Writer Joseph Gangemi is debuting his new show “Red Oaks,” on Amazon today. Red Oaks is produced by Steven Soderbergh and the pilot was directed by Pineapple Express director David Gordon Green. It’s about a tennis pro’s crazy adventures back in the summer of 1985. As some of you know, I used to support myself by teaching tennis, so I couldn’t resist getting Joe in for an interview. What transpired was a full on course study in how to get into television writing. So any screenwriter looking to break into TV is going to want to take notes. Also, you can check out Joseph’s show on Amazon right now! For free!
SS: Hey Joe. Why don’t we start off with you letting us know a little about who you are and how your writing career came about.
JG: Sure! I’ve been a member of the WGA since ’97 when I sold my first spec to New Line. That same year as luck would have it I also sold my first novel, which I’d written with a friend back in college and that had been sitting in a drawer for years. (It was eventually published under a pseudonym, so don’t bother Googling!) The serendipitous sales of novel and spec enabled me to quit my day job in corporate America and turn to full-time writing. It’s helped that I’ve done it from Philadelphia, where the cost of living is lower than LA, and where there are fewer distractions. (Though my agents and manager are constantly after me to relocate.)
Since then I’ve worked for most of the studios on open writing assignments, published another novel—this time under my actual name—and had two of my specs reach the screen, WIND CHILL, which starred Emily Blunt and came out in 2007, and STONEHEARST ASYLUM, staring Kate Beckinsale, Michael Caine, and Ben Kingsley, which will be released this October 24th (Shameless plug!) In that time I also began writing for TV, and to date have sold three projects, including “Red Oaks.”
Television is a really appealing medium for a writer, and especially a novelist. Whenever my writer friends bemoan the shortening of attention spans and the death of the novel I point out that audiences still seem just as addicted to long, sprawling, episodic storytelling as they did in the Victorian era when the novel was born—they’ve just embraced a new delivery system. Not that novels and episodic TV offer identical experiences; but I do think they offer audiences some overlapping pleasures, like immersion in richly populated worlds thick with subplots and digression, a greater sense of the passage of time, etc.
So I didn’t need much arm-twisting to try my hand at TV. Also, TV is enjoying a golden era akin to that of indie movies in the ’90s—it’s the place where offbeat storytelling is still welcome, where niche audiences are cultivated and anti-heroes celebrated. Whereas the economics of filmmaking and especially marketing have forced the studios to narrow their offerings to a specific bandwidth, namely tent poles and those few high concept comedies that can withstand translation into other languages.
I sold my first TV pitch to Lionsgate and ABC seven years ago. It was called “The Lodge” and was a haunted hotel show. Unfortunately like a lot of pitches it didn’t survive the development process—an all too common case of seller and buyer not realizing until too late what kind of show we were making. (I thought it should be “Twin Peaks,” they wanted “Fantasy Island.”)
Eager not to repeat the experience, I decided with my next TV idea—another hour-long drama called “Strega,” which is a kind of male “Rosemary’s Baby”—to once more write it on spec. “Strega” had a lot of heat in the marketplace and eventually sold to ABC-Signature, where it’s now in the process of being packaged before being shopped further. (TV can be confusing because the studios are free to develop shows for other places besides their parent networks, hence the reason an end card on an NBC show might read “CBS Studios.” Studios produce TV shows, which are then licensed to networks for broadcast; it’s akin to how movies are made by studios and then licensed to theaters. The big difference being that in TV the networks weigh in creatively during development.)
When I was approached about “Red Oaks”—a show I sometimes half-jokingly describe as “‘Caddyshack’ with tennis”—I decided again to write the pilot on spec, in part because I was co-writing with a friend I’d never collaborated with before (Greg Jacobs, whose life story loosely inspired the show). But also because I was switching genres and needed to prove to myself I could write funny.
SS: As is always the case when I bring writers in, I’d love to know how you got your agent.
JG: I came by my agent in an unusual way. (Though the more breaking-in stories I hear the more I think there is no “usual” way.) Around ’96 a novelist pal of mine, Jon Cohen, invited me to tag along on a trip to LA, where he was meeting about a spec screenplay he’d just sold. (Jon would go on to write “Minority Report.”) Over dinner one night I met his agent Howie Sanders, who, upon learning I was a published short-story writer and aspiring screenwriter, graciously offered to read anything I might submit. When I got home I promptly FED EX’d him a romantic comedy spec. He called to say “I can’t break a new writer in with a romantic comedy—” Things were very different in ’96!—”but you have talent and you should write a horror movie or a thriller.” Since I liked horror (my first, pseudonymous novel was horror and eventually won a Bram Stoker Award for best first novel) I pitched him a few ideas. He responded to one, which I proceeded to outline and write and sent back to him for notes. We went back and forth for about six months, fine tuning to get it ready for the marketplace. Howie went out with it in October of 1997 and sold it to New Line. Which is what earned me my WGAE card— and Howie a place in my heart!
SS: Amazon has a unique way of creating pilots. Can you tell us how their system works?
JG: At the networks, cable channels, HBO, etc., pilots are only ever seen by executives and the occasional focus group, and all decisions about series orders are made behind closed doors, in corporate boardrooms. Amazon makes its pilots public, basing its series orders on the number of customer views, reviews, and five-star ratings, as well as chatter on social media. And just to clear up a common misconception, you don’t need to be an Amazon Prime subscriber to stream these pilots—anyone can go to the Amazon site now and screen “Red Oaks.”
What’s appealing about this model for a writer is that if you make an Amazon pilot you at least know your friends and family will get to see it. Which with networks is only the case if your show gets ordered to series and put on the schedule. There are many pilots that have been made but shelved, regardless of cast and pedigree. For instance HBO’s pilot of Jonathan Franzen’s bestseller “The Corrections,” starring Ewan McGregor. Also with the Amazon process at least you can sleep at night knowing you got your story “out there” where it can live or die based on its own merits and not whether it fits some corporate mandate at one particular moment in time. (“We need more shows that appeal to high earning males age 24-42.”) So there’s a meritocratic element that’s unique.
SS: And what was the process of you selling your script to Amazon? How did that happen?
JG: Greg Jacobs and I first met when he directed my spec “Wind Chill” (a spec co-written with my pal Steven Katz.) In addition to being a director Greg is Soderbergh’s longtime producer—in fact he won an Emmy last year for producing “Behind the Candelabra.” For years Greg has been regaling us with funny stories about his summer job as an assistant tennis pro in suburban New Jersey. When Soderbergh started getting involved in TV, he encouraged Greg to develop a show based on his misadventures, and Greg suggested bringing me in to help write it—because I’m a buddy, but also because I could bring some outsider perspective to the material and help transform autobiography into good drama. We outlined, which is where all the heavy lifting is really done, and then began passing a first draft back and forth until all parties felt it was ready to package with a director. David Gordon Green responded very quickly, and with him attached, we began shopping it.
SS: For the newbies here, can you talk about how the traditional pilot system works, so we can get some context?
JG: Summer is “pitch season.” In June you partner with a like-minded producer to pitch your project to studios, in hopes that one will take a shine to it and take it off the market with some sort of financial deal. At which point your new studio backer takes the lead in shopping the project in order to “set it up” at a network. As with spec scripts, the more competitive the interest in a project, the more likely you can get a more lucrative or desirable outcome. For instance you’ll often read in the trades that a hot project got a “put pilot” commitment from a network, which means that the deal struck carries a hefty penalty that the network must pay if they decide not to order the pilot. And every year there are a handful of direct-to-series orders, where a show’s creator is guaranteed his or her full writing/producing fee for X number of episodes (usually 12, or half of a network season) regardless of whether they are made and aired. Often this occurs when the creatives behind a show are household names, like David Fincher (“House of Cards”) or Soderbergh (“The Knick.”) But occasionally it happens with an unknown, as it did recently with Mickey Fisher and “Extant.”
If you sell a pitch in the summer, you spend the autumn going back and forth with the network, studio, and producers getting notes on the outline. Then around November 1 you finally get the go-ahead to start “writing pages,” with a goal of delivering the best draft you are capable of producing no later than the Christmas holidays when all the network execs jet off to Aspen. You sweat bullets throughout January, and then around February everyone holds their breath and hopes theirs is among the projects ordered to pilot. If you are among the lucky ones you make your pilot in the spring and deliver it in time for the “up fronts” in New York, when the networks begin touting their new shows to advertisers. Then around June you either get a series order, or go back to square one and start over.
The above is only for network development. AMC, HBO, Netflix, Amazon, etc., aren’t tied to the calendar and therefore have no official pitch season. Theirs is more like the “rolling admissions” policy of some universities.
SS: What do you think is the key to not just selling a pilot, but getting it on the air? Is there a formula for that?
JG: That’s the problem with a lot of network programming. It’s formulaic. (e.g. Legal Thriller; Forensic Procedural, etc.) Which is why so many of the cable shows are eating the Nets’ lunches and stealing their Emmy’s. Not to mention their viewers. And network execs—who are not dumb—realize this, and are trying to develop material that feels more “cable-like.” Darker themes. Anti-heroes. Period pieces.
SS: I’m curious about the financials for television. How much does a writer a) get paid for selling a pilot, b) get paid for being staffed on a high-rated show (Scandal) and c) get paid for a smaller show (like, say, Teen Wolf).
JG: There are guild minimums for every format and length of show—that’s the baseline. How much more you make for writing a pilot depends on (a) your quote (if you’ve sold pitches or been hired to write teleplays in the past), and/or (b) how much competition there is among interested buyers. A ballpark number I’ll throw out there for, say, an hour long network drama (because Guild rates differ depending on whether a show is network or cable) that isn’t subject to a bidding war could be around $90,000, give or take. This is called the “guarantee,” meaning the studio guarantees to pay you this much for your writing services provided the project is “set up” at a network, and regardless of whether the script is ever ordered to pilot. Once you get a pilot order, additional fees kick in—perhaps a production bonus, definitely some sort of producing fee. Remember in TV the writer-creator is also typically a producer. Often an Executive Producer (the highest position in TV credits.)
I’ve never been on a writing staff so it’s more difficult for me to give sample numbers. But back in the 90s I was invited to audition for the writing staff of one of the later seasons of “The X-Files,” and I recall being offered a contract that guaranteed me a certain amount per week for six weeks, after which the producers had the option of extending my employment for the rest of the season. And I think at the time I did the math and figured out I would have made about $125,000 if they kept me around for a full season. Which isn’t chump change by any stretch—especially if you are single, with no dependents, as I was at the time. But since I was only guaranteed six weeks of employment I concluded that it wasn’t worth uprooting and relocating to Los Angeles. So I politely declined. And heard that the producers—who were riding pretty high in the ratings then—were flabbergasted and outraged.
SS: If you’re a young writer who wants to get into TV, in your opinion, what’s the best route to take?
JG: As with features writing, there’s really no one best route—many roads lead to Rome. Take my friend Ben Cavell. He went to Hollywood with one spec script in hand (a cop show set in 19th century Boston, and this was back before period pieces were in vogue) and a single well-reviewed short story collection, and managed to land an entry level staff job writing on “Justified.”
My point is, talent and perseverance will pave just about any path you choose into this industry.
That said, writing a spec pilot of an original idea—as opposed to a spec episode of a show already on the air—seems like the best way to get noticed. Even if the show itself isn’t commercial or viable, the fact that you chose the tougher challenge of world-building shows people that you have moxy.
SS: And how do you get on to a writing staff? I have a talented writer friend who wants to get on a staff and learn but he has no idea where to even start.
JG: There’s a good piece on this subject in Mike Sack’s recently published book “Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations With Today’s Top Comedy Writers.” It happens to be by my TV agent Joel Begleiter, who talks about the pros and cons of writing an original versus a spec episode. He also gives some good advice on how to get the attention of guys like him, at big agencies like UTA.
I’ve heard that there are junior positions on writing staffs where you are called something like “story editor” or “writer’s assistant” or somesuch, where you can learn the business and eventually graduate to full-fledged Writer. But I’m not sure what qualifications you’d need to get those jobs. But a snappy spec pilot couldn’t hurt!
SS: What is the TV world looking for right now? Does it vary because there are so many outlets? Or is there a particular type of show that’s hot (aka – a show like Breaking Bad)?
JG: At present I’m hearing that the market is oversaturated with procedurals, that “light hour longs dramas” (think “Desperate Housewives”) are out of vogue, and that “noisy” dramas—the higher concept the better—are what execs are hungry for.
Also, genre is white hot. Nine out of ten genre shows are performing well, and in the case of “Game of Thrones” and “Walking Dead”—spectacularly so. (“‘Walking Dead’ is doing ‘ER’-in-the-’90s numbers internationally,” an exec gushed to me recently). Of course writers have to be smart—it makes no sense to pitch a vampire show when there are so many already on the air. And I would think it would be hard to do a high fantasy in the long shadow of the juggernaut “GoT” unless it’s based on a piece of fancy IP (Intellectual Property in Hollywood-speak) like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series or Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern sequence.
SS: You’ve written features as well. Is that a world you’re still interested in? Or are the opportunities so good in TV right now that it’s not even worth it?
JG: I remain very interested in features and in fact Greg Jacobs and I have a film adaptation of Castle Freeman’s novel “Go With Me” that starts shooting in November. The screenplay form is so difficult to crack, and so satisfying when done well, that it presents an irresistible challenge I don’t think I’ll ever entirely master or get tired of tackling.
Writing for TV scratches a different creative itch and presents a different set of challenges—plotting out season-long story arcs, stage-managing a large cast of characters, evoking the passage of time, etc. Also, as you might guess, the sheer volume of writing a typical network requires to fill its schedule means there are that many more job opportunities for the working writer trying to maintain his WGA health coverage! And besides the networks there are countless cable channels, premium channels, subscription services like Netflix and Amazon and Hulu, websites like Funny or Die and emerging platforms like Xbox TV—all of which are hungry for content.
From an economic standpoint also TV is a sector of “showbusiness” that far outstrips boxoffice earnings. In my friend Lynda Obst’s book “Sleepless in Hollywood” (an essential state-of-the-industry book that should come shrink-wrapped with every newly issued WGA card) she points out that TV contributes nearly ten times more revenue to a studio’s bottom line than do feature films.
It reminds me of a time I was on the Fox lot to see a film exec friend. En route from the parking structure I noticed a huge new building being built across from the historic old Hollywood (and somewhat shabby) film building where I was headed. I asked my film exec friend about the new building and he gave a weary sigh and said, “That’s the new Fox TV building… that ‘The Simpsons’ built.”
SS: Wait, so you’re saying that a movie like The Avengers doesn’t make nearly as much money as, say, Gray’s Anatomy?
JG: Yeah, it kind of blew my mind too to learn that TV revenue so far outpaces film. Now I’m not sure if that includes ancillary income from things like Avengers lunch boxes and back packs. It might just be box office and DVD / download revenue (on the film side) versus licensing and syndication fees (on the TV side). But according to the numbers Lynda quotes in her book, TV generates ten times the revenue. Crazy. But maybe not when you consider that a hit show like “Walking Dead” is being viewed by something like 50 million people a week, worldwide. Can you imagine how valuable a show like that is in syndication? Not to mention the money that studios make spinning off international versions of hit American shows. “CSI: Moscow.” “The Office: Brazil.” Keep in mind also that American audiences only go to the movies on average a few times a month. (If that.) Now think about how many hours of TV the average viewer watches per week.
I don’t want to send your aspiring screenwriters scrambling for the exits, or turn them into TV converts. But I think there’s no reason they shouldn’t open themselves to alternate forms of storytelling. That’s a good career move in general. Not to mention a good way to keep yourself creatively engaged over the course of a career. I’d recommend writing novels as well. And graphic novels if you are so inclined. Hell, even videogames if you have the opportunity. It’s all storytelling, and makes you a better rounded storyteller.
SS: And finally, since Red Oaks is about tennis, which do you think is harder? Winning a point against Rafael Nadal or selling a pilot script?
JG: That’s a tough one! Though I can say facing off against Soderbergh in a notes meeting is equally intimidating.