How to Write for Television (When You Have Never Written for Television)

If you want to concept TV commercials, you’ve got to start with premises. Do not write scripts. Let me explain…

Forever ago, I did a summer internship at GSD&M in Austin, Texas. I was in between semesters at the VCU Adcenter (before it was the Brandcenter), and I was excited not only to be at an agency that had been all over the award annuals, but to be partnered with a classmate of mine who was a fantastic art director. It was going to be a very good summer.

That first week, we were given a chance to write TV commercials for Chili’s. Yes, the Chili’s of Baby Back Rib fame. Our first year in school, we had worked on lots of print campaigns, but had never worked on TV. (This is before digital was even a thing. Web banners weren’t even a thing. Like I said, this was forever ago.)

So we sat down and spent days concepting. We came up with a story about an Amish boy. We had another one about a kung fu master and his disciples. We had one shot from the point of view of a bird. And we crafted each script in detail. We argued over dialogue for hours. I thought the Amish boy should say, “Yea, verily,” because it sounded funny and biblical. My art director thought he should say, “Even so, mother,” because it made more sense. This went on for days.

Finally, we brought five or six scripts in to our creative director. Who killed them all. Welcome to advertising.

So we came up with five or six more scripts. And we agonized over dialogue and descriptions. Again, we showed them to our creative director. Nothing.

We were feeling disappointed and a little bit of pressure because we knew that the interns VCU sent to this agency the year before had actually produced a commercial for Pennzoil. That’s insane. Summer interns producing a TV commercial? But it happened. And we wanted it to happen for us, too.

But it never did. We had a fun summer. But we produced nothing. (To be fair, the idea that interns would produce anything other than spec work is a little unrealistic. But we didn’t know that.)

On the last day of our internship, our creative director gave us an evaluation. And we were shocked to hear that it wasn’t so hot. He said we came in with five or six scripts a week. According to him, the team that had produced the Pennzoil spot last year came in with 100 ideas the day after they were briefed. Maybe 100 was an exaggeration. But it was certainly more than five.

It took me the better part of my career to learn that there is a difference between writing premises and writing scripts.

A premise is a short two to three sentence blurb about what the spot’s about.

A script is a crafted document that tells you exactly what happens in the commercial.

A premise is loose.

A script is tight.

You can write 100 premises in a day.

It might take you an entire afternoon to write a decent script.

A premise is something you jot down as a potential idea.

A script is an idea you begin to craft.

So if you have the chance to write TV scripts. Don’t just start writing TV scripts. That’s like crafting the body copy for a marker comp. Start with a premise. And then come up with another. And another. And another.

Happy Accidents

I don’t usually post my own work on this site. But this one comes with a point, and a good cause.

About a year ago, I began doing work for Volunteers of America. They’re a 117-year-old national charity that had never advertised before.

We ended up producing print, online, outdoor, and TV for them. But my favorite spot was never scripted, never presented, never even concepted. It was just a happy accident.

While we were shooting in Los Angeles, our director wanted to get some extra footage. So he rolled down Skid Row with his camera hanging out of the van door. Then his producer ran back down the street and gave some cash to have the people he filmed sign release waivers, just in case. Some of this footage made it into our final spots.

But when we were in the editing studio we were looking at that shot, and thought it was kind of amazing. We wondered how could we share it?  So we started playing around with it. We slowed it down. Wrote some copy to serve as supers. And sampled a few demo tracks. (We ended up recording Jennifer Perryman to sing an original track.) We showed it to the client, and were lucky enough to have them approve it. Here’s the finished piece:

Gold Lion at Cannes? Nah. But does it help the client get their name out there? Yep. Am I proud to have it on my reel? Absolutely.

So be open to happy accidents. Find a way to make them work. Play with them. Get them in front or your clients and champion them. And everyone will be a little better off.

(If you’d like to donate anything to Volunteers of America, please click here. They’re amazing people who do amazing work.)

How to Choose An Actor

When you’re shooting a TV spot, you’ll see about 50 people audition for every role you’ve written. Typically, you’ll watch all of these online, and you, your partner and the director will mark the ones you like best. These actors (maybe a third of the people you originally saw) will come in for callbacks, which you’ll usually attend in person. Actor after actor will come into a small room with a camera and act out the scene for you.
I’m shooting with a director who’s very good with actors and dialogue, and I’ve learned a few things from him in callbacks that are great guidelines for choosing actors:
  1. Watch their eyes. Their eyes will give away whether or not they believe in their character and the scene. That sounds very ethereal, but when you’re watching 50 different actors audition for one role, just watch the eyes and it will become apparent who’s into it.
  2. In dialogue, watch the person who isn’t speaking. It’s easy to look at the person who’s reciting the lines you or your partner wrote. But if you look at the actor who’s supposed to be listening, you can tell if they’re invested in the other character or not.
  3. Good actors support their co-actors, bad actors automatically shift into competition. We were auditioning for the role of a father and a son building something together. The son was supposed to say, “You’re going to need a new crosscut saw.” When they start adlibbing, the best actors would simply smile and respond, “Yep. You’re right.” The bad actors would say, “There’s nothing wrong with that saw!” And then the sons would reply, “Come on, Dad! This thing’s been around since the Jefferson administration!” And then the Dad would say, “Ah, you kids don’t know quality when you see it.” Bad actors are looking to stand out, and pitting themselves against any other actor in the room is the easiest way to do that.
This isn’t the kind of thing you’ll learn in portfolio school. So tuck this away and use it when you start casting actors.


Remember, watch the eyes…

And remember, bad actors avoid competition…