Screenwriting : Commercial vs. Non-commercial Plot Points in Sitcom Pilots by Bruce King

Bruce King

Commercial vs. Non-commercial Plot Points in Sitcom Pilots

I was reading one of the many opportunities (email) from Happy Writers and Joey Tuccio today (God Bless Joey) and some of the wording got me to thinking. Quote: "Are the plot points commercial enough to attract studio buyers and the broadest demographic possible?" Hmmmm, is that the only way to sell a sitcom pilot? What about premium cable and streaming services that are targeting more specific audiences? Do we really want to shoot for the broadest demographic possible? I read somewhere that an executive at one of the major streaming services said they would rather have a smaller more dedicated audience than to shoot for a broad demographic. Netflix, Amazon, etc. have both said they want their original programming to be different than network TV. Also, how many different plot structures are there to sitcoms? And, which one is more commercial? Sitcoms seem to be pretty hemmed in to a specific structure -- First Act: First problem, first solution (makes things worse), Second Act: second problem, second solution (things are really bad), Resolve (twist ending). I suppose the major difference is that streaming sitcoms tend to be serialized and network sitcoms tend to be episodic. Thoughts?

Regina Lee

Hi Bruce, not to be too nit-picky, but you might have answered your own question. If Joey was referring to sitcoms, he was not referring to those premium half-hour shows that you're talking about, as those shows are not in the sitcom category. Hope that doesn't sound too smartassy.

Regina Lee

I should also note that I didn't read the original post by Joey, so maybe what I just posted is not relevant.

Phillip "The Genuine Article" Hardy

@Bruce: Good post that reminds me about the running joke on "Seinfeld", which was it was that is was "a show about nothing." The prevailing wisdom for sitcoms is constructing the three act, 22 minute show with a teaser. And, I guess if you want to sell it to a regular network, it's best to adhere to that formula. However, I'd like to think that folks like Netflix, Amazon, FX and AMC are open to fresh, innovative. I'd like to think it; but who knows. About five months ago, History Channel rejected our pitch about a Negro League mini-series for being "too classy" and said they were looking for more sex and violence.

Regina Lee

Hi Phillip, based on History's recent announcements, it looks like you received an honest reason for their pass. http://deadline.com/2016/01/history-navy-seal-military-drama-six-1201677...

Phillip "The Genuine Article" Hardy

Regina: I was dealing with History Channel through my colleague but the things coming out of their guy's mouth were pretty telling. I suggest they look at the 13 percent rating for their recent mini-series "Texas Rising", which was unwatchable. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/texas-rising/s01/. I'm thinking they should change their name to Not Really History Channel or History Channel, not really works just as well.

Bruce King

Phillip and Regina, thanks for the comments. @Regina. I pulled the quote from an email promotion from Happy Writers to pitch to Creative Executive Agustine Calderon from RatPac Entertainment. No doubt, he is an expert on what structure is selling (it looks like he is a comedy feature films expert) , but it got me thinking about how many comedy styles are now commercial thanks to the expansion of TV in premium cable and streaming. I thought the quote was applicable to sitcom pilots, as that is my area of interest. @Phillip. I think sex and violence are one of the main ways premium cable and streaming are trying to be different (edgier) than network. Probably a good strategy. On another note: Maybe Tyler Perry would be interested in your series, he seems to have cornered the African American market in comedy.

Sarah Gabrielle Baron

I'm kind of thinking plot points (Joey's and your focus) and plot problems that speak to a certain audience (producer's focus) are very different discussions. I like it that you're considering the plot problems (the main character's journey and the audiences' way of relating to it) as something that Amazon/History/Netflix allows to be more specific than in the past. It's yielded surprising results, right? You'd think 'Vikings' (History Channel) would only appeal to boomer generation history buffs....NOT! I am your textbook Generation X female and I LOVE Vikings! You'd think 'Walking Dead' would appeal to only under 25's. NOT! It hits all four quadrants man! So, I think this discussion is first about plot 'problems' and it should be a spec writer's main focus. The nuts and bolts of fitting that story into the plot points as per TV vs. livestream vs. webseries is going to change depending on who you think is most likely to buy it. I guess in today's environment, it would be best to have 2 or 3 different pilots to suit the network you're pitching to. Make sense?

Phillip "The Genuine Article" Hardy

Bruce: Actually, several of my friends here at S32 know that Matthew Moore, VP of Tyler Perry really liked my feature script "The Negro League", enough to pass it on to TP President Ozzie Areu, who also read it. He liked it; but not enough to take on what would be a multi-million dollar finance budget. Tyler Perry Productions has read three of my scripts this year and I'm deeply grateful for their time to review my material. However, none of the submitted scripts were comedy.

William Martell

Just a note on the Rotten Tomato thing: it doesn't matter if critics like (or hate) a movie or TV show. It doesn't matter if all of your friends like (or hate) a movie of TV show. What matters is whether there are enough viewers or ticket buyers that like a movie or TV show to put that show into profit so they can keep making episodes of that show or more movies. At the end of the day it has to be all about commercial aspects because that's what gives the network or studio enough money to stay in business. You can't chop up an Oscar and give pieces to investors (okay, you probably can do that, but the investors would rather get their $ back plus a profit on the investment). So some film may win an Oscar, and do zero business... and nobody wants to make another one of those. Meanwhile a film with 0% on RT... http://time.com/4170573/adam-sandler-the-ridiculous-6-netflix/

Joseph Chastain

There's an old saying: There's no accounting for taste. William Goldman said it best: No one knows anything. There's no real way of knowing if something can be a hit until it actually comes out. YOu can take educated guesses, but you won't know. Remember when the studios hedged their bets on not one but TWO volcano movies and BOTH were bombs? Getting back to the original discussion, Sitcoms and comedy series are two different things. The Big Bang Theory is a sitcom. Silicon Valley is a Comedy series. Sitcoms are "situation comedies" meaning that every week there's a different situation. Although cable does have SOME sitcoms, they usually buy comedy series more. The exact opposite is true on Network. I can only think of one true comedy series off the top of my head on Network recently (Glee). There may be more, but I don't watch much network TV.

Dave McCrea

I think you should write the sitcom you'd want to see first. Then if someone asks you to make it more commercial you can try to do that. Or you can make a demo of it yourself. But if you have the starting point of "how do I be commercial?" that just never lends itself to anything as good as when you start with "what would I want to see myself?" I really think writers should entertain themselves first, then adapt what they've written to the broadest possible audience without losing that individuality

David Levy

Work on whatever sitcom you want to work on. Just keep in mind who will listen to sitcom pitches rather than comedy series pitches. Single camera or multi camera. Even HULU is in on the action. Everyone will look for something different. Some ideas you may think will not work, just might for those streaming services you say want something different. You never know until you write it and see what others think.

Bruce King

@Joseph. I love William Goldman. "No one knows anything", has got to be the greatest quote in screenwriting history. That being said, I think that sitcoms are a subset of comedy series. I would call Silicon Valley a non-traditional serialized sitcom.

Phillip "The Genuine Article" Hardy

@William: I appreciate your thoughts about the realities of the bottom line on television. I realize they are well intended. Apart from Rotten Tomatoes ratings, "Texas Rising" was panned by variety, New York and LA Times and several others. It was criticized for being wooden, boring and riddled with historical inaccuracies. And, other than the opening two hours, the ratings dipped significantly for the subsequent episodes. So if History Channel's goal was to poorly depict real events and put out substandard entertainment, they were hugely successful. I understand that networks have to stay in business and it's "all about commercial success". But with shows like "Better Call Saul", "Fargo", Ray Donovan", "Madmen" on American Television and "Peaky Blinders", "Call the Midwife" and "Dreamland" on UK television, in addition to a fairly long list of others, there's clear evidence there are plenty of industry people that have an eye for quality. Even if work is commercially successful, it's okay to criticize it if it stinks. And it's also okay to aspire to something better. Chop up a gold statue? Who would do such a thing?

William Martell

You went back to the reviews when they don't matter - only the audience/ratings do: Nielsen estimates that the first two hours of “Texas Rising” averaged 4.1 million viewers overall, making it the calendar year’s second most-watched cable premiere, behind only AMC’s “Better Call Saul,” which bowed behind “The Walking Dead.” It also puts it ahead of other recent limited/event miniseries, including History’s “Houdini” last September (3.7 million), Discovery’s “Klondike” in January 2014 (3.4 million) and USA’s “Dig” in March of this year (1.8 million).

Phillip "The Genuine Article" Hardy

William: Apparently you missed the bit where I mentioned the first two hours of solid ratings. My main point is that viewers didn't hang with the mini series after the first two hours and the ratings dipped significantly. This goes to my argument over poor quality work. However, we obviously have different metrics for success. On paper, the history channel may consider Texas rising a sterling success; but I'm not certain viewers that watched it and thought it sucked will return to watch another History Channel miniseries based upon their previous experience. Conversely, I'm quite certain fans of Better call Saul will return to watch the second season with great anticipation and enthusiasm.

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