Noah Hawley is a novelist (The Good Father) and screenwriter (Lies and Alibis) who created and ran two TV shows for ABC (The Unusuals and My Generation). In this exclusive post, Hawley offers an insider’s perspective on television development season:
Technically speaking, Development Season 2012 began on May 21st. That was the first Monday after the upfronts. Now all the new and returning shows are staffed, all the shiny new overalls have been handed out, and for those of you who didn’t get a chair in the game of staffing musical chairs (or who made pilots that didn’t get picked up), it’s time to think about development. But how? What strategy should you take?
Here are two suggestions for how to jump in:
Start taking general meetings
The networks won’t officially open their doors to hear pitches until after Independence Day, but if you plan on pitching a pilot this summer, your agent should already be setting general meetings with producers and studio and network executives. Even if you’ve created and run a show, as I have, it’s never a bad idea to meet new people.
Television producers — from small shingles to big companies like Bruckheimer, Bad Robot, etc. — are always looking for material (books, magazine articles, foreign formats) that they think would make good TV shows. They are also always on the lookout for writers to adapt them. So get yourself out there and make relationships. This way later — if you have an idea, or they find some great material — the door is already open.
My last show, My Generation, started as a Swedish half hour that producer Warren Littlefield and ABC Studios optioned. They brought the format to me. I responded to it and dived in.
Producing “pod deals” can also add weight to projects. I had two pilots at a network last season, one with Mark Gordon, and one I set up alone. It was amazing (and a little frustrating, honestly) by how the Mark Gordon project eclipsed the one I was producing myself. Hollywood is all about hype, and there’s a cache to working with certain production companies that enhances the status of a project. That weight can increase the sales price of a pitch and help you cut through some of the red tape during development.
That said, adding a non-writing executive producer into the mix adds yet another level of notes you will have to address. It also has the potential to create a power vacuum around the question of whose show it actually is. The last thing you want as a show runner is to have a powerhouse EP on your project who talks to the studio and network about your show without you. That is, until you’re sure you can trust them to watch your back. So choose your partners carefully.
Before you join forces with a non-writing EP, ask around. Learn which ones respect their writers and which are control freaks. You won’t regret it. Or, if you have a genius idea for a pilot, want some weight behind the project, but are skittish about going into business with someone you don’t know, might I suggest approaching a showrunner you’ve worked for and like. Ask if they’ll attach themselves to the project as a supervising producer.
Identify Who Has Needs and What They Are
Among the big four networks, CBS has the least need. NBC, arguably, has the most. But each has a specific brand with strengths and weaknesses. Make some time to sit down and look at the fall schedule. What holes do you see? Which shows are aging? What kinds of shows does each network seem to be embracing?
As you’re figuring out your development strategy, each of the big four networks will be figuring out their own. There will be retreats. Words like “stickiness” will be thrown around, theories of escape. After these retreats, the president of each network will sit down with reps from the big talent agencies and talk about their needs. Each will have a ratio of procedurals to soaps in mind. They will talk about “big swings” and “launch-ability.” Your agent should pass this information along to you. Develop accordingly.
That said, I’ve never been good at tailoring my development to the market. I have the ideas I have, and respond to the material I respond to. But it’s never a bad idea to know what the buyer is looking for. That way, even if you’re trying to sell a quirky show about an alien invasion, you can tailor your pitch to the buzz words. Because CBS is going to want a very different alien invasion show than Fox. And ABC is going to do doctors, lawyers and cops differently from NBC or the CW. So know your buyer and tailor your pitches.
As we enter the heart of selling season I’ll throw some other suggestions your way. For now, just remember, if you don’t define your career, it will be defined for you.
Read more from Noah Hawley.