GIVEN THE ABUNDANCE of material in theaters and on TV it’s easy to forget all the stuff that never makes it. Yet as last week’s L.A. TV Festival demonstrated, even with so many new pipes, the industry’s filtering process prevents most concepts from ever seeing the light of day.
Sponsored by NATPE, the event — which included a “pitch pit” for aspiring producers — was another occasion for people with noses pressed against the glass to make contact with shakers and movers, or at least agents and managers. Based on the clear hunger for such opportunities, that’s obviously a service.
Having attended plenty of such forums, though, the “Selling Your TV Show” panel moderated by LMNO Prods. CEO Eric Schotz proved especially refreshing and frank– departing from the uplifting norm, where hopefuls are cheerfully told to doggedly bang on doors and steadfastly pursue their hearts’ desires.
There’s a fine line, admittedly, between tough love and trampling on people’s dreams. Still, erring toward the latter seems preferable to soft-peddling the industry’s intricate safeguards designed to keep interlopers out. That also means sharing harsh truths about how hard work doesn’t necessarily pay off, not everyone being destined to succeed and recognizing the difference between admirable persistence and misguided delusion.
IN THIS REGARD, locating the Straight Talk Express can be as difficult in Hollywood as it is in Washington during election cycles — partly because many of those trafficking in “You too can make it” platitudes are eager to fill seminars and separate wannabes from their money.
Rarely does anybody answer the novice’s question “How do I sell my show?” with brutal candor — something like, “You don’t, not until you’ve gained admission to this exclusive club, usually by scrounging work on somebody else’s show. Better yet — go back in time and be born into it.” Then again, those marketing the dream can point to the flukes — the clerical worker that improbably triumphed with a pitch and a prayer, keeping the audacity of such hopes alive.
So credit Schotz and his panel for their honesty, yielding rough guidelines worth repeating not only to newcomers but anybody addressing a room populated by those with more ambitions than connections:
- Don’t trust family and friends: “They suck” as a test audience, Schotz said, “because they want you to do well and don’t tell you the truth.”
- Lose the ‘You stole my idea!’ paranoia: As producer Arthur Smith noted, people constantly pitch similar ideas — especially in reality TV. Besides, producing a TV pilot is “the easy part,” as “Two and a Half Men” producer Chuck Lorre observed during a separate session. There’s extra time and money to shoot prototypes; the trick is having the ability (and track record, thus reassuring nervous network suits) to replicate that template six, 13 or 22 times a year.
- Understand the buyer’s perspective: As “Deadliest Catch” producer Thom Beers colorfully put it, execs warily view every potential supplier with the same concern: “Is this the person that’s gonna screw my fuckin’ career up?” Sure, they crave hits, but since self-preservation is Job One, it’s always safer to say “no.”
- Being derivative has limits: While imitation remains the sincerest form of television, Schotz counseled against “more than three crosses,” as in “It’s like ‘Survivor’ Meets ‘Wife Swap’ meets ‘Daddy Day Care.'”
- Take “no” for an answer: “Learn how to take a pass,” said Sharon Levy, Spike’s senior VP of alternative programming, indicating that nothing irritates buyers more than continued pleading after rejection.
- Take “yes” for an answer: Schotz quoted CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves as telling him, “If someone says, ‘We’ll buy it,’ get out of that room as quick as you can.”
- Stick-to-itiveness is an asset only up to a point: “If everybody tells you it sucks, listen to them,” Schotz said.
The impulse to be encouraging — or at least polite — is natural. Fostering false hope, however, is like spinning a Vegas roulette wheel and saying, “Keep trying, 22 could come up next time” to someone determined to literally bet the farm. Given the long odds, dispensing a dose of painful reality now might actually be the nicest advice you can offer.