Monday, June 10, 2013

What's In A Pitch? My Experience at ATX...

I didn't faint or pee myself or completely forget my words at the ATX Television Festival Pitch Competition, so I guess I can call that a moderate success, right?

I didn't win, either, but for a handful of industry big wigs whom I respect and admire (and a couple who are personal inspirations because they've actually managed to make the kind of content I not only love most but also would want to do, too, even in an increasingly "big event," stunty world) to say mine was at least good enough to hear in person was a thrill.

As a finalist in this competition, I was given three minutes to "sell" my show to a panel of judges of both buyers and sellers. That means there were show runners on the panel, people who pitch their own material all the time, as well as studio and network executives who are used to hearing pitches all the time, responsible for buying them. I was told I could use my three minutes with costumes or visual aids or even a partial performance, but that's not my show, nor is that indicative of a real network pitch, so I decided to forgo the audience engagement stuff (sorry, those of you who were out there) and just talk. In fact, every time I even turned to address the audience a bit more than the panel of judges, I lost my place slightly, but we'll get to the actual pitch in a minute.

Prepping for the event, I wrote out a quote-unquote formal few paragraphs to explain what my show is in the pilot and what it will become over the course of the first season. I'm not the most comfortable person on a stage, especially if I'm on a stage alone, though, so my strategy was to take the pitch copy from the video that got me to the finals and expand on it.

You can see my original video here:

The festival didn't have A/V capacity in the theater, unfortunately, or I would have spoken for 30 seconds to intro my pitch video and then wrapped it up with a few more seconds and words since the live pitch allotted for double time what the initial pitch video did. I wanted to treat it like the upfronts in style, though still getting into a modicum of depth with the characters and their arcs. Since I didn't win, you can take my advice with a grain of salt, but I feel like using adjectives and buzzwords doesn't actually tell anybody anything. "Edgy" or "emotional" mean different things to different people, and you have to prove what sets yours apart from others but also just that you know this world and these people so well it feels like you're talking about your friends. It's a tough thing to do in three minutes. I had six pages I would take into a network that I had to condense down, and anyone who reads me on a regular basis knows I like to be thorough!

Anyway, I wrote out what I wanted to say, but I also let it be a living organism in that I understood I didn't have to have it memorized verbatim and could just let things flow conversationally as long as I hit all the right bullet points. As I was preparing, I kept hearing Jeff Winger in my head ("This feel so formal. Let's just talk...") and used that as a sign I was on the right track. 

Unfortunately, though, I didn't hit all the right bullet points. There was a festival volunteer in the front row who was supposed to hold up a yellow card when we were half-way through our time and then a red one at 30 seconds left. I completely missed seeing the yellow card because I didn't want to look at the audience too much or I'd stumble and get more nervous. I don't even know how I managed to catch the red one, but I basically had to skip right to my closing logline of sorts and skip the paragraph that was the "first season will..." paragraph. I got out all the character details I wanted (everything you will see in the pitch video above plus some additional info on how the pilot opens and the family conflicts), but as I asked for feedback after, they needed to know I had a plan for what would happen when my main character, Kris, came out and overturned all the work they had been doing to that point (If you don't know what I'm talking about, watch the video above). 

I admit I was purposely holding back some details. With only three minutes, I couldn't avoid that, but also the audience factor played into it a lot. I didn't know who might Tweet what out of context. I guess I still run that risk. But that was one detail I meant to point out-- that in episode he is at the point where he is finally comfortable enough to come out, and then a whole new can of worms opens up. First of all, there's the issue of whether or not a person should have to come out: No straight person sits down and tells their parents they are straight; they merely start dating people of the opposite sex, so the rules shouldn't be different if you just want to start dating someone of your own sex. But for this character, it's also an issue of publicness because he is a celebrity, and he has been willingly and actively perpetuating a lie for so long. He was so worried about coming out and being mistreated in a number of ways by a number of people, but now he may actually have to face a backlash from gay and straight fans who feel betrayed by the lie. How much of that is his fault; how much of it is the media's; how do you clean up that mess, and what does it do to you as you try? 

When I realized I had skipped something so important, I was just crossing my fingers that the question would be raised during the judges' Q&A, but unfortunately it wasn't. I did get a question about "Hollywood" the show would be, but I was hoping for more. I like Q&As, no matter what side of them I'm on, because I like to directly engage. It's really hard to basically do a monologue for people, some of whom know immediately the show is not right for them and therefore don't look all that interested when you're talking. I don't envy actors at all. It is a skill, an art, a craft, absolutely, but it's also a mastering of self-confidence to even continuously put yourself out there. I guess the flip-side could be that few questions means my initial pitch was clear enough that they "got" the show, and it was just a matter of whether or not they liked it, and me, enough.

I have to give a big "THANK YOU" to those judges, though, especially the ones who subbed in at last minute and had no idea what they were getting into. The fact that the festival was able to get such busy people to devote time and interest to this is a huge deal, and the festival organizers really need to be given a lot of credit for pulling that off.

I was originally developing The It Couple two years ago with The CW in mind. The trends of pilot season have seen that particular network no longer pick-up shows about "real people", meaning there's always a super power or supernatural or futuristic "hook." In many ways, these "smaller" shows that are "just" about people and their problems are hard sells in general these days, and I've known that separately from knowing how hard a sell can be for a show that basically pulls the curtain back on a practice no one in Hollywood should feel like they have to do, let alone be told they have to do. Not to tangent too much (though that's what I do) but Hostages coming to CBS in the fall wouldn't have gotten picked up if it was "just" a show about a family who felt emotionally held hostage by their marriages or overbearing parents or whatever; it was the element of being literally and physically held hostage that got everyone to sit up and take notice, with the other stuff becoming the deeper layer. I actually really loved the Hostages pilot, but that kind of "big event" television is just not what I do.

So though I do have networks I'd still like to pitch The It Couple to (ABC, Netflix, and Bravo, especially, please call me!), I've also tried adapting it as both a online series and a novel. The online series might be the best way to go, especially after this weekend and how inspiring it was to hear people talk about embracing that content. The winning pitch actually started as a web series, and I encourage you to check it out now and follow along in their journey, too.

For The It Couple, it would be a whole separate process to attach talent and find the money and write smaller-form scripts, taking third and fourth lead characters and spinning them out into their own little side arcs and episodes. I certainly see the potential there (and there was always supposed to be a big web component if the show was on a network, with Kaley's roommate's blog being a real thing that would go live at the upfronts announcement to bring fans deeper into the world and make it feel legit). So while I can't quite say this pitch competition was the first step in my road, at least it wasn't officially the last.

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