You’ve been invited to pitch story ideas for a television series that has just opened the door to freelance scripts. Congratulations. This is a huge opportunity. Don’t screw it up!
To ensure you don’t, here’s some advice that will hopefully land you the gig or, at the very least, impress the producers enough that they’ll be inclined to invite you back next time:
1. Come up with a with some terrific story ideas – no less than three, no more than five. Less than three suggests you haven’t really invested the time and aren’t all that interested in pitching the show. More than five and you start spreading yourself thin. More is definitely not merrier in this case. Focus on making those 3-5 pitches kick-ass rather than presenting a dozen ideas of various half-ass degree.
2. While the producers are no doubt receptive to hearing your ideas – you HAVE been invited to pitch after all – you don’t want to overstay your welcome. Keep it short and sweet. Remember, they’re producers. They have other matters to attend to like auditions, editing, and personal massages.
3. Pitch a story idea with a beginning, middle, and end. Hook your audience, engage them, then let ’em go and leave ’em happy. What is the unique situation that brings them onboard? What are the developments that will keep them glued to their sets? And, most importantly, what is the solution to the problem you’ve created that will leave them amazed and satisfied? We once had a freelance writer come in and pitch a scenario in which characters begin to vanish from Atlantis. As our heroes struggle to explain these mysterious disappearances, all around them Atlantis personnel continue to pop out of existence. We were intrigued. What happens? What IS the cause of these mysterious disappearances? “I don’t know,”replied the freelancer with an embarrassed shrug. “I figured that’s something you guys would come up with.” Yeah. No. As Marty G. pointed out in the room: “That’s what we pay you for.”.
4. Pitch a beginning, middle, and end covering the major story points BUT resist the urge to overcomplicate. The truth is, the more details you provide, the more excuses you give someone to say no. I’ve sat in on pitches that started promisingly enough only to get bogged down in a quagmire of extraneous minutiae. Other times, a seemingly insignificant, totally unnecessary addition to a pitch served to totally derail it. I remember once being regaled with a way-too-long story idea and, about a third of the way through the laborious process, having the freelancer say: “The team reports their findings back to the General in charge. I call him Tiggle. When they go back to the planet…” But the rest of the pitch was lost on me because I was fixated on that damn Tiggle. All I could think was “Tiggle? General Tiggle? Why include that in the pitch? And why the hell would you name a character Tiggle?”.
5. I don’t care if you’re pitching because your agent is forcing you to, you lost a bet, or you’re killing time before your big lottery win – make sure you KNOW THE SHOW! You don’t have to have watched every episode that ever aired but, at the very least, know enough to get the character names right and be cognizant of “how things work”. We once had a freelancer come in and deliver a pitch that went something like: “SG-i are exploring a planet when they get separated from Tee-alk. When they try to gate back to Earth, they end up stranded in a dimension between Pakistan and India and have to avert a nuclear war.” It was pretty clear from the pitch that the freelancer had never watched an episode of the series. How did we know? Well, for starters, it’s SG-1 as in the number one, not SG-i as in the letter I. I mean, it IS the title of our damn series – Stargate: SG-1. Also, the name of the character who, at that time, had appeared in some 100+ episodes of the show was Teal’c (pronounced like the color teal with an addition of a hard k), not Tee-alk (pronounced like the crumpet accompaniment with the addition of an -alk). Finally, the gate doesn’t send you to alternate dimensions. It just doesn’t work that way. When informed of this, the freelancer’s response was: “Why not?”. Which brings us to my next rule –
6. Don’t cling to your idea like a poisoned mother, cast adrift before the end of Mulholland Drive, clutches her antidote-antibodied child with a clear understand of the movie’s ending. From my experience, it’s rare for a freelancer to hit it out of the park. Most of the freelance pitches we bought were not ideas freelancers came up with but modified versions of their original pitch or a story element it contained. Occasionally, that original idea won’t work for whatever reason, but it may give the producers an idea for another possible story. Go with the flow. They have a better idea of what they’re looking for. If they take your story in a different direction than the one you envisioned, help out in the rebuilding process. Throw out a couple of ideas. Be receptive to change. At the end of the day, they won’t be buying that original pitch but they WILL be buying the idea that came out of said pitch. Or story element. Or, in one case several years ago, a misinterpretation of the word “tracker”.
7. Don’t be f&%king weird! Granted, writers are, by their very nature weird, which is why they’ve chosen a career that demands very little social interaction – but I’m not talking about personal weirdness (although avoid conveying that if at all possible as well). I’m talking about creative weirdness, coming up with laughable-if-they-weren’t-somewhat-creepy notions – ie. pitches involving cross-dressing skeletons or Beatle-wig sporting Fab Five-inspired civilizations. Yes, both true, and no, we didn’t buy either pitch.
8. Timing! Of course the production will be setting the schedule for the pitch session, but it’s not like you won’t have any say in the matter. Both mornings and afternoons are great, but avoid the 11:30 to 12:00 pre-lunch “I can’t concentrate. I want my butter chicken!” zone. In similar fashion, avoid the 12:30 to 1:00 post-lunch “Damn that butter chicken was good. Soooo tiiiiired!” zone as well. Also, if you have access to a time machine, try to avoid scheduling pitch sessions that may overlap with sudden and significant global developments or shocking celebrity deaths.
9. If the production has requested written pitches then awesome! You’re a writer and, like most writers I know, are probably better on paper than over speakerphone. Apply all of the aforementioned advice to your document. Again, keep it short and sweet. That means no more than a page a pitch. One thing I always appreciated as a producer was a log-line/hook/one-liner at the top of the page that summed up the story (ie. When members of the Alantis expedition begin to vanish, McKay scrambles to learn the cause of the mysterious disappearances before it’s too late). Suffice it to say, these doesn’t require an ending.
10. Suck it up! It’s not the end of the world! More often than not, pitch sessions don’t result in a sale – and this has less to do with the merits of the ideas pitched than it does the needs of a particular production. In my case, a lot of the time, the ideas pitched were either too similar to stories we had already done or too close to stories that were already in development. Short of an actual sale, the latter was always the best possible outcome for a freelancer because it demonstrated a solid understanding of the series and what we were looking for, AND always concluded with an invitation to come back and pitch us again.
Okay, that’s all you need to know. Or, all I can think of at the moment.
Now, get out there and sell that pitch!
You have two more days to get your questions in for Marjorie M. Liu, author of January’s book of the month club pick: The Iron Hunt!