You’ve spent the last 10 years locked in your attic, perfecting the best comedy sitcom idea since “Seinfeld” and now you’re ready to pitch your television show. Before you take a meeting, it helps to understand what you will need to sell it. One of the best ways to break into industry is with a strong spec pilot script. A great idea for an original television series and a strong spec pilot script can open doors. Even if nobody ends up buying your pilot idea or script, you could find work as a scriptwriter for someone else’s television series.
In the U.S., you will need to hook up with a good agent to help you get your foot in the door. These folks are connected … and lets face it, their network is most likely better than your network. They might even be owed favours and favours come in handy when armed with a great script from an unknown writer.
Many TV shows in Canada are produced by independent production companies, usually in cooperation with a network. If you’re new to the business, it might be worth your while to hook up with an independent to sell your idea. Once you’ve been around for a while, you’ll discover that many TV execs prefer to suggest/guide/decide which production company best suits your project.
TV Pre-Production Process
Pre-Development – The project becomes a fleshed out pitch and, where required, includes the following elements:
Show run down
Development Phase A – Project enters formal development: scripts, bible, additional research, and detailed outlines.
Development Phase B – Project continues development and has further drafts of scripts, casting conversations and preliminary financial model and budgets discussed.
Pilot Production – Project moves into production of the pilot or one-off.
Evaluation – Creative evaluation process takes place at this stage. Testing, schedule placement, promotion potential, digital platforms, talent packaging, further creative development if needed.
Green-light for Production – Decision to proceed with production of the series, based on the final analysis of the project’s budget, financing, digital rights, casting, distribution etc.
Now let’s break down some of the process pieces. After all, you’ve got a such a great idea the thing practically writes itself!
What’s a Logline?
This is the one sentence that sells your show, it goes on the top of the outline or treatment, which is the 2-3 pages of pitching material you leave to prospective people. It could be something like, “It’s a show that’s about three muslim families putting down new roots in a small rural town in the prairies, and the hilarity that ensues when two cultures collide.” Yes, we often see them written as a run-on sentence, but feel free to break it into two or three chunks if run on sentences offend you.
What’s an Outline?
Before you begin your pilot script outline, you must have a strong idea of what happens in your pilot script and how many characters will be in it. Decide how many acts will be in your script and whether it will be an hour long or half hour show. Get copies of television scripts that are already on the air so you can compare your structure to theirs.
Outlines for hour-long drama scripts can be anywhere from 7 – 10 pages long. Structure the outline into the appropriate number of acts and make sure you’re pacing your main plot story and subplots evenly throughout each act. Be sure to include cliffhanger endings at the end of every act and something compelling at the beginning of every act. The stories shouldn’t get resolved until the very end of your outline.
To begin your spec script outline, start with a cold open (also called teaser), which comes at the very beginning of your pilot script – and before the opening credits. This is a great place to introduce your main character(s) and set the tone for the entire series.
Every scene in your pilot script outline should have its own paragraph. Start the paragraph with a word or two about where the scene takes place. Then describe who’s in the scene and what happens. Include snippets of dialogue if it helps the reader imagine the scene better.
Here’s an example:
The Bridle Path, suburban Toronto.
Missy recklessly pulls her Mercedes through the iron gates, into the driveway of her imposing mansion with Baron in the front seat next to her. Baron is dumbstruck at the sight of the huge house and manicured boxwoods that define the gardens. Missy tries to reassure him;
“Look – I know all this can be intimidating but this is me – it’s who I am – okay?”
She looks at him a little more kindly – the reality that this good-looking man could really be her long lost brother dawns on her:
“I thought we lost you.”
She lunges to hug Baron but he shoves her away.
Once you really love your TV script outline, show it to other writers and get their feedback. Ask whether the plot lines were clear, whether the characters were interesting, and whether the story kept their attention. Keep rewriting your television script outline until the answers to all these questions is ‘yes.’
If you’re worried about someone stealing your idea, know that networks are in the business of protecting themselves, as well as your intellectual property. You should be asked (and if not, insist) to sign a release form or NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) that acknowledges your ownership of the idea that you’re pitching.
What’s a Mini-bible, Bible or Writer’s Guide?
Every TV series has one. But even if your own concept is still to be sold, the process of building a series bible for another series can be a giant step toward your goal of selling your own show.
Here’s how to do it:
Write out the concept aka logline of your series in not more than 1-2-3 short paragraphs.
Write about where your concept takes place aka Location.
Write a short bio of your continuing characters. Who they are and what they want. Define their relationships with the other characters.
Write the challenges that will be faced by your characters each week.
Write some sample stories that will be told in your concept. Do this in only a few sentences and a single paragraph.
Come up with a creative, inventive way to package your bible. A collated binder with colour copies inside is fine, but the more creative you are with your materials, the bigger the impression you’ll make. You can spend a couple of hundred dollars on a DIY Bible or you can spend a couple of thousand dollars having it professionally written and art directed. How long is your ball of string?
The Wind-Up And The Pitch: Independent producer or TV network
Keep it simple
Your initial pitch should be simple and focused: just a presentation of your idea or concept and any additional supporting material that you think is needed – but – don’t just pitch an idea, pitch physical material. If you can’t shoot a pilot, shoot a short teaser to help people see your vision, make posters for the show, or some sort of gimmick. Producers and Execs are way more willing to invest in something tangible than an idea on a ragged piece of paper. Slick professional materials are the goal.
While I am often contracted to write professional pitch bibles, you don’t need to develop a complete series “bible” to submit a program proposal. Whatever best illustrates your idea could be your the golden ticket.
Sell it! Tell the producers/Execs why is this show perfect fit for their production company/network. (This is where your research comes in)
For network pitches:
Your proposal should briefly address the question of the business case. Why should your program be aired on their network? At CBC for example, this means that you should know what we’re looking for based on our corporate strategy (i.e. audience potential, supporting successes, distinctiveness, multi-platform potential, regionality, diversity, etc.). CBC’s business is “engaging, informing and entertaining as many Canadians as we can.” and therefore you should keep selling back to that.
Be on time, be brief, be open to change or suggestion, and give the independent producers or TV network reasons why they should buy your show idea. At the very least, you’ve created a new contact to bring projects to directly. At the very best, your project just might make it into production. And next year, when your name is called at the Emmys, don’t forget to thank me.