Welcome to “Ask the Coach.” As a writing coach, I answer questions from writers about making the work of writing happen, tackling craft, business, and personal questions along the way. (Have a question you’d like answered? Check the details at the end of the article about how to submit one.)
Today I’m sharing more from my interview with Neil Landau, author of the recently released book, The TV Showrunner's Roadmap: Creating Great Television in an on Demand World (2nd edition) and the Director of Screenwriting at the University of Georgia, who helped me answer last month’s question “How do I find a showrunner?”
He shared some invaluable tips with me about the process of having your script requested, and what to be ready for in the room once you’re pitching. So today we’re answering the question, “What do I need for a TV pitch?”
Industry Pros Don’t Like to Read Scripts Anymore — At Least Not Right Away
Landau says, “[A] weird paradox and change is that it's mostly true people don't like to read scripts anymore. There are so many. [But] if you're a literary agent or manager or production company or a studio or a network, how are you going to do business?”
While an interested executive or producer may be willing to read a script if it has been referred to them by a trusted colleague — “anointed” — most often that’s not where the process starts. (Mentors, contests, and fellowships can be sources for anointing or referring writers and their work.)
Here’s how it tends to happen instead:
Here’s How TV Scripts Tend to Be Requested
Landau says the likely chain of requests from an industry professional will begin with a request for a logline or a one pager sent via email — and not even as an attachment, right there in the body of the email. “They don’t want to have to have to download and open.” It’s all about making it as easy for them as possible.
Then, if they like that, they’ll ask for a pitch deck or a pitch doc of 5 to 10 pages to lay out the world of the show, the characters, their arcs and journeys, and the format, and tone. Landau says, “Tone is everything, so suggesting tonal comps, whether they’re movies or other TV shows, show there is an audience for this.”
(A pitch deck is words and images, a pitch doc is only text.)
“What the pitch deck or pitch doc does is very quickly give them an overview of what the show is. If there's world-building they're seeing — does this world interest them? Do they have anything that's too similar or is there something already further along that's very similar.”
From there, if they like what they’re seeing, then they’ll ask for the script. And if it’s strong, and they like what they’re seeing, then they’ll ask for a mini-bible, also about 5 to 10 pages long to show where Season One is heading. Landau says to keep in mind, “This is a forecast and proof of concept — a selling tool. If you sold the show and a writer’s room was opened, they would probably veer very far from this, because it’s just a selling tool.”
Landau also recommends sorting out the “season to season pivot,” so if the show is successful in its first season, you can demonstrate in a sentence or two how the show would pivot in Season Two, and beyond. This conveys a show “has legs” but also dispels the question about whether or not this should be a feature or a series. “A series pilot is designed to have a beginning, middle and an open end. So, the end of your pilot is the beginning of your series, and a good pitch document will articulate that at the end of the pilot, we're left with all of these questions that will be answered incrementally over the course of the season” — in other words, keeping an audience engaged with the central questions and mysteries of the season.
Be Ready to Pitch
When it comes to pitching — meeting face-to-face or over Zoom — Landau offers this important advice:
First, be able to answer the basic question, “What your show is about? Don’t get too focused on structure and “cool scenes.” Be able to answer that simple question, first and foremost, because that is how the show gets talked about, marketed, and passed up through development executives to VPs and so on.
Second, when you’re asked, “Where do you see the show going?” have an answer. Two wrong answers are “I have no idea” and “Where to you see the show going?” Landau says, “Be prepared for them to ask you about this. If you’re still in creation mode, you can say, ‘There are two or three different directions it can go and I’d love to tell you about them.’”
Third, if you’re not an expert in the world or community you’re writing about, “become an expert or bring somebody onto your team who is, so you can go into the pitch “with the authority of ‘we want to tell this and really honor these stories.” Along these lines, another key variable in successful pitches is diversity across all levels. The cast, the writers, producers, and directors all have to be diverse and inclusive.
Last, “believe in the story you want to tell so badly that every cell in your body, when you're in that room, they see you're on fire with this idea, and you're not desperate or arrogant, but you're passionate, enthusiastic, and yet humble, open, and collaborative.”
That’s a Wrap
Getting ready to pitch your show involves a whole lot more than simply writing a pilot script. It’s about your materials, your deep knowing of your story, your readiness, your team, and your passion for the project too.
When Landau interviewed Shonda Rhimes for his book, she told him she “drove around with printed copies of the Grey's Anatomy pilot in the trunk of her car. She said there was no way anybody was going to not make this show.”
Be like Shonda Rhimes.
TV Writing References
Note: Some of these links are referral links (marked with an asterisk*), which means I earn a commission for any purchases made.
· Last month’s Ask the Coach article, “How Do I Find a Showrunner?”
· Neil Landau’s book on Amazon*, The TV Showrunner's Roadmap: Creating Great Television in an on Demand World, recently released 2nd edition. Or use coupon code ADC22 and save 30% off list price buying direct from Routledge.
· Neil Landau also mentioned Shonda Rhimes and Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclasses*
· Kevin Townsley, Director of Development at Script Anatomy, which offers ongoing and frequent TV Writing courses, including a TV Fellowship Bootcamp and their Televisionary course, which is their introductory course for TV writers.
· Kevin Townsley highly recommends Kam Miller’s book, on Amazon*, The Hero Succeeds:The Character-Driven Guide to Writing Your TV Pilot as being an excellent book designed to help you get results with TV writing.
· William Rabkin’s upcoming class at Script University, Write Your Drama Pilot in Six Weeks, sessions starting May 19.
Submit your question to be answered anonymously via my online form here or email directly to firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for answers to selected questions in my monthly “Ask the Coach” column on the third Thursday of the month. And reach out to me on Twitter to share your thoughts: @JennaAvery.