Luke Ryan on Writing for TV

These are my notes from Luke Ryan's talk on Writing for TV at Willamette Writers Conference 2013.

Luke Ryan
Writing for TV

·      Started as screenwriters
·      Turned studio exec
·      Still writing pseudonymously
·      Having the most fun creatively is in the world of television
·      Feature film has become more about concept and spectacle
·      We’re making movies more for the people outside the united states, because of the economics of the industry.
o   That’s why we’re seeing more big action movies, and less comedy.
o   That’s because comedy doesn’t travel well, but action does.
·      So the best writing right now is in television, especially one hour cable shows
·      Television is all about character, character, character
·      Three homes for television
o   Network
o   Free cable
o   Premium cable
·      Network
o   ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CW
o   Driven by advertising and ratings. Bigger stage, bigger money.
o   Networks think in terms of big movie studios: concept driven.
o   Procedurals
§  Cop shows
§  They’re about collecting information about the resolution
§  Primary content consumed by American TV watchers
o   A season finale of Mad Men while do less than a quarter of what a rerun of NCI will do.
o   Broadcast television is an older audience.
o   Q: Are they going to crumble [in the context of no young people watching broadcast shows]
§  Total viewership of something like Castle is very high, even though they have nothing in the prime demographic of 18-35.
§  The thing that’s keeping TV afloat is sports.
·      Basic Cable
o   FX, AMC, USA, Lifetime, MTV, etc.
o   Driven by advertising and ratings, but less so. Have figured out how to have interesting programming at lower costs.
o   They think like interesting indie producers in the feature film world.
o   Very character driven…
o   Can be very formula: breaking bad, dexter, etc: take ordinary person, give them a secret that forces them to try to live a normal life, but creates an conflict
o   FX: the bad-asser network.
o   Each has their own specific branding – certain kinds of shows they’ll look at.
o   Luke had a big board of all the places he could sell a show. When he’s got a specific show, he’ll only consider writing it if there’s at least 3 places to pitch it.
·      Premium Cable
o   HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz
o   Have no advertising – you pay for them as part of the cable bill. Therefore they have no ratings. Therefore they…
o   Operate like rich film investors who do whatever the hell they want.
o   They’ll do risky stuff, like Game of Thrones.
o   You can do whatever you like…no advertisers to offend.
·      Three Kinds of Shows
o   One hour drama
o   Half hour comedy
o   Game shows/reality shows (no writers required.)
·      Cable wants serialized shows…one story told over 13 shows.
·      Network wants stand-alone stories…with maybe a small story arc that goes across the season.
·      Serialization makes syndication harder.
·      Hybrids:
o   X Files good example:
§  16 episodes are monster of the week.
§  The other six episodes are ongoing story line.
·      One Hour Drama
o   Approximately 60 page script
o   4-6 acts w/ cold open for network
o   Write without acts for cable/premium
o   Tend to be procedural on network (cop, lawyer, medical shows)
o   Mostly sold:
§  on pitch at networks
§  pitch or spec at cable/premium.
§  Often with valuable talent attachments.
o   Cold Open: The body is lying there, the detectives walk in, “Oh my god”, cut to credits.
o   Each act has to be a cliffhanger, to get the audience to come back.
o   But on cable, no need for act breaks.
·      Executives
o   Will order 60 pitches
o   Get 25 pilots
o   Shoot 6 pilots
o   Get 1 show
·      Timeline
o   Buying season is the summer
o   Pilots are shot in October
o   Shoot show in spring
o   Show introduces in September
o   ---
o   this is changes over time.
·      “spec script” vs “pitch”
o   most things in tv are bought on pitch
·      getting paid
o   you get paid when they want to buy it
o   you get paid when they do the pilot
o   you get paid when they produce it
o   you when the TV show earns money
o   --
o   you get paid as the creator, on every show that is created, regardless of who writes it
o   you get paid as the executive producer, if you are involved in the actual writing.
o   if you write the episodes, you get paid as the writer.
§  This is basically a day job. You’re showing up at the office every day, probably in LA.
§  Each show has a lead writer who will lay out the episode, do the main writing, but then all the writers will collaborate on the details.
o   You can get paid as all three.
·      Sample One Hour Structure
o   Cold Open (2-3 minutes, episode problem)
o   Act One (to 15m, end w/ cliffhanger)
o   Act Two (to 25m, end w/ cliffhanger)
o   Act Three (to 35m, end w/ cliffhanger)
o   Act four (to 45m, end w/ cliffhanger)
o   Act Five (to 55m, w/ episode climax/solution)
o   Tag
·      Formats:
o   Use anything you want
o   Final Draft was long the standard, but as long as it looks correct, it’s fine
o   Send as a PDF
o   If something is formatted incorrectly, it makes it easy to say no
·      Half Hour Comedy
o   Approximately 30 page script
o   3 acts w/ cold open for network.
o   Write without acts for cable/premium
o   Either multicam (cheers) or single camera (the office)
o   Mostly sold on pitch at networks, pitch or spec at cable/premium. Often with valuable talent attachments.
·      Story Threads
o   A Story: Your Main Story Line/Concern
o   B Story: Secondary characters and secondary concerns to your main character, but tied has cause/effect with “A” Story
o   C Story: Often a disconnected adventure with a secondary character
·      Network Seasons
o   Buying is July 4th through late fall
o   Pilots due at end of the year
o   Pilots are ordered, shot at the beginning of the new year
o   Upfronts happen in the late spring where shows are picked up
o   Buying season begins again
o   New shows debut in the fall starting in September (while another buying season is in full swing)
·      Netflix, Hulu, Amazon
o   Netflix noticed that people are binging: people watch the whole season at once.
§  So they did House of Cards.
§  Specifically engineered to apply to their core audience based on the extensive data they have.
o   But we start to lose the cultural conversation:
§  “Did you see episode 10 of X”?
·      “Yeah, like two years ago”
§  “Let’s watch the pilot honey.”
·      Next morning she’s on episode 5. No reason to stay in sync anymore.


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