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‘Scream,’ ‘Big Bang Theory,’ ‘Lost’ Writers at Comic-Con: Great Characters, Business Sense Make Great Pilots

Writers assemble to talk about how to craft episodes that launch series

There can be no TV show without a pilot. But making a successful pilot requires hitting different targets than the ones writers aim for when working on a series episode.

“A pilot is very different from a regular episode,” “DaVinci’s Demons creator Amy Berg said Saturday at Comic-Con International in San Diego. “You have to ask the question ‘why now?’ Why you’re entering the show as opposed to six months ago or six months from now. It usually involves a change in the main character’s situation. Alteration of status quo.”

Berg appeared as part of “Inside the Writer’s Room: The Pilot — Part One. Earth’s Mightiest Writers Assemble,” a Comic-Con panel presented by TheWrap and Geek. She was joined onstage by writers Sarah Watson (“Parenthood”), Javier Grillo-Marxuach (“The 100,” “Lost”), Mark Altman (“Agent X”) Ashley E. Miller (“Terminator,” “Fringe”), Craig Engler (“Z Nation”), Kay Reindl (“Scream,” “Millennium”), Steve Holland (“Big Bang Theory”) and Ben Epstein (“Happyland”) to discuss what makes a successful TV pilot.

Creativity aside, a pilot is also a sales pitch and a business model.

“A pilot is also an argument that somebody should give you $60 million for someone to teach a room full of writers to write like you and execute your idea,” said Grillo-Marxuach. “It’s a loan application. Your potential idea has to be worth the studio’s money and investment.”

Whether the pilot is a premise pilot — not a crime or medical procedural, for example, that’s set in a world already familiar to the audience, but a world which needs to be set up — or a more straightforward sitcom, it needs to justify a TV-length trajectory, as opposed to two hours in a feature-length movie.

“You have to ask yourself, what is episode 17?” said Miller. “In this pilot, am I giving myself the tools so in six months I’m not killing myself trying to keep the story going?”

And it all comes down to character.

“The pilot needs to establish the operational theme of your main character,” said Grillo-Marxauch. “What’s the emotional need of the character that will take 100 hours of television to tell? You need to create that powerful motivation to keep the audience coming back.”

The writers also shared who they thought were the best TV characters of all time, with some surprising and not-so-surprising answers, ranging from “The X-Files'” Mulder and Scully (Reindl), “Star Trek” trio Kirk, Spcok and McCoy (Grillo-Marxuach), Paladin from “Have Gun Will Travel” (Altman), “Gilmore Girls'” Lorelai Gilmore (Epstein), “Battlestar Galactica’s” Starbuck (Berg), “Six Feet Under’s” Nate (Watson) and David Brent and Michael Scott, of the U.K. and U.S. version of “The Office” (Holland).

“It’s characters–what do they want, and why can’t they have it?” Berg summed up.