by Rebecca Stay
“7:15 p.m. At Logan Airport, and as my flight is boarding, [Fox’s] Kevin Reilly calls. It is good news. I immediately burst into tears. The people at the terminal counter think my boyfriend has just broken up with me over the phone, but I don’t care. I love Kevin so much. “ – Diary Entry from Mindy Kaling, as she awaited the fate of her pilot.
Welcome to the month of May and N.Y. upfronts where emotions are at defcon one and the entire creative TV community is at their wit’s end, especially the writers. Like Mindy, some will receive news that gives them an uncontrollable desire to run up and kiss a perfect stranger. Hey, I would. Others will be handed their walking papers and will want to hit the nearest bar and completely drown their sorrows in a drink or two or seven. I don’t blame them.
Let me back up a bit. Before upfronts, creators make their way to networks and pitch an idea for a show. If they’re lucky enough to get a project from idea to pilot, that means they’ve spent nine soul crushing months to give birth to it. They’ve put their lives on hold including ignoring family members for what’s most likely a journey filled with multiple compromises.
Having said that, the writers will get to see their idea go from a seed to a full blown mini movie. Before they know it, the finish line is an arm’s length away. They can see and taste the success of their pilot being picked up to series . . . except they hear . . . halt!
The finish line represents the network’s fall schedule and everyone is expected to sit tight and wait for what feels like an excruciating amount of time before they’re told the fate of their pilot. It’s just moments away from hearing those announcements from the halls of Carnegie or Radio City where you’ll find hundreds of industry folk gathered and ad buyers ready to spend their money for the right price on the right show.
I always get a little melancholy around this time of year. It wasn’t that long ago when I was in the TV weeds. Today I stand on the periphery, but I fondly look back and reflect on that time in my life. The memories that stand out the most are the ones that challenged my sanity and brought my stress levels waaaaay up.
What could those have been you ask? Well, there were the set visits where I had to practically beg a costume designer not to quit. There were the mixing sessions that lasted until 3am. And there were the heightened and passionate discussions with colleagues about who’s right regarding any given project.
We usually got one chance with the president of the network to fight for our projects. One. And if you were a seasoned player, you didn’t hold anything back. We took all our tricks of the trade (no, I’m not revealing them) and gave it our best hit, shot, throw, or insert any other athletic analogy here.
Sadly, the time would inevitably come when we had to dust off the agonizing board game called Sophie’s Choice. Not all our babies were going to make it. We had to start narrowing the field and give that final push to the ones that had the best chances.
Let’s be honest, it’s like winning the lottery. The odds are working against the writers from the very beginning and at the end of the day, we had to make the hard calls. We had to let go of the projects we knew were not going to stand the test of time. Torture, right?
I attended two upfronts, both as an executive from UPN (you know, the network before it became The CW). The first one was a humdinger. Tagging along was my husband and two month old son. Anarchy began the minute we landed in N.Y. and stepped into the limo ride from hell. My son immediately started to melt down and nothing helped. He wasn’t hungry, his diaper was dry and he’d just slept for nearly five hours (you’re welcome passengers). By the time we got to the hotel, we were all exhausted. But no rest for the weary.
Lucky for me, (you’re sensing sarcasm) I was breast feeding. I had to time everything around his feedings or be a servant to my breast pump. I’d run from my room to my boss’ room as we played phone tag with agents and studio execs. It was a mad dash to get writer’s deals closed.
The worst part was when we had to act as ambulance chasers. For those of you who don’t know this term, it pertains to when execs would hear of pilots not moving forward. We would zero in on one of those creators who might share the same sensibility as say, one of our show’s creators. You have to act fast, like an ambulance. See? We would attempt to make a deal to bring them on as a Co-Ep or Showrunner, if needed.
The downside? The said creator we want is the same one that just lost their chance and hasn’t had time to mourn the loss of their baby, I mean their own show. We are forced to go in and woo them or some other network would beat us to it. Survival of the fittest is not a pretty picture. There were times I needed to shower just to get the stench off of being so inhumane.
It was all very exhausting, but exhilarating. The day of our network’s presentation, I witnessed our chief walk on stage a la Britney Spears’ much talked about music video.
In all her glory, Dawn Ostroff, with sheer determination, elegantly walked across the stage wearing a boa constrictor around her neck. It was quite a spectacle.
Our network was trying to turn perception around. Our network was the underdog. Our network shocked everyone when Daily Variety came out with their top five shows to watch the day after our presentation. Guess what? Two of the five shows were UPN. Not too shabby for a network previously known for Sci-Fi and wrestling.
The second trip to upfronts wasn’t as overwhelming as the first because I went solo and I knew what was in store for me. It was still a two-day chaotic whirlwind. But parties were enjoyed and I danced and walked around N.Y.C. into the wee hours of the night. I got to stroll around with very happy (understatement) writers, producers, agents and my fellow colleagues. After all the blood, sweat and tears that goes into making magic, everyone deserved to let off a little steam, no? I did miss my husband and son, but nothing makes the heart grow fonder than time . . . right?
Remember the famous scene in Broadcast News when Joan Cusack’s character tries to beat the clock and get the tape into Holly Hunter’s hands before the news show began? That’s what it felt like. You’re working against this horribly, loud ticking clock, against all odds, hoping you made the right Sophie’s Choice and that it moves forward in success. I’m depleted of energy just thinking about it all. I do miss the craziness, but that may be my selective memory talking.
Yeah, I think it’s safe to say I’m a bit melancholy in May.Tags: Ambulance chasers, Dawn Ostroff, Hollywood, Mindy Kaling, New York, Rebecca Stay, Television, Television networks, Television pilot, Television upfronts, UPN