Thursday, February 27, 2014

How NOT to pitch a pilot

Pitching pilots to networks is somewhat of an art. I mean, it’s not Adele singing or Linda Lovelace eating a cucumber, but it does take a certain skill. My writing partner, David Isaacs and I have been pitching pilots for years. We don’t sell them all but we have sold quite a few. So we have some sense as to what’s involved.  (And it's closer to what Linda Lovelace does.)

Generally, we keep our pitch down to about fifteen minutes. We never read. We may go in with a sheet of bullet points or no notes at all. We explain the premise, the theme, and what about the project excites us. We introduce the characters briefly, and offer possible story suggestions for down the line. Along the way we integrate a few jokes.

The idea is to spark their interest in a way that they can actually picture the show on their network. We answer any questions and keep the dialogue going for as long as we can. The more they talk about it, usually the more interested they are.

Generally the whole process is over in a half hour and we leave. Networks tend to bunch their pilot pitch meetings together so we know they already heard three pitches this morning and two more are scheduled after us. It must get very tedious hearing all these pitches back to back. I don’t envy them.

But that’s what we do. And like I said, we’ve had a fair amount of success.

A few years ago we met with a non-writing producer who told us he had a pilot sold at Fox but needed it developed. The money was good, the timing was right, the idea was decent enough that we said we’d attach ourselves to the project.

We crafted characters and developed the pilot. Then this producer, we’ll call him Slick Sam, told us we had to pitch it to Fox. Why? They already bought it. Well, it seems they hadn't already bought it. They just liked the area. Strike one.

Okay, we’ll pitch the pilot.

Slick Sam wanted us to come in so we could rehearse and refine our pitch in front of him. We said that wasn’t necessary. We knew how to pitch. A family loved one was in the hospital at the time so I was also spending a lot of time there.

A date was set for the pitch and the day before Slick Sam calls. He’s nervous. He really wants us to come in and rehearse the pitch. I say no. At the time I’m in a hospital room. He asks me to then do the pitch on the phone. I reassure him that we’ll be fine and hang up. Strike two.

The pitch was at 2:00 at Fox, right after lunch. We met with Slick Sam a few minutes before. The premise involved food. Two minutes before we were going to go upstairs for the meeting his assistant arrives with giant grease-soaked bags. Slick Sam, ever the showman, had brought food for everybody to liven up the pitch. Greasy, disgusting BBQ food.

We told him to leave all this shit outside. This was a bad idea. But he was the master showman and insisted. We troop into the Comedy VP’s office and Slick Sam’s assistant starts laying out the food. Thick gloppy ribs, congealed brisket, beans, sauce, hot links – you name it. The Fox execs were repulsed. Plus, it was right after lunch. I would bet money that office still smells of BBQ food to this day.

Needless to say, it was the worst pitch ever. They couldn’t wait for us to finish so they could clear that lethal shit out of there. The pilot didn’t sell.  Strike three.

We walked out of that meaning and immediately told Slick Sam we were done. “But we have three other networks to pitch,” he pleaded. “Not with us,” we said.  We were out of there like the Road Runner.

Stunts don’t sell pilots. Nor do flashy power point presentations. Ideas sell. Ideas that fall within the parameters of what they’re looking for at that moment. If you have so little confidence in your idea or your ability to pitch that you have to resort to St. Louis style ribs then you don’t belong in a network VP’s office wasting her time. Unless you’re prepared to hand out half slabs to 10 million viewers, concentrate on the idea, not the catering.

26 comments:

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

This may be a Friday question but it pertains to today's post:

I saw in Variety yesterday this article: http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/pilot-season-shifts-raise-writers-concerns-about-payday-protocols-1201119266/

What are your thoughts on how Writers are paid compared to "the on-screen talent"? Writers are generally underpaid and under-appreciated unless they are the creators. This article seems to neglect creators too.

Johnny Walker said...

Yeesh, "Slick Sam" sounds like someone without any talent who was trying to corral talented people he knew into making him rich and successful. I hate people like that. It's so immediately transparent that they have zero talent and skill of their own, and nothing to offer other than their own burning desire for success. Yeuch.

Well done on sticking to your guns and refusing to work with him again, despite the time and effort you'd put into developing a show!

Johnny Walker said...

Side note: I haven't had lunch yet, and despite your best attempts at making the food sound disgusting, I'm now hungry. For ribs.

Tom Quigley said...

Maybe he should have tried having you pitch it to the Food Network...

Hamid said...

Terrible mistake.

He should've bought Taco Bell instead.

Anonymous said...

Was the real Slick Sam's initials, "T.L."?

Anonymous said...

I love reading Ken Levine. But I'm confused by the two mentions of Linda Lovelace. "What she does" is nothing because she is dead.

Ken seems too adept at writing and too creative a thinker to liken pitching to performing f@ll@t@@.

Bek said...

Interesting story, and he clearly handled it wrong.

But isn't the second strike actually against you?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I don't know about just pilots, but one thing I've learned about pitching a series to networks is to give them as much of a pictoral and visual presentation as possible, so they can actually see what it is you're pitching to them, and they're apparently much more likely to buy the show based off that kind of a visual presentation as opposed to an outline that they probably wouldn't read anyway.

At least that's how Sid & Marty Krofft sold all their shows.

Howard Hoffman said...

Sid and Marty Krofft's shows were pretty much pure visual psychedelia. Imagine trying to sell Lidsville with just Sid talking about it.

milowerx said...

That was a great story and I know exactly how you feel having done many years of pitching myself. People without talent often panic because they have nothing to back or up with. All they have is memorization skills!

Ben Koch said...

Lesson learned: never buy BBQ outside of Texas.

Nic said...

Looking at your credits online, I see that you don't appear to have been involved in series television for quite a number of years, meaning that when you write "my partner and I do this or do that," you're talking about what you and your partner did years ago. What assurances do we have that these processes haven't changed and that things aren't done differently now, and that you're not an old, retired guy who's out of the loop?

Mel said...

You're talking about the Sid Caesar Syndrome...which Ken does NOT suffer from...for an old fart he's pretty current...or maybe just pretty judging by his photos.

Ken Levine said...

Nic,

The two "old guys" just sold another pilot on a pitch. Details will be announced soon. The same rules still do apply.

MikeN said...

Regarding your new work, I advise you to do episodes centered around your comic relief.

emily said...

Nic,

If you send in your receipt, Ken will refund your money.

norm said...

Ken,
In reading your book "The ME Generation.....I notice you called LBJ "granddaddy" president.
Do you recall how old he was when he died in 1973? It will surprise you that he died, at your and my current age.

Jason said...

Nic,

You don't. Ignore his advice. And best of luck with your pitch! I'd go with the extra-large order of ribs, not the large.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Wow! This is the kind of post that really inspires me to consider going vegetarian. That picture is BBQ at its most disgusting.

As for who "Slick Sam" is supposed to be, I'm taking the guessing route. Peter Chernin is my top choice.

Hamid said...

Congratulations, Ken! And David too, of course. That's fantastic news.

MikeN said...

In fact if anyone is casting a movie, take a look at Jake and Lydia

Bob Acued-Ribbs said...

Friday question. I liked the Linda Lovelace joke, particularly because I looked at the initial mention as the joke, not the set-up for a better joke. It brings to mind a question I have about how sitcom jokes are most often constructed, specifically, the order in which the set-up and the punch line are thought of. So, I'll ask the general question while asking the specific question. Did you have the punch line in mind already when you initially mentioned Linda Lovelace, or did you mention Linda Lovelace without realizing it would be the set-up for another joke and then have the punch line present itself to you afterwards while you were writing?

Sue Danim said...

I get the joke, but Lovelace later claimed that she was beaten and threatened at gunpoint by her then husband, who forced her to make those films. Cast members have confirmed the violence, and there are scenes where the bruises are visible.

Are you unaware of this, or does the joke include you two being victims of the network to that degree?

Johnny Walker said...

Just caught this now. Congrats Ken! Very interested to hear what your new project is!

Dave Arnott said...

Excuse my BBQ nerdiness, but that picture is from a place called Hill Country in New York City... and it's pretty close to the stuff you get in Texas. Though, of course, almost twice as expensive :)