These days, there are more and more large studio conglomerates that will hear and buy television pitches, but don’t necessarily have their own networks or cable stations on which to broadcast the shows they buy. Companies like Paramount/CBS, Sony, and Universal serve as brokers; they buy pitches, contract the writers, then turn around and try to re-sale these pitches to other companies who will put them on air.
So—you, the writer, will think up something brilliant, get a meeting on the books at Sony, go in and pitch your little heart out, get the big YES you’ve always been waiting for, then… What?
Keep on pitching! That’s right—if you sell a pitch to one of the brokerage-house TV studios, in short order you’ll find yourself doing more pitching, but this time with the weight and legitimacy of the big-time studio behind you. If Sony says YES, they will work out an “if-come deal” with you that maps out all the money you’ll be paid IF you are able to turn around and re-sell your pitch to cable companies such as FX, ABC Family, AMC—or any of the big four broadcast networks.
This intermediate step is sort of great, and sort of sucky. It’s hard to think about ‘selling’ a pitch, then having to turn around and sell it AGAIN in a matter of weeks. But on the other hand, it’s a major foot through the door, and a YES from those broker studios will add serious momentum to your project.
Because these contracts are IF contracts, and provide some-degree of sliding room based upon the desires of the channel or network that will end up actually buying and airing the show, there are variables built in the payment scales in these contracts. One of the most interesting is the 60/90/120-minute pilot variable, as it can put MORE money into the pocket of screenwriters.
In the past few years, it’s become more and more common for TV companies to order-up ‘oversized’ pilot scripts for their new series. For instance, when ABC Studios decided to move forward with the one-hour show Lost in 2004, they also made the choice to order a two-hour long pilot script. Similarly, the shows In Plain Sight and Burn Notice, both of which are one-hour dramas on ABC, received orders for 90-minute pilot scripts. So what’s the point of an oversized pilot script? Simply put—the TV companies are hedging their bets. If they contract for a 60-minute pilot, that’s exactly what they get—a regular old TV pilot, which may be brilliant and lead to a hit series, or may SUCK and never make it on air at all. In an era of tighter-budgets, risking money on a pilot has become less and less desirable, and many companies now look for ways to minimize their losses. One way has become these extended pilots running 90 or 120 minutes long. In essence, the TV companies aren’t just getting a PILOT at these lengths, but also a full-on TV MOVIE. And that’s the point. If, down the road, a decision is made to can your series, they will still be able to air your pilot as an original movie, and recoup most of their costs.
So what’s this mean for the writer? Good news, mostly. First, you’ll get paid more to write a longer pilot script, and this money is paid up-front. Second, if you get a 60/90/120-minute contract, and the option is activated for a 90 or 120 minute script, there is a very good chance that your show will make it to air – if not as the pilot you intended to write, than as a movie. Some writers worry that a movie-length pilot may serve as an incentive for companies not to go to series on a show, but I don’t buy that—if it’s a great script and works well as a film, chances are it will attract an audience, and the TV company will want to push it as a show. Worked for Knight Rider, didn’t it?
Overall, the 60/90/120 contract is a good deal for writers. You get to write and earn more upfront without having to wait for future ‘yeses’ down the road, and if your show flops, you might still get yourself a bonified feature screenwriting credit.UPDATE NOV-15: A TV writer friend of mine emailed me with the following add-on to the above article, and I hope he won't mind if I just copy-and-paste it here, as it contains useful information:
"On your last post, you left out the fact that the studio will sometimes just buy the pitch outright – my first sale was if come but my second one was a blind purchase by the studio before we pitched network – and according to my agent once the studio has outright bought a pitch from you then it’s kind of like having a quote… they are unlikely to go back to an if come on future ideas unless there are other factors present… "