Ever Wondered What It Feels Like to Sell a TV Pilot?

Screen Shot 2016-09-22 at 6.02.11 PMAs creator of the TV series EXTANT, Mikey Fisher certainly knows a thing or two about it and he’s recently written about his experiences in this eye-opening 

story below. He recounts every moment on his roller-coaster journey, from figuring out which screenwriting contests to enter, to how to choose an agent, to doing a conference call with Spielberg. This document is a veritable How-To on breaking into the TV business. 

And for more tips and tools on the screenwriter’s trade, stay connected via Voyage Media. We make stories like Mikey’s happen every day for our clients.
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ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS I’VE BEEN ASKED
-MIKEY FISHER

WHY I WROTE THIS:

The day I turned forty years old I sold my first big script, a tv pilot for a new show called EXTANT. One of the Executive Producers was Steven Spielberg, it starred Oscar Winner Halle Berry, and got a straight to series order for thirteen episodes from CBS. I was made an Executive Producer as well and spent two years learning how to make television at the highest level. It was my first job in Hollywood.

A lot of people are going to tell you that it NEVER happens that way. But it DID happen and to quote David Mamet from THE EDGE, “What one man (or woman) can do, another man (or woman) can do.” So I’m passing along what I learned from my personal experience. I know it’s not going to happen for everyone the same way and there will be plenty here that other people will disagree with. This is just one guy’s overall experience from writing the pilot to selling it. I’m offering it to you in the hope that some part of it may be useful. I won’t make any assumptions about your experience/expertise, apologies if this seems like basic common sense or stuff you already know. I’ll start with…

HOW I WROTE THE SCRIPT:

By the time I sat down to really write my first pilot, I realized that I knew very little about writing television. I’d been writing plays for almost twenty years and writing feature films for nearly that long. As much as I LOVED television I didn’t know how to write it. So I spent a few months really looking at the structure and rhythm of my favorite shows. I took a number of episodes of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, BREAKING BAD and DOCTOR WHO and watched them with a remote in one hand and a notebook in the other. I made note of how many acts there were in each one, how many scenes were in an act, and the approximate length of each scene. I did this over and over again, with probably twenty episodes in all over three months.

After that, I wrote a pilot for a show called HOPEWELL that was kind of a practice pilot about a small midwestern town where strange supernatural things began to occur. At the time I was using CELT-X screenwriting software on my iPad and it had a template for a Bible, with sub- categories for Characters, Timelines, etc. I got into filling all of those things out, imagining the world and the longer arcs for the characters. That first one was just ok.

Then I followed one of the most important pieces of writing you can get: write the show or movie you would want to watch. Until then I’d been writing what I knew, keeping my stories small and contained, stuff I could shoot on my own for very little money in my hometown in Ohio. But I realized that the stuff I was writing is not the first thing I would go see if I was looking at a film festival brochure or deciding what to see on a Friday night. I was a genre guy, have been my whole life. My earliest memory (other than my youngest sister being brought home from the hospital for the first time) is seeing STAR WARS. In fact, I’m listening to THE FORCE AWAKENS soundtrack as I write this. So what came out was a sci-fi thriller about what it means to be human, wrapped up in a story about a female astronaut who goes to space on a solo mission and comes back pregnant to her husband and android child.

I wrote the first draft of the pilot over a month and then did a lot of rewriting after. I was conscious about laying the pipelines for a serialized story and where these characters might go and conscious about the world the story took place in. A lot of the technology was grounded in stuff I was reading on Wired or finding on Reddit, stuff that’s going to be available to everyone in the near future. I didn’t realize it at the time but grounding it in reality was a big selling point.

After the pilot was finished, I did one of the most important things I could have ever done. On instinct, I wrote a 6 page or so SEASON/SERIES OVERVIEW DOCUMENT for myself, imagining where this story and these characters would go after the pilot. Only my girlfriend and a couple of friends knew anything about the script at this point, so this was strictly for myself, to help me understand more about what I was doing. I was basically taking what was in the Celt-X bible template but putting it in prose form, like a treatment. It wasn’t until over a year later that I realized HOW IMPORTANT this step was. In the end, it would prove to be important not just as a presentation document but it also gave me a bedrock of information to mine in future meetings when people asked insightful questions about where it was all going. I hear some writers talk about having a full six or seven season arc planned out for the characters and that all sounds great, but in my experience, you don’t need that much. You want to show you have an understanding and know WHY you made the choices that you did. It’s ok to not have ALL the answers and you also want to leave room for collaboration.

Again, looking back, I lucked into doing this for myself even though no one was asking for it. Once the pilot script started getting me meetings, I was hit with tons of questions about where I thought the story was going. Because I had done all of this work, I had a ton of answers. I think that’s a large part of why I got to stick around for as long as I did. I had a vision for what this could be and after living with it and doing this kind of work I was able to articulate it.

AFTER THE SCRIPT WAS FINISHED:

I finished the script in late spring of 2012. I believed it was the best thing I’d ever written, and when I read the pilots that were being sold around that time, I thought it could go toe to toe with most of them. My ability was finally matching my ambition and I was writing up to an industry standard. Then PROMETHEUS came out and it featured an immaculate conception with an astronaut in space and I thought, “That’s it, any chance of selling this is dead. At least it will be a good sample and maybe help me get a job on staff somewhere.” But I didn’t know anyone who could really help make that happen so it went on a shelf.

Late fall 2012 I entered a feature contest sponsored by The Writer’s Store in Burbank, called The Industry Insider Contest. Long story short, I was a finalist and spent a few months working with one of their mentors to write a feature comedy spec called THE MARGINAL WAY, based on a logline suggested by the awesome Susannah Grant. I treated the contest like it was a studio job, taking notes from my mentor Kay Tuxford and working like crazy to make it as good as it could be. This was around the time I started writing seven days a week. I worked on Christmas and New Year’s Day, and a few months later it all paid off.

A few days before Christmas I lost a job that was half of my income. I knew I’d have to get another job after New Year’s but I had another option: sell my Can-Am Spyder, which I’d won in another contest. It would be enough to fund a few months of being a full-time writer. So I did it and decided to invest some of the money to get my work out there.

I was living in Orange County at the time and knew less than a handful of people in Hollywood, so I looked for ways to get my scripts into the hands of people who could do something with them. I’ve been entering contests for years. I’d been a Project Greenlight 2 Semi-Finalist and a Nicholl Fellowship semi-finalist, so I was getting signs and signals here and there that I was at least in the game. One of the contests I’d been reading about on websites like Done Deal was The Tracking B Contest and they had a reputation for helping writers find representation. Their TV Pilot Contest deadline was just coming so I decided to take EXTANT off the shelf and give it a shot.

Spring of 2013, The Blacklist website was picking up steam and starting to open doors for writers from anywhere. This is when they were still only doing features. I paid to upload a few scripts and get reads, hoping to be included in their weekly email blast to agents, managers and producers. The three scripts were wildly different: one was a crime fiction drama, another was an epic animated Christmas adventure and eventually I also uploaded the comedy I wrote for the Industry Insider Contest. A few weeks later, I scored my first ever meeting with a manager who responded to the crime fiction story.

At that meeting, we talked about the script he liked, then he asked me what everyone else asked me. It’s the question you will undoubtedly get as well. “What else do you have?” My answer was: “I’ve got this animated thing, a backstage comedy, a sci-fi spec pilot…” I could see the change in his face and knew the meeting had taken a turn. He said, “It sounds like you don’t know who you are, yet.” He offered to read the other material and see where he thought I might fit but after I sent those scripts to him I never heard back. I knew I’d made a crucial mistake. It looked like I was trying to be all things because in fact, I WAS trying to be all things. I was trying any and every avenue I could to break in. But once that meeting went downhill I decided to answer that question a different way. From then on, when someone asked “What else do you have,” I answered with “A lot more of that thing you liked.”

A few weeks later, everything started to break open. On a Friday afternoon I got the call that I WON the Industry Insider Feature Contest. The prize was lunch with the awesome Susannah Grant and a meeting with a manager at a well known company. I was thrilled. Relentless dedication and my investment in myself was paying off. On the next Wednesday I got a call from The Tracking B TV Pilot Contest: I was one of their finalists and I should expect to start getting emails and calls from managers over the next few days. And I did.

The next day, Thursday, my girlfriend Julie and I spent the day at Universal Studios. In between rides I was getting emails and voice messages from managers looking to set up meetings for the following week. Later that afternoon, we took the tram tour and while it was rolling around the backlot I spotted the sign for Amblin Drive. I pointed it out to Julie, yelling “THAT’S WHERE STEVEN SPIELBERG IS!” I had no idea that just a few short weeks later I’d be headed to a meeting there.

On Saturday, I got a call from a manager named Brooklyn Weaver, from Energy Entertainment.His assistant at the time, David Binns (now VP of Development) had read the script and I spent an hour talking to him while sitting on the roof of my parking garage so I wouldn’t lose a signal. We ended the conversation by agreeing to let him rep me and the script. He suggested a few quick tweaks, mostly to further highlight some important moments. This mostly amounted to bolding and underlining big beats that might easily be missed by assistants and creative execs burning through their tenth script of the day. It’s a lesson I still take to heart before every script goes out. That night, my script began showing up in the inboxes of people who would go on to change my life. From that day on, Brooklyn became a close creative partner. He’s the only manager I’ve worked with but I feel like the best of them are part military strategist, part dramaturge, part hype man, part psychologist. And lots more parts.

Part II of Mikey’s Story Coming Soon… 

 

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2 Comments

  1. thanks for tje great info

    Reply
  2. Quite! This was a truly amazing post. Thank you for your provided advice

    Reply

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