polo basically.
Ryan: Yeah, Marco Polo. I got it for a couple seconds. And I remember in that few seconds I stood up having this feeling that this was going to be a problem. That it was just going to be a problem. That I felt something I haven’t felt in years which was I was moving quickly without a cane and without anybody guiding me. And it was safe. I mean, when I wipe out I hit water.
So, I started surfing 10 years ago sort of loosely. And then my daughter and I would come out here in the summers and it was like a week a summer, and then it was two weeks, and then it was three weeks. And then I would be pacing in November because it’s going to be a long time until I get to go again. And then this year we ended up here on the coast. I decided I’m going to be here for a year. So I’m just going to throw myself into this completely. And I started doing research. And there is an open adaptive surfing competition every year in San Diego. So I’m going to train for the next year to go into it at the age of 48. And I’m really thinking about middle age and COVID and disability and I’m trying to understand my relationship to all of these things through the lens of surfing over the next year.
And I’m going to write an article about it. I’m talking to an editor friend of mine who used to be at Esquire. I think I’m going to go back to doing that as a feature article for them. If not for Esquire for another magazine. Because again it’s like I want to find something to write right now that’s a little more about self-care. This is about self-care.
So, unless I get killed in a wave. Then it won’t be about self-care. [laughs]
John: So, Ryan, one of the things I like so much about this is that it feels like you’re treating yourself as the protagonist in your own life story. There’s a way in which you are both being internal and external in terms of you’re thinking about Ryan Knighton. And the challenges that you’re encountering in terms of like how your world has changed. So basically the COVID pushing you to the coast, but giving you an opportunity to do this thing that you haven’t done before and really looking at being deliberate in your choices the way we hope that our heroes in our stories are being deliberate in their choices. And recognizing that there are some sacrifices you’re making for that.
And so leaving your home in Vancouver, but also recognizing that your work is going to change. And that it’s going to change some of your family dynamics. And that that’s all OK. But I’m just saying you made a very compelling pitch for this idea. And I think it’s a pitchable idea. I don’t think you necessarily – well, you are essentially speccing it because you are speccing your own life. But I would also buy it as a pitch.
Ryan: You know, it is one of the most generous things that anybody has said to me, the way you just framed that.
John: Well thank you.
Ryan: You know, coming out – like I wrote memoirs and my other career is as a travel writer and as you can imagine that has stopped right now for the past six months. I usually am on a plane every two or three weeks and I haven’t gone anywhere for six months. And it’s put me in a very interesting disorientation.
And I still think about how years ago an editor that I was working with, because I would do all these sort of first person travel stories, and starting to do them of like going around the world. Like if I had to go just smell something what I would go smell. That was sort of my travel angle. Trying to educate my other senses by going and finding those sensory experiences.
And this editor had said to me, “You know, one of the things that’s really important is to live an anecdotally rich life.” And I’ve always used that as the measure for a lot of the projects I do. Like is this going to be anecdotally rich? Am I going to come out of this with a lot of stories? And so treating yourself as a protagonist is a way of doing that. What is the uncomfortable thing to do right now? What is the thing that’s most surprising? What’s the thing I’m afraid of?
Coming out here I am so into the surfing thing right now, but I am so terrified about trying to just get around. I’m living somewhere I’ve never lived before and I haven’t done that in a long, long time.
John: Well I remember as we were first talking about The Shadows you described how important cities were for you and the ability to sort of find edges of things. And so being out in the forest by yourself is incredibly – it’s a scary thing for a blind person because you have no bearings. You have no way to orient yourself. And so that’s why I was surprised to find that you are in the middle of nowhere right now where you kind of can’t help but be more dependent upon other people to do some things that you could have done – you had self-reliance in the city just because you had routines and habits and the way of finding your own way around.
Ryan: Yeah. I mean, you know very well because there’s actually a sequence in your script that very much describes the experience of a blind person in the woods. It’s a very accurate experience. You know, I will be honest I took a page from your playbook. You and Mike and Amy moved to Paris for a year. You uprooted your lives and changed everything for a year. And that was really inspiring to me. Sometimes these moments come and you realize you can, again, it’s my Harry Potter name, you can Nimbly Pivot. And I tried to nimbly pivot because I want stories. And if I find I’m living a life that fills me with stories to tell I find it makes me a better writer.
I find it doesn’t make me as complacent in my thinking about things. And it’s good to be upset in that sense and feeling disoriented. So, I don’t do it lightly. I’m still afraid of the ocean. It’s not a forgiving thing. But I know I’m going to have an interesting year and I know I’m going to walk out of it with a difference sense of myself. And I think that’s important to me right now at this age.
And to be honest I think a lot of people are going through something like this right now. I don’t think I’m alone in looking at the moment historically and saying maybe we could just sort of check in and question the assumptions I’ve made about the way I live and where I live and what I’m doing. Because it can all change so quickly.
John: There’s obviously a big third act set piece here which is the actual competition itself. So you said that’s in San Diego?
Ryan: It is. And I’ve been doing my research and it’s fascinating. There’s a couple guys I read about who were in this competition that are blind. One of them he uses a crash helmet, I believe from like a motorcycle, because it’s got an ear piece. His coach walkie-talkies him from the beach while he’s out on the board. But he’s got a rash guard like mine, completely made separately, that says Caution Blind Surfer. And he’s got bumps on his board which I also have on mine now which help me feel like braille where I am on the board when I’m paddling, so I can position myself.
There’s another guy who actually uses an iPhone. He straps it to his bicep and has the VoiceOver on load. And his coach texts him from the beach so he can hear where to position himself. It’s been fascinating just this, you know, I’m going to do this. I’m going to figure out a way to do this. And then independently people are coming at their own sort of makeshift solutions to adapt. And that’s what this is. It’s called Open Adaptive Surfing. I find it fascinating.
John: I can’t wait to see you do it and to read the article that you write at the end of this, because it’s going to be great. I’m excited for you.
Ryan: I’m excited to do it. And I hope I’m still around in a year to tell you how it went. [laughs]
John: We’ll have you back on the podcast to pitch it.
Ryan: OK, great. Great.
John: Ryan, thank you so much.
Ryan: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
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