A clean, clear concept. That’s what we want to see. I find pitching a project mostly comes down to answering one simple question: what is it?
What’s the concept?
Unfortunately finding a simple answer is usually harder than it seems. It is a constant struggle to refine your project description down to the very basics while still making it sound attractive. I have seen this go horribly wrong in pitches, where people talk about every element of their show for half an hour and still don’t answer the question ‘what is it?’ Even being very aware of it myself and working at that, I have still sometimes come back from my own pitches knowing that I need a simpler, cleaner way of explaining what it is.
Part of it is excitement. We can get so excited about all these great things in our show that we start to waffle. It just comes out and we lose control of what we’re saying and sentences wander from one part of our concept to the next. It is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is good and people pick up on that – don’t lose the enthusiasm. But be very aware of the complicated spaghetti-like descriptions that enthusiasm can lead to.
So you need to be prepared. You need to work on your simple description in advance and you need to learn it. Then after you have delivered it, you need to stop talking. Let whoever you are pitching to take it in and ask the questions they need to ask. Answer those simply too. It’s like the advice I see given to people taking the stand in lawyer shows – short answers, answer only what you are asked. The difference between pitching and testifying in a law show, however, is that you need to retain that enthusiasm.
Here is one more thing to be aware of – sometimes your show will change. As it develops, new themes might be added, old ideas discarded. New characters or a new focus is brought in, adding layers to your concept. Your concept will likely grow and find new depth which is all a good thing. But instead of adding each new part to your core pitch, you really have to go back and create a new description. One just as simple as the original but gets across where the show is right now. Clean and clear.
In all likelihood, if well-developed, your concept has more than a single strength. There might be many reasons why your concept should make it to screen. But when you’re pitching, you need brevity and clarity and you need to know what your strongest reason is. What is the one thing you can say that will make your show an easy buy?
If you know what that is, the rest is simply support. Don’t bombard people in case that one good reason is lost in the crowd.
However, there is something very important to keep in mind: not everybody is looking for the same thing. Every broadcaster has their own vision, their own remit and they buy different types of shows. You need to know who you’re pitching to. Now you can’t please everyone and I would advise that you don’t try – that’s how you water a show down to nothing. You have to have a sense of who your show might be a fit for.
But you don’t have to pitch the show the same way for those people.
If you give the exact same pitch to two people looking for different things, there is a good chance that it won’t work for one of them. And yet what that second person wants might well be in your show. It’s just a different strength. If you accept that different people are looking for different things, highlight the right things when you pitch. Don’t lie! Don’t try to make out like something is in your show that isn’t there – a broadcaster will see through you in an instant and it won’t go down well. But if your show truly has something that would work well for that particular broadcaster, put it out in front.
What this comes down to is the exact same thing you need to think about when making your show: know your audience. Know who you’re pitching to. Look at what is on their channel, at what they’ve said in articles or magazines and try to get a sense of what works for them. Look at your concept’s strengths and make sure the appropriate one comes across in your pitch. It won’t be the same every time.
One of the places you can fall down in your pitch is in the information dump. Too much information, to the point where it feels overwhelming or boring or just plain too long. More often than not, the more information you give the less clarity you’re offering. Same with show pitch bibles, which I’ve covered here before.
Short, simple, clear and to the point.
However, that does not mean that you don’t have to know all that other stuff. When you’re sitting in front of someone telling them about your concept, you need to know everything that you can. You need to be armed with the information. You need to be able to answer all the questions (again, in a short, clear way) and provide the extra information that you don’t cover in your distilled quick pitch, and you need to be able to do it in an enthusiastic way. You must know your concept inside and out.
And here’s the thing – if you do know your show and it’s a concept that is clear and developed and refined, even if you barely have to answer a single question on it, that knowledge will come through in your confidence and the language you use. One of the best ‘nailed it’ moments was after a presentation I gave when a major broadcaster told me that it was clear that we really know our show and our characters. That counts for a lot with anyone who will take an interest in your show because it’s like a safety net. They know you have a clear vision and you’ve really done the work.
So do the work. Know your show. Know every part of it. Don’t dump it out on to the table in your pitch. Keep it there so you have more to talk about when asked. But know it.
We’ve all heard the stories of rejection. How many people rejected Harry Potter or Spongebob before someone finally said yes. I hear these stories in two forms. The first is really positive – as a reminder not to give up. If you truly believe in your work, push and keep pushing. This is a good message although it should probably be combined with messages about making sure your work is as great as it can be and also being open to feedback.
That is not what this post is about. This post is about the other form of that story that I hear every now and again. It goes a little like this: these people are idiots! They even rejected <insert success here> so that shows what they know! This is a dangerous way of thinking. For a start, it’s wrong. Harry Potter or Spongebob or whatever was never, ever a guaranteed success and the big successes are almost always long shots in some ways and that needs to be recognised – they come with risks. And not everyone could have made a success out of them. A publisher or broadcaster taking something that isn’t quite a fit for them could have led to those same concepts being unsuccessful. Saying no could have been the best thing for them and the creator.
For the most part, it’s all about taking a chance. And those people, the gatekeepers, are doing it by weighing up everything they know about their audience and their business and then trying to see if your concept might be a fit for them. Do they believe in it enough to take the chance? That’s what they’re really being asked to do. It is a risk for them. Often a high risk with lots of money involved.
If they say no, it’s not usually because they didn’t like your concept. Or didn’t like you. And it’s certainly not because they are idiots. It is because, knowing their audience and business, they didn’t quite think the risk for them was one they could justify. In that case, that’s the best decision for your project – when you eventually get that yes, you need it to be from someone who truly, truly believes in your concept.
It’s not just about getting a yes. It’s about getting the best yes from the right person.
Here’s a thing about your creative endeavours, whether it’s that project you’re pushing, that job you’re hoping to get or your whole career – you need to keep up the momentum. It can be so hard to get any kind of movement at all. So when you do get it, even a hint of it, you have to keep pushing and keep that movement going.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder? Nope. Absence makes the heart (or the mind or whatever) forget. People move on and they notice other things and other people and, soon, that momentum you felt you had is gone.
It’s not easy, especially when you have to bury yourself away like a hermit to actually get some work done, as I’m sure many of the writers will understand. But you have to get out there and keep up a presence in whatever form you can. Even if it’s just a blog post about keeping up a presence.
Get out there and build that momentum. And when you get a tiny bit of movement, don’t let up. Stay out there as much as you can and let people see your newest work, hear the stories of what you have coming soon or even just see your face around. Keep that momentum going.
In the world of media, I have seen a lot of unrealistic expectations over the years. I see people with what might be the beginnings of an idea who expect others to throw a fortune at them to take it off their hands and actually do the work to turn it into something good. These people tend to wonder what is wrong with the entire industry when that doesn’t happen. Oh you’ll regret it when I’m rolling in money and this is the biggest property on the planet.
I also see a lot of more humble people daunted by how intimidating the industry can be. Gripped by that fear and a sense that they don’t have what it takes. Afraid to sit down and really develop their idea because it may end up awful and it will all go horribly wrong. I’m not a writer. I’m not a creative. I can’t draw. How will I get anywhere?
And this may come as no surprise to some of you but, regularly, I see these two things in the same person. Because the fear of sitting down and doing the work can often result in a defensive need to offload a project long before it’s ready. Someone take it! Now!
This is a fun business to be in with lots of wonderful people doing wonderful things. But the truth is, it comes with hard work. Sitting down and just doing the work, often on your own before anyone else believes in it, comes with the territory. It’s what you take on when you decide this is what you’re going to do. You have to work hard to prove what you’re doing has any value or has a place in a world saturated with high-quality media already.
It’s not an easy path to walk down.
But if you do, if you put in that work, you will find people who like what you’re doing. You will get to know why something you tried didn’t quite take and you’ll be better prepared next time. You’ll find the enthusiasm grows as you get closer, as you help others on their projects and as you get to be a part of the process. Then, when you find champions for your own work (and if you stick at it, you will), you realise you can do it. You have probably already been doing it. It’s not easy. It’s unlikely that someone will ever dump a truck full of money at your house for your concept, even when you put in the work. But it is still rewarding. It is still worth it.
So do the work. Keep your expectations realistic and do the work. Enjoy it and keep doing it.
A question I get asked fairly regularly is: how do get my concept to a broadcaster? When I dig a little deeper into this question, what I find is that there is a perception that the broadcaster lives in a castle on a mountaintop guarded by a fierce dragon who will toast you and then eat you if you dare stand anywhere near the bottom of that mountain holding a concept document.
It’s not true.
There is no mountain and the dragon just wants to make sure you aren’t some random gibbering kid off the street. And even if you were, they would probably let you in anyway.
Here’s the reality: broadcasters need good content. And that content might just be what you have. They actively want to see it.
Yes, you’ll find at certain events that they can be difficult to reach. Often that’s because they are being hit by every producer in town with “Why aren’t you buying MY show?!” or they have vanished off because one of those producers is spending the rest of that year’s budget taking them to a fancy lunch. They might be there to speak or to find out certain things rather than be pitched to every couple of minutes. You’ve got to understand what that must be like.
And yes, sometimes they will be incredibly slow to answer an email and will require nudges. They are busy people. That’s the reality.
And generally you will want your work to be of a certain standard. Few people are going to have patience for a half-baked idea scribbled on a post-it if this is the seventh pitch you have given them since 9am earlier that day.
But nevertheless, they want to see your content. They can be reached and, when they can find time for it, they will want to see your idea. Usually, they’ll be very happy to meet with you. They can be incredibly welcoming. So how do you it? First, look to see if there are proper channels you should go through. Certain publications such as Kidscreen will do ‘meet the buyer’ specials in which broadcasters will often say how they would prefer to be reached. Some broadcasters have website submissions or some clear contact systems on their sites. Many will make their emails or those of the relevant staff freely available. If you’re just starting out, see if you can find the right person and ask how they would prefer you pitch to them.
More than all of that, go to industry events. Don’t randomly assault broadcasters or pitch to them in the toilet. But sooner or later, you’ll be introduced to some of them and you can then follow up with a mail. Hey, remember me? I have something I’d love to show you. Can I set up a meeting? Or send you some material?
Your well-presented project may be exactly what they are looking for and they don’t want to miss it. So polish up your work, know that they want to see it and then show it to them.
Last week, I was speaking on a panel about pitching at the Cartoon Forum. I have pitched there six times over the years, starting with some pretty awful presentations but getting better each time, to a point where I have been told (modestly blushing here) that I have given some of the best presentations of the forum.
For those of you unfamiliar with how it works, the Cartoon Forum is a place to showcase new projects in search of broadcasters or distribution. In the morning and afternoon, short trailers for each project are shown and interested parties can choose which projects to see. There are usually three projects pitching in every slot, so this is competitive and your trailer counts.
Once you’ve got them in the room, you have their attention and it is up to you. We covered quite a lot in our panel talk and we could have kept going for hours so there is too much to go through in one post but here are a few core pieces of advice:
Learn from the pitches of others
Practice only makes perfect if you actually learn something in the process. You have to constantly re-evaluate your own presentation. It can be hard to get any kind of objectivity about our own pitches so my advice is to watch others pitch. Make a note of what engages you, of what keeps you interested and what bores you. When do start looking at your watch? When does your mind drift to thoughts of cake? Whatever they are doing at that moment, make a note not to do it in your own presentations.
I had a pretty shocking eureka moment watching one pitch that bored me to tears. The big shame about the pitch? It was a lovely project. But they made it really hard to like. And it hit me that, much of what they were doing, I was also doing. My pitches changed forever that day. And I learned many positive ways to present from watching Robin Lyons present, who is always entertaining.
Last time I was at the Forum, a local company of some good industry friends gave an excellent pitch. They told me afterwards that, when crafting their presentation, they asked themselves how I would pitch it. Learn from others, both the good and the bad.
Know your material
You have to know every beat of your presentation. It’s not like learning a poem where you know just the words. You have to know every point, every piece of information and why that information is there. You have to learn it and then go far beyond that, to the point where your presentation is part of you. Why? So that you can deliver it naturally, so that it fits perfectly within time, so that you cover everything you need to cover, so that it doesn’t sound like you’re reading a script. And most of all, so that you can deal with interruptions. There is always a chance that something will disrupt your presentation. You have to be able to get right back into it. Don’t go shuffling through notes or running to your laptop. If you truly know your material, you’ll flow right back into your presentation.
Engage with your audience
The default setup in the Cartoon Forum is a desk you can put your laptop on and hide from your audience. Perfect for introvert creators. Terrible for actually interesting your audience.
Find a way to connect with your audience. As obvious as this sounds, they are real people. They are there to find out about your project. They want to be there. So talk with them. Not just at them. And certainly not at your laptop screen or back wall. Look them in the eye and see them as the individual people they are. Smile. And start a conversation.
People love to feel a part of the show. That should be true for the show you’re pitching and also your presentations. Bring them in, let them feel a part of it.
Lastly for now (I could go on for days):
Have a great show
You could give a knockout pitch. You could be the best sales person on the planet. You could start a bidding war there and then, having all broadcasters want your show.
Then they have to go home, back to the office. Your pitch fades away and what’s left is your actual show. And they invariably have to pitch it internally to their own teams. And maybe it doesn’t sound quite as good coming from them? And actually they have a whole bunch of questions that your documents don’t seem to have covered. Maybe this show isn’t quite as well thought out as it seemed?
A great pitch is important. Crucial, actually. But your show needs to be solid. It needs to be interesting. It needs to be well developed. Because at some point in the process, it’s going to have to sell itself.
You’re pitching your idea, it is special to you and, wow, it’s a pretty strong idea. Amazing that nobody has thought of it already yet. So what happens if someone you pitch it to rips it off?
In reality, I think that probably never happens. For a start, the chances of nobody having thought of a similar idea to yours are negligible. Ideas are just ideas. We have them all the time and we have similar ideas all the time. It is common that many similar projects can be in development completely independently of each other. I have seen this happen many times. There was the witch year at the Cartoon Forum. And the vampire year. They didn’t rip each other off. It just happened.
More importantly, if someone loves your idea and they hadn’t already thought of it, it makes much more sense for them to just deal with you to take it further. You’re a step ahead. You’ve done the groundwork. And really, you’re probably cheaper than their own team.
I think the question you should be asking yourself is not what happens if your idea gets ripped-off but how can I be essential to realising this idea in the absolute best way possible?
That’s really what counts. An idea is just a start. It’s important but not really anything on its own. What is important is how that is developed and explored and made real. If someone could easily rip off your idea and do it better than you, that’s the problem. You need to be the one who can do it best. You need to be the one everyone wants to develop this idea with.
Trends, eh? They’re important. If your animated TV show hits right at the beginning of a trend, pop the champagne. If it’s running counter to the trends, it could be a great project but the timing could kill it and never give it a chance. So how do you target the trends when creating your show?
My answer: you don’t.
It takes so long to develop a concept from scratch that, if it can already be identified as a trend, you missed it. Just develop the concepts that you think are awesome, that your audience respond to, that inspire you and others around you. Forget the trends.
Now when your concept is developed and you’re pitching and certainly when it is in production and you’re selling, that’s a different story. At that point you can look at the trends and see where it fits. Use it as a story.
But really, let your project just be the best at what it is.