PITCHING, FOR TELEVISION
A guide by WS co-founder Anna Fricke
THIS FACE COULD HAPPEN TO YOU AFTER YOUR ACE TV PITCH. (PHOTO: NBC, "30 Rock.")
As I sit here in front of my blinking cursor and struggle to come up with the next “Empire” (this is what everyone wants this season. But if network television were a sea of Empires, Empire wouldn’t be Empire. The urge to focus on making my own challah and gardening at this point is very strong, but I must resist because we are here and we have something to say, damnit!). My colleague Liz Garcia wrote a piece on movie pitching you can read here. I have very little to elaborate on because many of the rules are the same in terms of preparation and structure. But there are small differences here and there, so let’s get into those.
I have been pitching pilots for the past nine years or so (she said from her rocking chair, reaching for her hard candies). Every year, I have worked with a different combination of studio/producers, and so I’ve always asked them what they find works the best. And so I am here to tell you that reading off of a script -- a printed document. For television pitches, it’s between 6 and 8 pages. You don’t want to go longer than twenty minutes. And don’t worry if they start to look bored; there are not many great listeners out there. Just keep swimming! Reading off the page is not only just fine, it will save you. If you write your verbal pitch, you will feel comfortable and confident that you know what you are saying. You can rehearse it over and over, read it to a friend/colleague/producer and hear where you sound redundant, where you need to slow down, where you need to pause for a laugh/an emotional switching of gears. A printed document will save you. Yes, we all want to give off the vibe that we know this story in our bones and we don’t need to refer to a document. But if you practice reading your pitch enough, you will know it in your bones. Make sure you are able to make eye contact and only look down at the pages when you need to.
A television pitch is much the same as the movie pitch structure that Liz laid out. Tell them why you LOVE this, why you need to do this show specifically, in the first three minutes. Then tell them why this is different from everything out there in the tv landscape – even if it’s not, find what makes it different. Because it’s coming from you, of course it’s different. Sell them on that. And then you can launch into your pilot story, introducing your characters along the way and setting up the major arcs you will lay out over the course of the season. Loosely sketch out your intention for the first season finale, one that will hopefully leave threads you can pull into the next season.
Pulling those threads through might be the biggest difference between a television pitch and a movie pitch. We have gotten to a place, in 2015, where there are SO many television shows streaming in various ways that executives are freaking out about what will stand out. And if you are going in to pitch your pilot during pitching season, there is always a slate of things they are looking for and things they already have. They only have so much room for medical dramas, cop dramas, musical dramas about street dancing gangs who used to be cops and lawyers, etc. Thus, it is no longer enough to pitch out a pilot story and your main characters and what might happen at the end of the season. The first question I get now is “what are seasons two and three.” Yes, that seems like a lot of seasons to account for. But in this day and age, you now have to account for at least some broad strokes of where your characters might be headed and what further complications can be thrown your way. For example, I sat in on a great pitch this season that had elements of the podcast Serial in it. It was a great idea, but it was admittedly hard to say what this family that had been affected by this particular murder case might be doing in three years.
You have to be able to spin a yard that shows it will hold strong when the studio and network executives start hurling all these specific questions at it. You need to be able to imagine the tone of your show, the setting of your show. You have to be able to pair each character with your ideal version so that the tired executives who have heard twenty pitches that day will be able to remember yours. “Oh, right – Maura Tierney as the zombie lawyer who just wants to be able to send her daughter to a good school. I loved that one!”
In short, as Liz Garcia wisely said, overprepare. You will never regret it. Television pitches ask a lot of you now in that they ask you to imagine years of your life devoted to these characters. That would be, after all, the dream. And it’s difficult to go down that road and watch these characters never come to life after you imagined so much for their futures. And if and when that happens, you can devote a couple days to making challah and gardening or whatever it is that takes you to a zen place.
... But then get back on the horse and come up with another idea. Because we need you out here. We really do.