Thursday, June 04, 2015
The art of pitching a sitcom
There are so many ways to botch a pitch that one must tread very carefully. But very confidently.
Time was a writer/producer would have an idea for a show, set up meetings, go in and wing it. Not anymore. Now writers rehearse their pitch. They pitch to their non-writing producers. They pitch to their agents and managers. I’ve even heard of focus groups being called in.
Personally, I think there’s a danger in that. Especially in pitching a sitcom. The pitch can get so rehearsed that you lose the spontaneity of the idea. Producers claim you must come in with detailed character descriptions, and five or six in depth outlines for stories.
There are several problems with that (as I see it): First off, it’s tedious to listen to. If you’re reading a pitch it’s death. If you’ve memorized a pitch you’ll be reciting it by rote and that’s death.
The truth is a lot of pitches are dead in the first two minutes. And it’s not always your fault. For whatever reason the network doesn’t want to do the area you’re pitching. You can have the world’s greatest pitch for a political-themed sitcom and if the network doesn’t want to do political sitcoms you’re toast. And then the poor network official has to listen to fifteen minutes of your palaver (knowing she’s got seven more pitches on her calendar that day). A year later when your agent calls that network person to set up a new pitch she won’t remember the exact idea you came in with last season, she'll just remember you bored the shit out of her. Not good.
It’s admirable in developing the characters to really get to know them before you pitch, but not so detailed to where things can’t change.
Here’s how my partner, David Isaacs and I approach network pilot pitches. This is for sitcoms. I can’t vouch for how you pitch dramas. I’ve never pitched a drama. And I'm saying everyone should adopt this approach. I'm just explaining how and why we do it this way.
Our pitch is never more than ten minutes. We come in with either a beat sheet of some bullet points we want to mention, or we come in with nothing. You should know your subject matter well enough that written notes are not a necessity.
For whatever reason, we never sell pilots at ABC. So we pitch there first. It’s kind of like our rehearsal. We then go to another network, sell the idea, get the show on the air, and ABC calls bitching that we didn’t bring it to them.
We come in enthusiastic. We may do a quick preamble saying there isn’t a show like this and there’s a need. Or the idea stems from something personal in our lives and is very meaningful to us. Note: The more you can personalize your idea, the better. Command of the subject matter goes a long way. Sometimes you can show them how your idea fits in perfectly with what else they’ve got. Telling them you’ve tailored the show just for them is another big plus (whether you actually did or not).
Then pitch your idea in two or three sentences. Pitch it right up front. Don’t spend five minutes giving background. Along with Robin Schiff, here’s how we sold ALMOST PERFECT: “A single girl in her 30’s is struggling to make headway in her career and personal life. And then, on the day she gets the job of her life she meets the guy of her life. And both are full-time jobs.”
Once they lock into the premise, then you can go on to explain the circumstances, the characters, and have four or five thumbnail story areas.
Show the network where the funny is. Explain quickly how the characters relate to each other. Have jokes to accompany the characters or situation. Give prototypes of the characters. “So for the boss picture George Clooney.”
What you want to do is keep their interest up. You want to keep the ball in the air. You want to engage them. You welcome questions. But if the questions are clarifications that’s a sign that you didn’t do an adequate job of preparing the pitch. But if they want to know more about the characters or the story, that’s a good thing. And it's also why you need to be flexible. They may make a good suggestion or something might bump them that you can fix by suggesting a change in the character yourself. For all the preparation beforehand you need to be able to think on your feet. Not being locked into anything will aid you in this.
A big key is keeping things relatable. If you present a situation and the network person says, “Oh my God, that’s me and my brother” you’re generally in.
I find it’s way easier to get a dialogue going when you don’t have a densely prepared presentation. Your pitch becomes a breezy discussion.
Quick note on the jokes: Have them, they’re helpful, but don’t judge the success of the pitch on whether they get laughs. There are some network people who just don’t laugh. Ever. At anything. And they still buy. There are other network people who laugh uproariously and pass. We once sold a pilot the day after 9/11. You can imagine the yucks we got that day. But the idea was solid.
Let's say you make your pitch and they seem receptive -- thank them, get up and leave. Don't keep pitching. You can only hurt your chances. Writers sometimes talk themselves right out of sales.
Depending on who you pitch to, they may or may not have the authority to buy it in the room. Most of the time they don't. So they have to pitch it to someone higher up. That's another reason why the more concise your pitch the better. If you can distill the idea down to a couple of clear sentences then so can they (hopefully).
You don’t have to be a master salesman. But if you truly are enthusiastic and confident that you (a) have a winning idea and (b) will write a great pilot for them should they buy it you can increase your chances tremendously.
This is not to suggest you don’t have to put in hours of development and thought and refinement. But nothing kills a pitch like desperation. Be prepared, know your subject matter, and when it’s time to pitch, have fun. The fun is infectious. It only stands to reason if they had a better time during your pitch than the last six that you’re in better position to make a sale.
Networks will be opening their doors for new pitches in a couple of weeks. Now is the time to prepare yours. It’s showtime! Best of luck.