Bruce Romans is a screenwriter, whose credits include Falling Skies (Steven Spielberg, Executive Producer), the Emmy nominated Netflix series Marco Polo, and four seasons of the hit AMC period drama Hell on Wheels. He’s also served as Supervising Producer for Marvel’s The Punisher and is Co-Executive Producer for Messiah on Netflix. He took time away from his busy schedule to talk to us about working in television and what writer’s can do right in their pitch meetings.
Lunacy: Why do you think more and more filmmakers are choosing to write for television these days?
Bruce Romans: It really is the new golden age of television now with the advent of Hulu and Netflix, Amazon and AMC, HBO and Showtime. All of these different outlets seem to pop up more and more. People are developing television series with an eye towards serialized storytelling. You can’t do that in film. But you can in these new markets, and we see evidence of that popping up all the time.
Transparent is a perfect example. Classically, it would never be considered for television broadcast. The way it’s written is strongly serialized. It’s even a tough show for HBO and Showtime, for any broadcast cable. These are shows that really have something to say. The opportunities to tell these kinds of stories has never been afforded before in history.
I personally credit HBO’s The Sopranos on cracking open that wave. It really led networks to want to develop more original programming. Now people who work in film are also working in television, because they have a lot more creative control.
LU: How did you first break into television?
BR: I started writing for television in an untraditional way. Usually if you want to write for TV is, you write spec scripts and try to get a job on the show as a writing assistant. Then you hope that whoever is the showrunner or executive producer will keep you around and promote you into a staff writing position the next season. A lot of people try to work their way up that way. Once you become an executive producer on a show and you’ve worked on a handful of quality shows, then you can go out, meet with the network yourself and pitch them your ideas.
I came into it backwards. I had written a small independent film that was getting made. Just with dumb luck, I was jogging with a friend of mine. He was a television executive at Fox but he was only in charge of comedy, because the networks divide drama and comedy into two different departments. I told him the idea and he said, “Why don’t you come into Fox tomorrow? I’m going to walk you across the hall to my counterpart in drama. Tell her your idea and we’ll see if she likes it.” It was a pitch meeting. I didn’t even know what a pitch meeting was at the time.
LU: For those that don’t know, how does a traditional pitch meeting work?
BR: When you have an idea for a TV show, you call your agents and they say, “Great. I think that would be a great fit for HBO, or Showtime, FX, etc.” They set up all the meetings. Then you go into a conference room or a small office. Sometimes your agents go with you, sometimes you go alone. You sit across the desk from three or four people in suits with notepads in their hands. They barely make eye contact and write the whole time as you pitch your idea. That’s basically it. Usually a good pitch should never be more than 20 minutes.
LU: Any good tips for a pitch meeting?
BR: You want to pitch what the show is in about 10 minutes. Then talk about your ideas for the future of it and how you see it coming together. You talk about what the show might look like and then wrap it up. Hopefully after that, they have questions. If they do, that usually shows they’re interested. But again, it shouldn’t go long.
Being able to pitch, knowing what your show is and being able to succinctly say it, is a good skill. Any chance you have to pitch your idea to someone is a great opportunity to practice. Before you meet with people, practice at home, because it’s very, very easy to talk yourself out of a sale. You need to be able to read the room and know when to be quiet.
I’ve been in the room with other people that have this great pitch. They’re on a roll and they realize the room is into it. That’s when they should’ve stopped. But then they say, “And then we’re going to have these clowns come in and they’re going to be riding the elephants…” and suddenly everyone is like, “Hmm?” At that point, there’s no going back. It’s done. It’s a constant battle between leaving out little bits that will keep them interested and overwhelming them with too much info.
LU: What if you already have a script that you want to sell?
BR: In general, you don’t necessarily write the full script and try to sell it. Often the network and the studios will want to put their stamp on it. That can be a good thing, because the more that an executive is invested in your script, the more they’re going to fight for it to be in that final group of show’s picked up. They feel some ownership over it. Anything I get to foster and have my hands on feels like my baby. That’s going to be worth fighting for. Then again, sometimes a script comes in fully ready.
Mad Men is a great example, Matt Weiner wrote the pilot script when he was working on the show Becker with Ted Danson. He was pigeonholed as a comedy writer and wanted to branch out. So, he did a bunch of research and the pilot of Mad Men as an example of how he could write a drama. His agents sent that around and used it as a spec to get him a job on The Sopranos. David Chase (the show’s creator) read it and hired him on the spot.
In the meantime, his agents were circulating the Mad Men script around. It was read all over town. Everyone passed on it, and passed on it, and passed on it. In 2006 after, I think, The Sopranos was starting to end, he became Executive Producer of the show. That’s when they started re-circulating the Mad Men script.
Everyone passed on it again except for AMC. There was one executive named Christina Wayne who saw it and was like, “This is something that’s different from everything else. This is a way that AMC can get into the original programming business and differentiate ourselves.” And he was off to the races! Stories like this happen every now and then, but it’s rare that an unsolicited pilot will be sold. Fortunately though, it’s becoming less rare.