Pitching Guidelines for Original TV Series
By Neil Landau
Here are my guidelines for preparing and delivering a great pitch for an original series. Every pitch needs to be customized, so these guidelines are not rigid and do not have to be in this precise order. In fact, depending on genre and format, some of these rules may not apply.
1. Your pitch presentation should have the same tone as the genre of the series. If it’s a comedy, your pitch had better be laugh-out-loud funny. If it’s an edgy thriller, it needs to offer suspense, thrills, and chills. If it’s a family drama, the pitch needs to evoke empathy and pathos. If it’s a crime, legal, or medical procedural series, the pilot story needs to offer a surprising, emotionally resonant mystery.
2. Set the stage for the pitch before delving into the basic story points (“beats”) in the pilot episode.
- What’s the basic format (i.e., half-hour dramedy, one-hour drama)?
- What’s the genre and tone?
- What’s the principal time period?
- What’s the main setting? If you were pitching Once Upon a Time, you would need to establish two realms.
3. Make eye contact with everyone. Don’t just pitch to the most powerful player in the room; you’re going to need other advocates. Not making eye contact with a junior executive can alienate him or her and cause him or her to torpedo your pitch after you’ve left the meeting. Be democratic, respectful, and diplomatic.
4. Once the stage is set, start with a killer teaser to pique their interest. Everyone loves to hear a great story told by a master storyteller, so start off with a provocative cold opening. Maybe it’s facts and stats. Maybe it’s a provocative question. Maybe it’s a joke that captures the flavor of your comedy.
5. Once you’ve effectively grabbed their attention with the teaser, pitch out the basic A and B stories of the pilot episode. I’ve found it’s best to describe the cast of characters on a need-to-know basis within the context of the story versus as a laundry list. But do not give short shrift to the characters. No matter how delightful and innovative your series’ premise might be, a series is only as compelling as its leading players. Present a thumbnail sketch of who’s who—but don’t snow blind them with too many names and specifics. Do tell them how and when and why we’re being introduced to this group of characters at this particular time. How are they uniquely flawed and engaging? What are their primary strengths and weaknesses?
6. Present the basic structure of the pilot episode. I like to delineate the act breaks so the execs can get a sense of the tone, pacing, style, and mini cliffhangers at the end of each act—leading up to the big, climactic cliffhanger at the end of the pilot episode. Ideally, the ending of the pilot episode will be surprising, organically earned, and resonant.
7. End your pitch of the pilot episode on a high note that portends future conflicts versus too much resolution and harmony. The primary difference between a TV series and a movie is, by and large, that a movie is intended to be finite; “The End” is intended to be the end of the movie. In contrast, the end of a TV pilot is just the beginning of what is intended to be an ongoing journey for the characters.
8. Make them care. Get them invested in the plight of your characters. Keep them on the edge of their seats with suspense—which is generated by their emotional investment in the characters! You want your series to get under their skin. You want it to haunt them. You want them to talk to their colleagues and bosses and significant others about it. You want them to lose sleep over it. They say yes, and you make the sale when they simply can’t say no.
9. Clarify the week-to-week of your series. In other words, what’s the franchise? As you’ll read in my interview with The Walking Dead showrunner, Glen Mazzara, “Great TV is about cool people doing cool shit.” So it’s not enough for you to introduce and describe your characters, it’s also essential that you specify what they’re going to be doing in each episode.
10. Show them your series is set on fertile ground. Have at least three examples for future episodes. This will probably not be necessary, but be prepared with brief loglines in case they ask. Avoid lots of plot details, but do let them know where the series goes from there. What are the “story engines,” that is, what is the series going to be week to week? Is it going to be serialized with an ongoing plotline for the whole season? Or are the episodes going to be closed ended and resolve by the end of each episode by divulging whodunit or the verdict or cure or truth? In a purely serialized series, such as 24, Dallas, Gossip Girl, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Lost, Friday Night Lights, and Parenthood, the ongoing stories in the lives of the characters are the week-to-week franchise. These ongoing, cumulative character plotlines and subplots are called “character arcs.”
11. What is your intention for your series? Let them know in your pitch so they have a framework for the story you’re trying to tell. In a purely procedural series, such as Law & Order, CSI, Bones, House, the franchise will be the case of the week. And then there are hybrid series that are both serialized and also offer closed-ended A stories, such as The Good Wife, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and Once Upon a Time. The series, Touch, featuring Kiefer Sutherland, started out as a character-driven procedural in its first season and evolved into a serialized series in season 2. Know the network’s brand and what’s working within their wheelhouse. Currently at ABC, hybrid shows are working quite well, while purely serialized shows (such as Revenge) are starting to lose steam with viewers.
12. Briefly and succinctly pitch out the basic mythology of the series. Keep it simple! Your series’ mythology will take the form of a central mystery —secrets from the past that are actively hidden or obscured. Mythology is about how the past (aka “backstory”) affects the present and future of your series’ characters. Lost was a serialized show with a deep, rich, ever-expanding mythology that dealt with the mysteries of the island. No need to tell the execs everything you know. Not knowing what’s going to happen invokes the central questions of your series—which is the lifeblood of good television. Even in a sitcom in which nothing fundamental ever really changes and the characters very often stay the same, the fun is knowing not if they’re going to get out of trouble—but how. A good pitch will entice them to ask you questions. If you can end your pitch and then they’re brimming with curiosity about what’s going to happen next to these characters, they’re probably going to buy your pitch just to find out.
13. Let them know if it’s a “premise” pilot or a “non-premise” pilot — although this should be fairly obvious from your pilot episode.
A premise pilot means that episode 1 is essential to start the series; a premise pilot establishes the premise from day one. Lost was a premise pilot because it started with the plane crash. The Killing was a premise pilot because it’s the first day that Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) starts investigating the murder of Rosie Larsen and partners up with Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman). Grey’s Anatomy was a premise pilot because it started with the first day of internship for the new residents. The X-Files was a premise pilot because it began with Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) being introduced to Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and the inception of their partnership. Homeland was a premise pilot because it started with POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) returning home and Carrie Mathison’s (Claire Danes) accompanying suspicion of him.
In contrast, a non-premise pilot simply drops us into the world of the series that’s already in progress. It’s the first episode for the audience, but it’s not day one for the characters. It’s just now. Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, Parenthood, Modern Family, E.R., and The West Wing were non-premise pilots. The Mentalist, Rizzoli & Isles, Law & Order, and most of the plot-driven procedural dramas are non-premise pilots. There are also hybrid franchises that begin with a climactic moment and then either flash-forward (such as in the pilot for The Good Wife and Royal Pains) or flashback (such as in the pilots for Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and Damages). To me, Friday Night Lights was a premise pilot because it ends on the debilitating injury of star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) and its effects on not only Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his family, but also on the whole town of Dillon, Texas. The Sopranos was a hybrid pilot because it’s Tony Soprano’s (James Gandolfini) first day of therapy with Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco).
14. Think about casting—networks are all about getting the widest audience possible for their brand, so it’s always a good idea to have diversity in your cast. A big exec at a major TV studio recently told me that, given the size of the Hispanic audience, it’s now impossible to pitch a series without at least one major Latin role. This isn’t about pandering. TV viewers like to see their lives reflected in some way on their favorite series, so think about a multi-ethnic, multigenerational cast. Are their exceptions to this rule? Of course, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, and Friends immediately come to mind, but times are changing. P.S.: Sometimes it can be useful to offer a casting suggestion even if it’s a movie star who’s not going to be doing a TV series any time soon or ever—just to create a picture in their minds, “she’s Jennifer Aniston with a briefcase.” This strategy can also be risky because you might end up choosing someone the exec hates.
15. If you have a huge canvas of characters for an ensemble series, it can be helpful to prepare a visual aid—such as a chart—to refer to each character. I’ve cut out pictures from magazines and prepared such a chart so they don’t get confused about who’s who. However, I dissuade you from giving them a printout of a Cast of Characters because then they’ll spend the whole pitch looking down at the handout instead of up at you.
16. A short (three minutes or less) “sizzle reel” can be effective if it’s really provocative and well executed. Beware of anything that looks amateurish and have a contingency for technical snafus.
17. Props can be a useful selling tool, but don’t use them as a crutch. A gimmick like a bar of FIGHT CLUB soap to sell Fight Club: The Series and coming into the meeting with a black eye and bruises might make for a memorable pitch, but their decision to buy the show will be based on the story and characters, not the marketing gimmick.
18. Finish the pitch, and don’t buy it back. What this means is, when you’re done with your rehearsed pitch, shut up. This is crucial to (potentially) closing the sale. After you’re done pitching, there’s always that excruciating silence in the room that every fiber in your (insecure, neurotic) being will want to fill with embellishment. Do not give in to this temptation. When you’re done pitching, try to embrace the silence with confidence. Think about having a winning hand in poker. Don’t act all arrogant or jittery. Just sit there and let them make the next move. Anything you say beyond your proposed pitch that’s not elicited by them can and will be used against you, so don’t equivocate. If they have any questions, they’ll ask you. If they’re ready for you to depart, they’ll say thank you. Don’t act desperate and ask them when they’re going to make their decision. Don’t ask them for feedback on the pitch or how you can improve it. Insecurity does not invoke confidence in a buyer.
19. Hollywood is built on relationships. Obviously, talent plays a significant part, too, but good relationships close the sale. Any time you sell a pitch, the executive who advocates for it is placing a bet on you. If the executive is unsure that you can deliver the product—a kickass pilot script—then he/she is going to hedge their bets and spend their limited discretionary funds on a more confident, tried and true series creator. If you’re a total neophyte, they can always pair you up with an established showrunner should the series go into production. However, for this initial step of ordering the pilot script from you, they need to feel comfortable in their relationship with you and/or place their confidence in your producer to shepherd you through the script development process. Every pitch meeting is a learning opportunity for you, and not the be all, end all of your career—unless you get angry and rude for their not immediately embracing your brilliance and storm out. Be a team player, not a diva. Be magnanimous and flexible even when they take a phone call or answer an email right in the middle of your pitch. Keep your ego and T.V.C. (thinly veiled contempt) in check. It will only hurt you, not them.
20. Be a professional. Show up on time and be prepared. Never begin a pitch with a disclaimer! If you’re having a terrible day and got a speeding ticket on the way to the meeting, pull yourself together and leave your troubles outside the door.
21. Don’t discuss finances or price quotes in the pitch meeting. Be the artist and tell them to discuss that stuff with your rep. You’re a storyteller, not a lawyer or a haggler.
22. I generally recommend that you have three pitches prepared when you’re meeting with a producer. If you strike out with one, move on to the next one. However, when you’re going in to pitch at a TV studio or network, only pitch one project. You need to project an air of being fully committed, passionate, even obsessed with getting this one project on the air, as opposed to a shoe salesman.
Excerpt from The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap: 21 Navigational Tips for Screenwriters to Create and Sustain a Hit TV Series by Neil Landau © 2013 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.