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The Difference Between Film and Television Concepts by Daniel Calvisi

Dear Screenwriter,

You may come up with a cool idea for a movie and be told that it would make a better TV series, or you may create a concept for a TV series and be told it’s more fit for the big screen. How do you tell the difference between a concept that works best as a Feature versus a TV pilot/series?

FEATURE FILM

Film is pretty simple: it is a complete story with a closed ending. Unless you’re writing the first part of a trilogy (which I do not recommend, unless you happen to have procured the rights to a best-selling book series), the ending wraps up your compelling tale which (hopefully) had a beginning, middle and end. It can be a happy or sad ending, but that particular narrative has reached a closing point. You’ve exhausted the concept and we, the Reader or Audience, are satisfied. Fade out.

95% of the time, a feature script/film is going to use the “classical” 4-Act structure (Act One, Act Two-A, Act Two-B and Act Three.). Even if the story is told in a non-linear way, it should ideally fit into this meta-structure. My Story Map structure fits ably into this form, and you can learn much more about it in my books and webinars.

The idea for a feature film should be able to be expressed in a logline, which is a one-line snapshot of the unique dramatic situation in approximately 20-30 words. A feature film logline should suggest a stand-alone story, rather than an ongoing saga. Here are three loglines for famous films:

Shakespeare in Love – A comedic “re-writing of history” in which a young William Shakespeare is inspired by his own tortured romance to write “Romeo and Juliet,” the most famous fictional romance in history.

Slumdog Millionaire – A kid who grew up in extreme poverty uses his memories to answer the questions on the quiz show, “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?”

Minority Report – The police officer who oversees the department that predicts future murders must go on the run when the system predicts he is the next killer.

You can see how those loglines suggest just one story. They also have great hooks. A feature film concept must have a HOOK: some kind of unique take, spin, twist or turn that sucks us in and makes the story go in a surprising direction. This may be the thing that makes it cinematic. It may be a new perspective on a classic, familiar story that we’ve heard a million times, but the way in which you’re telling it is new.

I call this the “Big Idea,” but it doesn’t mean it only applies to big-budget or obviously commercial films. A micro-budget film shot on an iPhone can still contain a Big Idea. (Read more in depth about this topic in Chapter III: The Big Idea in Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay.)

Your Big Idea can be focused, contained. Here are four loglines for feature thrillers that made the “Black List” and the “Hit List” in Hollywood:


VILLAINS

Contained Thriller

Two small time robbers become prisoners when they break into a house and discover a ten year old girl chained up in the basement.

 

GREAT FALLS

Dramatic Thriller

After negligently killing a hunter with their patrol car, a Sheriff’s Deputy and her superior must decide what to do with the only witness to their crime – a death row inmate only days from execution.

 

FREE GUY

Science Fiction Thriller

A bank teller stuck in his routine discovers he’s a background character in a realistic, open world action-adventure video game and he is the only one capable of saving the city.

 

ELI

Contained Horror Thriller

Having moved into a “clean house” to treat his auto-immune disorder, 11-year-old Eli begins to believe that the house is haunted. Unable to leave, Eli soon realizes that the house, and the doctor who runs it, are more sinister than they appear.

 

Notice how “Free Guy” is really the only concept here that suggests a sprawling world and possible big budget. The others could easily take place in only one or two locations.

When you submit a feature logline, I suggest you include the genre underneath the title. It can make all the difference to know that your concept is, for example, a comedy before we read it. One man’s drama pitch may be another man’s comedy pitch. Consider these two examples…


SERIAL KILLER
Thriller
When a ruthless killer begins to murder people in a small town, a paperboy realizes the victims are all on his route and he’s the only one who can stop him.


SERIAL KILLER
Comedy
When a ruthless killer begins to murder people in a small town, a paperboy realizes the victims are all on his route and he’s the only one who can stop him!

 

Same title, same exact logline (except for an exclamation mark), but two separate takes on it, depending on the genre. The first one could be a thriller from the Coen brothers and the second one could be a satire from the Farrelly brothers. Citing the genre gives the reader some stylistic context before they consider your logline.

TELEVISION

TV is a bit more tricky. Scripted television is long-form storytelling. The idea (what I call the “Compelling Crisis”) should be able to fill 100 episodes. You don’t need to have all 100 episodes mapped out, but the concept should feel like it could last that long. Your main character will have multiple arcs over the seasons, whereas in a feature film they may only have one arc.

“TV is a playground. You create a fascinating, original playground and fill it with interesting characters who create conflict for one another.” This was told to me by a friend who is a professional feature screenwriter and was making his first forays into television. He was focusing on creating a new world in a subculture not seen on television before.

Shonda Rhimes is an incredibly successful television writer/producer (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, etc.). In an interview, she discussed how you know if an idea is well-suited for a TV series. She recommended first asking yourself whether the idea has an ending. If you can easily picture your story, or your character’s journey, coming to a conclusion, then your idea might be better suited for film. But if your idea sparks hundreds more, it could be the basis for a healthy, long-lasting TV show. For example, she could literally see hundreds of episodes of television for the show Scandal when she learned more about Judy Smith’s job as a Washington D.C.-based fixer (Smith is the real-life inspiration for the show’s protagonist, Olivia Pope). Similarly, Shonda knew that at the very least, she could write seven seasons of Grey’s Anatomy because surgical residencies typically last seven years.

She also suggested considering outside forces when assessing your idea. Where does your idea land when you consider it against the current cultural climate? How does your idea compare to what’s already on television and what network executives might be looking for in their development schedules? You don’t necessarily need to change your idea when you consider these factors, but it’s always good to be aware of them.

Character is important to all dramatic storytelling, but in TV, those long-term character arcs are the most important thing, moreso than plot. If we are going to spend years with these characters, they better be interesting. Especially the protagonist/s…

Breaking Bad: A mild-mannered high school teacher becomes a drug lord under the nose of his brother-in-law, a DEA agent.

Mad Men: An ad man with a dark secret desperately struggles for happiness in Manhattan in the turbulent 1960s.

Sons of Anarchy: “Hamlet in a biker gang.” Stepfather and son fight to keep a gun-running biker gang together amidst corruption, betrayals and escalating violence.

The Americans: Two Russian sleeper agents in the 1980s pose as the perfect suburban couple by day as they run missions by night, which ironically bring them closer as real lovers.

A hot format right now is the 30-minute Dramedy. Dramedies tend to be more culturally specific than most 30-minute sitcoms. For example…

Atlanta: A young black man in a low-income Atlanta suburb struggles to establish a career in the chaotic and dangerous world of hip-hop.

Transparent: A Jewish family in Los Angeles deals with the ramifications of their father becoming a woman.

Master of None: A struggling, Indian-American actor in New York City searches for love and the meaning of adulthood.

It’s still ideal to use one sentence for a TV series logline, but since it can be more difficult to explain a TV story than a feature story, feel free to take an extra line. Just don’t go overboard and submit a five-line paragraph. Here is a three-line logline for a show that sold to HBO that I bet you could fit into two lines…

These Things Happen: Set in present day Manhattan and focuses on two couples – one gay, one straight. They share a 15-year-old son, who lives on the Upper East Side with his mother and doctor stepfather. Trying to get to know his impressive, distant father better, he moves in for a semester with him and his long-time partner who forms an instant friendship with the boy.

Not only is that logline hard to understand, its length demands too much time for the reader (a busy rep or executive) to dissect it. It should be edited for clarity and brevity.

When you submit a TV logline to me and the Industry Advisors in my Story Maps Master Class, I ask you to not only identify the format (one hour, half hour) but also include a “comp” show to help us get a better sense of the style and tone of your series. A comp, or comparison, is a recent, successful series that shares some major elements with yours. Citing the comp will help us visualize and “feel” your show. E.g., maybe your series features a female lawyer protagonist (The Good Wife), a mockumentary format (Modern Family), a 1980s suburban setting (Stranger Things), or it’s a crime procedural (NCIS).

If you have a few concepts and you’re looking for some structure to help you choose the right one to develop into a pilot or feature, don’t hesitate to ask me about my Story Maps Master Class, which is an online course you can take with a group or one-on-one with me. This article is an excerpt from the materials I provide in the class.

Good luck and happy writing,

Dan

 

 

Special Offer on Story Maps E-Books

Story Maps TV Drama hit #1 on Amazon and knocked out Robert McKee’s Dialogue book

Story Maps #1 on Amazon screenwriting book charts

I was so excited to see my book, Story Maps: TV Drama: The Structure of the One-Hour Television Pilot grab the #1 and #2 spots (for the Kindle and Paperback versions) on the Amazon Hot New Releases in Screenwriting chart! It was especially satisfying to see my book above the new entry from Robert McKee,  the venerable old statesman of the screenwriting instruction world. Read more

https://www.writersstore.com/the-tv-pilot-beat-sheet-from-amc-to-hbo-to-netflix/

TV PILOT BEAT SHEET WEBINAR: From ABC to AMC to HBO to Netflix

 

Click to go to TV Pilot Beat Sheet WebinarBack by popular demand and updated with new material and a bonus map of the breakthrough show MR. ROBOT, my webinar THE TV PILOT BEAT SHEET: FROM AMC TO HBO TO NETFLIX is now available for download. Read more

WHO THE F*$K IS STAN? and 14 other questions about TRUE DETECTIVE SEASON TWO

TrueDetectiveSn2-Chinatown

“Forget about it, Ray. It’s Vinci.”

The great SLOG-WATCH of True Detective season two is over, and I’ve got a few things to say about it. But I’m not just here to point out flaws, I’m also offering solutions so that maybe we can learn something from the 8 1/2 hours of our lives we devoted to this season.

It was inevitable that from the first minute, the second season of True Detective would be compared to the first, and that would be a tough comp for any series. Season two has been almost universally judged to have fallen short of the bar set by the first season, which featured star talent, cinematic production values, some great writing and fantastic direction. Considering its evergreen pedigree, I can’t help but wonder if season two’s 8 episodes, as is, had aired on a different network, under a different name, if they would have been lambasted so badly. I’d surmise that it would have got off easier, but it still would have attracted a lot of criticism. With or without the comparison to the first season, True Detective season 2 was heavily flawed and utterly frustrating to watch. Read more

David Simon interview “SHOW ME A HERO” on HBO

Oscar Isaac in "Show Me a Hero."

Oscar Isaac in “Show Me a Hero.”

David Simon is the creator of The Wire, which is often cited as the greatest television drama of all time. I wouldn’t argue with that label. His latest project is SHOW ME A HERO, a 6-hour miniseries on HBO, starring Oscar Isaac, Alfred Molina, Catherine Keener, Winona Ryder and many others, directed by Paul Haggis (“Crash”) and based on the book of the same name by Lisa Belkin. It is Executive Produced by Nina K. Noble, Gail Mutrux and William F. Zorzi.

Logline: In an America generations removed from the greatest civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the young mayor of a mid-sized American city is faced with a federal court order that says he must build a small number of low-income housing units in the white neighborhoods of his town. His attempt to do so tears the entire city apart, paralyzes the municipal government and, ultimately, destroys the mayor and his political future.

Q: When did you become aware of Lisa Belkin’s book? What initially struck you about it, and when did you see the potential for adapting it for the screen? Read more

BOOKENDS: We are all Don Draper (the pilot and series finale of Mad Men)

Don Draper Mad Men image

Here’s a character arc we can all understand:

From blocked creative to fulfilled creative.

You know this story.

You’re young and it comes easy. It flows out of you. You get a bit older and it starts to feel more like work. Life intercedes, your creative side suffers, and you struggle. You hit the wall and you feel like you just can’t do it anymore. You’re blocked, stuck in the crucible, and it seems like there’s no escape. You contemplate giving up, throwing in the towel. It would be easier to just call it a day — it would alleviate a lot of pain. But you can’t. You have to keep fighting. You have to do the work. So you make a plan. First, you strip yourself of all that is holding you back. You get lean and mean. You do the work. It’s the only way. The only way to find your new path back to creative fulfillment. And one day it comes to you: that big idea. The lightbulb that illuminates that corner of your imagination that had been held in shadow for so long. Maybe it’s just the idea that gets you back at the desk, or maybe it’s a world-class winner of a concept that lights a fire across the globe.

This is your story. The story of every writer.

And, as we now know, it is the story of Don Draper, the now iconic character at the heart of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men.

We are all Don Draper.

Just with less mistresses and whiskey.

I hope. Read more

True Detective Pilot Story Map Beat Sheet

True-Detective-Matthew-McConaughey640x480

In early 2014, the television landscape was rocked by the debut of TRUE DETECTIVE, an epic 8-episode drama from HBO that blurred the line between television and cinema more than ever. It was a serial killer crime procedural — as familiar a genre as they come — but the execution was so unique and at such a high level of craft that the series immediately established itself with viewers and critics alike as one of the great achievements in the modern era of television drama. Read more

4 Great TV Pilot Openings (The Good Wife, Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad)

the-good-wife-screenplay
It’s Fall TV season and there are way too many new shows vying for only a few open spots in network schedules. You’re flipping channels, hoping to find a winner, but also itching to boot up your Netflix queue, where you know you’ll find proven content. You find a candidate. A brand-spanking new series. A newborn, hoping to find millions of loving parents in the 18-35 demographic.

How long do you give it to win you over, to win a slot in your coveted shows list? Read more

Interview with Michael Patrick King on the return of “The Comeback” on HBO

Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow

Michael Patrick King on set of “The Comeback” with Lisa Kudrow.

 CREATOR AND EXECUTIVE PRODUCER MICHAEL PATRICK KING (“Sex And The City”) DISCUSSES THE RETURN OF THE HBO COMEDY SERIES THE COMEBACK

“B level” TV star Valerie Cherish was a pioneer of reality television. Now, it’s ten years later – there’s more TV than ever and the onetime sitcom star wants back in.

Q: How did the revival of THE COMEBACK come about?
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Guillermo Del Toro and Carlton Cuse Interview (The Strain)

guillermo_del_toro_strain

Guillermo Del Toro (right) and a friend

Q                                 The first episode in particular is absolutely riveting and I loved it, but can you tell me how you first got involved in this and what drew you to it?

Carlton Cuse                 I had read the first Strain novel as a fan of both Guillermo’s work, and also independently I knew Chuck Hogan, and so I was very curious to see what this collaboration would look like.  And I was just intrigued by the subject matter.  I had read the first novel when it came out in 2009 and really enjoyed it, and then basically about two years ago my agent called me up and said that there was some interest in doing The Strain as a television series and would I be interested in it. Read more

TV Drama Showrunners Panel (video)

Vince Gilligan and Matthew Weiner, TV showrunners Breaking Bad and Mad Men

Here is a fantastic roundtable interview via The Hollywood Reporter with some of the most influential TV creators out there.

  • Aaron Sorkin, The Newsroom
  • Nic Pizzolatto, True Detective
  • Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad
  • Ann Biderman, Ray Donovan
  • Matthew Weiner, Mad Men
  • Carlton Cuse, Bates Motel

They cover a lot of topics, from casting movie stars to the anxiety and thrill of the writing process to dealing with social media and much more. Read more

Noah Hawley interview creator/showrunner of Fargo TV series

108_0626_Fargo_CL

Noah Hawley is an experienced TV writer and producer (Bones) who has created multiple series in the past (The Unusuals, My Generation), but it wasn’t until this year’s Fargo that he created one that received a full season order. Fargo seems to belong to a trendy category of branded TV series that includes shows like Bates Motel and Hannibal, in that it is inspired by a famous film but not a straight adaptation. Fargo the TV series uses similar themes, settings, and dramatic situations as the Coen Brothers film of the same name, but it weaves an entirely new story and world.

Note: The interview below with Hawley contains several SPOILERS for the show up to and including episode #8.

Read more

Orange is the New Black, Bates Motel and Masters of Sex creators talk TV writing and producing at HRTS Hitmakers Luncheon

Ashford, Cuse, Kohan (Panel)

I felt like Don Draper strolling into the iconic, tres-swanky Beverly Hilton to attend the HRTS (Hollywood Radio and Television Society) “Hitmakers Luncheon.” When I was politely informed that I was not on the list for the pre-lunch VIP reception, I felt like Dan Calvisi again. (You always have to try to sneak into the VIP section, people, it keeps them on their toes.) But the event began soon enough, and after a delicious lunch, I enjoyed listening to the panel of three of the most successful American TV producers working today, as they discussed their craft and business.

The panel consisted of Michelle Ashford ( creator and Executive Producer of “Masters of Sex” on Showtime), Carlton Cuse (co-creator, showrunner and E.P. of “Bates Motel” on A&E) and Jenji Kohan (creator and E.P. of “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix). Their past writing credits include John Adams, Boomtown, Lost, Nash Bridges, Weeds and Gilmore Girls. Read more

Interview with Billy Bob Thornton “Fargo” TV series

FARGO - Pictured: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo. CR: Chris Large/FX

FX’s new drama, Fargo, is created by Noah Hawley, inspired by the film written and directed by the Coen Brothers (also Executive Producers on the show). I sat in on a group interview with co-star Billy Bob Thornton, who plays the mysterious, charismatic and vicious drifter, Lorne Malvo, on the show. I did not get a chance to ask him a direct question, so here is the full transcript with questions from a group of reporters from various outlets.

Reporter                     Was there anything that you added to your character, “Lorne Malvo,” that wasn’t already scripted?

Billy Bob                     A weird haircut, which was actually a mistake. I got a bad haircut and we had planned on dyeing my hair and a dark beard and all that kind of thing, but I didn’t plan on having bangs. But then, instead of fixing it, it wouldn’t do, right, so I didn’t fix it because I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought, hang on a second here, this is like 1967 L.A. rock. I could be the bass player of the Buffalo Springfield. This is good. Or, Ken Burns, the dark side of Ken Burns. And bangs are normally associated with innocence and I thought that juxtaposition was pretty great, so that was added. Read more

Graham Yost, showrunner of Justified

Credit: Reddit

Graham Yost [cr: Reddit]

This is the third time I’ve had the pleasure to interview Graham Yost, show runner, Executive Producer and Writer of Justified, the fantastic drama on the FX network that, in my opinion, gets way too little recognition from the industry and the media, despite having a huge fan base. You can watch my video interviews with Mr. Yost here and here. The season finale of Justified airs in the U.S. tonight at 10:00 P.M. on FX. Read more

Billy Bob Thornton in “Fargo” will be the next Matthew McConaughey in “True Detective”

FARGO -- Pictured: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo -- CR: FX/Matthias Clamer

Make way on the blogosphere for the next big movie star killing it on TV. Billy Bob Thornton will soon be seen in FX’s one-hour drama “Fargo,” which premieres in the U.S. on April 15, 2014, and trust me when I tell you that you will be talking about his character, Lorne Malvo, a drifter who arrives in Fargo, Minnesota and starts to take a keen interest in its quirky denizens. Read more

Chozen speaks and Bobby Moynihan makes me Head Writer of SNL!

CHOZEN - Pictured: Chozen group image. CR. FX

I first met Bobby Moynihan at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York City in our “Improv 101” course. He was a bit younger than me, but it was clear that he had more experience with this improv stuff. He was definitely a standout. The class was a lot of fun and I would recommend UCB to anyone looking to learn the key principles of comedy from talented comedy pros, especially their sketch writing courses, which I’ve also taken and enjoyed.

I’ll always remember that first class because we had to perform our ‘graduation’ show on the UCB stage two days after September 11, 2001 when the city was still peppered in Missing Persons flyers and the smoke from the World Trade Center remains was still in the air. I showed up to the theater that day having come from volunteering on the docks helping to stock the boats that were supplying the recovery crews down at Ground Zero. I remember our teacher Jamie Denbo telling us how Amy Poehler had said 9/11 was like “the day the aliens landed.”

It was not a great time for comedy. Read more

Jimmy Smits Interview (Sons of Anarchy, NYPD Blue, Dexter)

 

You’d be hard-pressed to find an actor with such an impressive television resume as Jimmy Smits. L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, The West Wing, Dexter and, now, for the past two seasons, FX’s hit drama Sons of Anarchy, created by showrunner Kurt Sutter. (I’m also still mourning the loss of Smits’ unfortunately canceled drama Cane from 2007.) Read more

Beat Sheets and Act Structure for Television Drama

 

As the tales of Don Draper, Walter White and Dexter Morgan come to an end and screenwriters everywhere struggle to create the next great TV protagonist, I have only one question.

Where are all of the “beat sheets” and structure “paradigms” for television drama? Read more