At some point in his or her career, every television writer looks at an early spec feature script that never sold and says, "Hey, this could be a TV Movie," and sets out to sell this early effort (all right, let's call it a "masterpiece") as a Movie of the Week.
It's a sane, sensible thing to do...and it's almost always guaranteed to be an exercise in futility. Because the name of the game in TV is "development." The MOW departments of all TV networks have development executives, not buyers, because somewhere along the line television people learned that they could feel more creative and responsible (in other words, more like writers) by having endless meetings with writers.
Of course, during these endless meetings the execs work very, very hard, alternately cajoling and ordering those writers to come up with not only stories but individual lines of dialog that will be exactly what the development execs think their bosses will like.
In other words, these brave souls get right down into the trenches with us for a time-honored corporate reason: They're saving their butts.
If, armed with this knowledge, you're ready to throw away that old script and get into the Movie of the Week business on its terms, here's what's in store:
Your first move is to see what kind of films the networks and cable channels are making.
HBO goes for irreverent, cynical, politically oriented stories with unhappy endings and big names attached as either stars or directors. Showtime likes watered-down versions of the HBO Movies, usually with happy endings...and moderately big names attached. Lifetime likes women-oriented issue stories with happy endings. USA goes for action films featuring stars who almost made it in features and who are still young enough looking for TV. The broadcast networks are into variety. They'll buy anything as long as it's a reverent politically oriented story of interest to women, and starring a current or former female series star...preferably one with whom the network in question has already made a deal.
In other words, having a great idea isn't enough. For outsiders, packaging is the key. That means that your first move is to get hold of a production company with a track record in the genre...a recent track record. Do whatever you have to in order to get in and pitch. If they ask for something in writing, give 'em the ever popular 5 page leavebehind, but try to see someone in person. As an experience it's more painful, but the odds in your favor become slightly improved.
Make your pitch, in person or in writing. If it's a true story, include that fact in what you say, and also say that you have the TV/film rights to the story. (That means get them locked up in advance...in writing, so no one can change his or her mind later. You'd be surprised at how often even close friends and family decide they really don't want to have a MOW about them made after all. Usually because they've decided that they're too ashamed of whatever happened to them to expose it...unless the network comes up with more dough.)
Be prepared to wait while the production exec you pitched to asks her husband, her best friend, and her housekeeper if her version of a logline for your idea sounds interesting. If she gets enough approvals, she'll take the next step of relaying it, and her version of your leavebehind (or maybe even yours) to her boss. If the boss likes it, one of the two of them will call various network MOW execs with whom they've worked and pitch it over the phone or at lunch. If the exec responds favorably, you'll get a call asking you to come back for another meeting.
At the second meeting the exec--and possibly her boss as well--will say they're interested but don't know if the nets will go for what you've pitched. (In other words, they aren't giving away the fact that they've already checked out the idea's saleability.) They'll tell you that to be sure they want you to develop your idea further. In short, they want you to work out all the beats of the story, every element, every scene, and then come back to them with that, either written or oral.
The WGA says that this is a "second meeting" that entitles you to story payment, but the company people will never mention that. Or, if they're a little more honorable, they will, but will ask you to please go along with this little breech, because you're new and untried and they have no network deal in place and never spend their own money on anything. In other words, they're asking you to roll the dice with them and come up with a great storyline, implying that then they'll be able to get you
After you've done what they asked and worked out the whole MOW, you'll meet as many times as necessary to refashion your concept and outline into what the company thinks the network will want it to be. Sometimes they actually have unofficial network input, and sometimes they're just going on intuition and experience. After a couple of weeks of this, you'll have one hell of a treatment written in loose form with the help of your new collaborators. So when they ask you to leave the pages, how can you say no?
The company will go over this unofficial treatment and either decide it works for their needs, or make some changes of their own. Then they'll call their buddy at the network (the one who unofficially liked the idea) and set up a pitch meeting for themselves and you. You'll come to the meeting, and the company people will utter the logline and an explicatory paragraph. If the net exec is in a good mood and remembers their previous conversation, this will get things rolling, and you'll read your written treatment (for which you still haven't been paid) outloud.
The net exec will interject comments and changes, which you are expected to remember or write down. At the end of this meeting, the people from the company will ask you to leave the room while they talk to the net exec about "old business." You'll sit in the waiting room for about 20 minutes, listening to everyone around you talk about the deals they already have in place, and then the production company people will come out and tell you that so and so loved what he heard...but could you please make the changes that were suggested and give them a complete outline/treatment/synopsis/ as soon as possible, because the net exec is now waiting for that to show his boss. (There will still be no talk about money.)
You'll make all the changes and give them to the company. The company will give the new version to the network exec. If the timing, politics, and story are right, the exec will present it up the ladder to his boss. If his boss likes it she'll ask who the writer is. The net exec will smile and say, "Who do you want?"
Yep, you heard right. Your name will never be mentioned...because you aren't on the list. The plain fact is that there are about two dozen writers who write all the MOWS (excluding the feature film writers who sometimes get brought in). The boss at the network will name one of those writers, and the network exec you met with will give your pals at the production company a call.
Shortly thereafter, the writer on the list of acceptable MOW writers will get a call from the company, telling him the idea and asking if he orshe wants to write it. If the writer accepts, you will then be contacted about making a deal to sell the idea--and the rights that you have in someone else's life along with it to the company (which will buy it with the network's money). It'll be a fair deal for what you've done...probably the same amount of money that you should have gotten originally for doing all that free work on a treatment. The person whose rights you've tied up will also get a call, and a deal will be made with him or her as well.
And, that's the end of it. Finito. No one will tell you when "your" MOW is shot. No one will invite you to the first screening of the finished product. In fact, no one will even tell you when it's scheduled to be aired. At some point, though, usually at least six months and dozens of calls later, you'll finally be allowed to read the script. Its structure won't look anything like the last version of the idea as presented to and by the network. If you're lucky, though, it WILL look just like your original idea the way your imagined it when you first pitched. You won't feel much like celebrating that little victory, though, because your name won't be anywhere on the script, not even in tiny print at the bottom of the title page. In short, it's arbitration time!
There are variations, of course. The most common one is making a deal with you after the second meeting, when they ask you to work out the story for them. But even if a deal is made, it'll be a step deal, meaning that you're giving the company a free option on your idea and your services, knowing that you will be paid a negotiated sum of money for the story, as the WGA calls a treatment--if the network gives the film a go-ahead, and another sum for a script if you are allowed to write that script.
What's the bottom line here? Simple. If that old spec screenplay of yours looks good to you, definitely try to sell it...as the feature film it was intended to be. That way, win, lose, or draw, you'll still have your pride. And you'll still be able to watch an MOW now and then...without first having to get stoned or drunk.
Larry Brodie has written over 500 hours of network television, including episodes of DIAGNOSIS MURDER, STAR TREK: VOYAGER, WALKER TEXAS RANGER, STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, HAWAII FIVE-0, THE ROOKIES, THE INTERNS, THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO, CANNON, IRONSIDE, MEDICAL CENTER, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, BARNABY JONES, the old STAR TREK animated TV series, the SUPERMAN animated TV series, and the not-so-animated SUPER FORCE.
Recently, Larry was Executive Creative Consultant on SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED, and the highly acclaimed SILVER SURFER and SPAWN animated series. FARRELL FOR THE PEOPLE, one of the many MOWs Larry has written, won a WOMEN IN TV & FILM AWARD for Best Drama.
Larry also produced SUPER FORCE, as well as BARETTA, THE FALL GUY, AUTOMAN, PARTNERS IN CRIME, MIKE HAMMER, RIN TIN TIN, and POLICE STORY (which won an Emmy as Best Drama Show 'way back when). Currently, Larry is writing columns for both Scr(i)pt and ScreenTalk magazines.