I went to Bafta Pitch Up!, the TV drama and comedy pitching event the academy runs with the Stellar Network, and while I wasn’t pitching I came away with some great tips on pitching.
The advice comes from the best source possible – the panel of TV experts and producers on the panel, and the ones who ultimately decided which of the ten writers pitching would get to chat with the expert of their choice about their idea.
A lot of this advice can be found among the best books on writing and storytelling, but there’s nothing like hearing it fresh from the horse’s mouth.
Pitching to producers
First of all, full marks for all who presented, many writers hate talking about their idea, let alone in front of audience, and least of all in front of an audience where their ideas will be questioned by industry experts.
At the Bafta event I went to we had an independent producer, one from the BBC Writers Room, another from Channel 4 and one from Sky. And all were very nice, not one bad word was said (though as one fellow I met pointed out afterwards, this is awfully English and not always a good thing).
All the tips come from my notes and interpretation of what they said, so while I wouldn’t take it as the Gospel of Pitching, this is based on the questions the producers asked.
Not everyone who pitched included all the below in their initial pitch, but they may have alluded to it, or had an answer ready when asked.
TV show ideas – what producers want
- Big, universal themes went down well – stories about guilt and redemption and the like.
- Stories that the average viewer can relate to were also key.
- Is it an idea producers can keep coming back to? The producers liked something that would give them a second, and a third and more series.
- Ideas that excited their possibilities got approval; ideas where the producers straight away thought ‘oh, we could do this’.
- Big, bold ideas with clear storylines.
- Not films! Sounds obvious but if the idea sounded like it would best fit into 90-120 minutes they weren’t keen.
Pitching an idea
- Who would watch the programme? Key things to know include:
- What time slot and channel would this be right for?
- What shows do they watch at the moment?
- What is the heart of the show, what is it really about and what is the motor that drives it?
- How would the episode structure work? If it is a ‘big idea’ what is each episode going to be about and if there is a series arc how does each episode progress along the arc?
- If it is a comedy-drama what is the balance between the two and have you shown both comedy and drama in the pitch?
- If it is a sitcom does it have a heart? Angry comedy is fine for standups but sitcoms want a heart.
- Will it bust budgets? While you shouldn’t be afraid to be bold, be aware of the practical considerations.
- If it is a story about non-Brits (or at least non-Americans), what is the hook that will keep British viewers interested and able to relate to the characters?
- If episodes are an hour-long are the stories big enough to fill them out? Are the episodes about ‘big things’ (love, death, etc) that would drive the story.
- If it is a comedy, where is the comic conflict?
- If it is highly episodic then have some examples ready for what each episode would involve.
- If it is not highly episodic then what are the main stages along the story arc?
- If pitching a story based on reality, be clear when you will diverge for reality. And it’s a real boost if you can say you have access to the individuals.
- Why would we care about the lead character?
- Where in their life is the character and why do they need their goal?
- What is their main quest? Why would care about them achieving it?
- Don’t be too formal, too practised (though obviously do practise), keep it conversational.
- Keep the pitch simple, keep it focused, keep it on the major characters.
- Too many ‘headlights’ that distracted from the core of the show put producers off.
- Incorporate the flavour of the story of the week to make it sound like a long-running show.
- Get the tone of the show across in your pitch (the winner was praised for her ability to ‘really nail’ the tone of the show in her pitch).
- Five depth to the main characters – this is important. As the experts said, you have to give a sense of where the stories come from.
- Deliver with confidence, instil confidence that you know what you’re talking about.
- Sometimes the little bits of information can help if they really give a flavour of the show. Again, something the winner was praised for was the name of the dog (Diana Ross, if you want to know) as something the producers latched onto.
- Pitching in character is not a good idea, though some could probably pull it off. It was said it was great for pitching on paper, but you can tie yourself in notes giving information that the real character would never give.
- An idea set ‘five minutes in the future’ didn’t go down as well as it could because the producers thought it was too close in time. Lasers and battles 200 years from now? Fine. Britain invaded in a couple of years? Not so believable (despite North Korea’s rantings).
- Likewise ideas with too many lead characters could be seen as unmanageable. One was the magic number.
- Other stray observations of mine:
- Don’t interrupt the producers. Some of those pitching barely let the producers talk when they were trying to help, or too busy defending their ideas.
- Don’t tell, show. Some ideas went on (and on) about how innovative, heart-warming, engaging etc they were but didn’t show it.
- The ‘extras’, such as online, competitions, that some mentioned, were ignored compared with delivering a well-crafted story with quality characters.
- As pointed out by another, the ten ideas were very different so if your idea doesn’t get selected it may be that the panel wanted variety for the audience.
Will my idea get made?
The producers also fielded questions on getting scripts made. It can seem a bit bleak but some advice included:
- If you are new, you need to have a script. This is to show that you can write and know what you’re talking about.
- New ideas need to have a strong treatment, character breakdowns and episode breakdowns.
- Some competitions require you to enter through your agent. How do you get an agent? By entering competitions! Keep entering the free ones, and going to things like Pitch Up! and the like. Keep slogging, and keep writing well.
Did the winner follow this?
The winner was Daina Oniunas-Pusic with Death’s Door. Did she follow all of the above?
No, but what she did do was get the tone and a clear idea with lead characters and episodes across, along with a big series question (‘why does this spot of London reanimate the dead?) that helped. Good luck to her and her idea.