By Joe McAdam
This is an advice article. I want to apologize up top for that and just get it out of the way. Advice should be exchanged between a doctor and patient, and that’s it. I can’t think of one single other instance where you’d take advice. I am a 30 year old stand up comedian and writer with relatively little success. I’m unqualified to advise anyone on their life or work, and I try not to take advice from anyone myself. That said, this is probably the only good advice you’ll ever hear in your life. I will give you tips on how to make an independent sitcom pilot.
Right out of the gate I want to make it clear that I did not create a sitcom pilot on my own. I wrote it with three other people (Chris Stephens, Megan Green and Joe Kwaczala) and it was directed and edited by Daniel Clark. You may be able to do this by yourself, but I definitely could not. All the stuff should still apply if you’re the writer/actor/director/editor, but you will want to die. This will not be an all inclusive “how to” but rather some tips that were relevant to my experience making the show. I don’t know anything about editing, or color correction or even where we rented our cameras from. That seems like something you can Google. Plus, it’s boring.
Anyway, myself and my co-creators made a pilot, Cowards, last year, entered it into the New York Television Festival and won Best Comedy, we put it online last week after months of keeping it hidden, and now I’m writing about it because it’s pretty cool that someone can make a pilot without the backing of a production company. If you have a good idea for a pilot, I hope this helps in any way.
Just like when you murder someone, the first thing you’re going to want to do is have a motive. To be perfectly honest, our motive was we thought we could do better than most pilots. Maybe that’s petty and small of us. Maybe your motive is to share your art or express yourself. That’s cool too! If you’re making a sitcom though, 90% of the motivation is that most sitcoms are bad and you can do better. This is my motivation for most things and it’s gotten me this far (I have hosted bar trivia for $75 on multiple occasions).
After you have a motive for doing this, I suggest you have friends (or coworkers/associates, if you struggle with intimacy) you work with who you see eye to eye with. You’re going to have to be with them for a few months on this. Make sure you guys don’t hate each other and have a similar creative vision for the project. If it’s not jiving, you’re going to hate it and the product will probably not satisfy you.
I guess that part’s easier said than done. The writers I worked with for this have been working together for years until we got around to making something of this scope. That’s definitely not a mandatory part of the process but it really helped out with us. We know each others comedic voices and maybe more importantly we do our best to make sure a lame idea doesn’t make it through the gate. A thing that most people overlook are that your ideas can be bad. We threw away a bunch of ideas before we landed on what we made. Come up with a bunch of ideas, ask people you trust for some honest feedback and go with what has legs.
Once you have your idea, you need to write it. This sounds dumb, but when I started writing I had no idea how to format a script and I was embarrassed that I didn’t know and I have ADD enough that I’d just stop right there and never get anything done after that first wall. So I got the free program Celtx. It makes it really easy by breaking down your writing by scene/character/dialogue etc. Plus it’s free and I definitely cannot afford Final Draft and am not smart enough to steal it.
OK, now we need to fund this project. This part sucks because you have to do math. Find out what you need to make this pilot happen then write it down or make a spreadsheet or something. This will include obvious stuff like hiring people to help out, renting equipment, and securing a place to shoot as well as stuff you may not think about like food on set and a permit if needed. Make a list of every single prop and costume piece (I had to buy two fedoras!), and price it as cheaply as you can find.
Once you find all this out, ask yourself, is it worth it? Do you need to film in a baseball stadium? Would it be OK if you just replaced that with, let’s say, someone’s apartment? You can change your script based on costs if you need to. Let’s be honest, if expense wasn’t an issue, I’d use “Layla (Piano Exit)” in every scene I write, but as I’ve learned it’s often better that you have financial limits.
Now, how will you pay for producing this script? You can crowdfund it! I don’t have a problem with crowdfunding, but you only get one, so make sure you’re confident in this. No one will give to you twice. This is another area where working with friends really helps. I know you’re not supposed to make relationships financial, but that rule only applies to greedy people (make sure your friends aren’t greedy people before going in on something financially) Because I wrote this with three friends, we all split costs for the production. We saved receipts every step of the way and split it evenly.
All told, we spent roughly $2000 on our pilot which is extremely cheap. Anecdotally, when we went to the festival with our pilot it was far and away the least expensive production I was aware of. Some people were spending $25,000 or more for their half hour shows. While this is cheap by real TV standards, almost no one can fund that independently. Be as thrifty as possible. Call in favors where you can. Your extras should be friends that will work for food if possible. Make your own food (I have a craft services credit in our pilot and I’m very proud of the enchiladas I made for everyone).
I also want to let you know, this is your one time you can get people to work for cheap or free. You probably cannot ask this favor twice. Your pilot is your proof that you’re worth being paid. Hopefully next time you put together a production you will be spending someone else’s money and can compensate everyone.
This next tip is maybe too specific, but don’t fall asleep outside after your shots are done on day one and then get really sunburned so your shots the next day don’t match and you have to be coated in an inch of makeup. This happened to…a guy I know…
Alright, that’s about the extent of my knowledge on production stuff. We used a trusted director of photography and sound guys and grips and all that. I currently live in LA so there’s no shortage of these people around, but if you’re somewhere else, check out the film department of a local school, or screen someone through Craigslist if you like to live on the edge. That’s another tip: Craigslist rules. I’ve used it numerous times from finding kids to puke on for sketch comedy stuff, to our “crazy old man” and “boy with broken penis” from Cowards. I mean, it’s a total crap shoot, and make sure you actually audition people, but it’s a great tool. Just don’t get murdered.
OK, so your pilot is shot! If you’re not an editor yourself I highly recommend sitting in with your editor to make cuts with them especially if you’re doing comedy. Filmed comedy lives and dies by the editing. You need someone who knows what’s funny to edit, and even then the tiniest of details may drive you crazy if not done right. Shaving a quarter second can turn into the difference in a scene working.
Once it’s cut and in its final state you should know what you’re going to do with it. We entered Cowards into a festival which seemed like a good idea. It was. I recommend doing this. The New York Television Festival gives you a lot of chances to pitch ideas to networks and meet with industry people and show off your work. If they’re into it, you’ll end up talking to them, getting cards and shaking hands. You’ll feel really important for a few days and make some connections that will hopefully get your foot in the door somewhere. There’s a whole bunch of other festivals too, and even if you don’t get in, you can set up a local screening and show off what you made.
There’s no guarantees about what will happen with your pilot. Some network may love it and want to buy it, but most likely it’ll be your best example of the work you do and something you’ll be able to show people to prove you can pull it off. It’s good for the résumé and I bet 20 years down the line, you’ll watch it and have a deep and honest sense of not complete shame about it. Good luck.