LATV Fest: Hitting a Home Run with Your Pitch
Last month I attended the LATV Fest in Los Angeles, produced and presented by the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE). The conference is geared towards reality and narrative producers who are attempting to sell shows to broadcast and cable networks. While this might not seem an obvious match for documentarians, tucked in amidst the glitzy keynotes from TV mega-producers Greg Berlanti and Steve Levitan and the panels on how to have a career in scripted television were several sessions that offered practical advice to documentarians looking to make a buck on the small screen--because let's be honest: The dirty little secret of the documentary world is that many filmmakers make their living working in reality television, while they are concurrently pursuing their passion projects.
I found that the most useful of these sessions were those geared toward educating aspiring show producers about pitching. Since one of the main attractions for LATV Fest attendees is the "Pitch Pit," an opportunity to meet one-on-one with executives from a variety of production companies and networks, there were several panels that focused on how they could do this most effectively. The tips they passed along work for all television pitches, whether you're pitching the next 30 Days, an eco-series to Discovery or a character-based docu-reality series for TLC.
In the "Pitch Clinic: Unscripted" session, Laurie Scheer from the Flashpoint Academy stressed the importance of knowing the history of the genre you are pitching, and which production companies commonly produce shows for your target networks. For example, if you want to work with HGTV, Pie Town Productions is the company you want to get cozy with. As a new producer, it's most likely that you'll have to partner with a more established production company in order to get your pitch into the network.
You also should be familiar with the network's programming history, and what the competition has on its schedule. National Geographic and Discovery, for example, are in constant competition. If one has a format and the other doesn't, the latter may be more interested, so try bringing your project to that network first. And just how do you do that? This is where targeting the production companies that frequently work with a particular network comes in.
The good news is that it's now much easier to research this information than it used to be. RealityTVworld.com is a comprehensive list of reality shows, and is a good place to make sure that your potential show hasn't already been done--or if it has, to find out how it was done and what did (or did not) work.
During your pitch meeting, inevitably, someone in the room is going to ask the "Is it like..." question, and they'll expect you to know the show that they mention. If you know the genre and how the format's been done before, you'll look more professional. You can prove that you are coming from a place of knowledge and experience, and that you understand what the marketplace will support.
At Cynopsis.com, you can subscribe to a free daily e-mail that sums up the major developments happening in television and the cable industry. For example, Scheer mentioned a recent blurb in the newsletter about weTV. Turns out that the network execs had such great success with their Bridezilla series that they're going to launch an entire network related to brides. If you've got a wedding docu-series on your development slate, now would be the time to attempt to pitch it.
For documentary series, Scheer recommends making sure there is something about the issue you are exploring that will resonate with a larger audience. It's not enough to do a show about penguins; execs need to understand why that show will appeal to people. Even though you know why your idea is accessible, don't assume that those you are pitching to will immediately understand this. Start your pitch with a very clear, specific statement summarizing the show, i.e. "This is a documentary series where each week we follow the story of a different person dealing with addiction," and then fill out the pitch with the details and tone.
The speakers from the "Diary of a Bad Pitch" panel reinforced the importance of coming out of the gate strong. The lively panel was moderated by Eric Schotz (CEO & President, LMNO Productions), and featured Nancy Daniels (TLC), former MTV exec Aaron Meyerson, E!'s Lisa Berger, and Greg Lipstone, the head of International Television & Media at ICM. They explained that newbie producers will most likely be pitching to a manager or lower-level exec, who then has to take the pitch to his or her boss. One of the best things you can do to help yourself is to give the exec a clear idea of the show, since they'll have to re-pitch it themselves.
All the speakers stressed that the business is built on relationships. Therefore, the goal--in addition to selling your show--is to get the executives to take your next pitch. Even if this particular idea doesn't get bought, you want to keep the door open. To that end, Schotz has a few practical suggestions for coming across as a professional. He recommends rehearsing your pitch like an athlete or an actor--not once, not twice, but until you've nailed it. Ideally, it's best to practice in front of people who don't know you well so you can get used to doing it.
When you're in the room, never hand someone a piece of paper in the middle of the pitch; it draws attention away from what you're doing (a li'l tip Schotz learned from Les Moonves). If you have media, make sure it's going to work, and have a back-up plan in case it doesn't.
Last but not least, make sure to decide before you walk into the room what you want out of the deal. Are you just selling an idea? Do you want to be on board as the producer? As a writer? And if you do want to stay involved, be prepared to show them why you are intrinsic to the show. Be clear about your knowledge and expertise; it's not the time to be shy about what you bring to the table.
"It's not just enough to be an expert," Scheer says. "You have to be the only one who does what you do. Own that you are the person that can best execute the show. Have confidence in yourself and your research."
Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.