I wrote this guide for the blog of the storyboarding and animatics software Boords. This is an excerpt; read the full version on their blog.
A successful TV show pitch determines if a TV series will move from an initial idea into development and production. When you’re screenwriting a TV show, creating the TV script is only half the job. TV writers also need to be able to sell their show’s concept and craft a compelling pitch for a successful television series.
We’ll explain the details of a TV show pitch to screenwriters and delve into the important elements of a solid pitch document. You’ll also improve your TV show pitching with our practical tips and can learn from famous pitch examples.
What is a TV show pitch?
The Hollywood cliche of a pitch is a young upstart convincing a hotshot producer of their vision for a television show during a short elevator ride–hence the name “elevator pitch”. In the form of a logline, it gives a brief one-sentence summary of the TV series to hook the reader and generate interest.
The entertainment industry can be formulaic: just like screenwriting follows an established format, a TV show pitch is a presentation varying in length but based on a comprehensive document; the pitch document. This contains the following elements:
- An emotional hook to interest the reader, the equivalent of what you’d establish in a verbal pitch with the fire and passion in your speech!
- The logline. This the shortest form of the pitch and serves as a synopsis, attention grabber, and outlook of where the show will go.
- A one-sheet summary. This is similar to a page-long logline that gives an overview of the project’s details. Think of it as a flyer or oversized calling card for your show.
- The show bible is a rough outline of the show and the events of the first season. It can be a comprehensive breakdown of characters and episodes or provide a more general overview.
- The pilot script is the completed first TV show episode, displaying your screenwriting skills and writing style.
- Lastly, the pitch document provides an outlook on the future development of the show, which will also depend on the exact format.
The goal of a television show pitch
The purpose of a pitch (in the form of a pitch document, verbal pitch, or a presentation including both) is to sell the core idea of your TV show. It’s a proof of concept that includes the unique selling points, draws the big picture of the who and what, as well as the defining details.
When you’re crafting your pitch, think of the audience to whom you’re selling your television series. TV producers, development executives, executive producers, and studio execs tend to think in categories and in terms of what’s been done before, so they’ll want to classify your core concept and compare it to others. Because of this, you’ll need to include format details. Are you screenwriting a sitcom, docu-series, an unscripted reality TV show or a reality series, possibly with contestants? Is your TV script a half-hour or hour-long?
Parts of the pitch document like the pilot script, the main characters and the show bible are likely to change throughout the development process. But if these format details are not clear, it stands less of a chance with Netflix and co.
Elements of a television show pitch
A TV show pitch consists of a pitch document and you, the author of the core idea or scriptwriter, who pitches it. Your target audience can be a production company, an executive producer or studio execs, a cable network or a streaming platform such as Netflix, Bravo TV, or HBO. In the following, we’ll explain the contents or elements of a pitch document.
Find the emotional hook
Series bible and summary
Development: Where Will The Series Go?
What Is A Sizzle Reel?
A sizzle reel is a “sizzling hot” showreel showcasing your previous work. In the context of a pitch, it can be a video of three to five-minute length summarizing your TV show’s story and plot points, narrative approach or core concept, as well as the main characters. It’s not a trailer or promotional video, but a very clear look at the show, the idea and the style.
The target audience is the executive producer or the decision-makers to whom you’re pitching. Showing the sizzle reel can be part of your presentation, or you can submit a copy or link with your pitch document.
Tips for pitching a TV show
As you’ll see below from our examples, repeated rejections are common, even for shows which go on to become smashing hits. Nonetheless, tackle each pitch meeting individually, give it your all and crush it with the following tips!
Executive producers and network executives dread the nightmare of a long pitch. Don’t give a play-by-play, don’t simply read or narrate your pitch document, and don’t make your audience wonder when it’s going to end. Show your personal connection, employ the emotional hook to draw them in, succinctly talk them through the main characters and storyline, and leave them wanting more!
You know you’re the one to tell your story, so go and convince your pitch audience of it! You can begin and end your pitch on the theme of your story, which is particularly effective if you can demonstrate why you relate to it, and why it engages the emotions of the audience. Speak with passion and enthusiasm about the big picture. Don’t be afraid to ask questions yourself. A pitch meeting is also a chance to interview the network or production company on why they would be the best fit for your project.
Eliminate pauses, gaps and filler expressions from your presentation. Memorize your pitch, time it, and polish it. Seemingly contrary to that advice, you shouldn’t come across as if you’re reciting something by heart, or are pitching this for the umpteenth time. Keep it conversational and colloquial and treat the pitch as if it was happening as a spontaneous meeting instead of something you’ve planned to perfection. Anticipate common questions, so you don’t choke when being asked about details.
TV show pitch examples
Genre: Crime drama, thriller, neo-Western, black comedy, tragedy
Logline: This is a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr Chips into Scarface.
Created by: Vince Gilligan
Original network: AMC
Vince Gilligan made his name working on The X-Files, but found himself unemployed for a stretch when that show was canceled. He joked with a friend about “a guy who’d put a meth lab in the back of a Winnebago and drove around the south-west.” That guy became Walter White, and the story of Breaking Bad became his transformation “from Mr Chips into Scarface”. The networks didn’t see it though, and Gilligan struggled with producing his TV show. Showtime passed on the pitch, which included an outline and written TV pilot, because they already had Weeds. HBO and TNT didn’t like the idea of a meth dealer as the main character. FX became interested in 2005 but committed to the drama Dirt instead. Gilligan’s pitch eventually won over AMC’s execs, and the network acquired the rights from FX.
Genre: Crime drama
Logline: A mobster in therapy, having problems with his mother.
Created by: David Chase
Original network: HBO
The Sopranos spanned over six seasons and had an eight-year run on HBO. The mob drama that revolves around relatable crook, Tony Soprano, is a darling of TV audiences and critics alike. Creator, David Chase, originally envisioned a feature comedy about a mafia boss, played by Robert De Niro, and his strained relationship with his mother. Yet, his agent rejected the pitch, calling mob comedies “out of date.” Chase adapted his vision for TV and crafted strong female leads during the transition, which the network execs hated. Every major network rejected his pitch for The Sopranos! The notes from CBS said all psychiatry scenes would have to go. HBO eventually accepted the mafia and psychodrama mashup pitch and produced a pilot. By then, Chase seemed to have lost faith in the project, expecting a cancelled show after the pilot. When it aired, the network drew record viewers.
Genre: Science fiction, horror, period drama
Logline: An epic tale of sci-fi horror
Created by: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer
Original network: Netflix
After more than twenty rejections by TV networks, the Duffer brothers sold their TV show, originally titled Montauk, to Netflix. The love the Duffer brothers have for all things 80s shows in the cryptic Montauk show bible, which pays homage to all its inspirations. They designed and styled their bible like a Stephen King paperback and relied more on an introduction and focus on the themes than a synopsis and logline-because the Montauk / Stranger Things pitch consisted of a written spec pilot. In a mere 23 pages and without an episode breakdown, the series bible establishes the mythos, the story and its structure, genre, tone and style, and the main characters. Everything’s there, it just took Netflix to realize the potential.
Genre: Crime drama
Logline: A police show, well-constructed like a Greek tragedy, revealing an America at every level at war with itself.
Created by: David Simon
Original network: HBO
David Simon’s original series bible of The Wire, a dramatic series written for HBO, has been floating around online for quite a while. It consists of a two-page overview, a one-page setting, a comprehensive list of the show’s many characters, and quite detailed sketches of all episodes in the first season, which make up the largest chunk of the 79 pages. It is in the introduction, however, that Simon brings out the big guns, calling the show a drama of “multiple meanings and arguments” with themes such as national existentialism and culture, the human condition, and the nature of the American city. He also outlines the structure, story arc for each episode and season, and the hyper-realistic style. Yet David Simon ends almost essayistic: “But more than an exercise is realism for its own sake, the verisimilitude of The Wire exists to serve something larger.”
Genre: Drama thriller
Logline: Our democracy has been hacked.
Created by: Sam Esmail
Original network: USA Network
Mr Robot isn’t a TV show typical for the USA network. In the words of USA development chief Alex Sepiol, Mr Robot is a “very unique show” and “like nothing else on television.” Esmail’s core idea came to USA when the network was ready to change up its programming and further evolve its brand. Executives were looking for dramas with unlikely, flawed heroes, darker themes, and extraordinary circumstances. Sam Esmail, on the other hand, was convinced by the USA’s promise of a successful launch and series despite his lack of TV experience. His pitch accomplished its goal because Esmail had a long-term plan for the show with completed character arcs and several seasons figured out.
This is an excerpt from a guide I wrote for the blog of the storyboarding and animatics software Boords.