I got this email today…then again, it seems like I get it every day:
I have a great idea for a TV cop show but I’m not a writer. How can I sell it?
I can’t remember if I’ve posted this before, but here goes anyway. This is a column I wrote several years ago for Mystery Scene about an experience I had with a woman who wanted me to sell her Really Great Idea For a TV Series. Parts of it will be familiar to those of you who’ve read my replies to this question before…
I was a guest at Sleuthfest in Florida a few years back and after one of my panels, a woman approached me saying she had a great idea for a television series. Even better, she already had 22
scripts written and a list of actors she felt were perfect for the parts.
All I had to do, she said, was sell it and we’d both be rich.
I get this a lot. So I asked her, what if I was an engineer from General Motors? Would you approach me with a sketch of a car and expect me to manufacture it?
"No, of course not,” she said. “That would be stupid.” So was her suggestion that I run out and try to sell her TV series. And I told her so. Politely, of course.
The thing she didn’t understand is that networks don’t buy ideas. They buy people.
Or, as the old saying goes, ideas are cheap and execution is everything.
Take NYPDBlue, for example. It’s about a bunch of cops in a precinct in New York. Not the greatest, most original idea in the world, is it? But that’s not what ABC bought. They bought Emmy winning writer/producer Steven Bochco doing a series about a bunch of cops in a precinct in New York
The network was buying Bochco’s track record and experience in television. The idea was a distant second.
When the network buys a series, they are investing $50 million. They aren’t going to hand the kind of cash to somebody who hasn’t proved they can write, produce and deliver 22 episodes a season.
So, that’s what I said to her.
She told me I wasn’t listening. She already had the idea and the scripts. All she wanted me to do was sell the show. And produce it. And send her the big bags of money for her great idea and brilliant scripts.
I could see it from her point of view. She wanted a short-cut into television and finding a producer to hitch herself to seemed like a good one. A lot of other people have had the same idea, which is why I get pitched series all the time. From my mother. My gardener. My pool guy. The rabbi at my best friend’s wedding.
I even got pitched during a proctology exam. In middle of a very delicate procedure, the doctor started telling me his great idea for a TV show: the thrilling story of a proctologist who’s actually a suave, international jewel thief.
The truth is, it’s highly unlikely that any TV producer wants to hear your ideas, whether it’s after a panel at mystery convention or while you’re shoving a camera up their rectum.
Well, for one thing, it’s rude.
For another, television is a writers’ medium. The majority of TV producers are writers first and producers second. Every one of us wants to sell a TV series of our own. It’s the dream. It’s the chance to articulate your own creative vision instead of someone else’s. It’s the chance to not only write scripts and produce episodes, but also have a piece of the syndication, merchandizing, and all the other revenue streams that come from being an owner and not an employee. It’s the chance to become the next David E. Kelly, John Wells, J.J. Abrams, Stephen J. Cannell, Dick Wolf, Aaron Spelling, Donald Belisario, Glen A. Larson, Steven Bochco, or one of the other members of that very small, very elite, very wealthy club of creator/owners.
Getting to the point in your career that networks are interested in being in the series business with you isn’t easy. You have to write hundreds of scripts, work on dozens of series, and build a reputation as an experienced and responsible producer (Or you have to write and produce a huge hit movie, which often leads to an invitation to work your same magic in television). The point is, you don’t work that hard just to share the success with someone else who didn’t have to work for it.
Which brings us back to the basic rule of television: ideas are cheap, execution is everything. We want to sell our own ideas to the networks. Producers like me aren’t interested in your idea unless, of course, you’re asking me to adapt your best-selling novel or hit movie into a TV series. But that’s different, because you’re bringing something valuable to the deal, a pre-sold commidity with commerical and promotional value.
I told her all of that, too.
She just glared at me.
“You just don’t get it,” she said to me. “I’ve got a great idea. I’ve got 22 terrific scripts. You won’t have to do any work.”
No, I said, you’re the one who doesn’t want to do any work. You don’t want to learn the craft of screenwriting. You don’t want to struggle to get that first freelance script assignment. You don’t want to compete to get on a writing staff. You don’t want to work for years on a series, moving up from staff writer to producer, gaining experience and skill and becoming someone the networks want to be in business with. You want to bypass all of that and go straight to having your own series on the air.
“Well,” she said. “Yeah.”
At that point, I gave up. I did what anybody in my position would do. I pointed across the lobby at Jeremiah Healy.
“Go tell him your idea,” I said. “Maybe there’s a book in it.”
And then I ran away.
Forgive me, Jerry!