Let’s face it. As a kids TV producer, the odds are stacked against you come pitch time. Of the 800 pitches received by Corus Kids director of original productions Bonita Siegel ever year, for example, maybe four or five are picked up for development. And at major global net Disney Channel, Paula Rosenthal, VP of original programming for Playhouse Disney, fields 20 solicited pitches a month. Only a couple will be passed on for review by her higher-ups, with even fewer being put into development. However, if you have a clear, concise introductory package and a well-thought-out pitch, you might just be able to break through during the short three to five minutes granted by broadcasters before their eyes begin to mist over during the meeting.
So, in the hopes of easing some fears and anxieties and saving valuable time on both sides of the table, KidScreen has endeavored to plumb the minds of master pitchers and development execs alike, on what makes for the most effective pitch package and presentation. Not surprisingly, they agreed on everything.
Know thy broadcaster
First thing’s first: Understand the needs of your target. This is the cardinal rule of making a pitch. You can have the most fantastic idea for a kids series ever imagined, but if it doesn’t fit into the ethos of the broadcaster you’re set on pitching, you might as well keep it to yourself.
‘I pitched a girls show to one broadcaster who basically said, ‘We don’t do girls shows,” says Lisa Olfman, president of Toronto, Canada-based Portfolio Entertainment, recalling the worst pitch and shortest meeting of her career. ‘It was just over at that point.’
But by doing your research beforehand, you can avoid wasting your time and energy. Jetix Europe SVP of programming Marc Buhaj stresses that it’s not a guessing game, and broadcasters are happy to let you know what it is they are looking for. Make inquiries, and get to know their business – not just the shows currently on air (those were greenlit years ago), but what is in development now.
Jules Borkent, VP of programming for Nickelodeon Europe, says that simply checking a broadcaster’s website is a good first step before making an opening salvo. ‘Most networks have their mission statements online now,’ he says. ‘If you can’t meet us personally at one of the markets, then you can still check out what we are about.’
On the producer side, Tom Lynch, writer and creator of more than 20 series including Class of 3000 and South of Nowhere, says that the big three players (Nick, Disney and Cartoon Network) all have specific brand identities and you’d best know what they are. With years in the business and countless handshakes at annual markets, the CEO of The Tom Lynch Company has established a personal relationship with many of the execs shaping network identities through programming. But, he stresses, the information isn’t exactly a guarded secret and can be easily discovered by taking a careful look at the target broadcaster’s schedule and branding.
Of all the broadcasters and pitchers we surveyed for advice, not one said, ‘Prepare the longest, most detailed rundown of the show you can, and kick in 75 illustrations to boot.’ As cliché as it sounds, time is money, and it holds true when it comes to pitching. To be successful, the producer must boil the proposed series down to its core – the rest is just detail.
‘It has to be distilled down to one line, two at the most,’ says Lynch, who is a fierce defender of the approach. ‘You don’t want to get away from the core idea that is your show.’
Shane Kinnear, VP of Canadian production house Shaftesbury Films, agrees. ‘You should be able to tell the entire thing in three sentences, maybe less.’ Recounting the pitch for live actioner Life With Derek, which now airs on the Disney Channel in the US and The Family Channel in Canada, he recalls it came down to, ‘A family of five kids, two adults, a crowded house in a city and an extraordinary rivalry between the step-siblings… that was it.’
As for getting a foot in the door, Borkent says that a phone call rather than sending an unsolicited email or complete package is the way to go. ‘We just get so many email pitches that it’s hard to keep track,’ he says. ‘If I haven’t met you at a market, it’s best to call me and then send an email. That way I can put the pitch in context.’
The email should be succinct, he says. Initially, broadcasters want to see a document that has the concept of the show, the main characters, a couple of story arcs and visuals. Those elements should be enough to communicate the look and feel of the series. Details such as scripts and more visuals should follow only after the broadcaster has conveyed an interest in the project.
UK indie producer and co-founder of Wish Films, Will Brenton, says that his initial pitch after making a personal phone call could consist of a 10- to 20-page outline. That may sound hefty, but don’t let the page count fool you.
‘One page will be the title, the next may be a two-line description of the show, then a page on each character,’ says Brenton. ‘Also, each page should contain a visual. It will not be dense. If they want more, like a script, we can give that to them at a later date.’
For Brenton, what cuts through the clutter above all else is strong visuals; they’re a paramount part of the pitch. Accordingly, his company will often pay a reputable children’s illustrator to create a few snazzy sketches for a pitch session that properly convey the theme of the series. ‘The right visuals will help you sell the show 10 times better than any explanation,’ he notes.
Out-of-pocket expenses can vary, says Brenton. Hiring a skilled illustrator costs more than rendering character drawings on a sheet of scrap paper, but it’s certainly less than going to the trouble of producing a video clip. Like all financial decisions, each producer has to weigh the pros and cons of forking out significant coin at such an early stage of the project.
Besides the cost of assembling the visuals, producers also have to be cognizant of the expense associated with procuring the services of a professional consultant. If you are creating shows for kids up to the age of 11, broadcasters suggest it pays to hire the services of a child development specialist to assess the pitch materials before submitting a package or setting up a meeting. A concept that doesn’t take the target demo’s developmental stage into account – such as a preschool series aiming to teach toddlers concepts they’re mentally not ready to grasp – is an instant turn-off for any commissioning broadcaster. They can sniff out an uninformed lob and will be reticent to take future pitches from the offending company. Rates for such services vary widely, but it’s definitely worth the investment, particularly if you’re tackling production for a certain demo for the first time.
It’s show time!
So you’ve proven you know your show inside and out and have distilled the concept to its core in a maximum of three sentences. And good news! You’ve been summoned for a meeting. The bad news? More prep is in order. Showing up at the corner office and uttering the one magical sentence won’t land you a signed cheque and a few parting gifts. Start practicing your pitch well beforehand. Hashing out the approach within the creative team is a good start, but don’t be afraid to sit in front of a mirror and go over what you are going to say ad nausem.
Moreover, you also need to be prepared to field exhaustive questions on how that one kernel of an idea will evolve into a full-fledged multi-episode series. ‘I will sit down and write up 50 pages about the idea before I go in there,’ says Lynch. He estimates that it can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to get to the 50-page stage, and finds back-and-forthing with the creative team on storylines, characters and tone is invaluable.
Getting your facts straight about the business end of the project is also important. ‘Part of the pitch is not just about the show, it’s about what it’s going to take to get the series on the air,’ says Siegel. ‘Producers don’t have to have all the answers and all the partners lined up, but they should understand what it takes to produce a series. It takes lots of money, and they should realize that.’ In short, be prepared to talk cold, hard cash.
Additionally, every broadcaster suggested bringing in some back-up in the form of a written submission referred to as a ‘mini bible.’ These docs typically fill a maximum of 10 double-spaced typed pages and include a full rundown of all characters, plot summaries and design concepts. For his part, Nick’s Borkent insists he’s looking for a straightforward bare-bones package without any bells or whistles. And skip the comedy.
‘I’m not looking for the package itself to be funny,’ he says about the more than 150 pitches he takes each year on behalf of the laugh-centric Nick channels. ‘It’s enough if the producer can clearly explain why the series will be funny.’
Whether you bring the bible to the meeting or email it afterwards, broadcasters seem to have no preference. Either way, steer clear of flowery, convoluted prose. ‘Don’t make the writing dense,’ says Corus Kids’ Siegel. ‘No one wants to read through 26 tight pages of text.’ Jetix’s Buhaj concurs. ‘Let’s face it,’ he says, ‘we’re all lazy.’
When it comes to visuals, broadcasters and pitchers agree that for both live-action and animated fare, conveying a true sense of the design and tone of the series is a key aspect of the pitch. ‘It could be a design on a piece of paper, even an old napkin design, if it’s unique; you have to give them an idea of the concept, but the means are up to you,’ says Disney’s Rosenthal.
If you have a video clip, take the opportunity to show it, but make sure it’s short and something that’s ready to be unveiled. At some stages, no design is better than bad design. ‘If there is a demo or sizzle reel, it’s helpful, but it’s not a requirement for development,’ Siegel says. ‘Because we are in development, we can take a good idea and work on the design ourselves. But if we see a bad design first, it’s sort of a turn-off.’
When a pitch goes foul
Props, toys and PowerPoint presentations are time-suckers, and the amateur comedy routine should be left at home. ‘Pulling out a computer and doing a PowerPoint pitch is often a distraction,’ says Rosenthal. For Lynch, the PowerPoint pitch creates a disconnect between the artist and the buyer, often coming across as too financially oriented in tone. It’s best to keep the meeting low-tech, in order to avoid anything that might distract from the core content idea.
When it comes to describing your concept, do not make hackneyed comparisons to hit shows. These are another instant turn-off, and in the compressed universe of a pitch session, there isn’t a second to be spared on a ‘this show is like Lawrence of Arabia meets The Muppets meets Death of a Salesman’ type of spiel. ‘If I hear another person pitch me ‘Seinfeld for kids,’ I’m going to jump out of my window,’ laughs Lynch.
And with a lilt of sarcasm, Buhaj describes the most perfectly imperfect pitch. ‘Come in with a lot of smoke and mirrors, use phrases like ‘multi-platform’ and ‘appointment viewing,” he says. ‘Then claim it will appeal to everyone including girls, boys, vegetarians and carnivores, and that, of course, it will have a live-action musical aspect.’
In that vein, be sure to avoid inarticulate rambling during the meeting. ‘I know people are nervous when they come in,’ says Siegel. ‘But you really should be able to say what you mean.’ She adds that some of the best pitchers are the series’ writers, who can answer questions in a concise and knowledgeable way. ‘Also, don’t just come in and read what you’ve written. I can read.’
Leave the other stuff to the experts
When you pitch a series to a broadcaster, that is exactly what you should do – pitch a series, not a merchandise program. Of course, networks are not in the habit of turning a deaf ear to talk of ancillary revenue streams, but they are also not really interested in hearing about it from the producer. ‘For me, it’s about the show; I’m concerned with the content, not the other stuff,’ says Rosenthal.
Lynch agrees. ‘It’s a waste of time, and kind of hubris, too,’ he says. ‘Every major network has whole departments that deal with consumer products, so it’s not like you are bringing extra value to the equation.’