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Writing Treatments That Sell: Excerpt Who Are the Buyers?

It's a fifty-fifty deal. Just make sure we get the best of it.
--Samuel Goldwyn, instructions to his business affairs office

Some writers don't care whether their writing sells, or whether it sells soon. They have the luxury of writing nothing but what they like, and the freedom to continue doing it without needing to depend upon it as a source of income. If time, for you, is not of the essence, you'll simply write what you want to write and let the results find their way onto the screen in their own time. But if you're interested in moving your career along the fastest possible track toward receiving financial rewards in proportion to the effort your making, it's more than just a good idea to keep in mind who your buyers are going to be while you're in the process of identifying good dramatic stories and bringing your treatments of them into focus. Keeping market considerations in mind you'll be able to expedite your career success. For those who are interested in speeding along, this chapter provides information on who your prospective buyers are, and what they're looking for. Of course both buyers and what they're buying change as rapidly as anything else in our accelerating world. The general observations that follow should be supplemented by current research (through phone calls and through checking the most recent directories).

Broadcast Television (sometimes referred to as "free TV") includes advertiser supported broadcast networks and cable-delivered advertiser supported channels that arrive in your home at no extra cost to you beyond the cost of your antenna or basic cable service. The networks (a subdivision of broadcast television or free TV) are groups of TV stations throughout the U.S. interconnected by satellite that are primarily programmed from a single corporate headquarters, even though individual network affiliates may provide local news and public relations programming. The Network provides prime time programming, national news programming, and sports. In general, the free networks and Lifetime gravitate toward:
  • stories based on "true events"

  • a woman, or a family, "in jeopardy"

  • unique family dramas (whether true or fictional), including "occasional" pieces like Christmas or Thanksgiving stories

  • stories addressing topical female issues, as long as they don't offend broadcast sponsors (a story about breast cancer that indicts the chemical companies recently could not be sold for fear of offending Dow Chemical). In this respect, the Fox Network is an exception (their market is driven by young men).

  • Sci-fi/fantasy: as long as it's reality-driven and earth-based, but stories in which today's audience has an identifiable stake (and no more than 10-30 years into the future!)

  • Heroic stories of any kind, as long as they're contemporary.

What's generally not marketable to the primary television broadcasters:
  • Comedy of any kind, romantic or otherwise (unless a major motion picture star is attached). Network audiences want serious drama.

  • Straight romance, unless it's based on a novel by Danielle Steel or Judith Krantz (both of whom already have ongoing network deals).

  • Movies about minorities. The percentage of non-Caucasian network audiences is small; though there's a developing trend toward expanding minority programming, you'd be better off selling a minority story to a minority broadcaster like the Black Entertainment Network (though the Fox Network has done wonders in this area of programming).

Advertiser supported Broadcast television networks include ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox. Advertiser supported cable-delivered networks are A&E, CNN, Discovery, Lifetime, PBS, TNT, and USA.

Subscriber Cable Television (sometimes called "pay TV") refers to all networks and cable-delivered stations that cost the consumer an extra fee. Pay-per-view is a subcategory of pay TV. Subscriber cable television includes HBO, Disney, Cinemax, and Showtime. The most powerful cable networks, HBO and Showtime (as well as Turner), generally buy stories with a strong male lead, who can be identified with by a predominantly male audience. They also want a strong female second lead, who adds sex appeal to the story.
Who's the audience?
As we've said, each programmer tends to serve a particular demographic. Although subject matter goes in cycles, the audience profile of a given channel is fairly constant. The most important homework you can do if you're writing for TV is to watch TV yourself! If you watch television regularly, you'll begin to discern what kind of projects are being bought by what buyers. For instance a network's evening program line-up is used as a promotional platform leading the same audience into watching that network's movie. So what appeals to the viewers of "Friends" or "Murder, She Wrote" is the type of television movie that will ordinarily air following that program. Keeping in mind that competition is forcing constant change among the buyers,
  • CBS programming traditionally appeals to an older audience--the fully mature female--and to family viewers.

  • NBC appeals to female boomer-aged viewers.

  • ABC is younger, hipper, family programming.

  • Fox is also younger, hip, trendy, and leaning toward Generation X; it's focal audience is male, and it will take chances with programming.

  • USA once made genre movies and was male-oriented, but has now turned to broadcast network type programming.

  • Lifetime programs projects for and about women.

  • TNT favors period pieces, movies on subjects of "global importance," biographies focusing on a compelling aspect rather than cradle to grave, and classics. But this network is also star-driven and will do almost any project which an a or b list feature star may want to do.

  • HBO programs male-oriented projects, best-selling books, sexy thrillers, "global importance" projects, and action films with feature-level casting.

  • Although The Disney Channel used to program for children and family viewers, by 1996 they had turned to seeking network-type programming.

The TV Movie Market
Because there are so many broadcasters requiring enough programming to fill their channels, and good enough programming to beat the competition's ratings, TV is a major, insatiable, market for writers. Sometimes identical ideas create a television film simultaneously with a theatrical film, as with TNT's "Kissinger and Nixon" which appeared months before Oliver Stone's Nixon. Because a sufficient amount of time had passed since the deaths of President and Mrs. Nixon, the examination of his life and presidency at this time made sense. Both the feature film and the television movie had a distinct point of view from which to scrutinize Nixon's unique persona.

Good drama tackles a bigger than life story by focusing on a galvanizing experience or event in the life of the main character. Ideas that aren't strong enough for the theatrical market, or ideas that are similar to theatrical stories, are often perfect for television. Topical or even political ideas, too "timely" for the long theatrical development process, are often just the thing a harried network programmer needs to "capture the night" against an ordinary film on another channel that happens to have extraordinary casting.
The TV market wants what it wants.
Keep in mind, as you write your TV treatment, that television is much more marketplace-driven than motion picture films. TV insiders have long considered television an "advertising" or "merchandising" medium, and it's safe to guess that if you can't imagine a mainstream major American sponsor (such as General Mills, Coca Cola, or Bristol Meyers) backing your idea for television the idea most likely has no substantial market in the United States of America. When we were giving regular "Writers' Lifeline" lectures at the Beverly Hills Library, one of our faithful lecture-goers kept showing up to tell us, "American TV should take chances. Why don't you mount a production of Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel (the classic French comic novel)." We replied: "Simon, we're not in Canada (where the government subsidizes programming simply because of its cultural content). There's no market in America for Rabelais." You are indeed welcome to become a crusader, and go out jousting with network executives to change the face of television. But if your goal is to make money by writing for TV, you'll be more successful thinking like a market analyst instead. Saying your "new idea" is very similar to "Northern Exposure" or "NYPD Blue" makes every ear perk up. Saying, "There's never been anything like this before," is not only an automatic turnoff; it's probably not even true.

Television is numbers-driven, controlled by the Nielsen Ratings that report to the media and the world on a daily basis who's watching what shows when. With forty or more channels for competition, and the consequent slicing up of audiences, the networks have begun to focus on audience demographics rather than on sheer numbers. Rather than shooting for the "highest share" of the evening, programmers are content with a solid 4% share of a particular demographic group such as "generation Xers" or the "thirtysomethings." Their sponsors, though still interested in high numbers, are intent on the type of consumer they want to reach. Mainstream TV programmers--the folks who set up the TV schedule by placing programs in time slots--are determined to garner and cultivate a particular audience, making sure they give them what they want to watch from this broadcaster. Outlets do exist for those who enjoy cultural programming like ballets, operas, and documentaries (including the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, A&E [Arts & Entertainment], and PBS); but if you choose to write for these "high-brow" broadcasters look forward to having fun in a wonderful creative forum--but on a shoestring.

What Can You Sell to TV?
Although it's relatively rare that a new writer sells an idea to television, it certainly happens regularly. Several people coming up with the same idea at the same time is such a common phenomenon that the sale of ideas and their purchase can be risky. For this reason, when they buy ideas at all, TV companies tend to buy them from people they already know and trust.

New writers and producers can sell ideas by creating treatments for them that show the purchaser "where the story is." It's not enough to say, "I have an idea." You need to execute the idea in a treatment (and don't forget to register it with the Writers Guild! see chapter 8). Everyone has ideas. The air is filled with them. In a typical week AEI will have nearly the identical idea pitched to us two or three times. What determines whether a story can be sold is your execution of the idea or concept. This explains another problem outsiders face. We hear the following question all the time:
"I have a great idea for TV. Can you find me a writer to collaborate with so I can sell it and break in?"
Writers who've already broken in have done so because they know how to execute their ideas in an effective manner. When they work on other people's ideas, including those given by experienced producers to executives, they're paid to do so. For an inexperienced writer or producer to approach an experienced writer and ask him to write "on spec" (the industry term for "speculative work," not paid for in advance) makes no career sense. If one of our experienced writers has time, we'll arrange for him to be paid by the inexperienced "idea person" so that the idea can be brought to salable level. But if, on your own, you can find a writer to collaborate with you, chances are that writer will be of no use to you in making the sale--on the premise that, if he were successful, he wouldn't have time to take a chance on your idea. And if he has a chance of being successful, he usually has so many good ideas of his own he doesn't want to distract himself with someone else's, over which he has no control, unless he's paid as he goes.

What we've just said applies primarily to original, fictional ideas. Things are easier for the inexperienced writer or producer when it comes to nonfiction. If what you're trying to sell is a true story the rights to which you control (and if you don't control them, find out how to control them before you take the next step as we discuss in chapter 5), you may indeed attract a co-writer to work with you on spec. In this case, some of the same cautions apply. If the co-writer has no credits, he or she may be a detriment to your potential deal. If he has credits, he'll probably want money; or, if he thinks the idea is eminently salable, he may agree to act as a writer-producer in exchange for the right from you to pursue the sale.

If you have the rights to a powerful true story, another approach is to go directly to a producer (like AEI; our phone number and email address are printed at the end of the book) after registering your story with the Writers Guild (as described in chapter 8). If we think your story is salable, we help you secure the rights, make a deal with us; and, often, assist you in preparing a treatment in order to justify a "story by" credit for you (which may end up, as the story evolves toward production, being shared with an experienced writer; but which is still a major step forward in the business).

A buyer's checklist
Subject matter aside, all television buyers determine a particular story's attractiveness by considering the following elements:
  • Concept. Does this story provide a fresh new angle on a subject important to our audience?

  • Castability. Is the hero or heroine a character one of today's TV stars--or, even better, motion picture stars--will want to play?

  • Setting. Does it fit TV? Setting should be scaled down, for limited locations. If your true story actually took place in three cities, try to make it one or two.

  • Budget. Can the story be done for a price. Movies for television have budgets ranging from $1 million (Lifetime) to $4-5 million (HBO, Hallmark), with the networks averaging around $2.6 million. This contrasts with $10-$100 million for feature film budgets. The more expensive to film this story, and the longer time needed to shoot it (TV movies are generally shot in 18-21 days), the more likely it is that it'll be considered as a feature film rather than a television film.

So you see how important it is to determine what your career goals are before you set out to sell to TV. If what you want to accomplish is a one-time sale of a family story, you should probably go directly to someone in the business after registering the story. Tell them what you've got. If your goal is to establish a career in writing for TV, you should attempt a treatment before going to that same source; or work with a collaborator; but only if you're absolutely certain that your collaborator is, in every sense, an asset to the deal--and that you have a clear written agreement with him before you begin your work. Obviously, the first skill in selling to television is recognizing what a good story idea is. To train this instinct, we repeat: Nothing can take the place of actually watching TV.


It's virtually impossible, primarily for legal reasons (based on the studio's fear of litigation), for an inexperienced writer to sell a first treatment directly to a major studio. Your best bet is to hunt down a production company and try to entice them first. Production companies come in two primary flavors:

In-house production companies. Successful writers, producers, and directors are given "housekeeping deals" at the major studios in exchange for the studio's "right of first refusal" to the product they develop. Because the in-house production company has a close relationship to the studio that finances and distributes films, generally speaking its interest in your treatment puts you in good position for a sale. The problem is that once an in-house company has one, two, or three (depending on the principal's clout in the marketplace and at the studio) projects in development, the studio is loath to put yet another story into the works until it sees the outcome of the others.

The key question to ask an in-house producer who's interested in your treatment is, What do you have in development? If the answer is, "We just set up house with MGM and we have yet to place something in development," you're in good shape. If the answer is, "We have five projects in development," proceed with caution. Too often the in-house producer is forced to sit on projects until the outcome of other development deals is known. Technically, most housekeeping deals allow the producer to go to another studio if the host studio has passed on a project it's offered by him. But, in practice, shopping that project outside the host is dangerous for the producer; primarily because he wants to do nothing that will jeopardize the status of his projects already in development. Both in-house producers and independent producers are listed in The Hollywood Creative Directory (order your own copy by calling 800-815-0503; In any directory you can tell which producers are which flavors because the in-house producers' address is most often, though not always, identical with a studio's address (Richard Donner's company, for example, lists its address at the Warner Bros. lot). The Hollywood Creative Directory actually tells you whether the production company has an in-house deal. Under "Zide Entertainment," for example, it lists:
"DEAL: Walt Disney Pictures/Touchstone Pictures"

Independent production companies. An independent producer, like AEI, pays its own overhead and does its best to deal with the everyday vagaries of cash flow in a notoriously volatile industry--in exchange for its freedom to sell to everyone without restriction. AEI, in partnership with Zide Entertainment and represented by Paradigm, sold Rick Lynch's 180 Seconds at Willow Park to New Line Cinema for Renny Harlin ("Cliffhanger") to direct. Also in partnership with Zide, but represented by International Creative Management, we sold Brett Bartlett's Sign of the Watcher to Propaganda Films; and Meg and Phobos to Walt Disney Pictures.

Observe caution in working through an independent producer, making sure you check the company's credits and reputation in the industry. In the rough and tumble world of entertainment, these companies are too frequent victims and come and go like restaurants in Los Angeles or New York. Asking an independent producer, "What do you have in development?" will help you judge his future stability. The producer who answers with several projects is a better bet for you than one who tells you only about what he's already done. If he has no credits, and little or nothing in development, keep shopping! Getting an "option payment" for your treatment isn't as important as "getting the film made"! Don't judge a company's effectiveness by how much it's willing to pay you up-front or promise you. Some of the most successful independent producers in town pay almost nothing for options; they figure you're lucky to have them as partners because their chances of getting the film done are better than anyone else's.

The in-house producer has the studio's "deep pockets," as does the inexperienced independent producer who enters the industry with a bank roll. But keep your eyes focused on the production money and you'll do a better job of sorting out who's the best ally in getting your treatment sold.

Using a "spec script" to sell future treatments
In order to sell yourself as a screenwriter, you must have a completed screenplay. You may, however, be able to find an independent producer to take your treatment to the buyers. If you've written a spec script that has impressed people in the industry, you may be asked what other ideas you have. These you can write in treatment form and working with the independent producer to perfect the treatment you may in this way be able to make a development deal with the studio that will pay you to write a script based on the treatment's idea.

How to sell the feature treatment
Both in-house producers and independent producers are constantly on the look out for good stories to make into films. When you're ready to approach a producer, call the producer's company and ask for the name of the head of development who's responsible for acquiring and developing new screenplays and projects. In most cases he or she's the person to approach first, not the principal of the company--unless a contact gets you directly to the principal with an introduction, chance encounter, or recommendation. Once you've determined the appropriate individual at the production company, your approach is the same as for an agent or manager. The in-house producer may tell that you need an agent to submit to them. Their relationship with the studio makes them particularly vulnerable targets to nuisance suits. The independent producer is more likely to listen to your story, and to read your treatment without representation.

Selling book-film treatments
Developing your idea into a book is, in fact, an excellent strategy for piquing the interest of the feature film community. Treatments based on novels, whether published or unpublished, are sold every month in Hollywood. And, of course, if your story sells as a book first, your chances of selling it as a film are greatly enhanced. But you may also sell your story as a film and not as a book at all, nonetheless launching your career in show business. The ideal scenario, which we focus on at AEI, is, of course, to sell a story in both the publishing and film worlds.

Buyer's checklist
The feature film buyer, though he has much wider latitude for selection than does the television buyer, still considers the following elements in a story offered for production:

  • Concept. Does this story provide a subject matter and/or theme "large enough" to attract a filmgoing audience? Will the concept appeal to a top director? Is it a "high concept," that translates in a very few words to word of mouth and "one-line" advertising campaigns (Doubleday-Bantam is selling Steve Alten's Meg as "A Novel of Deep Terror").

  • Castability. Is the hero or heroine a character one or more of today's stars will want to play?

  • Production Values. Does the setting or the concept itself lend itself to highly-visual, compelling film images--as in the opening scenes of Arachnophobia or the in-flight covert boarding of a 747 in Executive Decision? Because feature films seek the remarkable production values today's audiences demand they are less concerned with budget than TV films are.

Now that you understand the relationship between your product and its markets, it's time for some practical advice on how to register and protect your ideas--the subject matter of chapter 8.