Troy DeVolld: TV Consulting – What It Is, What It’s Not

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by Troy DeVolld

When I first moved to California, long before reality television seemed like a real career, I was hell-bent on writing for sitcoms and films.  I shelled out what I could afford (and what I couldn’t afford) on pitchfests, consultants, and anything that I thought would help me get a leg up in the entertainment universe.

It didn’t do much to move the success needle in the short term.  I mean, I made some great friends and watched them bloom into amazing professionals, but that was usually incidental and a result of just being in rooms with like-minded people.

It’s also one of the reasons I was so slow to ever consider consulting, which I’ve only done sporadically, and only when I feel like I can genuinely offer useful input to the client.  More than half of the calls and meetups, unfortunately, end up being a waste of time and gas for both of us. If I think someone’s grip on the reality of the business is tenuous at best, I’ll politely end our session and refund their money. I don’t want to become anyone’s party story as the cruddy consultant (oh, how they love to blame a consultant) who couldn’t deliver them a rose-petaled path to the top of the mountain and a jetliner view in the Hollywood Hills… something few consultants ever even manifest for themselves.

Let’s talk about what consulting is and isn’t, so you’ll know how to get the most out of it if you ever decide to seek someone out for screenplays, reality pitches, or pretty much anything.

CONSULTING IS NOT ACCESS

Except on extremely rare occasion where I know that a client’s project is exactly what someone’s looking for, I’m not going to introduce a client to development execs at production companies or network friends.  I don’t approach those people all that often with my own work, and I’m sure our relationship would suffer if I just started shoveling people into their offices. If access is what someone is after in hiring a consultant, they should really be seeking out representation and learning how to network properly.

CONSULTING IS PREPARING YOU TO MAKE THE MOST OF THE INROADS YOU MAKE

My job, when I do consult, is to help someone get their material into the best shape before they start taking meetings.  What a consultant should be doing is helping their clients understand what’s going on in the industry, aid them in becoming fluent in the language of the business, and assist them in formatting materials in a manner that helps them to look like a professional.  A consultant may advise their client on places that may take an interest in the concept, but they shouldn’t be expected to walk the project in.

CONSULTANTS ARE NOT IN THE MAGIC BULLET BUSINESS

No consultant that promises you that your project will sell deserves your business.  I don’t care how many awards they’ve racked up or how long their list of credits may be, this is a promise that should never be made.  Does the consultant take credit for the success of their clients?  Do you know how much of their clients’ success is owed to sweat, drive and talent versus hiring a consultant to give them notes?

CONSULTANTS ARE IN THE BUSINESS OF HELPING YOU REFINE YOUR EXECUTION

A rough diamond isn’t worth as much as one that’s been brilliantly cut, and that’s the service you should be paying for. A good consultant will be giving you advice on industry standards, pacing, character development and the elements of a solid presentation, not telling you that you can fudge your final draft settings and font sizes to make a script seem shorter or longer. You don’t need workarounds, you need that brilliant-cut diamond.

CONSULTANTS ARE NOT FOREVER

Most good consultants I know offer packages with certain goals to be achieved over a specific number of passes/calls/sessions.  I don’t, but most of the clients I’ve worked with over the years have their questions answered in a couple of calls and some email volleys.  The idea of someone’s script or concept limping along through countless revisions at an hourly rate with no clear end in sight doesn’t make sense to me.  If a client can’t get it together in a couple of calls (and the odd followup email question here or there), I might suggest that our work together isn’t yielding the results it should and terminate the arrangement.  An ethical consultant isn’t going to lead you on forever just to keep you shelling out loot.

A GOOD CONSULTANT EVENTUALLY RENDERS THEMSELVES PRACTICALLY OBSOLETE

The ultimate goal in working with a consultant is to eventually “get it.”  I once heard that all good teachers are essentially out to replicate themselves, and a great consultant should be doing the same.  Once a client is proficient in the ways of the business and creating industry-standard content, that’s the end.  There are exceptions, of course, as many people value an outside opinion on works in progress and a trusted consultant may be revisited again and again over time to provide fresh eyes and a take on subsequent projects… but the goal is for the client to become self-sufficient.

Hope that’s helpful.

Addition, 11/8

I hope this doesn’t sound too curmudgeonly, but I feel like it needs to be said.

I don’t do much consulting, as I’m usually putting in long hours on shows and/or developing my own stuff, all while handling the simple life details like going to the DMV, cleaning the cat box or running laundry. If you’re a regular reader of this blog or have read the part of my book that invites you to contact me, you know that I’m usually happy to answer simple questions not covered in the book for free by email (using the “contact me” form on this blog or the email address provided in the book) as time permits.  

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had a lot of invitations to coffee or lunch or dinner to share advice, and regret that due to my schedule and a few unfortunate incidents, I’ve had to discontinue those kind of friendly meetups in which I usually find myself spending two hours, parking fees and gas to answer five minutes worth of questions already covered in my book in exchange for an eight dollar sandwich.  Most people are super-awesome, but three or four of those a week have worn me down a little, so email’s the way to go.  For more detailed conversations, I’m available by Skype on a very limited basis at a non-negotiable rate of $200/hr. 

Please remember that I spent a year writing a very niche book on the reality television story and creative process that you can find online, new or used (under $2 in some places I just looked up), and I strongly encourage you to check it out before asking things already answered there.

My cat, Zoe, also thanks you.


Troy DeVolld is a longtime LB buddy and one of the masters of the reality TV genre. This article originally appeared on his Reality TV blog. And while you’re thinking about him, why not buy his book,Reality TV: An Insider’s Guide to TV’s Hottest Market?