Pilot or Feature?
I get this question all the time from new writers, and often find that new writers pick the wrong format for the kind of story they are telling. More than that though, from a selling standpoint, they haven’t considered pros and cons of trying to sell a feature versus a pilot. In this article, I want to break down those two questions and offer advice on how to handle.
To start, whether your story (or idea) should be made into a feature or a pilot essentially revolves around one key question: is your story contained or does it (can it) evolve? Another way to think of this is: does it have a main character with one tangible goal, or does it have many characters (an ensemble) with conflicting beliefs, desires, goals etc?
I have also found that newer writers tend to think writing a pilot is easier because it’s shorter. I have found writing a pilot to be much more difficult than writing a feature – it requires more set-up and payoff, better and bigger world building, and you have LESS real estate to accomplish more. Not to mention, a pilot is NOTHING without a pitch deck or series bible. Have you ever tried to write a series bible? It’s a lot like reading the bible! While there are certainly exceptions, I would encourage new writers to write a bunch of features before they write their first pilot.
Features have a beginning, middle and end. Relatively easy to follow structure/beats. Pilots are just so much harder to execute well.
Moreover, I strongly believe it is harder for a new writer to sell a pilot than a feature. Making a TV series is a much bigger commitment, both financially and timewise. An average episode of television costs 4-5 million per episode. With ten-episode seasons, that’s roughly $50MM a buyer (network/studio) has to commit to on someone who has never written a TV show! Yikes.
With features, newer writers can easily write a script that is under $5MM, and poses way less risk to a potential investor. In both cases, a newer writer will need attachments (actor, producer, director), but again, I would argue it’s easier to get one of those elements attached to feature than a pilot. This is primarily because selling a TV show requires a Showrunner. And for the most part, Showrunners would rather work on/create their own material. They are WRITERS first and foremost after all. In the feature world, directors are always looking for new scripts to make.
While most projects, feature or tv, are first optioned by a Producer, whose job it is to attach those elements mentioned above, I would still put my money on a newer writer selling their first feature, before they sell their first pilot.
Some caveats to point out. At the time of this article, Summer 2021, Hollywood is incredibly diverse-thinking, and seeking new voices of young BIPOC writers – particularly in TV. If you are a diverse writer, your odds of staffing on a TV show, and/or selling a TV show are higher.
Lastly, having a feature get made typically takes much longer than TV. The average time it takes to get a movie made is 5-7 years. TV is typically 2-3 years. Something else to consider before you put pen to paper!