Friday, October 18, 2013

Timing Matters

One of the many, many little things you ought to know if you want to be a professional screenwriter is the development calendar. You might not expect it, but there are good times and bad times to send out a script.

The calendar is particularly important to television writers. Networks operate on a very specific cycle – they hear pitches for a specific period and then order pilot scripts of the ones they like. When they get those pilot scripts in, they decide which ones to make. When they see the pilots, they decide which ones to order to series. Try to pitch something new when they’re looking at completed pilots and you probably won’t even get in the room.

Cable has more flexibility (and networks have recently been attempting to move toward year-round development), but for practical purposes most channels have to look at a collection of pilots at the same time to pick the ones they want to fund that year. And it’s hard to move off that traditional network cycle because writers become available at certain times of the year. There’s a “staffing season” where writers meet with showrunners and producers to get hired on a show. Once that season ends, a lot of the best writers will be tied up for months.

There’s a pretty good rundown of the TV development season here.

The feature film world is not so strict, since movies are for the most part one-off propositions that can take as long as needed to develop. But there is still a loose calendar that comes into play.

The development business shuts down for the holidays, and doesn’t really get going again until after Sundance in early February. Then people come back to work eager and energized and with brand new budgets (most studios have a calendar year fiscal year, Disney being an exception). There’s usually a flurry of activity from February through April.

As you get into summer, things slow down. People are tiring and budgets are getting lower so execs get pickier. Then, it’s kind of an unwritten rule that August is vacation month. Even if your agent or manager stays in town, they will have trouble reaching people. This idea has now become so accepted that if an agent sends a script out in August the assumption is he/she is dumping it because it’s not very good.

In September people come back from vacation ready to work and there’s a good buying period for a month or two. Things start to shut down the week before Thanksgiving. You don’t want to send anything out Thanksgiving weekend, but you might get a week or two after. Nothing much goes out after mid-December because of the holiday distractions.

So you can see that the hottest time to send material into the marketplace is February/March and September. But you will also have a lot of competition in those periods. Also, there may be reasons to send out things at another specific time. Maybe you want to send out your spring break movie around spring break, for example. Or ride the coattails of a similar movie that was just a huge hit. Bottom line, you and your representatives should be strategizing timing.

This schedule assumes you are sending out material through an agent or manager. If you are looking for an agent or manager, you might consider this schedule as well, but in another way. Representation will be very busy in February/March and in September. August and December will still be filled with distraction. However, the slower summer months might be a good time for them to read scripts and meet with prospective clients.

These things can change over time, as does the type of material that does best in the market (pitch vs. script, for example). That’s why you should be at least skimming the trades. Understanding the rhythms of the business will help you create the most receptive environment for your material.

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