Unscripted TV Pilot Pitch Basics
This guide is designed to help writers and producers hone their concept into a pitch and hopefully thereby better their chances of gaining the attention of a larger producer, investor, network, or other larger media company.
Limits of This Guide
This guide only covers basic strategy relating to story, structure, format, and pitch techniques. This guide does not cover contractual techniques, language, or finances. Each show, pilot, etc. is different and so too are any underlying legal frameworks.
This guide is explicitly designed to not address issues such as contracts or deals as they vary from deal to deal, and situation to situation, and each situation is different. This is accordingly not legal advice and does not establish any attorney client relationship. Had to get that out of the way first.
Story: Hook, Line, and Sinker
The story told in any entertainment vehicle is the central element that attracts the attention of the viewer. You should be able to capture this in paragraph, or 15 second pitch. Under some circumstances a bit more complexity can be tolerated, however any pitch or pilot should tell the story in as compelling a manner as possible.
Compelling storytelling triggers a hardwired human characteristic, which invokes the audience to listen and thereby participate along in the story. This story telling format is in and of itself the hook, and is key to engagement. The characters and the circumstances are often just the embellishments, yet often this storytelling structure is often overlooked in tv pilots.
Many books have been written on story structure such as Carl Bettinger’s ‘Twelve Heros on Voice” an excellent book on jury persuasion which emphasize the hero’s tale as a means to capture your audiences attention. This emphasis on story structure: the unveiling of the hero, the villain, the victim, the hurdle, and the hero’s overcoming of the obstacle are fundamental to a viewer’s attention being retained.
Furthermore, not only does a good story need to be told, but it must be done in a compelling way. This could be achieved through a fast pace, with twists and turns, through heartfelt delivery, or other creative ways.
Many writers and producers know this storyline concept but get it muddled in the application of the story to tv both scripted and unscripted when trying to write a story that translates onto the screen. Always consider the story and how each scene, component, act, part contributes to the telling of the story.
Don’t get me wrong, a proper story format will not get you noticed, but you can’t tell a solid story with out a proper story structure upon which to build.
Format: Embrace The Digital Age
Getting noticed in the digital era is arguably harder and harder with all the waves of new data washing over us daily. Yet, as new media is consumed in a more digital format, (and we read less books and watch more videos as a culture) what better way to tell your story, and demonstrate that it is viable on a digital format than to tell it on a digital format.
No longer are cameras inaccessible or costly. You can shoot footage in many environments and better capture the characters and buzz that can make your show a success with footage.
After all, a picture is worth a thousand words according to some, and most people watch video over read in the modern era. Just as importantly, you will likely not be able to introduce yourself in person to the buyer or decision maker as well as your exciting cast of characters. This is why you absolutely need some footage and a “sizzle reel”. A sizzle reel is a basic short video attempting to capture the idea of your concept. It may include images, video inteviews, set-up sample scenes, skype interviews, and anything else. A sizzle reel can be a condensed pilot episode in and of itself essentially. The goal is not to make a made for tv product but to tell your story and reveal your characters unique intrigue in a brief attention grabbing format.
This all directly relates to the fact that there are more submissions, and therefore content producers and buyers are confronted by a wider variety of source material. Buyers practically never buy an unscripted project off paper, unless it were with an established star or production entity. This is because a sizzle reel does a better job of telling each character’s applicability and camera readiness than any paper pitch could. It essentially shows them what the paper would try and tell them, and has a stronger bearing on their decision making process. Therefore it has become for all intents and purposes a prerequisite to any unscripted pilot pitch.
Scripted series may be different in that they are much more writing intensive and may be purchased, optioned, or produced directly from a script.
A sizzle reel can be anywhere from a few minutes to 8-10 minutes long, however there is no formula for success. The overall strategy should be to tell your story quickly and compellingly, never boring the viewer, and leaving them wanting more at the end.
Getting Noticed: Contacts, Communication, and Representation
If you have what you feel is a good story, and a unique vantage point or unique group of characters to tell the story and have put it all into a sizzle reel, now what? How do you get it into the right peoples hands? This is often one of the most complicated parts of the puzzle yet there are many options on how to approach the challenge.
Depending on your location, resources, and the interest in your project, you may wish to do any or some combination of the following: 1. Represent the project yourself 2. Directly partner with established producers. 3. Find private investors to fund your project independently. 4. Engage an agent and or an entertainment attorney to represent you. Or 5. Do some combination of the above and retain an entertainment attorney to help you where needed.
Whatever you do, be proactive! Seek out connections, partners, advisors, mentors, and leads in the business. Often success takes many attempts, and getting your work into the right hands, and in front of the right eyes may take patience and persistence.
While networking is crucial to success, and I suggest attending as many industry events and other functions as possible, remember, a ‘hot’ sizzle reel will help sell itself and lots of people want to work with great concepts with momentum. It is not “all about who you know”. At the same time, be careful in selecting your business team and with whom you share your ideas, as each relationship needs to be with people who you respect, trust, and can easily and openly communicate with.
A quick search reveals many forums for aspiring writers and producers to get in touch with buyers or larger co-producers. This guide is by far not your only resource, just type ‘reality tv business’ into google. Producers such as Joke and Biagio who operate producingunscripted.com are a prime example of producers willing to help and work with aspiring writers and producers. But be forewarned many of these larger co-producers require a shopping agreement for very legitimate reasons before they even hear your pitch, yet such an agreement need be fully evaluated before entering.
In summary, use your head and the resources you have at hand including this guide and other publicly available information to build what you need to succeed. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Every opportunity to succeed or fail is an opportunity to learn, so do not hesitate to “put your name out there” and get your feet wet, you never know what you might learn, and in the tv and film business there is an important ingredient in the learning process that only arrives in in the form of experience, which cannot be taught second hand or learned from a book.
Make a plan and put it together as completely as possible as you can, and then when and where you need to enlist a team or hire outside help do so. Once your project is developed to a pitch / funding stage decide on how you want to commercialize it in the market. To accomplish the first half of development you may need to work with writers, talent, videographers, producers etc. To accomplish your goals in finding distribution for your project you may need to partner with an agent or entertainment attorney.
Ultimately, know exactly what you want to do and do your best to make it happen. If you tell a compelling story, or share an entertaining look at entertaining characters you may have a project that is ready for the big leagues. Once you have a project together and into footage in the form of a sizzle reel, demo, or pilot then work your network and try to get the right parties interested in your project. It may take working with an agent or entertainment lawyer to open the right doors or to evaluate any offers you may get.
Entertainment is always evolving as rapidly as consumer taste so there is always a market for the new and innovative. Hopefully this guide will give you some basic ideas on how to plan and develop any tv pilot concept you may have. Best of luck in your venture!