Sunday, September 25, 2005

Writing: The Pilot Pitch - the Room

Dispatched from the Air Canada Lounge in Toronto. Three random thoughts while waiting for you to take your seats:

a.) the budgets cuts are really showing in here. The lounge has developed a very end-of-the-empire seediness to it, like I’d imagine a Soviet Embassy waiting room in 1988.
b.) the Toronto Airport is possibly the worst laid-out airport in all my experience. I’m not even sure they actually drive you from terminal to terminal in that accursed mini-bus, I think they just circle around for half an hour until they can reasonably expect you’ve forgotten what your original terminal looked like, and drop you off ten yards from your egress.
c.) and man, what the hell happened to the National Post? Maybe my memory’s playing tricks, but when I started reading it, the Post felt like a rather fresh center-right paper. Today’s issue was a series of reprints of British tabloid articles and an editorial on the fate of Canadian Conservatism that read like a panicked screed from a drunken College Republican.

On the other hand, the new Ottawa Airport is aces all ‘round.

All set? Okay. First, we talked about the historical context for the current pitching conditions. Then we discussed the way you can shake out your ideas in order to help sell your show and also aid you in preventing the en-masse revolution of your beleagured writing staff. Now, onto the room. This is really something my manager, Will, should be writing, but he’s off in Vegas spending money he swears isn’t mine. He’s honed dozens of pilots with his clients, he’s far better at it than myself. But for now, you’ll have to settle for the working writer. I may ply him for a top ten list later this week.

There’s no way you can anticipate what the mood in that room’s going to be when you walk in. Sometimes the execs have heard five pitches that day, maybe twenty or thirty that week. Maybe they just found out about some horrible insider political move. Maybe they know they’re dead in the water, new administration coming in. Maybe they’re just dicks. Sometimes they have no sense of humor. No, seriously, no sense of humor as in zero, nada, borderline autistic response to a punchline. There is a TV exec who is so legendarily stone-faced – good God, pitching to this person is literally talking into an empty, silent void while everyone in the room stares at you like they’ve just caught you breaking into their kitchen naked at four am. Pitching writers have collapsed in tears outside in the corridor while the exec cheerfully told the agent that the pitch was the best thing they’d heard all month, and a multi-project deal was on the table.

The only thing you can control is your pitch. So have it down.

Remember what a pitch is for. You are a writer. If they were hiring you based on your writing, then you’d know what the hell to do. Once you’re typing, you’re in your element. But this is you convincing them to pay you to write the script. The pitch has to be a very clean little description of an idea so intriguing, they want to read the script for it. Yes, it has to make sense as a show, too, but focus. Don’t let the pitch become bigger in your mind than it is.

In its purest form TV pilot pitch addresses two questions: “Why should we put this show on the air?” and “How will this show stay on the air?” *

Start, as always, with your hook. Be it the high-concept pitch sentence, a vivid description of the opening shot – PUNCH. No longer than a short paragraph. This opening needs to either elicit a strong emotional response or intrigue. They are two separate things, by the way. Manage both, and you’ve just banged it off the left field wall, nicely done. Thinking back on pilots I’ve conned people into buying:

-- “I married the youngest of five sisters, they all live in the same city, and I’m the only guy in the family.”

-- A description of the cold-open of Global Frequency, through “You are on the Global Frequency. And you have forty-five minutes to save the world.”

-- “Africa … is out of monkeys.”

-- “There is no reason on earth why a man can’t live a perfectly happy life in a mega-mall, and never leave.” (that’s with Rich Jeni, proper credit to him)

Now, the follow-up – what the show’s about. In Global Frequency it’s the explanation of what the GF is, and how cool it is. For the first pilot I sold, it was a chunk of stand-up repurposed as illustrations of why the original pitch line “I married the youngest of five sisters … etc.” would – in theory at least – lead to many amusing scenes and conundrums

You need to rifle through the characters here – you have two choices. Run through a stripped-down version of the pilot plot, stopping to hit a couple sentences on each character as they’re introduced. Attitudes, point-of-view. Again, real quick, showing how each character contributes a unique voice to the show. This is the run-and-gun version of all the work you did in figuring out your story engines. If you’re pitching a comedy, you’re much more likely to pitch out the characters and their viewpoints, illustrated with little dialogue snippets or situations to show how each is uniquely funny. The pilot plot (I think, anyway) a bit secondary except where it creates the conditions the characters will live in for the rest of the show.

The pilot plot has a different job, you see. It is representative – the platonic ideal – of the conflicts the characters will engage in for the rest of the series. If you describe the setting vividly enough, and have great sample story ideas to toss out, then often you can get by without even a pilot plot in the pitch. You’ll develop it in feedback with the execs once the pilot script’s been commissioned. The pilot plot for CSI, for example, is meaningless. “It’s the secret world of the cool science used to solve murders.” Either you find that interesting, or not. (In the pilot script, the characters of CSI are much … spikier than in the show. George Eads is banging Marg Helgenberger. In a car wash. And Peterson's a cranky bookish Jew. Interesting, no?) The reason House is so great is that it both accelerates a tired formula: “Every week House figures out a new impossible disease (crime) and saves lives (catches the murderer)” and layers on “House is Sherlock Holmes. All the technology in the world isn’t as effective as his powers of observation.” (It is, in point of fact, a bit of the anti-CSI.) Add Hugh goddam Laurie and you’re gold.

What I’m driving at – sloppily – is that there's no need to get buried in plot details at this point. You need to hook the execs, and then get the hell out before you stumble across one of the No Buttons. I’m not saying you should be obtuse. But “discreet” is not a bad watchword. Of course you have the pilot in your head. You could beat it out moment by moment. This is why you can do the fast version, act/conflict/resolve one-two-three with confidence, knowing that if one of the execs stops you for a question, you can toss out an answer. You can describe any act of any show in three sentences.

Okay. You hooked them. You then filled out the characters, and the conflicts. Keep your momentum up. Your sentences snappy. Now you dig into your story engines, and lay out how the show will continue to generate many different types of conflict over the years. I personally break this section out quite distinctly – “What’s fun here is that this concept gives us a lot of stories –“ Nothing ponderous. I usually limit it to three different conflict types that may not have been apparent from the first section. How secondary characters may drive new characters into unexpected conflict, or how primary characters will evolve into different types of conflict. Most writers are so geared up in the world of the pilot concept, they rarely think to include this section. It will be appreciated.

Then shut the hell up and let them ask questions.

With luck, you can tell they’re engaged during the pitch. Some execs are polite, prefer not to walk on a pitch as it goes. It may be that, or you may even get the dead-on feeling they’ve bailed in the middle of the pitch – which is why you keep it short and structured, so you can plow through it without panicking and talking faster-and-fasterandohgodwhywon’tanyoneTALK …

As a general rule, I better be finished talking by minute seven. I know there are “two-minute pitching exercises” and I suppose they’re useful AS exercises. But even at standup speed, two minutes is roughly eight jokes, or 16 sentences. All getting you to pitch in two minutes is good for is to get you over your panic reflex at having someone stare at you while you try to talk as fast as you can. If you boil your pitch down to the punchiest bits, you’ll find that you’ll be able to move at a comfortable, confident clip regardless of reaction. If the execs keep interrupting you to ask questions – well then, you should be so lucky.

Pitching is an art. I can hardly teach you to be an artist on this crappy little blog. But as Chuck Jones once told a friend of mine: “We all have a thousand bad drawings in us. The trick is to get through those bad drawings as fast as you can, to get to the good stuff.” If this shaved a couple bad pitches off your thousand, then I’m glad to have done my part. Feel free to post specific questions, and I'll attempt to be useful.

Break a leg.

* You’ll note that not all execs even have both these questions in their heads – which is why so many flash projects show up and die. (again, another column)

(Edited to correct Jones quote, was mixing it up with Asimov quote)


Anonymous said...

Good advice. I should think 'discreet' would be a better watchword, though.

Unknown said...

the price of a science eduxation -- I always fall for the math homonym. THanks, and fixed.

Anonymous said...

Awesome - I'm preparing (or supposed to be preparing) 15 "pitches" or rather, short ideas for shows for a manager in LA this week and your advice is invaluable - thanks!

Unknown said...

15 seems like it be a bit of an overload. Would he settle for the best 7? Because of those, you'll only ever, first time out, go out with maybe two or three.

Unless this is a "whaddya got and why should I rep you" meeting, in which case -- well, it still seems a bit high.

Anonymous said...

I thought so, too - what he told me is that he wants to hear a bunch of ideas (one line hooks, or premises) and then we'll develop the bible together - since he's a manager and not an agent, he's probably looking at this more with his producing eye than anything else (it's something else he does) - he also pitched his own hook as something perhaps I could develop -

He's a fellow I met with in LA, he's read a lot of my plays and thinks I'm funny, so he's more into sitcom stuff -

I've got a couple of really good sitcom treatments (one which I think would really tickle, ya, if we ever meet and I buy ya that cup 'o joe I feel I owe ya) but I think this fellow is looking for something he can have ownership of in a creative sense (that happens in theatre, too) and I don't mind spitballing ideas, but no heavy lifting until a real solid offer is made - so I'm taking the whole thing as a learning exercise on pitching / writing treatments, since television is where I want to be in the future.

I think you're right tho' 15 may be too high - I'll focus on my best, whatever that number turns out to be.

oops, long post, sorry - but thanks again

jacqueline said...

Good Lord! You are so right about that airport mini-bus... Cursed be thy name Pearson International Airport!!

Shawna said...

So how much detail do you need to go into to 'set up the world'? Like, for example, let's say your series takes place in another time period (not current day), like Deadwood. Would you focus on the time period and locale, as well as those very rich characters?

This is immensely helpful, John. Thanks for putting these articles together.

Unknown said...

I'd focus on what made that time period unique, and how it affected the characters. Deadwood's collision of frontier lawlessness and encroaching civilization is a perfect metaphor for the characters' conflicts (or vice versa). Talk about the limitations or advantages of the setting for the characters. Does the overall political state affect the story? Part fo the thrill of ROME, I think, is that people can just barely remember enough JULIUS CEASAR to know this won;t end well, and they recognize the politics of what's going on.

Glad to see it's all nominally helpful. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, I read an interview with David Milch in which he said that the original pitch for Deadwood had it set in Rome. Then, when HBO said, "We already have one of those"...

Anonymous said...

There's an interesting parallel between pitching and the way one needs to deal with Pearson airport -- make sure you're prepared, get in, get out...

I can't really imagine trying to deal with that airport outside of "get someone to drop you off and pick you up at the exact spot where you need to (or will) be". It's not an airport for stopovers.

>koop said...

point one: the assessment of the national post is bang has turned into a vapid little journal of celelbrity gossip and rightwing hearsay. and conrad black centrefolds/pull-outs.

Great post overall though, I had a blast reading it...lessons for life I s'pose.

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Sam Beau Patrick said...

thank you. I am currently pitching for a few big things. I am pitching to have my own health and wellbeing show. Who knows. I was on national television on Saturday and my dream is to have my own show.

Time will tell. Sam

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