The Mail I Get – Grab Bag Edition

From the grab bag…here’s a bunch of recent mail that I’ve received and my replies:

I’d like you to adapt my unpublished novel XYZ for the screen or perhaps a TV series. It could also be multiple movies. It’s about XYZ. In the alternative, I hope you will refer me to a producer who might be interested.

I replied: I’m not interested in adapting your book and I can’t think of any screenwriter or producer who would be. Studios don’t buy ideas. They buy the execution of ideas (i.e. who is writing it, who is directing it, who is producing it etc). And they don’t buy books that aren’t huge bestsellers. Since you aren’t a brand-name author, or a first-time author with a bestselling book, there’s almost no chance in hell of anybody reading it or buying it. I don’t say that to be mean, but to give you a realistic view of your chances. Your best bet is to get the book published and hope it does well enough critically or commercially to attract Hollywood interest.

Here’s a question I got about MONK:

 I’m a teenager who has become a HUGE fan of Monk just 8 years too late!!  I grew up watching the show with my Dad. Not so long ago, I discovered that there was a BOOK SERIES. My heart quite literally jumped out of my chest!!  THE CHARACTERS WEREN’T DONE!! Over the next 2 days I went to the library and checked out 10 Monk books, and I can’t stop reading them!!  THEY ARE SO GOOD!! About 2-3 times every book I get teary-eyed because the characters you’ve described in the books are so heart-wrenching.  Why did you write the series from Natalie’s perspective?

If my “detecting skills” tell me anything, you probably chose to write the series from her perspective because the television series is already told form Monk’s perspective.  We get the chance to understand him thoroughly, so it only makes sense to write from the perspective of the closest person to him… literally of course.  

I replied: I wrote them from Natalie’s perspective because I think it humanizes Monk. It gives us a necessary distance and, at the same time, a perspective to frame what we’re seeing. In a way, Natalie’s eyes become the replacement for the TV screen that was between us and Adrian Monk. Also, a little Monk goes a long way. You can overdo the joke and all the obsessive/compulsive stuff. By telling the stories from Natalie’s point of view, we aren’t with him all the time. We get some space, a breather from his shtick, and I think that’s important. It’s also a conscious homage to Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, who were seen as well through the eyes of their assistants.

And, finally, here’s a question I got about screenwriting:

I stumbled across your post Diagnosis Murder & How to Plot a Mystery, while looking for information on adapting a low-budget, niche, middle grade, mystery book series into a TV script of what seems to be 22-25 pages for a 30 minute show? I found a good article on sitcoms, but not a good breakdown for a kids’ mystery series. Is there any chance you can direct me to a script/page-timing outline? Or any information on this specifically?

I replied: No offense intended, but if you are asking about script page/timing, that suggests to me you still have a lot to learn about the principles of screenwriting. There is far more involved than knowing whether a page of script translates to a minute or five minutes of action (it depends whether its a one camera or three camera show and what is on the page — how many locations/sets there are, what action is involved, and how fast characters speak. Page count is not the issue you should be concerned with. There are “hour long” shows with 45 page scripts and 69 page scripts — every series is different). I recommend Richard Walter’s ESSENTIALS OF SCREENWRITING, Pamela Douglas WRITING THE TV DRAMA SERIES, William Rabkin’s  terrific WRITING THE PILOT, Alex Epstein’s CRAFTY TV WRITING, and SUCCESSFUL TELEVISION WRITING by William Rabkin and yours truly.

She wrote back:

Thank you very much for your quick response. I know very little about television scripts. But will get the books you mentioned.

The Back-Door onto PrimeTime

Patricia Arquette, right, stars in CSI: Cyber, a backdoor pilot which aired on CSI, which features Elisabeth Shue (left)
Patricia Arquette, right, stars in CSI: Cyber, a backdoor pilot which aired on CSI, which features Elisabeth Shue (left)

Last week, CBS picked up two series for next fall — CSI: Cyber and NCIS: New Orleans — that were shot as so-called “back-door pilots,” embedded in episodes of existing series. CSI:Cyber aired as an episode of CSI and NCIS: New Orleans aired as an episode of NCIS (which, itself, began as a back-door pilot as an episode of JAG).

A back-door pilot is a way to save money on making a pilot, a sample episode of a proposed TV series. Since standalone pilots that don’t lead to a seires cost millions of dollars, have no commerical value, and will usually never air anywhere, shooting them as an episode of an existing series allows studios to recoup their costs from the syndication revenue of a hit series. It’s a practice that has been going on for fifty years — The Andy Griffith Show began as a back-door pilot episode of The Danny Thomas Show.

The problem is, backdoor pilots usually end up being one of the worst episodes of whatever series is hosting them. That’s because the stars of the host series, by design, have to take a back seat to the stars of the pilot…and let’s face it, people aren’t tuning in to see the pilot characters, they are tuning in to see the characters they already know and love.  Star Trek ended it’s second season with Assignment Earth, a back-door pilot starring Robert Lansing, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended it’s second season with a back-door pilot for a series with Bill Daily. Both pilots failed to sell.

The networks and producers can’t really disguise backdoor pilots — because they can’t function as pilots without being pilots, introducing us to the characters and franchise of the proposed show. But it’s a practice that has worked.

Some of hit shows that began as backdoor pilots (also known, some years back, as “nested spin-offs”) include Diagnosis Murder, NCIS, CSI: Miami, Maude, SWAT, Petticoat Junction, Laverne  & Shirley, Barnaby Jones, Empty Nest, Knots Landing, and Stargate: Atlantis.

The many, many shows that have hosted one or more backdoor pilots include Magnum PI, Cosby, Spenser: For Hire, Star Trek, Vegas, Bones, Married With Children, Gunsmoke, The Practice, Charlie’s Angels, Barnaby Jones, NCIS, Ironside, Criminal Minds, Murder She Wrote, Smallville, House and The Rockford Files (which had four of’em!). Back in the day, anthology shows like Zane Grey Theater, Dick Powell Theater, and Police Story (which begat Police Woman, Joe Forrester and David Cassidy: Man Undercover)  were often used for back-door pilots.

Bill Rabkin and I were the executive producers of Diagnosis Murder with Fred Silverman, the man who once ran CBS, ABC and NBC and was known as the “king of the spin-off.” Since Diagnosis Murder was a nested spinoff of Jake and the Fatman, which itself was a nested spin-off of Matlock, Silverman was a big believer in backdoor pilots and  insisted that we do at least one every season. Diagnosis Murder tried at least six of them that I know of and they all went nowhere.

We personally did three of them, including Whistlers, basically a tame Lethal Weapon with women, and The Chief, starring Fred Dryer as the leader of the LAPD. Here’s  the main title sequence for Whistlers:

and the sales pitch for The Chief:

 

We were very clever with how we structured The Chief as a back-door pilot…and it was the only one of the Diagnosis Murder backdoor pilots that actually had a shot getting picked up.

We wrote it as a tw0-hour, sweeps episode of the series…but crafted it in such a way that we could edit it down to one-hour and cut almost all of the Diagnosis Murder cast out of the show for internal sales purposes

Fred Dryer was great in the part…and newcomer Neal McDonough had real star power (since proven on Band of Brothers, Justified, Desperate Housewives, etc.). We were sure we were on to something. The two-hour movie was one of the highest rated shows of the week, #12 if memory serves, and when we had the one-hour version tested, the scores were among the best Fred Silverman had ever seen. Silverman was convinced we were a lock for the fall schedule.

Unfortunately, this was one of the rare cases where ratings and testing didn’t mean as much to the network as personality…nobody at CBS wanted to work with Fred Dryer (which begs the question, why did CBS let us cast him, and why did they pay the  “pilot breakage” on his salary for the guest shot, if they had no intention of greenlighting a series with him in the lead?).

But Silverman wasn’t concerned. With the numbers and testing we had, and with Dryer’s successful track record with the hit series Hunter, he was convinced we’d have a sale in a matter of weeks with another network.  

We took it to every network and pitched it face-to-face to their presidents (that was the power of working with Silverman), and every one of them had some personal reason for not wanting to be in business with Dryer…and seemed to take great pleasure in passing on the project in the room to his implacable face.

As it turned out, a couple of years later CBS did a very simlar show (The District) with great success and a star reportedly as difficult as Dryer reportedly was (Craig T. Nelson)…and NBC ended up reviving Hunter for six episodes and discovered, or so we heard, that Dryer was even more reportedly difficult than he’d ever reportedly been before.

I guess we dodged a bullet.