The Dead Zone's Michael Piller
July 29, 2002 11:18 AM   Subscribe

The Dead Zone's Michael Piller is probably one of the most under-appreciated creative talents in Hollywood. One of the most egalitarian executives, he always lets the fans of his shows have a chance to get behind the scenes. (Acrobat required for download you'll find at link, and more inside)
posted by WolfDaddy (17 comments total)
Putting aside Piller's talents as a writer--other than pointing out that he did write the best. Cliffhanger. Ever.--his talents as a leader seem even more impressive. He went against Hollywood tradition by throwing open the doors to aspiring screenwriters, allowing them to submit unsolicited scripts for nearly every incarnation of Star Trek, Enterprise sadly excluded. Now, as creator and exec producer on USA's The Dead Zone, he's allowing fans to download the entire script for each episode, and communicating to fans with weekly updates on the show's website. This seems to me to be a great way to not only ensure repeat visits to the site, but also inspire people young and old to write.

Gotta appreciate the man's dedication to looking outside Hollywood boundaries for talent. While you may not know too much about the man himself, his hand is behind a significant chunk of today's entertainment. He seems like one of the few people in Hollywood I'd actually like to have a pitch session with.

The Dead Zone is an unqualified success for USA, and you know what? It's an interesting show, despite my initial beliefs. I firmly hold a lot of the show's success is due to one man's efforts. Kudos and congratulations to Michael Piller.
posted by WolfDaddy at 11:30 AM on July 29, 2002

Man, how I wish Alan Ball of HBO's "Six Feet Under" would follow suit.
posted by ColdChef at 12:58 PM on July 29, 2002

Wow, I never knew about that policy they had for Star Trek submissions! I wish I had heard about it when Voyager was still on - I coulda written better stuff than some of those eps...
posted by GriffX at 1:17 PM on July 29, 2002

I just have to mention that Anthony Michael Hall has matured into quite a good actor, imho.

It still freaks me out to see him all grown up and stuff, considering that images from Sixteen Candles flood my mind every time I see him.

I would have sworn that he was going to grow into a spindly geek-type or something.

Mental note: watch the Breakfast Club again, it's been at least five years since I saw it last.
posted by beth at 1:35 PM on July 29, 2002

I don't believe that statement about accepting unsolicited scripts for Star Trek for a second.
posted by bingo at 3:52 PM on July 29, 2002

bingo, on the off chance you're not being facetious (after all, Voyager left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths), here's a little info for you from Wired about the now-defunct script policy.
posted by WolfDaddy at 4:13 PM on July 29, 2002

It's a tradition that goes back to Roddenberry's insistence on getting "real" sf authors like Harlan Ellison and Ted Sturgeon to write for his series; and being a writer himself, the Great Bird was one of the first to accept "transom" scripts, or at least script pitches, such as David Gerrold. Piller's to be commended for bringing the same openness to the later Treks; I distinctly recall around Season 4 of TNG when they got Paramount's permission, and they held the first Trek Writer's Workshop. Even if it didn't help you sell a script for Trek, it would have been a great introduction to television writing.

GriffX: unfortunately, no matter where an idea came from, it would have to be processed by the committee-driven script editors. I was always frustrated how VOY could get a great premise, flesh it out in the first three acts, then bring it all to a smashingly dull, premise-shattering close in the fourth. Supposely some of this had to do with, by rumor, either Brannon Braga or Jeri Taylor; mostly it was Paramount's insistence on a strict regimen of indistinguishable changes in the major characters and plot situations, the dreaded "reset factor".

I'm kinda looking forward to Dead Zone; I'm no King fan, in general, but that's one of his that I liked; and the film was pretty nifty as well.
posted by dhartung at 7:02 PM on July 29, 2002

I tried to watch "Dead Zone" but found it pretty dreadful. Hearing that a guy who was heavily involved in Star Trek is executive producer on this show doesn't exactly inspire me to give it a second chance.
posted by kindall at 8:58 PM on July 29, 2002

WolfDaddy: I was being serious. I read your link, and I still don't believe it. I did some searching and found evidence that a few people who sent unsolicited scripts did indeed get invited to Paramount to pitch ideas, but not that any anonymous fans actually ended up writing for the show. Considering the morass of spec scripts that someone had to wade through, in addition to the load of solicited scripts those shows must have gotten, I strongly suspect that the whole thing was in essence a publicity stunt to make fans feel like they had a real relationship to the show.
posted by bingo at 1:42 AM on July 30, 2002


Ron Moore, who went on to do the story for Mission Impossible 2

Rene Echevarria, late of Now and Again

To name two :-)
posted by WolfDaddy at 11:25 AM on July 30, 2002

WolfDaddy: There is no evidence in either of those links that those people submitted unsolicited scripts to the show. In fact, it sounds as if both of them became professional TV writers through the conventional channels. They probably had agents or managers pass their specs on to the producers, and they got meetings that way...and that's the very definition, in Hollywood terms, of what sending a "solicited" script is.
posted by bingo at 1:50 AM on July 31, 2002

bingo, \/\/hateva. I'm too nice to rip those scales from your eyes.
posted by WolfDaddy at 9:47 AM on July 31, 2002


I'm sorry to hear that, because I'm not too nice to rip the rose petals from yours.

"Unsolicited" means, basically, "not submitted through an agent or manager." This is a use of the word "solicited" it the old British sense, as in referring to a certain kind of laywer as a "solicitor." In Hollywood, your agent or manager is your "solicitor." A production company interested in a particular writer they already know about (because he's well-known, because an executive met him at a party and liked him, or whatever), may ask that writer for a spec, "soliciting" it according to more conventional language, but even then, the script is almost always (like, 99.9% percent of the time) submitted through an agent or manager anyway. That's because if a writer without representation (an agent or manager) gets his script requested by a production company, it's understood that he is going to get representation immediately, and his new agent is going to submit the script.

Any intelligent writer with such an opportunity to get an agent would take it, because getting an agent is itself a) difficult and b) necessary.

Most agencies do not themselves accept unsolicited manuscripts, a deliberate paradox designed to keep out everyone but the most talented, or at least the most determined, or at least everyone who doesn't have a connection in the agency. Writers need agents because, among other things a) agents are trained to get the writer the best deal, b) agents protect the writer from various legal pitfalls, and usually hook the writer up with a lawyer (sometimes an in-house agency lawyer) as part of their job, and c) an agent is the one who is going to go around telling the right people (one hopes) about the writer and his new assignment, and land him additional jobs.

Usually, when an unrepresented writer gets a serious "nibble" from a production company, that writer has no problem finding an agent; after all, the agent knows that part of his own job is already done, and that if a deal is made, he stands to make an easy 15%.

A "spec" script is any script written on one's own time, that is, without already being under contract to write it for some specific entity for a certain amount of money.

The standard way to become a writer for a TV show (if you have no previous professional tv/film writing experience) is to send that show a *solicited* spec, for that spec to make it past the interns and other screeners, who write "coverage" or analyses, of it, so that their bosses don't have to bother reading the crap.

So, a writer gets past the initial hurdle of getting an agent, and then that agent submits the writer's spec TV script to a TV show. Depending on the strength of the agent and the degree of his and the writer's connection to the show, together with how successful the show is at the time, the spec script will be read (probably, it may still end up in a drawer) by either an assistant/intern, and "covered," or in special cases, read directly by a professional writer/producer who works for the show (in TV, most writers are also producers).

However, here are two additional relevant facts:

a) Even if the producer likes the spec, the show is unlikely to buy it outright, or to hire the writer on that basis. Chances are that the spec in some way conflicts with plans for the show (character development, actors who are going to leave, secrets about the world of the show that have yet to be reavealed to viewers, the show's budget, etc.). So the writer is brought in to pitch ideas for possible episodes. If the producers like the ideas, and just as importantly, if they feel that this writer is someone who would fit into their particular high-stress, 15 hours (or more) per workday environment, they will commission him to write one episode. That episode is a paid gig, which is a big deal to the new writer, but the agreement does not mean that the script he writes is necessarily going to be filmed, or aired, and if it is, it will probably happen after the script has been revised extensively by the rest of the writing staff, especially the showrunner (i.e. Joss Whedon in the case of Buffy).

b) It's conventional wisdom that even if a TV show solicits a spec script from a writer, the writer doesn't send them a spec for *that show*. That's because, as mentioned above, the spec is likely to seem "wrong" to the show's writers for some reason or other...even if you have seen every episode five times, you still don't spend nearly every waking moment of every day thinking about and planning the show, and the people who do are likely to find all sorts of problems with what you've done. The idea is to send a spec (two, in fact, or more) of shows that are similar, that the writers for the show you want to work on have surely watched, but that they are not so intimately familiar with that they'll be motivated to find a flaw in every line you write.

Getting hired to write a single episode is essentially an audition to work on the show regularly (unless you're already a big shot freelancer, or a big shot writer from another arena like Harlan Ellison). If everything goes well, and the producers like you, then maybe you end up as part of the staff, in which case your stuff still gets rewritten all the time.

Now let's look at the two bios you linked to:

Ronald D. Moore graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Political Science. After college, he moved to Los Angeles in hopes of becoming a working writer. He was two weeks away from joining the United States Navy when Michael Piller, the co-executive producer of Star Trek: The Next Generation, called with good news. His first script, "The Bonding", led to an assignment and a spot on the writing staff in 1989.

After graduating with a degree in History from Duke University in 1984, Rene Echevarria moved to New York City to pursue a career in theater. He joined the Circle Repertory Lab Company in 1985, where he assistant directed a production of Victor Muniz' play "Darts", and acted in a production of Gorky's "Lower Depths". In 1986, he acted in Kristin McCloy's play "Isosceles" at the Chelsea Theater, and in 1987, he was seen in the La Mama Theater adaptation of Aeschuylus' "Oresteia". He collaborated with Kristin McCloy on the full-length play "Prepared", which was presented at the World's End Theater in London during 1988, and went on to be performed at that year's Edinburgh Festival. In 1989, he wrote a spec script for 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' called "The Offspring". He became a Story Editor for the show's sixth season, and Executive Story Editor during its seventh and final season, for which the show received an Emmy Nomination for Best Dramatic Series.

Honestly, these both seem to be stories of people becoming writers through the most conventional channels. One had been living in LA, writing and making connections, one had been writing professionally in another dramatic medium. Of course, they leave out the parts about how they got their agents and how they made their connections, but that's typical; most people don't care, and most working entertainment industry people don't want to publicize the details about who they knew and who did them a favor and how they first convinced someone to take them seriously. As far as I know, they both took honest, direct approaches to becoming TV writers, and those approaches paid off...but there is *no* evidence there to suggest that they were fans who sent in unsolicited manuscripts as per the myth described above.
posted by bingo at 2:27 PM on July 31, 2002

play nice, ladies.
posted by ColdChef at 2:47 PM on July 31, 2002

Okay, bingo, nice summation of what it's like to try and break into the industry using conventional channels. You seem familiar with the process, so I'm assuming you've done your research or have practical experience with it.

That in mind, let's look at a lesser light in the Star Trek writer's pantheon, one Ethan Calk.

Looks like his only credits are story credits for two Deep Space Nine episodes, though he seems to be making ongoing attempts to write a salable screenplay. He lives in San Antonio. He frankly describes the script submission process he went through on his site and in this interview. While he does have a degree in broadcast media, this appears to be of little import, given his location in Texas, hardly the place one resides if one's truly committed to going Hollywood. He submitted a script for The Next Generation, which got him a pitch session for Deep Space Nine, which went favorably, which got him an assignment, which got him story credits for two well-done episodes of that series. He's a fan who had a dream come true.

By submitting a wholly agent-less, unsolicited script, at least from where I sit after reading all this. What do you think?
posted by WolfDaddy at 7:40 PM on July 31, 2002

Ack, try this link as well for more detailed info on how Calk got his story credit for one DS9 episode.
posted by WolfDaddy at 7:42 PM on July 31, 2002

Calk's starstruck descriptions of his meeting notwithstanding, what really seems to have happened is that he sold Paramount a couple of ideas. He has never been commissioned to write anything, and, probably, neither Piller nor anyone else in the company ever considered hiring him to write.

[Piller] went against Hollywood tradition by throwing open the doors to aspiring screenwriters, allowing them to submit unsolicited scripts for nearly every incarnation of Star Trek...

The last part of this statement seems to be technically true, in that unsolicited Star Trek scripts were apparently not returned unopened just because they were unsolicited.

Yes, a door was opened, in order for a person of immense wealth and power to buy a couple of ideas from a star-struck high school computer repairman on the cheap. But Calk was not being offered a chance to begin a writing career. The idea that the unsolicited script he submitted might actually be filmed as written was, I believe, never seriously entertained.

It wouldn't surprise me if this was the only example that can be found of someone who actually made any sort of headway through this supposed open-door spec submission policy. Even if there are others, I bet the stories aren't much different.

I think that PIller looked at his immense fan base, saw how desperate many of them were to feel connected to what he was doing, and decided that he could pay a bunch of desperate, cloying interns to sort through tens of thousands of scripts written by desperate, cloying fans, and end up with a few ideas good enough to be bought for a pittance and transformed into a part of his machine.
posted by bingo at 3:13 AM on August 1, 2002

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