PRIMETIME: How should I lay out episodic format in a written pitch?

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Today’s question comes from Brooke, who writes…

I had a question regarding pitching a reality TV show format (1/2 hour makeover/design show). In the written pitch, is it appropriate to layout the format in 3 acts for a 1/2 hour show or use timecode?

Well, Brooke—I’m going to answer your question twice.

First, the simple answer:

Skip the timecode; just lay out the format.

Your job in a pitch isn’t to present a static, dry “business presentation” of your show idea; it’s to take your audience on the same emotional journey they would have watching the actual show.

In other words, the execs or producers you’re pitching may not be watching a taped episode of your series, but you want them to FEEL like they are.  Replicate the experience using your words and storytelling skills rather than taped footage and images.  So the purpose of the format outline isn’t to give a minute-by-minute breakdown of an episode, it’s to illustrate how stories work, how beats play out and connect.

Now, the longer answer:

I NEVER recommend using a written pitch, even for a reality show.

You should only be pitching verbally—or, if necessary, with a sizzle reel or talent—but I NEVER use one-sheets or leave-behinds.  Execs and producers may ask, but they almost NEVER HELP YOU.Pitcher

Now, first of all, let’s be clear: many people worry using written pitch documents or leave-behinds risks your idea getting stolen.  THIS IS RIDICULOUS.  I’m a firm believer that ideas rarely get stolen, especially in television… and if you’re worried your idea might get stolen, you A) haven’t developed it properly, and B) aren’t ready to be working in professional television.

(I know—I can already hear everyone screaming, “I had a friend whose CSI: Miami freelance pitch was ripped off…”  Or, “A&E rejected my sister’s reality show pitch, then two months later it was on the air…”  And while there are exceptions to every rule, these people are—for the most part—wrong.  But that’s a separate conversation…)

Here are the real reasons pitch documents don’t work…

1)    THEY ALLOW PEOPLE TO BE LAZY.

Your job is to get your pitch’s audience as enthusiastic about your idea as you are… because if they like it, they will probably need re-pitch their boss.  Their boss may even have to pitch his boss.  If the idea stalls anywhere on the food chain, it’s dead.

Well, it’s much harder to get someone excited with a paper pitch than with your own personal joy and excitement; passion and emotion just transmit better in person.  Yet if you leave a paper pitch, the execs/producers don’t have to get excited.  They have a crutch; if they’re short on time, or energy, or flub the pitch, they can just hand over the doc and say, “Read this.”

And that’s precisely what you don’t want to happen.  Because the words on that page, while they may lay out the show beautifully, will never convey personal passion as well as an actual person.

2)    DOCUMENTS TEND TO BE “SET IN STONE.”

stone tablets, ten commandmentsLet’s say you’re pitching a show about a boy who joins the circus, and an executive says, “I love this… but we already have a show about a little boy.  We’d love to find a show about a little girl.”  And you say—”No problem; it can be a little girl.”  Everything’s good, everyone’s excited… and at the end of the meeting, you hand over your leave-behind so they can review it later.

But the leave-behind says the show is about a boy.

Now, in the meeting, when everyone was happy and in the moment, no one had any problem switching to a girl.  But hours or days later, when the meeting is a memory in execs’ heads, and they’re glancing through fifty scripts and treatments on their desk, what do they see?… A show about a boy who joins the circus.  Does that mean the character couldn’t still be changed?  Of course not.  But as execs and producers cull through hundreds of pitches a year, they often reach for the lowest-hanging fruit… and for execs who don’t want a show about a boy, that’s all they see when looking at your written pitch.

So what do you do?…

If a producer/exec asks for a leave-behind, I usually say I don’t have one.  If she insists—or can clearly see I have a document in my hand—I say these pages are filled with my notes, but I can email a clean copy later.  This allows you to do three important things…

1)    GET THEIR EMAIL ADDRESS… so you can not only email your pages, you can begin a longer relationship.

2)    FOLLOW UP. If you haven’t heard back in a week or so, you can email to check in.

3)    REVISE THE PAGES. Let’s say the producer did ask if the main character could be switched to a girl… or if the series could be shot in a studio instead of on location… or if it could be an hour rather than half-hour… you can make these adjustments before sending the pages.  That way, the pages in the producer’s hands match what you talked about in the room, including any notes or suggestions.

Anyway, Brooke—I hope that answers your question.  Good luck on the pitch… and please let me know how it goes!

For the rest of you, keep the emails coming—and if you have questions, thoughts, compliments, or scathing insults, post them in the Comment section below, or send them to Chad@chadgervich.com.

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