The Business of Screenwriting: “You always need more than one in your gun”

We are seated in the reception area at the sprawling office of two TV producers. They have a new show in production for CBS and we’re there to meet on an episode we’re writing for them. The door opens. Out bustles a beaming young woman. We enter the office. The producers, one a veteran movie and sit-com writer, the other a younger guy who would go on to become a successful film director, are smiling. We ask why the woman is so happy. “She just sold us a pitch,” the older producer says.

They tell us about the meeting, how the woman, a freelance sit-com writer, had come in with a really well thought-out pitch, funny, hit all the right marks, obviously a writer who knew her craft, and understood the show’s comic sensibilities Unfortunately the premise she pitched was too close to something they were already scripting. Bummed she got up to leave, then turned around and said, “I’ve got one more. Just a concept, really.” She lobbed them the idea (I seem to remember it had something to do with a character showing up with a hickey). The producers loved the idea, immediately seeing all sorts of comedic possibilities. Sold. She had an episode to write.

The older producer leaned back in his chair. “Just goes to show you… you always need more than one in your gun.”

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So true. If you’re running around town with just one story idea, you’re working with diminished odds of nabbing a sale. Two ideas? Better odds. It’s like the old Woody Allen line. “Don’t knock bisexuality. It doubles your chances of getting a date on a Friday night.”

This extends to screenwriting, too. [The more ideas part, not the bisexuality thing]. You may think that spec script you’re working on is a million dollar concept. Great. Let’s say you sell it. All the subsequent meetings you get will almost immediately involve this question coming up: “What are you working on next?” If you don’t have more than one idea, those promise to be damn short meetings.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of TV writers or screenwriters going in for a pitch, their main idea not generating any interest, but they pull out this other thing, and end up selling that.

That’s why I keep hammering on the importance of spending time every day coming up with story concepts. At one point, I remember adding up all the story ideas I had on my master list: It was over 80. And that didn’t include the hundreds I had generated that didn’t make the first cut. Looking over one version of that list recently, I can see most of the ideas were only decent, some good, and a few with a lot of potential. The thing is at least a list of story concepts like that provides something critical for a working writer: ammunition.

Besides, the entertainment business is the kind of gig where you never know when you’ll run into somebody who can change your life — a producer or an agent, an actor or exec, perhaps a rich doctor itching to fund a small indie movie. And once in a blue moon, they’ll actually say, “Okay, pitch me something.”

Will you be ready for that moment?

Do yourself a favor: Make sure you’re loaded with ideas.

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The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

For more The Business of Screenwriting posts, go here.

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