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Pitching a TV Show

pitchI’ve been fortunate over the past year to shadow an established television writer as he works on various pitches for his own shows. He works predominately in procedurals and political dramas, while I’m mainly a comedy guy.  But I knew the fundamentals I was learning were universal.

He always starts with a brief, but catchy biography about himself and why that makes him the best person to write what he’s pitching. His origin story has become like folklore.  He was a Washington DC speech writer, but some of the details change a little bit here and there.  Most importantly, the drama amps up in a way that always hooks you right out of the gate.

From there he goes into the teaser for his show. If you don’t know, that’s basically the thing you see before the first commercial that, if done right, keeps you from changing the channel for the next thirty or sixty minutes.  My mentor is great a teasers.  Political drama and procedurals are pretty much at the bottom of the list of things I like to watch, but more often than not, his teasers grab me.

Then he talks about the pilot episode while giving pertinent information about all of the key characters. He gives you enough of their backstories to get you to really know who they are as people.  Sometimes if the teaser doesn’t grab me, his ability to create interesting characters does.  His characters are always flawed.  They feel real.  Most importantly, they’re interesting.  We always know what their needs are and why they need it.

After he gives a pretty detailed beat by beat run down of the pilot episode, he goes over story beats for the entire first season of his show up to the cliffhanger ending. He wraps up by touching on the themes of further seasons so that whoever he’s pitching to knows he’s thought through this entire world.

Off the top of my head, I’ve sat through seven very detailed pitches in the past year from him. He’s a work horse.  In addition to learning how to pitch, I learned how to manage time and projects.  I’ll write more about that in the future.

So that brings me to our pitch.

Along with comedian DJ Dangler and artist Axel Ortiz, I created an animated show. My friend Joe Apel has been working in animation for the past ten years and directed me to someone at a network who might be looking for something maybe along the lines of what we created.  I sent an email and a meeting was set up pretty quickly.

DJ spends most of his time on the road making his living off of stand up, while I’m currently choosing to take a little break from the road and focus my attention on California right now. When the meeting was set, DJ decided to fly back to not only be there for the meeting, but to make sure we were prepared.

Axel is just as much of a work horse as the aforementioned television writer. He’s a veteran of the pitch meeting, but pointed out earlier that if we had a star attached to our show, that would give us an advantage.  Over the past six months, I’ve been working on getting the biggest name I know attached to it.  The week before our pitch, we got him.  He looked at what we were going in with and said that he was happy to be part of it and if it lands, we can hammer out the details then.

I researched the person we were pitching to. She was a guest on a comedy podcast and spent an entire hour talking about the pitching process.  In that interview, I also found out that she, like DJ, is from Indiana and her wife, like me, is from Michigan.  She and I both nerd out over character actors too.  So I knew we had a conversation opener and I wasn’t going to have to overly explain things like if I said, “Oh this character is a little bit like Miller from the movie Repo Man, played by Tracey Walter”, she was going to know who Tracey Walter is.  For the record, many of the scripts I’ve written have characters that I imagine Tracey Walter playing.  I know why Jonathan Demme puts him in every movie, because Tracey Walter is a national treasure!  I once told DJ that I would be more excited about meeting Tracey Walter than I would be about meeting George Lucas or Harrison Ford.  I think Tracey Walter lives within a mile of me too.  And if you think every time my girlfriend and I walk around the neighborhood, I’m not on a constant look out for Tracey Walter watering his plants, then you’re wrong!

Axel went in to pitch on another show three weeks prior to our meeting and told us what the executive asked from them. DJ and I wanted to make sure we were over prepared.  We had a pilot script.  We had ideas for story beats for our first season and I knew what I wanted to happen in the final episode of the entire series.  But DJ and I detailed out episode by episode the entire first season of our show.  We knew the story beats and what themes each episode would explore.   A friend of mine who works in printing made us a really nice pitch packet too.

The idea of writing stories with an overall point of view or theme is something that I would accidentally sometimes hit, but other times missed completely. DJ and I have a mutual friend in comedian turned television writer Nick Anthony who really hammered into us the idea that we sometimes missed that.  So when DJ and I started the conversation about each episode of our show, we started with what was the theme for that episode.  It really helped us figure out where the other characters were going to be in their individual arcs.

The night before our pitch, DJ and I walked home around five miles from West Hollywood to the far eastern side of Hollywood really exploring every character we created. We knew their strengths, their weaknesses, their desires, their backgrounds, and their secrets.

So going into our pitch I knew we created something cool, timely, we have a big name attached and we were prepared.

The meeting was great. I told her that I enjoyed the podcast she was on and we found out her dad and sister both went to Purdue, same as DJ.  Her wife and my girlfriend are from the same small suburb of Detroit.  She asked how DJ, Axel and I knew each other.  DJ and I have a fun origin story where we both showed up early at Nick Anthony’s home to go do a show in San Diego.  Nick wasn’t there yet.  I was parked on the street waiting.  A guy pulled up on the other side of the street, got out of his car, put a large pizza on the roof and just ate the entire thing in front of me.  I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.  He was so full of unadulterated and gluttonous joy.  From that moment I wish I could be that guy’s friend.  That guy turned out to be DJ.  We hit it off that night and have been friends ever since.  Axel and I met at San Diego Comic Con last year and our origin story gave me a chance to really talk about how much I love his work and why he was the perfect person to design our show.

Then she wanted to know about our characters. DJ and I were able to speak passionately and deeply about each of them.  I like writing female characters.  This show features two really strong female characters.  The main character is, in some ways, man boy with arrested development not completely unlike DJ or myself.  One of the women in the show is his daughter, the other is basically his boss.  Both are strong.  Neither of them are bitchy.  Both of them are just as cool and quick as he is.  They’re strong women, but they’re perfect.  They’re deep and rich characters.  I can see how it would be an easy trap for a guy writing a woman to over compensate by trying to make her too perfect.  Ours aren’t at all.  They both have real human foibles.  Also, I’m hoping I just used the word “foibles” correctly.

At the end of our meeting she asked us what our roles would be if the show were picked up. I explained that when Garth Ennis created the comic book Preacher he gave artist Steve Dillon co-creator credit because he felt the look of it was just as important as the story.  I believe in that.  When I asked Axel to draw the characters, I told him very little.  And aside from changing the hair color on one of them, I didn’t have any changed.  I love his art.  DJ and I are great at writing jokes and character, but we still struggle with story and conflict.  An analogy a script reader gave us of a screenplay that we wrote was that there’s “a lot of icing, but not much cake”.  That’s fair.  So I said DJ and I care a lot about our characters, but if the show were picked up, it would probably be best if we were teamed with a producer who was better at breaking stories.  So I think that showed that we were flexible and going to be easy to work with.

There’s another show, which I can’t name, where the creators were fired because they were way too difficult and had very unrealistic expectations of what they were entitled to. Hollywood is a city built on collaborative art.  Nothing here is a single vision.  You have to be willing to trust others to help you create the best product possible.

According to the podcast our executive was on, because she sees so many people, her pitch meetings rarely go more than thirty minutes. Ours went 45.  She laughed a lot and seemed engaged. There’s nothing I would have done differently about our meeting.  We gave her our book with the character art and descriptions as well as additional information about the show.  We’ll know more in a couple weeks.

Yes, at this stage a hundred things would have to happen for this to be a show any of us would ever get to see. We’re going to move forward and continue pitching to other places too.  But on the flipside of this meeting, I thought it would be nice to share some of the tips that I learned.

  1. Know as much about the person you’re pitching as you can. As they say, “knowledge is power”.
  2. Be prepared to explain why what you’re pitching is important to you personally and why you’re the best person to write it.
  3. Television is a medium based on characters. Make sure you have interesting ones and you can talk about them.
  4. As with any speech writing, pepper in a joke or two if it suits the mood. I don’t think I’d try to make anyone laugh if I were pitching Schindler’s List: The Series.
  5. Keep it pithy, punk. Metallica songs are like three hours long and feel like they include every idea that everyone in the band had. In the time it takes to listen to two Metallica songs, you could listen to seventeen Ramones songs. Be a Ramone. Leave them wanting more.
  6. Don’t just talk. Listen. We were prepared to talk nonstop for 15-20 minutes, but were totally able to let our exec lead the pitch in a much more conversational and informal manner.
  7. Television is a flexible art. We didn’t get any notes in this first meeting, but my mentor has. He digests them all and if he has complaints, he does it later to his manager, not in the room.
  8. Know what you’re talking about inside and out. DJ and I know every in and out of our show where it stands right now. And if you had a question for us that we didn’t know the answer to, we’d make something up. We have an alien character who is the last of his kind. What planet is he from? Zaphodbrock. He’s a Zaphoid from the planet Zaphodbrock. I just made that up. It’s one part Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and one part late singer of Gwar. If you wanted me to talk about Zaphodbrock, I could. And DJ could jump in and we’d piggy back on each other’s ideas. Executives want to feel safe. The words, “I don’t know”, has never instilled security in anyone.
  9. If you can’t come up with ten items, don’t just make stuff up to fill time or space. See #5.

So there you go. I’m far from an expert, but I know a week or two ago I’d love to have this information compiled in one place.  I hope this helps or at least makes for some interesting reading.

Re-watch it With Your Kids: The Littles

As a parent, if you’re like me, you want to share things from your own childhood with your kids. As a child of the 80’s, I naturally wanted to share some of my favorite Saturday morning and after school cartoons with my boys.  Unfortunately, many of the shows I remember fondly do not hold up well at all. My most glaring example of this was Voltron, which now I realize is terribly cheesy and badly written.

Imagine my surprise, then, when one of the shows I remember as pretty cheesy turned out to be much better than I remember. My wife started the boys watching the Littles, a show about a group of mouse-sized people who live in the walls of regular-sized people’s homes.

The Littles ran for three seasons on ABC on Saturday Mornings from 1983 – 1985, and had a movie, Titles Here Come the Littles in 1985. The main characters are a family of Littles, Including the young Tom and Lucy, their parents Frank and Helen, their older cousin Dinky and their Grandpa, imaginatively named Grandpa Little. They all live in the walls of the house of Henry Bigg, a human who accidentally discovered their existence, and has come to be a friend to them.

The show follows the Littles as they get into and out of all sorts of trouble. The real surprise to me, though, is the mature themes the series deals with fairly regularly. The Littles are often in danger of capture by a scientist named Dr. Hunter who is obsessed with proving their existence to the world. In one episode, the Littles help a little girl whose mother has a problem with prescription drugs by tricking her into thinking she’s hallucinating. In another, they are run out of their homes by giant evil-looking rats. They also deal with drinking, and in a later episode, a couple of guys who would be called terrorists today, who try to gas an entire art museum full of people. Later episodes see the Littles following the Bigg family (Henry’s parents are archeologists) on trips around the world.

 

The show is still aimed at children, of course, and more often deals with lighter themes, but it is refreshing to watch a show that doesn’t write for children as if they are all stupid, as so many of its contemporary shows did. Yes, it’s almost thirty years old, but I you have kids and want to share a bit of the 80s with them, check out the Littles on Netflix, the movie and all 29 episodes of the show are available to view instantly. My 3 and 5 year old boys  can’t get enough of it.