Salon’s Dan Kois argues that It’s Actually a Great Time to Try to Sell a TV Show. Okay, well, I guess that depends on your point of view.
Perhaps without meaning to, Kois’ article highlights Hollywood’s longstanding allergy to original stories. Nearly everything and everyone he cites refers to preexisting properties — IE books, life stories, bubblegum wrappers, etc. No mention at all is made of fictional work cranked out the old fashioned way: by the sweat of someone’s brow.
The practice began several years ago when the studio’s realized they had good luck with intellectual property everyone knew. Marvel’s tremendous success was built on that foundation. Soon, however, the approach ballooned out of proportion with nearly everything we consume now based on something already in the culture — even if that thing is a feature story from the Podunk Gazette (circulation one hundred and fifty).
Think about it. Does this even make sense? Do you care whether or not the show you’re watching came from an article in The Atlantic or from the depths of some poor writer’s imagination? I don’t. In fact, as a writer myself, I’m more likely to champion the imagination.
Here’s my theory on why leveraging books, life stories, and bubblegum wrappers as source material took hold and never let go. I’ll warn you, though, it isn’t charitable…
Development Executives, the people the studios trust to vet their material, wouldn’t know a good original story if it, to paraphrase Jaws, “swam up and bit them on the ass”. Up until the 1990s, most of what Hollywood produced was original material. Sure, plays and books were adapted, but the Industry cultivated people with taste and good sense to gather work for them. I’m sure that writers who worked prior to that decade could point me toward Philistines in the trade, but the point is at least a handful of the Story Editors of old had fingertip knowledge of the best original screenplays floating around town, and they knew which writers to follow.
Today’s Executive is much more likely to know what newspaper and magazine articles are about to hit and which ones are worth pursuing. In other words, their bent isn’t exactly literary. Even when they’re tracking original material you can bet that, despite the inherent quality of the work, the writer had better be a veteran. (In this way, the writer himself becomes the preexisting entity the studio is willing to bank on.)
So, yeah, I guess now is a good time to pitch a new TV series — that is unless you’ve got an original idea in your head.
P.S. If you’d like to hear about some of my own experiences with Hollywood, please read Learn From My Screenwriting Fail right here on.