Screenwriting 101: Writing Features v. Television Pilots – An Overview

By Michelle Donnelly · April 4, 2017

When asked, “What is television?” Chuck Slocum, Assistant Executive of the Writer’s Guild of America, said, “Television is everything that feature film is not.” While the concept is simplistic in its approach, when set against the backdrop of what is being called the “New Golden Age of Television,” it’s intriguing enough to want to explore these differences. The truth is, some of the most creative and artistic writing is being done for the small screen. Here, we set out to understand why television’s appeal is attracting some of the top screenwriting talent and to understand how that talent approaches writing a television pilot verses writing a feature film.

The Transformation of Television

In her book The Future of Television: Your Guide to Creating TV in the New World, author Pamela Douglas explains two important factors that transformed television: advertisers and subscriptions.

Historically, the three major television networks aired its most popular shows during the three hours of nightly prime time, throughout which an advertiser’s objective was to sell its product to the masses. Television forever changed after networks that had previously ruled to serve these masses were overshadowed by a diverse offering of channels and platforms that were increasingly successful at reaching niche audiences. Advertisers were quick to sign on once they realized these niche viewers were more likely to buy the products they offered.

Further, with the entrance of advertising free subscription channels and its ability to watch shows on demand, an explosion of creative forces ensued. Focused on subscriptions rates, HBO and Netflix cared less about the instant popularity of a new show, or even about the mass appeal of any one show. The goal soon became to have the widest variety of shows that could entice as many different types of viewers as possible (while one viewer may be willing to pay the cost to watch Entourage, another might only care to tune into The Sopranos). The resulting popularity of these subscription services has meant that screenwriters possess more freedom than ever to create shows outside the mainstream; instead of appealing to the masses, they work to appeal to an enthusiastic core audience.

Writing a television pilot, writing a feature film – considerations:

Story. There is one important way that television and feature film are the same and it’s worthy to note. That similarity comes down to story. Every writer sits down in order to tell a story and to convey it to an audience. So while there are differences in the approach between writing features and writing pilots, in the end, story (should) trump all. In fact, Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer for Netflix challenged the concept that there was a schism between the two mediums and when asked if television differed from feature films, his response was, “It isn’t. Feature films in a theater are different because they’re out of homes and shared with strangers…at its core, it’s all storytelling…in its soul it’s the same.”

Plot. Arguably the most important story element, plot is simply those story elements that will drive the protagonist toward his goal. In a feature, an estimated five to ten plot points reveal the story. In television, a plot needs the ability to extend over, not only multiple episodes, but also over multiple seasons.

Structure. In the new world of advertisement free subscription television, a screenwriter is no longer bound by the constraints of traditional prime time television when say for a drama, a script will call for a “teaser” or a “cold open,” four to five acts between which fit 3-4 scenes and for which one must construct a cliff hanger at each break that will entice the audience to stay until after the commercial break.

In this world of uninterrupted television programming, with no resulting act breaks, the structure is more akin to a feature. While the approach over the season is comparable to a long movie with a season arc that will play out over of a series of episodes, depending on the length of the season, this could be up to twenty-two episodes.

In “The Poetics,” Aristotle set out a storytelling format that dramatic writers adhere to until this day when he proposed stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. While such a basic approach has been ripe for criticism (John Truby calls the three-act structure “a mechanical device superimposed on the story” that “inevitably leads to episodic storytelling”) the three-act structure tends to be seen as the structure for which a feature film screenwriter constructs his story. Within these three acts, the writer will set up the story (genre, theme, story world, characters, inciting incident, etc.), the obstacle the protagonist must overcome and the resolution (including how the protagonist has changed). 

Narrative Complexity. One of the most distinct elements of television’s transformation has been its increasingly narrative complexity. As shows moved from episodic television, where storylines were neatly tied up at the end of each half hour or hour and looked more like serials (which up to that point were mostly soap operas), characters and relationships came to be more fully developed throughout the plot and across episodes arcs. Compared to film, television is less about the narrative drive toward a conclusion and more about the internal struggles of characters as revealed through reactions to situations. Much like real life, these increasingly complex television characters tend to be in a state of constant evolvement.

Hooking the audience.  Aaron Sorkin very convincingly explains the challenges a writer faces in hooking the audience across different mediums by considering the effort put forth to view its content. For a playwright, the audience has gone to great effort once you consider cost, travel to the theater and the unique and limited nature of the offering (a play won’t pop up on Hulu in a month or two). Therefore, a playwright has some period of time with which to engage an audience before it considers leaving. Then there are feature films. First run features involve some cost, but are cheaper. Travel is usually involved, but less, so comparably the audience effort is less and therefore a feature film screenwriter has a shorter grace period to engage the audience. Lastly, there is television. Setting aside subscription rates (which if incurred are spread across several offerings), Sorkin estimates that a writer has two minutes within which to engage the audience before, with minimal effort, a viewer can simply change the channel.

Format.  Studio Executives, Producers, Directors, Readers and anyone else involved in the process expect standard and traditional format. Between film and television, scene description, location headings, character and dialogue are visually the same. If you are writing for network television, scripts are typically 55-60 pages, in which, unlike film and subscription television, you will include headers for Act breaks.

See if you can track down the pilots to a few of your favorite shows. Give them a read, paying close attention to formatting and structure throughout. For a couple of examples, click here and here.

Series Bible vs. Film Treatment

For simplicity sake, we will forego discussing the disagreement in terminology of concepts like the series bible, treatment, outline and extended pitch. While not every series will have one, a series bible can run the gamut of a few short pages to very long. Its content may also vary, but the goal of any bible is for those working on the series (writers and directors) to understand the guidelines of that series. Often, a bible will include a log line, character sketches, short synopses of the other episodes and the concept for the series end.

Used more often for feature films, a treatment is an abbreviated document used to communicate the story with it typically focusing on the high points of the story. Written in the present tense, a treatment will include a log line, key characters and a short summary describing the events in each act.

Well-constructed show bibles come in all shapes and sizes and are often the key to selling a studio on a particular idea (especially the bold ones). If you’re curious, the bibles for The Wire, and Battlestar Galactica are available online.

History by the Numbers

Film producer and noted blogger Scott Myers, estimates there were 75 feature film spec script sales in 2016. While an increase from the 55 spec script sales in 2015, recovery from the decline that began in 2008 is still not in sight. Contrast those numbers with the booming sales during the 1990s when in 1995, 173 spec scripts sold and in 1996, 155 sold. Further was how much they sold for. Thelma & Louise sold for $500,00 and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, relative unknowns at the time, sold Good Will Hunting for $675,000. In 1990, The Ticking Man earned a $1 million payout followed by the epic $3 million sale of Joe Eszterhas’s Basic Instinct. Where did it all go wrong? After a few big budget flops, the sale of most major studios to a small number of media companies and the 1998 Writer’s Guild of America strike, were added on top of the burgeoning cost and the competition to buy scripts, the result has been a glut in spec sales and screenwriters struggling for work.

Now, compare that to the explosion of the small screen. A FX research team estimated between network television, cable, and streaming services, that 409 scripted television shows aired in 2015, representing a 94% increase since 2009. Further, consider Netflix’s plan to spend $5 billion on programming. The numbers are staggering, which makes it no surprise so many writers are turning their pens towards the small screen. Just don’t under-estimate the process. Pilot’s may run shorter, but the amount long-term vision per square inch far exceeds that of your average feature film. Remember – you’re not just writing a story, you’re building a template. You’re crafting an entire world with characters and arcs that could potentially dozens of hours and multiple years. And like any golden opportunity, it’s a challenge worth meeting head on.