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DAN FRENCH has an M.A. in Rhetoric, and a Ph.D. in Media Studies, but don't let that fool you. And he still hasn't mailed us an 8 X 10.

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Dan French
Archived

The original "What Works"
"Tom Kenney"

"Inside the Box, Pt. II"
TV Development


"Whose Line is it Anyway?"
French's gag in a Quote-A-Crostic!


"Inside the Box, Pt. I"
TV Programming


"Your Showcase Set"
How to craft an L.A.-ready set


"The Clogged Drain of Comedy"
Who belongs on the stage? Comedy in L.A.


"Torture"
Why move to L.A.?


"Good Side/Bad Side"
What does comedy mean to a culture, post-911?


"Management"
What should a manager do?


"Standup on TV"
What does TV want?


"Cash for Words"
Writing for dollars


"Stoking the Joke Machine"
Writing for a living


"Screenwriting for Standup Comics"
Just what it says


"Random Realizations"
Wisdom born of experience


"P.O.V."
Casting Season in L.A.


"Ladies & Gentlemen: A Job"
Working at Best Damn Sports Show Period


"LA Freefall for All"
It happens to everyone: Freefall!


"Hollywood or Bust"
How to change to succeed in L.A.


"How Edgy"
Column #2


"How Hip"
Column #3


"Who Writes Your Stuff?"
Why don't comics ask for help?


"The Art of Standup"
What would we gain by "turning up the art"


"Christmas Wish List"
Holiday column


"Getting Exercised"
A writing exercise


"High Octane"
Road vs. L.A., Monologist vs. Performer


"Inside the Box, Pt. I"
Television Programmers


"Inside the Box, Pt. II"
Television Production and Development


"Castle Breached"
Working at Late Late Show, Network television gig!


"I Like LA"
The third of five columns on writing comedy for money


"Hollywod Carousel"
Between BDSSP and Late Late Show, what I learned




 

Inside The Box, Part II

Last month I began a series on what comics need to know about the media industry before plunging headfirst and wide-eyed into the latrine/ambrosia we call big time television. The hinge paragraph (well, with a few changes) was as follows:

"...the idea that you do comedy for the American audience is naïve. Between you and the audience are a whole set of people for whom you also work, and you have to work for them before you ever get to the great unwashed American audience all road dogs know and love/hate so well. These people you will be working for include the business executives at mega-corporate "parent" companies, programming executives at television networks and cable companies, development executives at production companies, production executives at production companies, financing execs at the networks, a catalogue of managers and agents, a host of casting agents, a horde of stage bookers, a wide variety of producers, a set of budgeters, a rotating panorama of directors, a select few star actors, a limitless array of advertisers, and a maddening crew of marketers. If you manage to get what you do past all of those people, you might get a few weeks in front of a particular segment of the American audience that wants to watch what you have to offer."

In Part I of this opus, I dredged through some information about the mega-corporations and programming execs. And while, in the long run, Iím surely giving out far more than comics need to know-- "Hey, man, just tell me how to get a showcase at the Improv"-- I just canít help myself.

I now continue...

Outside of the corporate parent and the network programmers, there exist two essential entities comics need to understand: development and production. Simply put, the development side takes ideas for shows and brings them to the point where they are ready for actual production. Production shoots the show.

Iíll come back to production later in this column. For now, letís take a look at this weird animal called "development."

Development executives are perhaps the most elusive of all media management. Itís not always clear who they are, what they do, where they come from, what their qualifications are, or even who they work for. But make no mistake, if you want to get your own show into the pipeline toward television you have to know about development. Because everything goes through development. Before it goes anywhere. Or gets anywhere.

The basic process of development begins with the fact that networks need new shows. They need ideas that will actually work and become cash cows and generate billions of dollars in ad revenue and merchandising tie-ins. And so, at certain times, they are open to being "pitched" new shows, or offered new shows that they can buy. If they like the offer they will buy the rights to the show and put up money for a pilot to be shot. After it is shot, the networks will look at the pilot, test the pilot, and maybe even put the show on the air if they like what they see. Last year there were around seventy-something pilots actually bought and shot by the six networks. For a list of them, go to http://www.i2.i-000.com/~kk/tvpilots.htm. Take note that, of these, only about fifteen made it to air, and almost none of them are still around. There is apparently something about all of this process that doesnít really work very well. But weíll get to that later.

How do you convince a network you have a good idea for a new show? By bringing them more than an idea. You need to bring them a "developed" idea.

Look at it this way: lots of people have ideas for television shows. With comics itís usually this idea: My life is funny, it would make a great show. Unfortunately, with comics that idea ends about there; itís very rarely sketched any more fully than "Iíve done some funny stuff that I can ramble about." There is no pilot script, no show bible, no outline of episodes, no treatment, no season or series arc, no developed side characters, no advertising tie-ins, no audience segment, no easily promoted star, no awareness of how it would fit into primetime or into a specific lineup on a specific network, etc. In other words, there is no "development" to the idea. Itís just a little idea dangling in the wind.

What you want instead is a fully developed, matured idea that is ready to be shot the day you show it to the network (although in reality the network will always give you their "notes" on what they would like to see done on the show to make it more attractive to advertisers). This is why 99 per cent of the time the people who sell to TV are people who have actually worked in television and have some clear concept about how it operates (i.e., staff writers, story editors, producers, exec producers, or actors). Often these people are offered "development deals" where they are prepaid a certain amount of money in return for agreeing to only give their ideas to a certain network. Occasionally, someone outside of TV is able to give a show idea (because they know someoneís cousin, or are somehow able to wrangle a pitch session with a development exec), but not very often. Not very often at all. And when they do get those rare opportunities, they often donít really know how to pitch marketable ideas, and their pitch falls on deaf ears because the pitchee knows the pitcher has no clout to help the pitchee ever sell this idea to anyone who matters.

Be that as it may, wherever ideas come from they need to be taken from the abstract and made into fully developed projects so that they can be sold. What do I mean by fully developed? Lots of things. A show needs a basic premise or situation that can hold up over the course of one hundred episodes (one hundred or so being the number needed for syndication). It needs a great pilot script that sets the premise and establishes the characters and starts ongoing conflicts and gets great laughs and has elements that will get journalists humming and writing about the show, and will generate some discussion or controversy in the general public. It needs at least thirteen other script ideas that will be just as funny as the pilot so the first half-season will be solid all the way through as an audience is built. A great set of actors has to be attached, meaning they are great both in their television acting skills and in their ability to get free and extensive publicity. The projected audience has to be established; how old they are, what they will like about this show, how likely they are to watch. Potential advertisers need to be located so it looks like the show will be an easy money-maker.

To get everything to this point, development executives are hired who supposedly can guide the project to a mega-attractive place, either with their own instincts or by getting the right "others" (writers, producers, researchers) to help out. So the actual job of a development exec is to find stories, find scripts, find characters, and once found, exert their own creative muscle and contacts and help to bring everything along to the point where the project seems extremely likely to be a success. Development is there to make the project pretty; they are the personal trainers getting the show ready for the eyes of all those who might want to look it over.

All of which sounds logical, but none of which seems particularly good for the creative process. Because what often happens is that creative people have creative ideas and development people water them down, re-direct them, make them more conservative so they fit more closely to what is already "successful" on television. From what I can tell, it is rare to find a development person who is truly sensitive enough to both creative and market forces to be able to guide things without perverting them. I know there are good development people out there, Iíve heard about them, but they seem to be few and far between. Maybe because if they are really good they move into actual producer positions where they can make "real" money. Iím not sure.

The last thing to know about development is that like all things in L.A. it has a season, a cycle that repeats year after year. From the best that I can tell development begins right after the networks buy new shows and announce them in May. Right after that, development people dump the shows theyíve been working on and go in search of new game. They develop, develop, develop all summer long, and they start to sell ideas and scripts in the autumn months so the casting season can begin after December, and then the pilots can be shot in March/April, and then the shows can be bought in May, and then writers can be staffed and directors brought on and crews booked in May/June/July. At least thatís how it all looks to me.

So what lesson should comics take from all of this about development? Maybe only this: You know humor in live settings, in a monologue format, from your own experience. Often, you do not know more than that. So if you want to get a show going for yourself, either learn the stuff that goes into putting acted humor onto tape and develop the show fully on your own, or find someone or some company who knows that stuff already and is willing to help you get your idea into a developed form. In other words, understand the development process and be ready to go through it willingly. If you know it is coming, and have some idea of how it occurs, youíre more likely to be one of the creative engines instead of constantly mucking things up or just feeling frustrated because they wonít listen to your funny input.

Where do you find these development people? Well, they most often work for production companies.

A production company is just what it says it is: It is the entity that gathers a crew, builds the sets, rents the cameras, hires the actors, writers, and directors, creates the episodes, herds an audience, tapes the acting, and edits that son of a bitch into a showable form. Some production companies simply shoot projects that are brought to them already developed and ready to be shot. Other production companies actually hire staff development people who are always on the lookout for material to develop into shows the production company will own and be able to shoot. The three genres of developing/production entities are: a networkís own in-house production division (i.e., say ABC actually develops and shoots its own shows), independent production companies who have deals set up to develop and produce shows for networks and cable (i.e., Carsey-Warner, which sends FOX such luminaries as That 70ís Show), and totally independent companies and individuals who develop shows with the vague hope that they will be able to sell these shows to some network or cable channel.

So hereís the setup. If you have an idea for a show, develop it as much as you can on your own. Think it through so it will work on TV to the best of your ability. Then take it to a development entity that will either tell you to go to hell, or jump in and either mutate everything youíve done or help to bring what youíve done to fruition. And they will then go try to either sell the idea so they can get the money for a pilot, or they will put the money up for the pilot and sell rights to the show after they shoot it. Generally they donít shoot the pilot themselves because the network they sell to will want to make changes, which means theyíll have to re-shoot it all, which means they made a very expensive demo that is essentially useless beyond being a sales tool. Which, on the other hand, is fine with many of the wealthier productions houses (e.g.: WorldWide Pants, Carsey-Warner, etc.).

So here we are. Youíve gone through development, youíve got a production house attached that procured money to shoot the pilot.

Now what?

The pilot has to be cast. And then bought. And then staffed.

Two of which are junctures where comics come rushing in-- cast and staff. And which is what I will turn toward explaining next month.

Dan French has an M.A. in Rhetoric, and a Ph.D. in Media Studies, but don't let that fool you. And he still hasn't mailed us an 8 X 10.



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