Screenwriting : Screenwriting for a miniseries by Nick Dellacato

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Nick Dellacato

Screenwriting for a miniseries

Does anyone have any guidance on script structure for writing a miniseries for television?

Regina Lee

Would you try to be a little more specific? For example, like HATFIElDS & MCCOYS, it's a 3 x 2 hour with a target buyer like History Channel. It's impossible to guess what advice to offer with no details whatsoever.

Nick Dellacato

Hi thanks Regina. Well for my next writing project, the plan is a 3 hour miniseries for television and requires 3 real time one-hour episodes. I'd like to target the major networks but I believe that would require incorporating commercial breaks and therefore would cut time from each hour negating the spirit of the real time effect. If this is the case, it would force me into targeting other networks which is not my preference. I was planning on doing 3 60 minute episodes and see what the major networks would cut. Either way, my specific question was, Do I follow the same structure as writing a spec for a feature? Thanks so much. Nick

Shelley Stuart

Three one-hour episodes isn't a mini-series, it's a movie. Mini-series (which are a very hard sell, so go into this endeavor with eyes open) run a total of 6 -8 hours long. If your story is only three eps long, then work it into a film -- you'll get far, far more leverage out of it in the long run for your writing career. If you really want to work on mini-series, you'll probably need about 100 pages per installment, with 5-6 acts each, planning on hooks at the end of each act (mini-cliffhangers for each commercial break), and a decent cliffhanger at the end of the episode. Also, the original alphabet networks aren't doing mini-series, so your target market will be the cable world (TNT, AMC, HBO, Cinemax, etc.). I wouldn't be surprised if someone comes along soon to set one up, but chances are it will have a very pedigreed cast & crew.

Regina Lee

Hi Nick, there's no easy answer for that one. To my knowledge (and I could be wrong), you're trying to do something that has never been done before in contemporary US TV. The closest model I can think of is FAIL-SAFE with George Clooney, which is not a mini-series. Maybe, just maybe, this new model you're proposing should be something you try to sell after you've gained credibility and are highly trusted by all the networks, say, like JJ Abrams is trusted. But it's up to you. Just know your bull's eye is very small. I have a slight disagreement from Oliver's advice. Typically, an hour-long episode script can be around 60 pages. In my experience, 50 pages is short, but never say never.

Regina Lee

I must also respectfully disagree with one part of Shelley's answer. Overall, she's on the money, imho. However, while she's right that the broadcast networks don't often produce mini-series, they have execs in charge of minis, and minis aren't beyond the realm of possibility. Here are some citations to prove my point: FOX http://deadline.com/2014/10/fox-event-series-shakeup-shana-waterman-exit... ABC http://variety.com/exec/david-marko/ CBS http://variety.com/2015/tv/reviews/tv-review-the-dovekeepers-1201460109/, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/cbs-hires-stacy-mandelberg-as-639152 NBC http://deadline.com/2013/06/abc-executive-quinn-taylor-moves-to-nbc-to-h...

Regina Lee

To Shelley's point, none of these minis fit the format that Nick is developing. As I said in my post, I believe Nick is pitching a format that's never been tried before in the contemporary US market.

Shelley Stuart

The execs are having a tough go of it then, or the networks have hedged towards event series (really just short-run TV so why not just call it that?). Too bad Dovekeepers was so panned; it discourages the format. The commentary about resurrecting the mini-series format is hopeful, though. And, yes, my initial description of page counts is for a more traditional mini-series format, where they story takes place on multiple nights for two hours a night. You need to plan for two hours total broadcast time, leaving room for both story and commercials. (I suspect the days of "North and South" or "Roots" -- which ran for 540+ minutes total -- are long gone.) I agree with Regina: three one-hour episodes would be a new approach, and far more likely to succeed if you have clout of some sort, and possibly even needs to be based on a successful book, comic or other we-don't-need-to-take-a-risk property. If you do pursue this format for the story you want to tell, and tell it on broadcast television, aim for 55 pages, and either a five-act structure, or teaser and four acts to fit current programming formats (leaning toward the five-act, which is increasingly common). That gives you between 10 - 12 pages per act, ending each act on a strong hook.

Regina Lee

Hi Shelley, as you may know NORTH AND SOUTH is/was being developed for remake by Discovery Channel (I'm not sure if it's still active). ROOTS is in prep, production, or post-production to air on History channel in the US. I believe ROOTS will be either 8 hours or 6 hours. They were supposed to shoot in late 2015, but I'm not sure if they stuck to that schedule or if they pushed their start date. http://deadline.com/2013/08/discovery-lionsgate-re-making-north-and-sout... http://www.bet.com/news/celebrities/2015/12/05/t-i-mekhi-phifer-join-roo... As you might guess, I was developing a mini-series myself and tracking recent trends. We ultimately decided to convert the format to ongoing series. Then we lost the writer to a staff job at Amazon Studios. We're hoping to finish pitching the show when he wraps the Amazon show, whose writers' room is in the UK, and therefore, prohibits him from pitching in the US.

Regina Lee

For what it's worth, my friend recently signed with Gersh, and his agent's advice was 59 pages for an hour-long script. The thought is that when you get over 60, it becomes a more intimidating (and time-consuming) read for the reader. That said, Oliver is right. There are hour-long shows whose page counts number in the high 40s, but in my experience it's usually closer to 60. If necessary, the Production and the Network/Studio can find cuts later if you picked up and have to worry about fitting into a time slot. My advice: Don't worry about commercial breaks at this early development stage in terms of page count. Plan for act structure, but not page count. Get to around 60. And yes, to Shelley's point, if the mini is formatted like HATFIELDS, for example, which was 3 x 2-hour, of course that script is going to be around 100-110 pages.

Regina Lee

Shelley, respectfully, I don't think it's that the broadcast nets are "having a tough go" at minis. I think your "hedging" statement is much more accurate. Broadcast is only looking for a limited slate of minis. They don't need to buy a lot of minis, because they have a limited number of slots to consider for minis (meaning, most of their air time is intentionally devoted to ongoing series, which is their bread and butter). If they wanted more minis, they would open the doors, tell the agencies "we're buying a ton of minis this year," writers/producers would pitch them, and they'd buy a lot more. They have a limited appetite for minis, or like you said, they're "hedging" on other formats. You chose the perfect word for it! :-)

Regina Lee

I know I've rebutted some of Shelley's points regarding the current Hollywood market. However, for what it's worth, I want to state that overall, I think she gave great and generous advice in this thread as well as a valuable POV.

Shelley Stuart

They're good points to raise as well. I have a mini myself that I'd love to see life, so I'd love to see less hedging and less banking on remakes. But that's a discussion for a different thread. :-)

Nick Dellacato

Thanks so much you guys! I'm on here not even one week and I've learned so much already. I will certainly try my very best to do the same. Good luck on your projects. Much success! Nick

Regina Lee

FYI History channel dates and trailier for ROOTS: http://deadline.com/2016/02/roots-miniseries-remake-memorial-day-premier...

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