Making a Sellable Pilot, Part 1: Finding Your Subject
As I learned from this Deadline article the other day, a pilot presentation I produced last year was recently picked up by TruTV as a series for 2017. Exciting times! I can't tell you everything about how to make selling a show happen for you; it probably requires agents and managers and famous people and secret backroom deals that I don't know anything about. But I can tell you how to produce a pilot presentation that's good enough to get a production company to spend money on a studio pilot that's good enough to get TruTV to spend money on a season of your show.
Today I'm going to talk about finding a subject for your show, which is mostly how I got involved with making this pilot. Tomorrow we'll talk about shooting, Thursday it'll be post-production, and Friday will be business. The nuts and bolts stuff I'd probably like reading about will be on those middle days.
Chapter 1: Someone tell me what to make a TV show about!
Tip 1: Know what you do.
In college, I produced three seasons of a talk show about hockey. I don't particularly care about hockey, but I don't need to. The presenters know plenty, and they're the ones having the discussion. So they talk and I arrange cameras and lights and sound and graphics, and we meet in the middle on the gun battles and cliffhanger endings and other silly stuff that goes into me making a talk show.
Even though I like writing things, I already have experience building up the scaffolding of a video production around a core of an existing act.
I had seen Talk Show the Game Show on stage at least a dozen times, in various theaters, with various lineups of guests and judges and scorekeepers. Guy Branum and Casey Schreiner have refined their show over lots of performances, and they don't need me to tell them how to do it. The stage show was already honed and there was no reason it couldn't move to TV, at least in my opinion. Most importantly, for some crazy reason, nobody had already done this!
The tip here is the same thing a lot of indie filmmakers say: figure out what you've already got access to for free production value. In my case, this seemed like a perfect pitch: I didn't need to develop or meddle with the content of the show, which the performers would be happy about. I just needed to make a recording that shows someone('s assistant) in an office somewhere how much people like this thing, and how much everyone will like them if they put it on TV.
What I do is turn the crank on the video-making machinery.
Tip 2: Strategize, but don't delay.
Unfortunately, the next step is a little bit like Steve Martin's "First, get a million dollars." The legwork you need to do to get a project rolling is going to be different every time. Maybe you need to get writing, maybe you need to seek funding, or start casting rich housewives.
In 2015, I performed at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival. So did Guy Branum. Even though I had already run into Guy a bunch of times in Los Angeles, and he'd performed on shows that I produced or hosted, it seemed like a great chance to chat with him as a peer. (I have this idea that you meet people as either a fan or a peer, and it's difficult for everyone if they get too muddled.)
The festival rented out a video arcade to entertain the comics one afternoon, and we walked there together from the hotel. I re-introduced myself (the less-famous comedian may as well get used to introducing and re-introducing themselves without taking it personally. We all look the same.) and we talked careers for a mile. How do you get writing packets to submit to shows, what other festivals are worth doing, and oh, by the way, how come nobody has ever made a TV show out of your great stage show? Did you know I happen to have the resources to do a good job of that?
The number one thing I needed was for Guy to be interested. If it turned out he had a deal already or was happy with his other TV jobs and didn't want to adapt TSGS then the project would have been dead in the water for me.
Tip 3: Talk to people.
It's okay to tell people what you're up to. Nobody is going to steal your idea. Most people don't have enough passion or drive to make their own ideas, and those that do are too busy. Besides all that, you don't know who can help you, and neither do they unless they know you need help. After Bridgetown in May, I went home to Los Angeles and Guy went to New York to write shows for Billy Eichner. My plan to shoot a Talk Show the Game Show performance was useless without anyone in town doing one.
By September, Guy Branum forgot all about our conversation. When he ran into my comedy show producing partner, Jason Van Glass, and invited him to a Talk Show the Game Show happening that week, Jason was able to connect those dots and remind Guy that there was someone who wanted to shoot his show.
Probably, what would have happened is I would have gone to see the show and tried to make plans to shoot the next one. And then our schedules wouldn't've lined up and we'd delay, and then one of us would be out of town and missed the next one, on and on. Instead, we cut right to the chase and I had 36 hours to put a shoot together. Find out how that went down tomorrow!