Spec Episodes vs. Original Pilots

In recent years, more aspiring television writers have been coming up with their own original ideas for series, and writing the pilot episode. These “spec pilots” can also be used as a writing sample for the same ultimate purpose as traditional specs—staffing on an existing show. More and more showrunners, executives, agents and managers are willing to look at spec pilots instead of, or in addition to, traditional specs. (Some might even prefer original material—be it a pilot, screenplay, play, short story, etc.—or at least want to see some, in addition to a traditional spec.)

But many writers these days are also writing “spec pilots” in hopes of getting them sold and produced as series (including writers from outside the Los Angeles area, who aren’t interested in trying to pursue staffing). This is a much more unlikely option—more unlikely, by far, than getting a feature film screenplay sold.

Television is an even more closed medium than features, in the sense that there is no real independent route to production, or producers and executives looking for the next great idea and script from writers, regardless of background. Pilots are essentially a selling tool for a larger product—a series—and are virtually never produced or bought outside of the six media conglomerates that own the major networks and/or studios (Viacom, Disney/ABC, NBCUniversal, Time Warner, Sony and Fox).

Occasionally there is the story of a new writer breaking through to getting a pilot produced, with no other past credits—such as Glee, which was conceived as a feature screenplay by an unknown writer, who found a way to get it to Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy; or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which was originally shot as a short film about struggling L.A. actors, created by and starring several L.A. actors.

Outside these exceptions to the norm, series which get bought as pilots, produced, and put on the air virtually always come from writers who already have a serious track record in television or features. In contrast to this, new feature films are produced every year (often from outside the Hollywood system), written by unknown writers who are just breaking through with their first project.

Perhaps the best way to get a deal to create one’s own series, for a writer who’s never worked in television, is to have some kind of huge creative success with a non-TV project that clearly shows TV potential—be it a stand-up comedy act, a twitter feed (like S**t My Dad Says), a successful web series, a blog, a play, a book, or perhaps an independent film like Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (which led to her HBO show Girls).

In any event, writing a spec pilot, in addition to (or sometimes instead of) traditional “specs” can be a good thing to do—for writers living in Los Angeles or planning to move there, to pursue staffing. In many ways it is even harder and more daunting than succeeding with a normal spec. And is unlikely to become more than a writing sample. But a great one can be a great writing sample.


These tips came from the workshop

Writing a Spec Script for a Television Comedy or Drama Series

In this workshop, writers will learn all the key elements to a successful “episodic spec,” and will receive ongoing instructor guidance in building their own—from basic idea through finished outline. It begins with knowing how to choose the right kind of show to spec, then understanding which elements to study, in order to really grasp how a typical episode functions well enough to write one. Students will then learn the elements of great story ideas for a spec, and be given a chance to pitch and re-pitch multiple ideas for their episode, before finally settling on one to write. At that point, they will begin “breaking story” (figuring out the key “beats” of each “act”) over several weeks, getting instructor feedback along the way. Finally, they will be guided in crafting a scene-by-scene outline, from which they could then go on to write the actual script.

Learn more about Writing a Spec Script for a Television Comedy or Drama Series today!.