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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Another Difference Between TV and Film

So the other day, I was chatting with a friend who has a drama pilot in development with Touchstone and ABC. (And before I go any further, forgive me if I mix up any of the TV terminology -- as I've said before, I don't know TV. Not sure if "in development" is appropriate here or not.) He just delivered his script to the network, and by mid-January, they should know if they get greenlit. Something he mentioned got me thinking, and us talking.

He mentioned the voluminous amount of notes he got from everyone involved at nearly every stage of the process, and I immediately thought of watching the episode of Situation: Comedy in which I watched my other buddy Marc getting notes from the network. Just the number of people listening and giving notes made it more intimidating than the film development process.

So I asked him what percentage of the notes he got were actually good ideas. He said, "Surprisingly... 85%." To which I responded that I wasn't surprised, which was not (incidentally) my opinion about film notes. Film notes are notoriously bad, but TV notes not as much so (despite the complaints of many TV writers).

So why is that? I think it largely comes down to a combination of money and numbers.

My friend pointed out that while a film development person slave for years over a given film, and many have only had a few films actually get made in the end. Whereas TV execs make pilots every year. Both pilot scripts and completed pilots that simply are tested and either developed further or dropped. Lots of them. So they have a lot more experience in getting product made and then tested, and thus have a better understanding of what works for their medium. Now at the same time, this might mean there is going to be less originality in the TV format, since they do more of "what works." (I would argue that almost the entire sitcom genre would attest to this.) But at the same time, it is easier to get to know what your audience wants.

So then the questions is, why don't movies make pilots of some kind? For one thing, it costs a lot more to make a film than it does to make a TV pilot. An expensive TV pilot costs maybe 4 million dollars. Okay, I think Lost was more in the $7-12 mil range. But even that would be a very low budgeted film. And while the networks invest in about 30 pilots or so a year, that only adds up to the budget of one or two major motion pictures.

Now let's also look at the other side of the economics. Of those 30 pilots, a number of them go on the air each season. And even TV shows that don't have good ratings still earn some income (even if they aren't turning a profit). So even the losses make some money back. With film, it is true that an underperforming film will also make some income, but a much smaller percentage than what TV shows bring in. And here's the major difference: marketing/advertising. TV stations have a built in venue for promoting their own shows. Films have to pay big bucks to promote in those same venues. So it costs significantly less to promote and market a new TV show, than it does to do the same for a single film.

Yes, by the end of the season, a TV drama series might cost as much as a single feature film. But if it makes it that far, it earned a lot more guaranteed income, and also cost a lot less to market. So the combination of money and time makes it easier for TV development execs to gain experience quickly, thereby making them more adept at giving effective development notes.

Later that day, I grabbed lunch with another friend who covers TV for The Hollywood Reporter and other venues. I mentioned this topic to him. Which led him to another related topic. With so many TV shows leading to movies (e.g. The Simpsons, Firefly, South Park, etc.), he wondered what the potential might be for going int he opposite direction. Launching a TV series with a theatrical motion picture.

T my mind, it comes down to the money thing again. Since it costs so much more to make a feature, it would not likely be worth it, in my mind, It might be interesting to do once or twice, as a marketing gimmick, but I think it would lose its effectiveness very quickly. Plus, what makes TV work is different than what makes film work, except in very few exceptional cases (e.g. 24). Fans are more willing to accept the TV-to-film changes when they are already fans of the show. But if it were a one-off movie setting up a TV series, they would never have the opportunity to get invested in the idea before it changes.

To put it differently, I don't think that many people would have wanted to go see the Lost pilot as a theatrical release.

I don't know that this all adds up to very much practically speaking, but I think it does make for some interesting food for thought and fuel for conversation.

On another note, MERRY NEW YEAR!

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Anonymous Lucy (Bang2write) said...

Interesting post. When I was at university studying screenwriting, lots of my contemporaries were very "down" on TV, saying it was for losers and that film was "art". I've never seen the difference myself, since so much of what makes TV and Film are about commerce - even the most hardcore indie film has to impress SOMEONE on the basis of commerce and potential income to secure distribution. The idea of a film setting up a TV series has been done, even if accidentally (I don't know the story) with BUFFY, but the notion of doing this as standard is an intriguing one. However, as you say Joel again it probably boils down to the green stuff and the likelihood of achieving more of it.

Happy New Year to you as well! ; )

11:43 AM  
Blogger Ryan said...

I recall seeing the "Buck Rogers" pilot in theaters in the late 1970s.

7:37 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

This is a very interesting discussion, Joel. I was talking with my producing partner about using film to launch a TV series, but instead of putting it in a theatre, getting it onto the Internet, or available for download through a content distributor like iTunes.

The problem here, as we quickly realized, is that most of the content providers that would really help the visibility of a property on iTunes are the big movie studios and TV Networks. So it ended up being a wash.

It's all about the Benjamins, but when you're on the receiving end of them, I suppose that's pretty sweet.

- E.

11:22 PM  
Blogger Real History Lisa said...

I think the key problem is that a film is often driven by a character's change, whereas in TV, we count on our characters staying the same over time, so we can predict their reactions. For example, in the original Columbian telenovela upon which Ugly Betty is based, Betty underwent a transformation from ugly duckling to swan, married her boss, and blam, the series came to an end. They made a movie instead of a TV series. ABC is now carefully NOT following that path. (I love that show, btw. Not all of it - some parts grate on my nerves. But Betty's scenes are always compelling.)

Anyway - I think that's why movies and tv shows are so different. Movies are designed to conclude, whereas TV is designed to stay open-ended.

9:41 PM  
Blogger James said...

Man, I'm too slow.

I was just going to write some stuff on television advertising and how movies are inversely effected.

I find it interesting that, as television shows generate higher and higher ratings, advertising for movies will cost more and more... even if the film industry is floundering.

And there is no reversal. Television... in particular advertising on TV has a TERMENDOUS effect on a film's success. Films carry no weight as to what makes bank on television.

Also... heavily mined genres in television tend to sputter out in films. Like mysteries and thrillers are now.

I love your blog. It's great to see your back in action after the holidays!

2:32 AM  

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