Pilots Versus Features: A primer for beginning screenwriters
Some screenwriting projects clarify their destiny as a pilot or feature before you even have the chance to boot up Final Draft. Other times, the process is a bit more evolutionary, as when a writer realizes they have just too dang much story for a two-hour movie and shift gears toward a television series. While mismatching form and content can become a complete nightmare, here’s the wake up call you need to understand the differences between pilots and features.
First, let’s assess the most obvious difference between pilots and features: page length. It’s by no means the be-all, end-all of the discussion, but it is one of the first things any reader, producer, or agent will notice about your script. Oh, it’s over 90 pages? Must be a feature. 60 pages? Television pilot, probably a drama. 30 pages? Time to see if this is the second coming of Parks and Recreation. Page length sets expectations, and the number alone can be enough to dissuade a reader from investigating any further.
My very first completed feature weighed in at a hefty 139 pages. I strenuously urge you to not follow in my footsteps, unless it is truly a labor of love and you don’t actually care about selling your script or winning awards. Many competitions have a 120 page limit, and producers aren’t usually interested in extremely long scripts from unknown writers. Why? Because time is money, and runtime is no exception. Longer films are always going to be a bigger financial risk, and why take a gamble on a writer without a proven track record?
Not every project is meant to be a first project, and no first project is destined to be your last.
Setting length aside, the next basic differentiation between pilots and features is their respective act structure. Bearing in mind that there will always be disagreements about the ‘best’ or ‘most perfect’ act structure (and I personally like to think in sequences), anyone will agree that pilots and features are fundamentally structured differently. A feature will often consist of 3 acts (4, if one thinks of a long middle act in two parts), while an hour-long pilot might have 5 acts. This article isn’t going to get into the weeds on what happens when, and what each act requires, content-wise — plenty of other writers have gone down that road before. And while these conversations around act structures matter, here’s what matters more.
Conflict development and resolution
In a feature, the idea is to establish a series of conflicts, evolve those conflicts over the course of several dozen pages, and then resolve them. Setting aside those examples where the lack of a concrete resolution is The Point, this pattern is visible in just about any film, book, graphic novel, or water cooler story. This is because it’s that latter bit that matters most: story. There’s no story without conflict. Who gives a hoot about a trip to the grocery store that goes perfectly well? Tell me about the time you almost got wasted by a slow-moving Acura in a Trader Joe’s parking lot. That’s a story.
The same goes for any feature-worthy plotline. Writing a rom-com? There’s got to be some reason why those silly lovebirds just can’t make it work (and preferably one that isn’t a cliched misunderstanding that could be easily resolved if the leads would just sit down and fluffing talk to each other). I’ve read a fair number of scripts where conflict is shockingly absent — the protagonist is perfect and wants for nothing, the antagonist is too incompetent to pose a real threat, and the story is origami-paper-thin. You really have to be a bit of a sadist in order to write effectively; handling your characters with gentle kid gloves is a recipe for failure.
Pilots are, unsurprisingly, different. Setting aside procedurals like CSI (I have no love for these shows, but I hear they’re a fairly effective path into The Biz, so that’s something worth considering), a good pilot will offer a combination of resolution and conflict that lays the groundwork for a full series. In other words, each episode of a series should advance the larger, season-long plot (without resolving it!) while simultaneously creating and resolving smaller conflicts along the way. As a competition judge, I’ve read pilots that contain 100% exposition (unsatisfying!), pose no clear premise (annoying!), and completely resolve their entire narrative (what’s the point?!).
In other words, when it comes to features, the end is truly The End. For the purpose of contests and other means of jamming your foot in the industry’s front door, do try to make the conclusion as final as possible; if you have to leave a thread untied, subtlety is key. However, practically speaking, you ought to leave it all on the field in these situations rather than relying on a sliver of a glimmer of a hope that there will be an opportunity to return to your world.
In a pilot, the end is also The Beginning. While the television landscape seems to perpetually evolve, you should always thoroughly demonstrate your concept via a mix of ‘contained’ and ‘expansive’ conflicts that generate momentum on multiple levels to propel individual episodes and open up the full season’s plot. This mix is truly what separates pilots and features, especially for new or unproven writers.
For the rebels
I can hear some of you thinking, “But my script is different! I can’t follow these rules! If someone would just read the first three episodes of my New Age fantasy-drama about eschatological fire faeries, they’d see how amazing my story is!” And you know what? You might be right! But you need to persuade readers your script is different, and that can be extremely difficult when faced with the short attention spans of overpaid producers and the frazzled mindsets of underpaid coverage writers. While I can assure you that I’m a member of the latter group who always reads the entire script, it’s a safe bet that more often than not, you’ve only got about 5–10 pages to grab your reader’s attention. You better snag that shit like we’re back in Spring 2020 and it’s the last roll of toilet paper at Target.
Realistically, you will never have the opportunity to present multiple episodes for a series as an unrepresented, unconnected, unknown writer. At most, you will have a chance to pitch your series bible (also known as a series atlas, and not entirely unrelated to a pitch deck). Even then, this document is more of an outline than an actual script; again, the faster you can impress someone with your ideas, the better.
If you are absolutely convinced you need more than a pilot to really illustrate what your show is all about, first ask yourself the following questions:
- Is there a version of your pilot that maybe doesn’t completely meet your artistic vision, but could convince a reader that your story is valuable?
- Or, is this a ‘magnum opus’ project for which you need to build a little industry goodwill before you can execute your true vision?
Let’s call #1 “The Launchpad Strategy.” You might also call it Operation Guns A-Blazin’. Its essence is this: don’t hold back on any twists or surprises or unique/original elements in your series. Cram them into your pilot and pray you’ll have the opportunity to not only grab a producer’s attention, but perhaps offer your original vision once you land some development meetings. You might not create the most subtle version of your story, but who has ever “subtly” kicked down a door before?
Next is “The Stockpile Strategy,” and it’s basically the peacekeeper to #1’s Tony Montana. If you don’t want to compromise your vision in order to increase your odds of industry success, then by all means, don’t. I mean this very seriously. Not every project is meant to be a first project, and no first project is destined to be your last. Hang onto your rule-breaking project for a future where you have the power to bend the rules directly, rather than convince someone else to do it for you.
Naturally, The Launchpad and Stockpile Strategies also apply to features, and to writers who start planning trilogies when they’ve barely written their first treatment. I always encourage a strategic approach to building one’s career, but being honest with yourself and where your artistic motivations lie always takes precedence. Just be sure to ask yourself if you’re writing a full, 20-episode season of “Judgment Day: Faeries of Fire” because you want to, or if because it’s simply within your comfort zone.
While I hope you know what to do if it’s the latter, I also hope that you now see that this is precisely what this form/content debate is all about: finding the best available medium for the ideas spinning around in our heads all the time. Not all media forms are available to new and unproven writers. Do the best you can with the content that you have, and with as much pragmatism as you can stomach.