Congratulations! It’s happened at last. You’ve been invited to pitch to a genuine network television series. Uh-oh…now what?
Here’s the step by step breakdown of what you should do and what you should expect from a pitch session. Armed with this knowledge, even the rawest novice is on a par with the most seasoned pro. (And maybe you pros can pick up a pointer or two as well, since this knowledge comes as much from time spent in the “buyer’s chair” as much as the “seller’s.”
First of all, you must recognize this all-important point: You haven’t really been “invited” at all. You’re merely being “allowed.” Why is that? Very simple. The members of the writing staff of every show, whether they’re called producers or story editors, would prefer to write every episode themselves. After all, no one knows the show better than they do…and, in the eyes of most staffers, no one deserves the money for writing each episode more. Especially since they’re certain they’re going to have to rewrite every word a freelancer puts down. (And they’re probably right.)
Why, then, hire freelancers at all? Try this for a reason: They’ve run out of time or ideas and just plain need an infusion of fresh blood in order to complete the current season. Now try this one as well: The Writers Guild of America rules mandate that a certain number of freelancers must be interviewed, and another number (much lower) actually be hired.
So now you know the truth. You’re coming into the pitch meeting with two strikes against you. How can you overcome this hurdle? Mainly: BE PREPARED.
Know the show you’re going to. Make sure you’ve watched a million episodes, and read as many scripts as possible. (You can get the scripts straight from the office of whoever you’re pitching to. You’re on the inside for the moment, so if you don’t have an agent to call and ask for them, you can do it yourself without fear.) Know the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Know the stories that have already been done. Then think of what you’d like to see the characters do. What interaction? What adventure? What tragedy would you enjoy seeing them thrust into? Be careful not to stray far from the parameters of the episodes you’ve seen and read. If they wanted the heroes of, say, TWO AND A HALF MEN to go into space, they would’ve done it. Stay to the premise of the series and keep Charlie dead and on the beach.
Thinking along these lines, come up with three episode ideas you think are great. You should be able to state each idea in one carefully worded sentence, and you should know the beginning, middle, and end of each. To make sure of these things, write the sentence. Then write a page and a half telling the story. No more. Study the ideas. Think of what problems someone could find in them, what holes a producer who wants to say no could poke. Get rid of those problems and holes, and make sure you know this material as well as a wannabe lawyer knows the law when he or she takes the exam for the Bar.
Now you’re ready to go into the meeting, Dress well…but not too well. Casually, but not sloppily. (Too well is threatening. Too casual means you don’t really care.) Figure out which of the ideas is the strongest–in terms of the kind of thing you’ve already seen on the show–and which is the weakest. Now head for the studio, and make sure to bring the neatly written one-and-half pagers for each idea along.
At the studio you’ll have the usual parking problems and the even more usual getting lost while trying to find the office problems, so give yourself plenty of time. It isn’t fashionable in this instance to be “fashionably late.” Of course, it’s important to know that even if you were to come late you’d still be early. Some crisis will have come up that the person with whom you’re meeting has to solve, and you’ll have to wait. While you’re waiting the assistant will probably be cordial although not necessarily pleasant, but everyone else who comes into or out of the office will ignore you completely. You and the couch you’re sitting on will be one. Don’t take it personally. Just sit back and rehearse your one-liners and pretend to read the trades.
Eventually the meeting will start, probably with three or so staffers in attendance. There will be the obligatory offer of a drink of coffee or Snapple and small talk about traffic, weather, whatever, and then you’ll be asked what you have. Take your cue from the attitudes of the others and again be casual but not so much that you don’t seem to care whether or not you get the assignment. Tell your best story first. If you’re very lucky, it’s the only one you’ll have to tell because it’ll immediately be snapped up. If you’re not so lucky, one of the staffers will say, “Hey, that’s good–but we’re already doing an episode like that.” Or, “Hmm, not bad. What else have you got?” If you’re unlucky you’ll get a, “What’re you, nuts? Our hero would never do anything like that! And I heard that you were a good writer…” Snort. (Honest, I’ve had that happen.)
So now you move on. This time you tell your weakest story. It’s like a pitcher who’s ahead on the count wasting a pitch. Psychologically, it gives the staffers a chance to feel really superior and smug and say, “NO!” in unison. Don’t worry. They’ll love you for giving them that chance. Now give them your third idea. What usually happens is that they like that but recognize that it isn’t as good as the first, and go back to trying to figure out a way to make the first one work for them. If this happens, just sit back and let them sort it out. No one will be upset because they’re doing all the work instead of you. They like it this way–as long as you interject an occasional element or two.
Interestingly, the alternative to going back to the first, best idea, is that the staff will pick Number Two, the weakest, and try to put some great spin on that one. Either way, your job is the same.
Eventually the staff will put together a story they like. It may be exactly what you came in with, or it may be completely different in every way (but even so, they know that it’s “yours” and that if they do it you have to be hired as the writer.) The senior member of the group will tell you that they have to kick the idea upstairs to get it approved…even if he/she in fact has the power to approve things. (He wants time to think it–and you–over, so you’d better be the kind of guy he’d like working with…which means you’d better be a lot like the others who are on his staff.) You’ll be told that you an expect a call in a couple of days, and to be optimistic. If the story is just like one you came in with, leave the appropriate page and a half (the “leave behind,” of course). If not, just smile and leave, hoping you can find your car.
And that’s it…well, not exactly. Because after a couple of days pass you won’t be called. And a couple of days after that you won’t be called either. Wait a full week, and then call whoever you had the official pitch appointment with. Remind the assistant of who you are and say you’re checking on what happened with that story everyone liked so much. The assistant will tell you that the producer/story editor will call you back. If that call doesn’t come within another week, call again. You’ll get the same reply and never hear from anyone. This means your story wasn’t approved. (Actually, it means that as soon as the meeting was over everyone forgot about it, but that is, after all, the same thing.)
If it ends this way, it’s over for now. Wait another week and then call and ask if you can come in and pitch again. If you can, run in and do it. If you’re told there are no more openings…take the hint.
On the other hand, the producer/story editor may actually call back! Sometimes it’s to tell you the idea is a Go! They’re ready to make a deal to have you write it! Other times it’s to say that the idea was shot down but that you should definitely come in again. If it’s the former, jump up and down and celebrate! You’re almost in! If it’s the latter, jump up and down and celebrate as well. It means you’ve still got a real shot!
As long and laborious and painful as this process can be, remember that it’s not the end in itself. If they’ve decided to go ahead with your idea, you’ve still got the even more laborious job ahead of you of writing it so everyone involves thinks you’re the greatest–which means writing it just like they would…only better!
We’ll talk about the next part of the process…what happens after you’ve actually struck gold at a pitch meeting…the next time I can come up for air. Now I’ve got to go listen to a new writer with a great idea. Better grab some Snapple and sit back.
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