Friday, December 29, 2006

How to pitch pilots

There was a recent article in the LA TIMES about a new UCLA course aimed at teaching future “showrunners” how to pitch pilots to networks. Students are paired up, and then have to pitch invited industry representatives. They learn the length a pitch should be, how to hit the high points, what to stress (spoiler alert: Passion), what to avoid, even how to dress (think upscale BBQ), but guys, come on, isn’t this course just a little premature? By five years?

This is like giving actors who have not yet gotten their first job a course in how to handle press junkets when their next big movie comes out. You’re placing the cart so far in front of the horse that the horse can’t even see the cart.

Don’t concentrate on learning to pitch. Concentrate on learning to write. No network will hear your pitch if they’re not comfortable you can execute your idea.

In the article one of the students, a former attorney now an intern at Touchstone who produces a comedy show in Beverly Hills (whatever that means) wants to create a hit sitcom. Considering the amount of television she consumes, she says, “There’s no job in the world for which I am better qualified.” Huh????? What???? Considering the number of baseball games I watch, there is no one more qualified to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers than me.

Take WRITING classes. Then take advanced WRITING classes. If you’re lucky enough to meet real showrunners, ask them about their process, not how did they pitch their shows. The truth is, when you’ve graduated to the level where networks will agree to hear your new series idea, your agent can teach you how to pitch. Or the studio exec with whom you will doubtless be partnered. And your mom can teach you how to dress for a BBQ.

If you want proof of my theory, watch any Dodger game. Until you see me on the mound, suck it up and finish that spec NEW ADVENTURES OF OLD CHRISTINE.

Tomorrow my Bests and Worsts of 2006

19 comments:

wcdixon said...

Thanks for telling it like the way it should be, Ken.

Mike Barer said...
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Ryan said...

You wouldn't be the worst pitcher the Texas Rangers have ever had.

LA Guy said...

You know if Zito can get $126 Million for 7 years I don't see any reason you shouldn't be able to pitch for the Dodgers. Don't give up the dream!

Incidentally what does pitching a series idea have to do with being a show runner? My impression is that the show runner is frequently an experienced hired gun, frequently with a studio deal, brought in to oversee series production. Is the custom to give first crack to the person created the show?

VP19 said...

Ken, if you can give us innings, the Washington Nationals can give you a spot in the back of the rotation.

Joshua James said...

Ken, isn't this yet but another symptom of the disease hollywood has - the disease being the belief that the idea, the logline and the pitch is far more important than how well it is written?

I always think that whenever I see something like this - http://twoadverbs.blogspot.com/

Hollywood is full of idea and pitch-men, so that's why they believe that's the most valuable commodity, rather than the blood and sweat that goes into actual writing . . . what do you think?

zazupitts said...

This situation reminds me of Ian Gurvitz' words in his book, Hello, Lied the Agent.

"Execution is everything—how a TV show or movie is written, cast, directed, edited, scored, even marketed. It's not the idea; it's how you do it."

Ideas are worthless. Execution is the key, and it all starts with the written word.

Jack Ruttan said...

Part of the thing I understand about all of this pitching is that it is a way for writers to prove to producers that they're still out there, and alive.

At my level of experience, I don't expect to run a show I might "create," but getting the one to two percent of the show's budget would be nice, and it seems to be something producers who work with me expect. They're mainly one-pagers at this point, so not a great drain on time.

Anonymous said...

what writing courses here in LA might you or anyone else recommend?

James said...

...but that would mean admitting I can't write.

How dare you, sir! How dare you.

K.Leigh said...

Hnestly, this isn't just a Hollywood problem. We've had the same problem in every industry I've worked in. I worked in sales at a hotel in Chicago a few years back, and when our Director of Sales found out that the hotel's owner was considering renovations, she started holding meeting twice a week to brainstorm sales pitches based on the hypothetical renovations--which, incidentally, never occurred.

A lot of people lack common sense, and Hollywood does not have a monopoly on those people.

Diane said...

k.leigh is right - this is just a general problem in all industries. Everyone wants to be rich and famous, but no one wants to put in the hard work to get there. Instead, they think they are just a "pitch" away from having their brilliance recognized and rewarded.

Anonymous said...

“There’s no job in the world for which I am better qualified.”

This doesn't mean she's the most qualified for this job, it just means that she's more qualified for this than for doing anything else.

Malachy Walsh said...

And then, some of the things they teach in these writing classes... It's like thinking you can become a master of the brush by using a paint-by-numbers kit.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a WORKING WRITER and as someone who has done multiple pilots, let me say one thing that rarely is said out loud, but is thought by virtually every experienced writer who goes through the development process ( and explains why I have to post this anonymously): The reality is, the studio and network execs that you pitch to, are ALL morons... most of whom got their jobs one of three ways.

#1. They were someone's assistant. That CERTAINLY qualifies them to give comedy notes to writers.

#2. They are gay. 90% of the creative execs in this town are gay, and they are choosing what REAL AMERICA watches. If you don't believe me, just look at the shows and look at the casts. I have nothing against gay people, but they do not posess some special creative ability that allows them some sort of insight into what the rest of the country wants to watch OUTSIDE of West Hollywood.

#3. They are hired because of "diversity". No one checks qualifications or credentials for network and studio execs... they check "diversity" in their hires. And if you are gay or black or both, then you have a job for life.

Okay, sounds bitter, doesn't it? Well, ask ANY WORKING WRITER who is still able to work if anything in this post is untrue or an over-exaageration. Don't ask wannabe writers or the people teaching the classes... ask the REAL thing. I'll bet you'll be surprised at the answer.

Anonymous said...

Everybody should read Only You, Dick Daring; How to Produce a TV Pilot and Make a Million Dollars by Merle Miller.

Anonymous said...

I will say this... just watching TV doesn't make you qualified... but most writers in TV only watch Reality Shows and HBO... and then wonder why the shows they've created like Daybreak, Invasion, and The Nine don't succeed.

dhppy said...

Hey Anonymous, I'm diverse. I'm willing to use that to get job security as a writer? Who do I call now that Cochran is dead?

And Ken, you obviously haven't seen how my mother dresses for a BBQ... downright whorish if you ask me.

D.B. Gilles said...

Ken, you are dead solid perfect right. Young future TV writers should be concentrating on learning how to write a compelling, outstanding spec--then another and another and another. I've had two pilot deals, written for network shows, worked on staff for two shows and I teach Writing For Television courses in both sitcom and hour-long drama.

Other than the half-hour or so I spend each semester talking about how the writers room works, my classes focus on guiding new television writers through the process of finding the right storylines, beating out a solid outline, capturing the essence of characteres, getting a decent first draft and learning to appreciate the value of rewriting.