Thursday, June 04, 2015

The art of pitching a sitcom

One of the hardest things to do in Hollywood is sell a pitch for a TV series. There’s a real art to it. So much rides on the pitch and it’s a very different skill set from writing. There are some fantastic writers who are terrible in a room and some writers who are Billy Graham in a room but can’t write worth shit.

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. 

14 comments:

Jim S said...

Ron Howard and Stephen J. Cannell, if you look on the Web, tell stories of how their mentors – Garry Marshall for Howard and Jack Webb for Cannell – were so successful with their pitches. Howard said Marshall would curse a lot. Webb would get really enthusiastic and say things like imagine you're on fire truck with the siren blazing. They would get the network suits caught up in the story they were telling. One suit might say "can we have a dalmation at the fire station?" "Of course."

Interesting to hear your take.

MikeK.Pa. said...

"For whatever reason the network doesn’t want to do the area you’re pitching."
Isn't that the agent's job to get a feel for what the networks are looking for (I'm assuming they do, which might be a stretch).

"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."
There's an ABC exec somewhere who will read this gratified to know they are New Haven to CBS's Broadway (not even sure if plays even do that anymore).

"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."
Isn't that the agent's job - to find out about the executives and their family members? (lol)

"We once sold a pilot the day after 9/11. You can imagine the yucks we got that day. But the idea was solid."
I'm surprised the meeting wasn't postponed. It had to be a tough room to pitch. Most of the rest of the country was still in a funk.

Usually I love seeing photos of Natalie Wood. Not in love with this one, though. But don't stop posting them.

Hamid said...

I loved that hilarious story you told of the moronic producer who thought it was a great idea to take in a bag of greasy BBQ takeout to pitch a sitcom related to food and the disgusted reactions of the executives.

For anyone who hasn't read that story, go here:
http://kenlevine.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/how-not-to-pitch-pilot.html

Igor said...

Ken wrote: "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."

I've heard/read this advice a lot, from various people, and it confuses me in this way: Doesn't this conflict with your lament about everyday people pitching you ideas about their own lives? "I work in a meatpacking plant and it is so funny, you should write a sitcom about THAT." Yes, a story that works is likely to work better if it's personalized. But if before you hear what a sitcom is about, a new pitcher tells you how this story is "personal", is there a real risk of the network guy doing a mental eye-roll? "Oh, one more story about working in a meatpacking plant..."

Ken wrote: "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)."

OK, I get that. And for someone established (like... you), I especially get that. But for someone who isn't established. And for someone who is less likely to know the industry, to know programming, at an expert level, isn't this a big risk? That you'll come off like George Costanza in his pitch meeting with Jerry?

I'm definitely not disagreeing with any of your post today. Just wondering if some parts of it should come with warning labels.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Sid & Marty Krofft have said the best way to pitch a show to a network is to make your presentation as visual as possible so they can see for themselves what it is you're trying to sell - particularly if you're selling a show that's "different," they're much more likely to buy it based on seeing it as opposed to a 12-page outline that they won't read anyway. Just about all of their presentations for their shows were the shows' "Bibles," large books with hardcovers that contain all kind of conceptual artwork that would have the logo on the cover, you get an idea who the characters are, and the pages tell the story.

Knox said...

Friday question: Hearing about pitches is very interesting. And in keeping with the baseball metaphor of pitching: what is your batting average and how has it changed over your career?

C. A. Bridges said...

Friday question: Sunday night, on a whim, I watched all the Cheers episodes that featured Harry the Hat. Did the Cheers writers create his scams, or did Anderson provide them for the writers to work in?

Hamid said...

By the way, Ken, whilst I'm not personally into baseball, I know you're obviously a huge fan, so you've probably heard this news already but here it is:

Legendary is returning to the ballpark with a biopic of Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates legend who was the first Latino inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The company has picked up the rights to David Maraniss’ book Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero and has entered into an agreement with Clemente’s family for his life rights. The feature project is close to the heart of Legendary CEO Thomas Tull, a sports fan who also serves as a board member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

MikeN said...

So there's a Wolz type guy at ABC going,"Kenny Levine never gets that show. I'm going to run him outta the business."

Scott O. said...

“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.”

Damn, if you just would have made the girl an actress you would have had THAT GIRL II.

Ben K. said...

I have an idea about five to seven friends who hang out together in a big city every day. They're really good-looking but have romantic problems; they've got interesting jobs (mostly in media, but one's a chef) with career problems; and at least two of them are attracted to each other but have obstacles and bad timing in their way. What do you think? I really have a good feeling about this one!

Anonymous said...

According to the book Inside Star Trek by Robert Justman & Herb Solow,ST creator Gene Roddenberry was awful as a pitchman for the series.
Gene spoke softly,mumbled & would trail off when presenting ST.
They had to work with him in order to have Gene do a better job of it,but he never really quite mastered it.

MikeN said...

Or you could just say, 'I've got signed up as the lead, this guy who played a comic relief on one of Ken Levine's shows.'

Gerry said...

Great info here Ken. I have a little experience with pitching kids animation shows and I was terrible my first time out, but I learned a ton. I'm working on some new ideas and I am looking forward to trying again. It's energizing just talking to the actual people!