What does it mean to sell a pilot? Over the course of my career, my partner and I have sold anywhere between a dozen and two dozen pilots. It goes like this. The writer will come up with an idea and then they pitch the idea to a studio or network. Sometimes they have talent attached or they have a big shot producer or a director attached, but often they’ll just go in on their own and pitch this idea. The whole song and dance will take about a half hour. Afterward, whoever you’re pitching it to we’ll give you a yes or no. And most of the time it takes them a few days to come up with a yes or no. That person you’ve pitched to has to confer with their colleagues, they bring it up the ladder, and they say yes or no. Sometimes pitching up the ladder, the idea will get lost in translation.

So, whoever has to hear it after them, they’re pitching to their boss and that’s not ideal because the excitement might be gone. Nothing you can do about it really. If you’re a high-level writer, often they will afford you the courtesy of pitching to someone who has the power to say yes in the room but not always. Sometimes things are out of your control and it doesn’t really happen. So that’s the end of that. One time in our career, they bought it in the room. They said, yes. They heard the pitch and they said, yes. And my partner and I were so shocked that we looked at each other and like, wow, what did she just say? Because that’s only happened one time in our careers that they said yes in the room. So once they say, yes, they are commissioning a script. They’re paying you for one script and that’s all it is. And depending on who you are and what network it is and how much they want it, you could get into a bidding war.

They could pay you anywhere between 50,000 and 350,000 for a script or more depending on if you’re a real big shot. So now you write the script. Well, actually first you write the outline. They give you notes on the outline. Then you turn in your first draft, and more notes. Second draft, more notes. Sometimes they make you do a light polish on the second draft. And then that’s the end of that. They may decide to shoot it. Now they’ve decided if they want to shoot it or not. Most of the time they do not shoot it. Depending on what network you’re selling it to, the odds might be one out of 10 or even less that they’re going to shoot the thing because shooting it is another investment of, let’s say it could cost another million dollars to shoot a pilot and they have to pay the writer more money. They have to higher actors, build sets, and directors and all that stuff. So it’s a big investment. Most of the time, it just goes nowhere. That’s the end of that.

If you shoot the pilot, now that doesn’t mean it’s even going to be on the air. Now they have to decide whether they want to put it on the air. And the odds of that happening might be one out of 10 pilots that they shot will make it to the air or less or more depending on the network, of course. So just because you sell a pilot, doesn’t mean it’s going on the air. It doesn’t mean they’re shooting it. It just means you’re getting paid for the script. Wow. For more on what it’s like to be a professional TV writer and how to become one, you can follow me here. Subscribe, like, share, comment, all that stuff they tell you to do on YouTube. Or you can find me on Instagram. I have exclusive content there @MichaelJaminwriter.

Michael Jamin, Showrunner, TV Writer, Author

Michael Jamin

For the past 26 years, Michael Jamin has been a professional television writer/showrunner. His credits include King of the Hill, Beavis & Butthead, Wilfred, Maron, Just Shoot Me, Rules of Engagement, Brickleberry, Tacoma FD and many more.

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