5 Things to Keep in Mind When Making an Independent TV Pilot

This year’s New York Television Festival has come and gone, but it’s given us – as in we TV series creator/showrunner wannabes – much to think about. Here’s what we think is some of the best advice to come out of it:

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by Alison Willmore

New York Television Festival founder Terence Gray notes that the fest has been seeing many filmmakers with TV projects… “I think if you look at the networks and premium cable, you see that a lot of very well-respected filmmakers and directors have entered the television marketplace and they’re doing great series,” Gray observed. “Here’s a great opportunity to use the skills that they’ve honed in storytelling and independent film and migrate to television — we’re happy to showcase their incredible talent.”

The growing demand from cable channels for original series and the rise of online platforms has also made for more outlets for new projects, and Gray adds that “my hope is with places like Amazon and Microsoft specifically, that there really are opportunities for emerging artists to come in and create great series for them.” That said, an indie pilot requires a somewhat different approach from that of a film — Gray offered us five tips to keep in mind.

1. Keep in mind the networks to which you’d like to pitch your pilot as it’s being developed. “Before an artist makes a pilot, they want to think about the destination, what networks or outlets they envision targeting. How would their projects fit into that network or a platform’s current lineup? Do your homework, see what the networks or platforms have in development. Having an eventual destination for a pilot can really help shape the idea from the very beginning of the concept.

“An artist should also know that the inclusion of adult material — whether it’s sex, extreme violence or language — cuts out about 95% of the eventual buyers. i wouldn’t say get rid of those things or compromise your vision, but having adult content is going to limit the number of places you can take the pilot. If you are going to broadcast television, you should know the audience and the marketplace and spend some time researching the network. Same thing for online, know what online destination would be a good fit for your project. One of the real keys is spending as much time with your ideas as possible before the cameras start rolling. When you make pilots, the most expensive time will be when you’re shooting, so make sure your script and ideas are solid before you go into production. One way to do that is to have other people read your script. Work with actors and have your script read out loud — it’s a great way for a writer and creator to get feedback before he or she goes into production.”

2. Establish a consistent world and tone. “Tone is incredibly important when you’re establishing a world, so whether you’re shooting something that’s super gritty or super goofy and surreal, make sure that the pilot is consistent throughout. One thing that’s going to help you set that tone is establishing a core group of characters, and even if your series has 40 characters in it, you don’t want to establish more than five to follow in the pilot. An audience need something to focus on, and that’s difficult if there are too many things going on. There’s enough to accomplish in the pilot without having to spend a majority of the time introducing all of these new characters, which often can lead to stalling the momentum and confusing the audience.”

Read it all (3 more good tips!)