We have a new eBook out, and it’s free to anyone who signs up for our newsletter.
How to Sell Your Show will go over specific ways to make it easier to sell your TV show idea to a network. We cover specific topics—like how make your concept as tight as possible, how to write and shoot a great pilot, where to network—that will make this journey much easier if it’s ever been a dream of yours.
All you need to do is go to our subscribe page and sign-up, and we will send you a copy: https://www.candivan.com/subscribe/
But if you want to check it out before, here’s a preview of the first couple chapters:
How to Sell Your Show
The first ever home TVs had one channel available. That’s it!
And the shows at that time, while fascinating, aren’t quite as...uh...easy to binge by today’s standards.
A clip of the 1928 Queen’s Messenger, believed to be the first ever drama ever aired:
It’s, really...um,...well, yeah, I have no idea what’s going on either.
But the point is we have come a long way since shows began, and there are far more opportunities for creators and writers.
But along with those opportunities comes way more competition. If you’ve ever been to LA, it seems like everyone is trying to get a show off the ground. It might feel like it’s such an uphill battle to get your particular idea made.
You want to get ahead of the competition and allow for the highest chance of a network wanting to buy your show.
Here I’m presenting several ways to do so. You don’t have to do all of them, some of them may work better for you that others, but these are all ways you could increase your chances and put you ahead of other people.
1. Make a tight concept
Ok, yeah, of course. But the question becomes: what makes a concept tight? What are the qualities of a show that will make networks feel like they must have it? There’s no better emotion than FOMO to sell things.
There are the main qualities that will make your show a must have.
It fills a hole in the market
Whenever a great show comes around (and sometimes even a non-great show), people become fans of it, and they think “I want to make a show as good as that!”
And BTW that attitude is what leads to new, innovative shows. It’s the attitude that inspires greatest filmmakers keep making movies--they see Citizen Kaneand become determined to never stop until they make something they feel is as good. It’s how art transforms and evolves.
The problem is when “I want to make a show as good as that” becomes just “I want to make that show.”
After Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction came out, hundreds of copycat scripts were written or shot, all featuring gangsters in suits and sunglasses talking about everyday things. Not even Quentin Tarantino wanted to return to doing that again. But so many other people thought, “if this great idea works for him, it should work for me too.”
But, of course, it doesn’t.
Borrowing is fine. Tarantino borrowed to make his movies, but he was still able to come up with a project that was original by moving away from the homages he was paying.
People pitched ideas to us that were exact replicas of other shows. And since originality is one of the top qualities we're looking for, ideas for clones of existing series didn't fly.
Don’t make a show about a junior high school teacher who becomes an ecstasy manufacturer or a show about a rich dysfunctional family that falls apart when the mother gets arrested. The network is going to see your concept as nothing but a poor man’s version of it. Instead use a snippet of a story you find intriguing, like what Vince Gilligan did with Breaking Bad, or take a satirical look at something fresh, like what Mitchell Hurwitz did with Arrested Development, to come up with something new.
Learn from the greats but don’t try to mimic them.
You can describe it in a few words
If you don’t know your show well enough to describe it in an elevator pitch (a theoretical 30 second or so elevator ride with a network executive) then you don’t really know it.
When we asked for pitches for shows, we received some where the writer mentioned in the 1-2 sentence summary section that the story can’t be explained in that short of a constraint.
That does not instill much confidence in us about the writer’s ability to see the concept as a whole.
Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean that the show has to be super high-concept. You don’t need “Die Hard in a Hot Topic” level of simplicity to sell, but you should be able to describe it well.
A drama about one of New York's most prestigious ad agencies at the beginning of the 1960s, focusing on one of the firm's most mysterious but extremely talented ad executives, Donald Draper.
An exploration of the life of a man after he is released from prison after nearly 20 years on death row following a wrongful conviction.
An odd-couple comedy about two best friends navigating their 20s in New York City
Mad Men, Rectify, and Broad City are pretty low-concept shows, but they can still easily be described in a sentence.
It’s best if you have a sentence version of your show concept, a 30-second/ paragraph version of it, and a page version of it.
One thing that can help you is knowing what your show is a cross between. It’s Twilight Zone meets Atlanta, etc.
This is different from the point above about not being a copycat. All shows are going to have influences, and if you place a couple influences together, you’re going to wind up with something new.
It's aimed to the right network
You have a show about a couple war veterans who find out space aliens have come to Earth and are planning to take over. There’s only one solution: kick as much alien ass as possible.
Ok! I’d check that out
Now let’s say you’re pitching that show to the Hallmark Channel. Now we might have a problem.
Same as if you were pitching your show idea about an elderly person grieving for her dead lover to Comedy Central. Or if you’re pitching a CSI knock-off to us.
You have to know the right place you’re trying to sell to. This means doing your homework. And this also means, like with a good resume, you’re willing to make some minor adjustments to your concept to fit the branding of that particular company.
I wouldn’t compromise too much, though. If your concept has changed to the point that you no longer like it, then you’re not going to be able to write a good show.
2. Write a solid pilot
Many times you will need to present the pilot, or at least pieces of the pilot, to whomever you’re selling the show to, and yep, it better be really good.
When getting the script ready to be seen by the powers that be, there’s a couple items that deserve your entire focus.
The script is good
Alright, you knew that. And I’m sure if you’re going into this field, you have some writing experience. If you don’t, though, let's say you're coming in with a good idea but haven't written anything since your last college final, then I highly recommend getting as much experience as you can. Take a creative writing class. Join some writing Meetup groups. Do improv, where you’re essentially writing on the spot.
As far as the pilot goes, my article Nine crucial lessons from Mad Men's pilotgoes into a lot of detail about all the things that you want to include in your pilot, so I recommend reading that. Here’s some things that you are for sure for sure going to want to include:
A captivating beginning. The last thing you want is to lose the reader within the first few pages. It doesn’t matter if the rest of the script proves you’re the second-coming of Shakespeare. If the reader doesn’t get there (and if the first few pages suck, trust me, they will not), the rest of the script doesn’t matter. This means if only a few pages of the script are gripping, it better be the first few.
Compelling character introductions. Since the characters in the first episode of your show will be the same ones with stuck with throughout the entire show--they should be ones we want to be stuck with. This means that they have to be well-rounded. It means that at least some of them must be relatable. It means that their dialogue is never lazy and their interactions with each other is intriguing. You have to do ALL this while also introducing us to the story. No easy feat.
Accomplish multiple things at once. Re: my above point, you have to do a lot of things in this pilot--introduce us to characters, set-up a story arc, paint this world we’re going to be living in, somehow get a lot of background history to us, make us feel something, and, oh yeah, write a great story and great episode--so it’s going to behoove the hell out of you to do some of these things at the same time. Most scenes should be accomplishing more than one thing. For instance, a scene could be making us feel something about a character, while also conveying a key piece of plot.
Have theme. I discuss this a lot because it is so crucial and so often neglected. Check out my post, "Starting with a stop", as well as any of my AFI film school posts. Having a theme in your episode is what makes it feel like a cohesive piece, and it's what makes a series feel like it has that “special something.” It means that there’s a statement you’re making or a question you're asking that everything in the episode points back to. Again this is the most underrated idea in writing, as it’s what makes your story work vs fall apart.
Make the story feel resolved while making us want more. This is not an easy balancing act. You’re going to have to have the episode feel like a complete piece, so that the we’re not left dissatisfied, while also setting up things or leaving questions unanswered so we feel like we need to tune in for more episodes. This means you’ll have to have a fully developed, COMPLETE storyline that existing within a bigger INCOMPLETE storyline. Unless this is a show where the storyline doesn’t continue (think an anthology series like Black Mirror or a show with standalone episodes like Seinfeld). If that’s the case, you have to work extra hard to make an awesome complete stand-alone episode so the audience thinks “I gotta get me more of that.”
Follow the guidelines
People who will first read your script (gatekeepers as they're sometimes called) and hopefully passing it along usually have to read a lot of scripts. A LOT of scripts.
This means they’re going to do a very natural thing: when they see any reason to disqualify a script, any reason at all, they’re going to take it. It doesn’t matter if you wrote what is going to be the next Sopranos, if they disqualify it right away, no one will know but you.
This means that you have to follow all the formatting guidelines to a capital T. If they see that you haven’t followed any of the guidelines, they will assume that you are not a professional and that your script isn’t worth reading. Fair or not, that’s the way it is.
There’s a lot of scripts, and the logical assumption is that someone who doesn’t take the time to learn and follow the guidelines will also not take the time to be a good writer.
There’s a lot of resources out there for correctly formatting scripts. A quick Google search will lead you there. A lot of screenwriting software will automatically format the script for you, but it’s still best to know every rule so you can double-check it.
You should also know the specific guidelines of the place you’re submitting to. Do they want a one-page treatment attached? Are they looking for you to submit a specific amount of pages? Do they want it it to include a recommendation from your 7th grade social studies teacher?
Whatever they’re asking for, make sure you’re doing EXACTLY that--unless you want your script to not get read. It doesn’t matter if you want to submit 5 more pages than they’re asking for because the “really cool thing” doesn’t happen until those 5 pages later. Find a way to edit or condense it if need be, but if you’re breaking the rules before anyone knows who you are, all you’re doing is showing how difficult you are.
And difficult people don’t get their scripts read unless they’ve already proven that they’re so damn talented they can afford to be difficult.
You’re building trust now with the network And at the very least, consider that if you follow all the rules, you stand a way better chance than someone who neglects them.
BTW we interviewed ten of the top TV critics and asked them what makes a show great. Read that here: Top critics share what makes a show good vs. great.
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