So you have a great idea for a TV show. Maybe you've written a script, or created a concept deck or bible, or perhaps you've even produced video, like a sizzle or pilot episode. What now? How do you get your project in the right hands so it can actually be produced and distributed on a major network or streamer like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon?
First, let’s take a step back. To an untrained eye, film and television seem very similar. Some might think the main differences are the runtime of the produced content and the types of ideas that work best in each medium. But there is one key difference. In film, you can raise money yourself, produce 1-3 hours of video, and then get it distributed largely as-is in theaters, streaming services, and broadcast networks. That is (largely) not true with television! When a television buyer hears a pitch, they are really hearing a pitch for a show concept that hasn’t yet been produced. If the buyer says yes, that yes means they will be funding the production of new content in the hope that, 6-24 months from now, they will receive finished episodes ready to air. This means, and I cannot emphasize this enough, that the buyer is taking on a huge amount of execution risk in handing over millions (often tens of millions, sometimes hundreds of millions) of dollars upfront and in advance. For this reason, the industry defaults to known studios and production companies that have made television before. The buyers need a trusted ‘adult in the room’ before they hand over all this money. It might not feel fair. But it is the reality.
And if we look at some of the well-known web series or indie TV success stories, they all had this ‘adult’ figure. With Broad City, it was Amy Poehler. With Insecure, it was Larry Wilmore who helped Issa Rae develop the YouTube series Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl into the eventual long-form show. With Girls, Lena Dunham worked with Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner.
Now you might say - why can’t I pitch my show to Netflix, and if they like it they’ll introduce me to Sony or Lionsgate or another producing partner they trust. That studio could help me produce the project. They could! And at one time in the industry, they did (including some of the above examples). But as the number of television shows has gone up, buyers don’t do that anymore. They want to hear the full details upfront, so they can give a yes or no.
So, all this being said, your goal is actually one step before pitching to a buyer. You want to get your project to a production company, studio, or individual (senior writer, showrunner, executive producer, or known actor) with a track record and relationships. They will help you polish, refine, and further develop your show concept. They will help you build out your creative team, attaching actors, writers, and producers who make the pitch more undeniably compelling to buyers. And they will leverage their own relationships to take the next step in the process and get the project in front of buyers. To take a hypothetical senior writer as an example, they will be able to share the project with the producers, production companies, studios, and showrunners they’ve worked with before. They will have agents, managers, and lawyers who have their own relationships. And they could have their own ‘first look’ or ‘overall’ deal at a studio or buyer. Just this one person can dramatically expand the number of industry executives who might look at your project.
In our experience, one can get a manager who will help them get auditions or pitch them for writers' rooms. However, those same managers are usually not helpful in shopping your project to development partners. And agents don’t represent folks who don’t already have a track record. Once you get an exciting offer, an agent will magically parachute from the sky in a well-tailored suit to help you negotiate and take their 10% commission. If for whatever reason that doesn’t help, email us, and we will help you figure it out. But before then, searching for an agent is probably not a good use of your time.
So focus on getting through the next door, not the final door. How do you do this? Make a list of shows that you admire and resemble your desired tone, subject matter, style, sense of humor, etc. Now research on IMDb who worked on those projects. Take those names and look them up on LinkedIn, Instagram, etc, and see who you can reach. And start to reach out with a short, well-crafted message that gets them excited about what your project. What does that include?
A logline and brief message that grabs their attention and helps them understand why your show is 1) different, 2) compelling, and 3) will attract a large audience and that 4) now is the right moment to make it and 5) you are the person to tell this story. Include a link to a deck that goes into more detail or a produced piece of video (sizzle, pilot, web series, etc). Don’t share a script. It’s too big of an ask at this stage of the conversation to ask someone to read your script. And the next stage of your project will likely be decided on the strength of the concept, deck, and package.
Learn from the greats. We have compiled a list of great examples of decks and bibles from very successful television shows [Great examples of TV pitch decks and series bibles]. Look at how they captured the aesthetic, tone, characters, universe, plot, etc. The deck pitches the project, conveys its strengths, and addresses likely questions when you are not there in the room to advocate for it.
Everyone has their own style. We’ve had several very established industry folks teach workshops on this at Stareable Fest:
We would answer this question in a different way. One of your goals in creating and pitching your project is to remove the risks for your potential partner. So yes, anyone can pitch a television show. But how can you convince your audience that:
Work backwards to answer those questions. So if you want to show that the acting will be good, convince talented actors to attach themselves. If you want to demonstrate that the show can last for 50+ episodes, detail in your deck what happens and why it stays exciting. To show you can produce it, bring on a partner with a successful track record of producing television.
Yes, definitely. Here is a how to guide for Should You Put Your Show on YouTube?
Animated series have unique requirements above and beyond what we’ve already described. In order to successfully pitch your animated series, you also need to answer these questions:
Bernie Su, a three-time Emmy-winning creator and showrunner, renowned for his work on 'Artificial,' 'Emma Approved,' and 'The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,' shared his expert insights on pitching a TV show. Here's a distilled version of his wisdom:
In essence, Bernie Su’s approach to pitching a TV show combines preparation, strategic thinking, adaptability, and the ability to engage effectively with your audience. His methods underscore the importance of not just the content of the pitch, but also the manner in which it is delivered.