Message from discussion The pilot process.
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From: "Louis C.K." <loui...@my-deja.com>
To: "moderated.alt.comedy.standup" <email@example.com>
Subject: The pilot process.
Date: Thu, 23 Mar 2006 20:53:36 -0800
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Someone on the other crazy newsgroup asked me about pitching and
selling a pilot. I gave a long winded answer because I can't get any
work done. What I wrote answers lots of questions I've gotten here
before so I'm reposting it here for you folks who can't stomache the
So here's a rough outline of how it works, taking a show from pitch to
The first step is to meet with a development executive at the network
or studio and pitch them the general idea of the show. Usually you do
this with several companies over a week or so, sometime in July or
August. Then the agent fields the offers from the interested people,
and you weigh the offers and decide which network/studio to go with
according to three criteria: Who really gets your show and will let
you do it without fucking it up. Who is actually most likely to pick
up the show. Who is paying you the most money (the worst reason to go
with anyone). If no one has made an offer, you just go fuck yourself.
If you have sold your show to a studio, you now go on another round of
pitch meetings with them in tow, to sell the show to a network. If you
are able to sell to a network, then you start working, now for both
entities. (In my case, I sold the show to HBO Independant Productions,
which is making the show for HBO, which are a lot of the same people,
so my life is easier. )
Then the agent makes your deal and you start working.
The first thing you have to do is come up with the general story line
for the pilot, which you pitch to the executives, first studio, then
Once the story is basically agreed to, you write an outline, which is
just a blow by blow description of each scene in paragraph form, which
should include all plot points and any funny details or jokes you
already have. You then pass the outline in to the studio, which gives
you notes. You take their notes and re-write it and if they are
satisfied, you pass it in to the network. They now give notes which
you re-write the outline with and then pass it in until the network and
the studio are both happy. When that happens, it's time to write the
pilot script. So you go off and take as long as you need to churn out
a first draft. I think this took me a couple of months. Only about
three days were spent actually writing. The other fifty seven were
spent driving myself nuts while ruminating about what the show is and
how to do it. That's me. Some people write every day, just pounds and
pounds of words. I do a lot of work in my head and then just shit it
out like fast diarreah.
Okay, so you now have a first draft and you give it to the studio.
They read it and then you get their notes. The same thing happens now
that happened for the outline only often it takes longer. Unless you
wrote a good outline. What I mean is that, if you really tackle to
story and get it right in the outline, sometimes the script is a lot
easier. In any case, you go back and forth between studio and network
until everybody agrees that the script is in good shape. Unless no one
agrees or it is not in good shape. Generally, this is the first
failure point for most pilots. The writer, studio and network bat the
script around and it gets re-written to death, while other pilots are
clicking along and improving. You will start to notice that the
executives you're dealing with are showing less and less interest and
often you'll just suddenly stop getting calls and your agent will say
"Yeah... um... I think it's time to move on."
BUT if your script is good, if it stays hot and people like it and you,
it'll be decalred finished and passed in to the network for
consideration for pick up. In other words, the executives you've been
dealing with at the network, who are development people, will now give
it to the top executives, Les Moonves, Kevin Reilley, whoever. In my
case, Carolyn Strauss and Chris Albrecht. They read it and sometimes
they have notes. If they have big notes, like they think there are
essencial flaws in the script, you're sent off to re-write yet again an
dthey read it a second time. Sometimes this is a good sign because if
they just don't like it, the project will just die there. If they are
giving you notes at this point it's becaus they think it's worth
wasting a little time on it.
So you do another rewrite and pass it in. Now it's time to break out
in hives and hit your children for no reason, because you have to wait.
Your script is now finished and on a very big and important desk with,
depending on the network, LOTS of other scripts that have been through
all the same shit. This point is usually reached, horribly enough,
right before the hollidays. The network presidents take a bunch of
pilots home to read over the hollidays, while you spend the hollidays
not knowing your future. It's torture.
And the Hollidays, in Hollywood are a LONG FUCKING TIME. These people
go away from about Haloween to New Year.
So now you hate all of life and it's about the second week in January.
People you know are starting to hear that their pilot has been picked
up by the network you're with. And you haven't heard. You spend HOURS
on the phone with your agent and friends, trying to read tea leaves
that aren't there. You run into someone that tells you they just had
anal sex with the network president who told them that he is definitely
picking up your show. Then your agent calls and tells you they're
OR you get a call from your studio executive who tells you that,
congratulations, they're going to shoot your pilot.
Now it's time to actually make the pilot. Holy mother fucking shit.
You have to do the following things as every pilot in the city is doing
them simultaneously: Find a studio to shoot in. Cast your pilot. Find
a director. Get back to work on the script because now that it's being
shot people have a LOT of notes that they held back before, when it was
just a pipe dream.
If you are a strong enough and experienced enough writer, you are the
show runner. But if you wrote the pilot but are a novice, you are also
going to have to find a show-runner. In my case, I needed to find a
show-running partner because I starred in the show as well as creating
it, so once we started shooting I would not be an effective full--time
show-runner without some help.
So you are trying to get the best actors, director and writer in the
world at the same time that everyone else in town is trying...
Okay, so casting. First you have to hire a casting director. There
are only a few good ones and everybody wants them. you have to meet
with a lot of people who tell you some ideas of who they might cast in
your show. If you click with someone you hire them (if you can) and
start casting. You see thousands of horrible actors and hear your
pilot script read over and over and over and over again. At the same
time, offers are going out to very big named actors, none of which you
think fit the parts at all, but you are told they will help your show
get on the air. (In my case, HBO doesn't give a shit about that, so we
were able to cast people according to their funninness and acting.
Hooray for me) At one point you're told that your pilot is going to
star Brendan Frazier and Jody Foster. At the last minute they both
pass and you end up with Kirk Cameron and Shelly Biglachnataps. The
way the casting works is that you make usually three top picks for
every part in the show. You now take these people to the studio and
they decide if they like your choices. If they do, you take those
three folks now to network. THey sign what is called a test deal, which
means they make their acting deal before the network even sees them.
So yo uhave to negotiate a deal with three actors per part, even though
only one of them will be hired. So the three actors (per part) go to
the network and audition for LEs moonves or whoever. He/she/they pick
one person and you are cast. OR (and usually) they don't like any of
them and you have to start all over again and now time is fucking
running out and every good actor is already on a show.
Alright, so you cast your show and you hire a director, also very hard
because there are maybe one of those that are good and he's working on
All of this hiring and setting up takes place over February and March.
Some pilots spin out and crash because a good cast or showrunner was
never found. So that day in Janurary, when you got the green light,
goes from being the best to the worst day of your life.
But if you survive all of that, you shoot your pilot over some week in
March or April (we shot ours in April)
The pilot shoot week breaks down like this:
Monday: table read. The network and studio come and watch the actors
read the script. Then they give the writers notes. Sometimes the
notes are staggering like "We don't know if the main point of the story
is really that good or funny." And you have to insanely re-invent
everything. This is probably not going to be a television show now.
Just the worst week of your life. SOmetimes cast members get fired
after the table read, and you now have one day to cast a part that took
you a month to cast before. But if the notes are minimal and
everythign looks like it's basically working, you do your re-write
happily as the director rehearses with the actors.
Tuesday: Runthrough: The show is acted out on the stage for the writers
and the studio. the same thing happens as monday, you get notes. Then
you give the director and the actors notes and go rewrite as they
Wednesday: Runthroug: Now the network comes and watches the show on
it's feet. They give notes and you rewrite and rehearse again.
THursday: the cameras are brought in and you block the show for them,
as the director decides how to shoot each scene. The actors should all
be pretty ready at this point and the script should be stabalized. If
you are still rewriting and casting at this point... you're pretty
fucked. But it happens.
Friday: bring in the audience and shoot the show. Some pilots take
hours to shoot because no one has worked together, one or more actors
are bad, and the network AND studio are giving notes after every single
take so you are doing every scene several times just to placate people.
They give the audience pizza but they still leave ande you end up
shooting in an empty house for half the night. This didn't happen to
me fortunately. We shot the Lucky Louie pilot in about two and a half
hours (actually we did it twice)
Okay, so now the show has been shot and people get drunk.
THen you start editing which is a long and difficult process. The
director edits first, then the showrunners. You pass in your edit to
the studio, get notes and then the network. Then, when the pilot is
totally edited, you wait. How you wait differs from place to place. I
did a pilot at CBS and we had to wait while they tested the show. They
do all kinds of screwy marketting experiments and they show the pilot
to a test audience. You are given elaborate data according to the test
and you often have to re-edit the pilot to adress the testing data.
(HBO doesn't test their shows, so i got to skip that this time)
Finally, someone takes pictures of the cast looking desperate as they
all sit on the same easy chair, and the pilot is complete. It is put on
the desk of the network president, along with elaborate reports and
photos of the cast, along with every other pilot that made it that far.
you wait and you wait. If it's a network, you wait until the
"Upfronts" when they announce their schedule in new york. SOme people
are told the day of the announcement that they are or are not going to
series. When I did the pilot at CBS, we were told we were in the
running until the last second. Someone from Warner Brothers called me
literally an hour before Les Moonves made his announcement, to say he
wouldn't be mentioning "Saint Louie" although we were strong contenders
for mid-season (obviously that didn't happen either)
HBO doesn't do up-fronts and they don't do marketing research. It's
just two people, Carolyn Strauss and Chris Ablrecht, who watch their
pilots and then mull it over for a while and then decide. In our case,
we were brought in about two weeks after we'd passed in the finished
pilot, to meet with Albrecht and basically defend our thesis. We told
him what we learned from doing the pilot and how we intended to execute
a series if he gave us the chance. We left that meeting having NO idea
which way he would go. About a week after that, I was picking up my
daughter from her daycare when my phone buzzed in my pocket. It was
someone from HIP calling to say "HBO has ordered twelve episodes of
Now, you think making a pilot is hard, try doing it twelve times in six