When an exec, talent rep or producer sits down to hear your pitch for a TV show, they want to feel as if this is a story that actually happened to you, or that this is a world you’ve actually inhabited, or, at the very least, that this show explores themes that are of deep importance to you.
Obviously, you don’t have to have actually tamed dragons, or have lived on a space station to pitch a show about taming dragons or life on a space station. But you do need to convince the person hearing your pitch that you’re so passionate about this character, this world, and this concept that you could write this show in your sleep.
And the best way to do that is…
Make your pitch personal.
I asked a friend of mine, a performance coach based in Silicon Valley, for tips on pitching.
He said: “People don’t buy a pitch. They buy into the person making the pitch.”
And what’s true in Silicon Valley is true in our world too. When a producer or exec commits to a pitch, what they’re actually committing to is you, the writer, to execute the pitch. They say yes to the pitch, but they’re really saying yes to you.
So don’t bother pitching the next Generic Fire/Cop/Medical show. They’ve got those already.
What they don’t have is you. Your life experience. Your take. Your POV. Your voice.
This does NOT mean you should pitch your life as a TV show.
In fact, don’t. The road to hell is paved with pitches from TV writers about TV writers.
But you should pitch from a personal place.
My friend Dan Godwin accelerated his career once he started writing and creating from a personal place. He told me this:
We’ll be exploring THREE WAYS of making your pitch personal in a minute. But first, let’s explore THREE KEY REASONS making your pitch personal is a good idea.
THREE REASONS TO MAKE YOUR PITCH PERSONAL
It grounds your pitch
One of the more common complaints you hear from talent reps, producers and execs is that most of the pitches they hear/read feel “inauthentic” or “made-up”.
When you make your pitch personal, you paint your world with details that feel real and lived-in. It’s those details that adds richness and texture and makes it feel real.
If they feel you know the material firsthand, it instills confidence that you are the right person to tell this story. They’ll feel reassured you won’t get lost… so they’ll let you take them wherever you want to go.
It elevates your pitch
I hesitate to bring up anything I’ve written for TV as an exemplar of great writing. But I can attest that the best writing I’ve done for TV has been my most personal.
The pilot script I wrote for a teen music/drama series for CTV and The N called Instant Star (millennials might remember) was highly personal.
I wrote about my parent’s divorce, my fear of being judged a sell-out, my intense fear of failure… I could go on. What’s amazing to me now is how the pilot episode we aired is so shockingly close to the first draft I wrote.
Why did the first draft of my pilot script (with some tweaks) go to air? I think it’s because I was under such a time crunch that I had no choice but to draw from my own life – I needed the material!
It might lead to a job
One of those industry clichés which just happen to be true is that it’s all about relationships. And hearing your series pitch is a great way for a producer, exec or talent rep to get to know you as a writer and creator. Even if they pass on your pitch, it can be the start of a valuable relationship.
A writer friend of mine went down to LA to pitch an autobiographical sitcom. An exec she pitched to liked the pitch okay, but not enough to buy it. A few weeks later, that same exec green-light a pitch quite similar to hers. The exec immediately thought of her as a potential writer in the room. My friend wound up getting staffed on the series, kicking off her Hollywood writing career. Which would have never happened had she not leaned in to the personal and wrote a pitch that reflected her personal experience.
My friend, in-demand Screewwriter/Coach Daniela Saoni, explains that pitching from a personal place also comes with an ancillary benefit:
THREE WAYS TO MAKE YOUR PITCH PERSONAL
So we’ve explored three good reasons for making your pitch personal. Now let’s explore some ways you can go about it.
There are three main methods for making your pitch personal:
- CENTRAL CHARACTER. You’ve either walked in your main character’s footsteps, or you know someone who has. This is a character you know inside and out.
- WORLD. You have a wealth of knowledge/experience about the series world. Either you’ve lived/worked in this world, or spent a shit-ton of time researching it.
- CONCEPT. You have a deep fascination with your series’ themes and questions.
Let’s take a look at three case studies, each highlighting a different way you can stamp your pitch with your own personality.
CASE STUDY: INSECURE
A creator who knows her character inside and out.
My favourite saying is “Greenlight Yourself” – meaning, don’t wait for someone to give you permission to start writing and creating, just start doing it. There’s no better exemplar of “Greenlight Yourself” in action than writer/actor/creator Issa Rae.
In 2011, Rae came up with the idea of creating a comedy web-series for her to star in, giving rise to the smash YouTube series ‘Awkward Black Girl’.
Rae wrote, directed, produced and starred in the series as J, a call center employee who has a hard time fitting into her office group. Rae modeled the character of J on her own life experience.
Like its YouTube predecessor, Insecure captures the exciting, but terrifying, sense of possibility that typifies life in your mid-20s to early-30s.
Issa Rae plays Issa Dee, making plain that this is a character drawn from her own life. But Rae also drew from her immediate circle by basing the fictional character of Molly on her own real-life best friend. It doesn’t get more personal than that.
Now, I’m not suggesting you need to emulate Issa Rae’s success by doing exactly as she does. Not everyone is as gifted, compelling and fluent as an actor. Nor is everyone comfortable opening themselves up to a wide audience of strangers. I know I’m not.
But I think we can all draw inspiration from Rae’s ability to recognize the universal in her own life experience… And by her relentless drive to produce quality content.
CASE STUDY: MARE OF EASTTOWN
A creator who knows his world inside and out.
Mare of Easttown is a testament to the old writing adage “the specific is universal’. Easttown is highly specific, yet there are towns just like it all over the world.
Easttown, PA could just as well be Hamilton, Ontario or Sheffield, South Yorkshire . Gritty, working-class towns that were once thriving… but which are now turning to rust.
In an interview The Credits, creator Brad Inglesby said it was his deep desire to explore this rustbelt world that drove him to create the series:
CASE STUDY: BARRY
Creators fascinated with their series’ themes.
Creators Alec Berg and Bill Hader don’t know anything about the world of contract killing (I’m guessing).
But they clearly drew upon personal experience when writing about the cult-like world of acting classes.
You know instantly when watching a scene in Gene Cousineau’s cringe-inducing acting class that the writers know this insular and pathetic world inside and out.
But according to co-creator Bill Hader, the inspiration for Barry actually came from a more philosophical place. Hader told The Guardian: “From the start, I said, ‘I want to explore the version of the disease that’s in Barry, that’s also maybe in everybody. That thing that makes us keep making bad choices, so let’s explore that.”
What made the pitch personal to Hader is its central question – What is this thing within all of us that keeps making bad decisions? It’s a question the series returns to, again and again. And it poses other meaningful questions like:
What is a veteran supposed to do when ejected back into civilian life?
Does killing make you beyond redemption?
Can salvation be found in an acting class in the San Fernando Valley?
So, remember to use your series as a vehicle to explore the QUESTIONS and THEMES that are deeply important to you, and to clearly articulate that in your pitch.
When the person hearing your pitch knows this material is deeply fascinating to you, they know there’s a good chance it’ll fascinating to others as well.
THREE PRACTICAL TIPS
I hope this post has given you some ideas on how to put the personal into your tv show pitch. I’ll leave you with three practical tips:
- Find a model for your main character. So, you haven’t walked a mile in the shoes of your central character. So what? Find someone quite similar to your central character. Take them out for coffee. Do a “ride-along” if you can. Bring along a notebook and jot down their favorite sayings and craziest stories. Remember: Don’t write what you know, write who you know.
- Become an expert in your world. You don’t need direct, firsthand experience in your world to be able to write about it. A writing colleague of mine wanted to write about the restaurant world but had no experience. She befriended a head chef who allowed her to hang out in the kitchen with her notebook. And of course, there’re always books, podcasts and reddit AMAs, etc. But don’t just go to the usual sources. If there’s a true crime podcast everyone is listening to, go in the other direction. Bring something new to the table with your research.
- Meditate on your series’ themes and questions. I encourage all creators to reflect on what their series concepts mean to them. It can be super helpful in a pitch to be able to articulate what your series is really about to you on a personal level. Because if the questions raised by your series affect you, it will probably affect others too.