What You Need To Know About Writing a Limited Series

What You Need To Know About Writing a Limited Series

There are few things Hollywood loves more than a trend it can exploit.

Vampires. Werewolves. Wizards. Even mermaids were once considered the hot thing around town. You laugh, but I have legit sat in roughly half-a-dozen development meetings where people from the research department adamantly told us that mermaids were going to be the next “can’t miss” thing among the tween crowd, and if we didn’t find a TV show in this vein pronto, we would be losing out on billions of dollars (that’s billions with a "b").

But I digress, the point is that this is a copycat industry—if something works, you can all but guarantee someone else is going to be right on your heels with the follow-up. Doing the exact same thing with slightly varied window dressing …

Enter the miniseries.

These have been all the rage over the last several years. "The People vs. OJ Simpson." "Chernobyl." "Big Little Lies." "The Night Of." The expansion of premium content on the silver screen has allowed filmmakers to tell stories that otherwise lacked a proper medium.

The boundaries that once limited creativity are breaking down every day.

Obviously, this means you should rush out and write a pilot for a six-episode limited, right? Everyone in town is looking to make this type of show, yeah? It’s a gold rush! And if you don’t act now, all your writer friends who did will be partying inside the Beverly Hilton, living the dream, while you won’t even be able to pay the cost of the valet!

Whooooaaa, Nelly. Slow down there, sport. No need to work yourself into a tizzy. Before you dive headfirst into a brand new project, there’s a few things I want you to know. One big thing in particular ...

You see, I’ve worked inside the halls of a TV network (I did it for a little over four years). I’ve sat in the meetings where executives debate the merits of new material. I’ve seen how these conversations go down. And while there are a lot of really, really great things about a limited series, there’s one huge caveat that almost nobody takes into consideration—it is freaking HARD for a network to monetize them. Which also means that it’s EASY for networks to LOSE money on them.

And networks hate losing money.

Think about it from our perspective for a second. Let’s say you’re a network that still relies on the ad-supported model for the majority of your revenue (this means that the channel still sells commercials to make money—examples are the broadcast stations [FOX, ABC, NBC, CBS, CW, etc], basic cable outlets like AMC and FX, and even Hulu [for the most part]). These outlets see content as “filler for ads” (literally that is how someone from the ads sales team once described it to me).

In this model, the content (aka the show) is only there to keep the audience tuned in during the commercials. The more people a show engages (aka—the more people who watch the show), the higher the price they could change for commercial time slots. And the higher the price they can charge, the more money they generate.

And this makes sense, right? There’s a reason a 30-second Super Bowl commercial costs tens of millions of dollars … because the NFL can GUARANTEE that hundreds of millions are going to watch that game. So, it makes sense that the final season of "Breaking Bad" would charge a wayyyy higher rate per ad than the first season of "Pan Am" would (if you don’t know what this is, don’t bother looking it up).

Anyway, given this knowledge, we know that shows generally take a little while to get an audience. Drama series especially. It’s very rare that a show is a complete smash hit right off the bat (this is why "Empire" was such a darling for FOX). The aforementioned "Breaking Bad" didn’t hit its pinnacle until the second half of its run. And "Game of Thrones" didn’t achieve peak popularity until the middle/later seasons as well, right?

It takes time for the general public to hear about a show and start tuning in, which is where networks who run on commercials really make their money.

And you’re planning to come in and pitch a series that lasts a grand total of … six episodes?

Do you see the problem with that?

Six episodes means exactly six opportunities to sell commercials. Rather than six full seasons of ten to twelve episodes each, you’re giving them a measly half dozen. Total. That’s it. I mean, yeah, there are always reruns, but we all known reruns never pull in the same viewership as original airings.

What do you think the revenue projections on your show are going to be compared to, say, "The Good Place" (four season run, 53 total episodes)? Or "Brooklyn Nine Nine" (eight seasons, 143 episodes)? Or "Grey's Anatomy" (seventeen seasons [and possibly more], 369 episodes as of right now)?

Not looking too hot for your pitch now is it?

This is honestly, the biggest, most common reason I have seen limited series be rejected during my run on the development side. The team determined that we simply could not make money on the property.

Because everything in Hollywood comes down to money.

“Fine, Spike!” you’re saying to yourself, all cross-armed and defiant, “I’ll just sell my mini-series to a network that DOESN’T rely on ads! Like Netflix, HBO, or Apple! That way, I can just circumvent this whole problem! Ha! Do you hear me, Spike?? I’m laughing at you, you ignorant buffoon!”

First of all, take a chill pill. Nobody likes a braggart. It’s very unbecoming. You’re almost worse than those damn Patriots fans, and everyone loathes those guys.

Second, that’s not a slam dunk either.

To start, as a new writer, you ALWAYS want more options of where you can sell something, not less. Only targeting membership-driven streamers makes it that much harder to achieve your ultimate goal (getting a sale).

Third, these networks have the same desire as all the rest: to make money. They just do so in a different way than the traditional model. They charge a monthly fee for access to their content rather than selling ads. Therefore, they need to create shows that will keep people around, and often this comes down to one of two things (sometimes both):

A) Repeat watch value (think "The Office," "Friends," or "Parks and Rec"). They have shows that you will keep going back to over and over again.

OR

B) They have such an established reputation for quality that they can sell you on the idea that they’ll always have new things you’ll enjoy (example: HBO and [early] Netflix).

Limited series struggle on option A for obvious reasons—there’s less episodes for people to re-watch. While some might love an eight-episode season so much to watch it twice, it’s not like you’re just gonna throw it on and binge it over and over again (like people do with "The Office" on the reg).

And while option B can certainly lead to some awesome pieces of cinema (like "Chernobyl"), you need to remember that the price to produce premium content in 2021 is astronomical. The cost of production has skyrocketed in the golden age of television to the point where producing shows now costs Looney Tunes levels of money.

It used to be possible for premium shows to get by with about a budget of roughly $5 million an episode (please don’t quote me, but I believe that’s what the first season of House of Cards cost for Netflix). Now, that number is significantly higher than that. I’m talking upwards of $7-8 million an episode is standard, and there are numerous instances where networks have spent over $10 million dollars for one hour of television (often pilots, because there are tons of start-up costs built into making this).

(Before someone starts tweeting at me about how my numbers are all wrong, admittedly, I didn’t work in production. I worked in development, so I’m definitely generalizing a bit. I’m going off my personal experiences from almost a decade of doing this. Please be kind on social media.)

My point remains though—would Netflix rather spend $60m ($10m per episode) for your six-episode mini, or would they rather funnel that money toward a longer running series that could keep subscribers around for several years?

The answer is, of course, it depends. I’m not Netflix. But you need to start thinking this way as a young scribe in order to really grasp how the people who buy content think.

This is an important jump that you all need to make in your careers.

Okay, I’ve spent a lot of time breaking down the big challenges limited series face. Let’s switch gears and talk about the positive of this medium. Because believe me, there’s a reason these types of shows are trending. They have some very appealing aspects, such as:

THEY ARE GREAT OUTLETS FOR IP: Can you imagine "The People vs. OJ Simpson" as a feature film? Would this have worked if the writers tried to cram all the intricacies of this trial into a two-hour movie?

I think we can all agree that the answer is "no."

They would have needed to rush over multiple points, leave out important details, and certainly wouldn’t have had time to build up the characters in an emotional way. This likely would have been a husk of what it could have been.

Which is why the limited series was a perfect outlet for it. This gave the creative team 10 hours to work with. The perfect length to tell this story.

Everyone wins in this scenario.

The key for you to remember, of course, if you’re writing a limited-series spec, is that you need to have IP that is actually valuable to the network. While, yes, having any IP always helps your cause, using an obscure story that most people don’t know about is unlikely to win you many points with the development execs.

Yeah, you might score a safety, but what you really want is a touchdown.

The project still needs to be seen as valuable to them. Which is why OJ was such a no brainer of a project. But there’s another reason why this worked out for FX, and that’s because ...

SCHEDULING FLEXIBILITY FOR TALENT: In modern day Hollywood, top tier talent is neigh impossible to lock down. Because if you have any perceived value whatsoever, you’re almost certainly already locked into something.

And your next thing.

And probably the next thing after that, too.

It’s not unheard of for actors and directors with good credits (and even some with not so good ones) to be booked out for two or three years. Which makes it pretty damn impossible for them to commit to a long-running TV series.

But a one-season limited series? Well, now … that’s an entirely different story. You can shoot one of those in a few months with some fast planning, and actors can often find holes in their schedule unexpectedly. That mysterious funding from China that was rock solid a week ago has suddenly fallen through (shocker), and now they don’t have anything to work on until July. The perfect amount of time for them to jump into something and keep their face in front of the Tinseltown decision-makers.

It is much easier for a known actor to do one season of TV than it is for them to do eight. Examples are Sean Bean in the first season of "Game of Thrones," John Turturro in "The Night Of," and basically the entire cast of "Big Little Lies."

These well-known faces will bring recognition to the show and make it much easier for the network to market.

Which actually leads me into the next awesome thing about limiteds ...

THE FREEDOM TO CONTINUE ON IN SUCCESS (OR CUT BAIT WHILE SAVING FACE IN FAILURE): "Big Little Lies" was not supposed to have a second season. But it was so wildly popular that HBO had basically no choice but to reset and do it all over again. They found something that really connected with audiences and decided it was worth it to go back to the well one more time and continue that revenue stream.

Limited series can almost act like a “test” of sorts. You’re seeing if there’s an audience for something in a small fashion without needing to commit to it for the long term.

Because if something DOESN’T work, it can be rather embarrassing to admit.

Think back to Netflix’ initial foray into dramatic content. Do you remember the three shows they announced? One was "House of Cards" (huge hit), the second was "Orange is the New Black" (another huge hit) … do you remember the third? I promise there were three ...

It was Eli Roth’s "Hemlock Grove." This one … was not a smash hit.

I’ve honestly never met a single person who watched it. And while I’m sure Netflix would argue that plenty of people did, doesn’t it also make sense that they would say that? No network likes to admit that they made a mistake and a piece of content they released didn’t turn out to be as wildly popular as they thought.

This show ended up getting two more renewals (three 10-episode seasons), but it was always the ugly step child when compared to the other two. It was eventually shuttled off into the labyrinth of the Netflix’s vast library, rarely to be spoken about again.

This is another positive of the limited series: if something doesn’t work as planned, you can move on from it quickly and easily, without a ton of embarrassment. It’s always nice for a show to have a plug you can pull, though that’s never really plan A.

Let me also make one thing really, really clear here and then I’ll shut up: writing trumps everything else in this business. If you have a pilot for a limited series that is flat out amazing from page one until the very end, then you can basically wipe away literally everything else I’ve said in this article.

People will want to buy it.

If the execution of your idea is that freaking good, then you hold a supreme advantage over any other project.

But we all know that it’s incredibly rare for anything to be that undeniably good, right? Let’s just face facts.

The point is this: if you think you have an awesome idea for a mini, then go ahead and write it. I’m not trying to stop you.

But do make sure that you’re well informed about the goings on of the studio system. You need to know that just because limited series are all the rage right now doesn’t mean yours will sell, too.

Hollywood doesn’t work like that.

Godspeed ya’ll, and happy writing.

*Feature photo by KoolShooters (Pexels)

Spike is a veteran of the Hollywood development landscape, having worked for an agency, a prod co, and a TV network. He enjoys long walks on the beach, candlelight dinners, and dynamic storytelling.
More posts by Spike Scarberry.
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