Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The AMC pilot "Bake-Off"


I’m changing my advice to aspiring writers.

I’m always asked what’s the best advice I can give them and up until now I’ve said just continue to write. Study English. Read scripts. Analyze scripts. Learn dramatic structure.  But most of all, keep churning out material.

That stuff is still important, but it seems today, equally or even more important is becoming a good salesman.

AMC last week held what it likes to call their “Bake-off”. Six pilot scripts have been ordered and the writers of those shows had to trek down to some LA hotel and make elaborate presentations of their projects. The writer/creators each had to show a promo reel and re-pitch their series in detail, even mapping out the entire first season. Wow. Why not get a seventh contender, Watson the computer, and just show the whole thing on the Game Show Network?

What this means of course is that if a young Neil Simon pitched THE ODD COUPLE to AMC while Dr. Gene Scott, who never wrote a script in his life, pitched a show about a guy just sitting in a chair, Dr. Gene would get the pilot order.   Why?  He’s the better salesman.

I understand the trend. There are fewer pilots, fewer movies being developed – it’s harder to make a sale. So it’s not enough to come in with a good idea – you’ve now got to wow them.

But this requires a whole different set of skills. Confidence, charisma, charm. Most writers I know became writers precisely because they lack those skills. Hence the problem.

Now granted, these are great attributes to have, whether you’re a writer or not. Presenting yourself favorably is important in any field. The question though is how do you make that transformation? How do you go from a guy who is only comfortable writing in an isolation tank in Antarctica to Sean Hannity? Self-help books? Motivation seminars? Copious amounts of alcohol and drugs?


Well, whatever it takes, whatever you have to do – do it. Even if it means foregoing a master class on writing by Aaron Sorkin to take Bill Clinton’s “Five Steps to Get Anyone On Their Knees” weekend retreat.  What good is a great script if it just sits in your drawer?

I have no idea what the six pilots are that competed in the AMC “Bake Off”. On the one hand it seems a little unfair to judge a project’s merit based on the sales pitch of an amateur salesman, but on the other, at least it’s something active you as the creator can DO. It’s in YOUR hands, not a bunch of idiots rounded up at the Fat Burger across the street of the Preview House.

So take that public speaking class, listen to the theme from Rocky on an endless loop. Just remember -- Colin Firth might’ve beaten Jesse Eisenberg for the Oscar, but at AMC Jesse gets the greenlight while Colin is told: “Th-th-th-th-that’s all folks!”

21 comments:

Dana King said...

Yet another example of what has so much of this country fouled up. To use politcis as an example, the skill set required to get elected is not the skill set required to govern effectively.

And we suffer for it every day.

Please Leave Name said...

Well, at least the contestants don't actually have to shoot and pay for the whole first season... Yet.

Extroverts don't get it... said...

I understand. I'm not arguing that this is the Way of the World, as vile as it is. What grinds my gears is the advice. Not singling out you, Ken. I've received similar gung ho 'Just do it!' advice many times from extroverts who find sales simple.

But flip it around..."You bunch are all crackerjack sales people, but the way to get ahead is to write. Write magazine articles and blogs. Get your thoughts out there! The way to impress people is with sharp ideas, witty thoughts and offer them with clean, coherent writing. So, just do it! Get any self-help book and listen to some Mozart. You'll go from barely knowing the alphabet to contender-level writing easy peasy!'

That's how this sort of advice sounds to me.

MBunge said...

This is the inevitable downside of a creator-centric approach in a fundamentally collaborative medium, espcially in a relatively low-budget environment.

Mike

The DRC Family said...

I belong to Romance Writers of America and the chapter in South Florida. At various conferences, there are usually opportunities to pitch your book to an editor or agent. This is one of the most terrifying experiences in the world for a writer, even for those of us who are experienced public speakers. I think it's because we invest so much emotion into the dream of getting published and forget to look at the pitch as one more professional step.

Our groups actually hold workshops and brainstorming discussions to help writers craft and hone their pitches and then practice for their appointments.

There you go, Ken. The next time you do your writers room weekend seminar, you can add time to help the registrants work on pitching their finished scripts.

Jenna said...

This reminds me of advice from my engineering design class:

A bad idea with a good presentation is doomed eventually. A good idea with a bad presentation is doomed immediately.

This is true in so many areas of life.

Max Clarke said...

@ Jenna

Smart aphorism, never heard that before.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Okay, here's a question I have for Ken's Friday Q&A...

You often recollect on the "Good-bye Radar" episodes in your posts; I rewatched the episodes the other night and was wondering what brought on the line, "This isn't a Sunday social, ya know!"? I don't know why, but that line seemed unusual for Radar... matter of fact, why did he finish a few of his sentences with, "Ya know!" like a stereotypical Canadian with, "Eh?"?

Him not wanting to wear his hat, I wonder what happened to (all) the hat(s) he wore on the show.

Carlos M Hernandez said...

I guess I'm a bit unsure how I feel about this.

Writers write, but sellers sell, no?

If you want to be a writer then you write your ass off. But, if you want to create a series, possibly be the showrunner, you aren't just a writer anymore.

I'm having a hard time understanding the writer that fears public speaking if they want to sell a show to a network.

John said...

Anything owned and operated by the people running Cablevision and Madison Square Garden is by default going to be a custerfluck, so hearing that AMC is pulling this stunt is no surprise (and if it turns out the winning pilot was written by Isaiah Thomas, that wouldn't be a major shock, either).

Mac said...

". . . just show the whole thing on the Game Show Network?"
You jest, but right now someone's reading this and going "Hang on? We get six shut-ins who've spent the last few months sitting at a keyboard? Make them act out their scripts? They're writers, not salesmen - I see humiliation!"
The "Bake-Off" sounds grim.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad someone is addressing this problem.

It's not new.

It just seems to be highlighted recently. I really suck in the room. Bad. My writing partner is awesome. But he's pretty terrible on the page.

So our partnership has come down to I write everything. He pitches it.

The execs don't know the difference. I grow bitter.

Sounds about right.

rhys said...

As an initial matter, AMC does not handle it's acquisition process like many other networks do. AMC does not develop projects in-house, they only acquire fully formed projects from outside and then fund them, generally with a minimum of interference. So this is not just writers pitching a script to executives - it's an entire creative team pitching an entire packaged, TV project. That's how Mad Men and Breaking Bad were both acquired.

In addition, the four original shows AMC has aired so far have been hour long form dramas with heavily serialized elements. They do not appear to be acquiring sitcoms or light-adventure dramedies (a la USA Network). So your analogy of pitching the Odd Couple is apropos of nothing. The shows being pitched are likely long form, serialized dramas that require a significant amount of planning. It's unsurprising that AMC would want to see everything laid out in order to avoid picking up something akin to the crappy serialized shows on network TV (a la The Event and Flashforward).

Finally, you're assuming that the suits at AMC are too stupid to see a good idea buried in a lackluster presentation or a bad idea buried in smoke and mirrors. Considering AMC has a good track record with picking up quality products, I am inclined to believe that they wouldn't pick up a show about a guy just sitting in a chair just because of sales technique.

Perhaps you are simply being facetious for the purpose of creating a humorous post - but I think you are making far too many assumptions about what would and would not get picked up based on a very simplistic description of the process simply because it is different from what you may view as the traditional pitch process.

Ken Levine said...

Sounds like I ruffled some AMC feathers.

Did Matt Weiner pitch MAD MEN as part of a derby with five other shows?

AMC thus far has a sensational batting average in picking series. Maybe your Bake-Off will continue that streak.

What I was saying (yes, partly facetious -- this is a humor blog)was that like it or not, the art of pitching is a reality, it's here to stay, and it behooves writers to develop those skills.

But I do think Neil Simon would have a much harder time wowing you people than Gene Scott. And as remarkable as MAD MEN is, I'm sure a factor in buying it was that Matt Weiner is, in addition to his many other gifts, is charismatic, passionate, and great in the room.

cshel said...

Whew! At first I thought you meant it was a show about pitching shows. Upon further investigation, it didn't sound so bad. It seems like a great opportunity for those getting the chance to pitch. I would trust the AMC decision makers who have a pretty good track record so far. I bet substance still wins out over style, in this instance. I'd also bet that a really great runner-up could get a shot at something as well.

ScottR said...

OK, where can I sign up for the Clinton retreat?

MBunge said...

"And as remarkable as MAD MEN is, I'm sure a factor in buying it was that Matt Weiner is, in addition to his many other gifts, is charismatic, passionate, and great in the room."


Another thing to consider is how this bake-off approach would work for shows that are more, how shall I put this, broadly appealing than stuff like MAN MEN. It's perfectly fine if that's what you want on your network, but this sort of pitch would seem to be biased in favor of a certain type of storytelling.

Mike

Charles H. Green said...

Fascinating subject; certainly primed to elicit reactions from all of us!

What strikes me, coming from the sales side, is that you are assuming that AMC is suborning, and falling prey to, the very worst form of decades-old, flim-flam, trial-close, hustling form of selling. I doubt that's entirely true.

Look at it from the perspective of a really good salesperson. Such a person welcomes the chance to engage with the customer--not to 'pitch,' but to interact, learn, gain new perspective, form a connection, tune the offering, gain new ideas, collaborate. From the point of view of a salesperson, that beats the heck out of sitting at home all alone, dreaming up proposals that amount to guesses on what the client is thinking.

It works much better for the client as well. They get to see how someone works on their feet, to hear first-hand what's behind a concept, to engage real-time in some concept-stretching and idea-development with people you may end up being connected to for several years. What's not to like!

Only if you assume this is Reality-TV hucksterism is this a bad thing. Me, I'd like to think AMC is a sophisticated buyer, well past fears of being hustled, and that they select from providers who aren't afraid to get real in real-time. That's better for everyone.

Charles H. Green said...

ascinating subject; certainly primed to elicit reactions from all of us!

What strikes me, coming from the sales side, is that you are assuming that AMC is suborning, and falling prey to, the very worst form of decades-old, flim-flam, trial-close, hustling form of selling. I doubt that's entirely true.

Look at it from the perspective of a really good salesperson. Such a person welcomes the chance to engage with the customer--not to 'pitch,' but to interact, learn, gain new perspective, form a connection, tune the offering, gain new ideas, collaborate. From the point of view of a salesperson, that beats the heck out of sitting at home all alone, dreaming up proposals that amount to guesses on what the client is thinking.

It works much better for the client as well. They get to see how someone works on their feet, to hear first-hand what's behind a concept, to engage real-time in some concept-stretching and idea-development with people you may end up being connected to for several years. What's not to like!

Only if you assume this is Reality-TV hucksterism is this a bad thing. Me, I'd like to think AMC is a sophisticated buyer, well past fears of being hustled, and that they select from providers who aren't afraid to get real in real-time. That's better for everyone.

Anonymous said...

Don't take a "public speaking" class; take a standup comedy class. Helps develop your joke-writing skills, and assuming you can find one like the one I took, at the end you do five minutes in front of an audience. Let me tell you, no matter how well you do, this will change your life.

I've also heard improv provides a similar sense of accomplishment and confidence.

I like standup because you're all on your own up there, and because it appeals to the editor side of my personality that likes to endlessly refine things.

Anonymous said...

How about just don't bother....AMC chose not to choose...ANY of the scripts presented.