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.
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:
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.
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.
You have a personal connection to your story and the concept for your TV show. Your pitch should demonstrate that it comes from you, that you are the right person to write it, and that the audience will care. To achieve this, make it personal and universal at the same time by appealing to the audience's emotions.
The emotional hook is what draws your audience in. Feelings are universal, we all have them, yet we experience them as something deeply personal. Give your story a strong emotional foundation and let the emotional core of your television show shine through.
In pitch meetings, you can come from the angle of your personal connection to get to the emotional part, but in a pitch document, you’ll have to evoke feelings through the written word. Connect the emotional hook to your main characters, their arc and the show’s themes: love, acceptance, forgiveness, trust, faith, greed, selflessness, responsibility, remorse, blame, redemption–don’t be afraid to draw with broad strokes here!
The logline or log line is the elevator pitch of Hollywood: it encapsulates the core concept of your TV show and summarizes the story in one or two sentences. Writing killer loglines might appear to be an art form, but in practical terms, it’s a skill you can learn and perfect. Take existing shows you know and come up with lines to answer the following questions:
Consider this logline:
A young boy mysteriously disappears from a quiet suburban town in the 1980s and his friends, his mother, and the police chief have to work together to fight horrifying creatures from another dimension to bring him back.
This description of Stranger Things contains the who and what, where and when, and sets the show apart as a sci-fi mystery horror drama playing on our emotions through fear, horror, loss, team spirit, and overcoming mysterious adversaries.
Note that it’s good to know the audience of your pitch: you can expand your logline to include details on the genre and format because development executives or network representatives might want to hear those buzz words to categorise the show: sitcom, docu-series, web series, half-hour, reality tv show, horizontal or vertical. All of these can be placed as prefixes in your logline:
The show is a horizontal, prime-time, hour-long sci-fi mystery comedy-drama about…
The one-sheet is precisely that: one sheet of paper, sometimes printed double-sided, with a condensed pitch for your TV show. Think of it as a handout for a pitch meeting or a calling card for your project as part of your pitch document, something by which executives can remember your core idea with all relevant information.
What should the one-sheet include? For a TV show pitch, you should list the following:
A show bible used to be a document with all the essential details to bring newcomers up to speed. The series bible still serves that function, but screenwriters also produce it as marketing material to pitch a TV show. The bible addresses these questions:
Although show bibles can be long and include a comprehensive overview of complete episodes, try to be succinct and limit the number of pages. Repeat the title and logline of your show, then give a synopsis covering the entire series or first season: what and who, where and when, what is the main point.
The next section lists and describes the main characters, so the audience will learn what drives them, followed by a TV pilot breakdown and an overview of future episodes. For a short pitch, two to three sentences for each episode is enough, though comprehensive bibles might take an entire page per episode.
Here’s a brief TV show bible template:
A TV pilot is a jargon term for the first episode of a TV show, and your pitch should include a TV script for this pilot episode. Your pilot script transfers the core idea that your title and logline suggest into a real thing that network executives can evaluate. Your script allows them to get to know your writing style, to visualize the main characters with their quirks and interactions, to get a feel for the tone and style, as well as possible audience reactions.
It’s part of the goal of your pitch to have decision-makers read your pilot script so you can win them over with your screenwriting skills. It’s unlikely that your script alone will make or break a deal, but once your pilot script is in front of someone, it should be able to stand on its own.
Once a network or executive producer expresses interest in your TV show, the development will still be back and forth. Although there are cases in the entertainment industry where a writer sells a nearly completed show, a producer or a network will usually want to align a show with existing programming or otherwise change a few details.
The exact runtime or number of seasons is generally not predetermined when production on a first season or TV pilot starts, so expect some development over the course of events. For a successful pitch, it may be necessary to communicate that you’re flexible and open to changes as well as collaboration.
This can include willingness to work on your TV show with other writers or a writers' room, development executives and other professionals, even though you might not have envisioned them when your core idea first came to you. The same goes for casting: actor suggestions can come across as amateur since networks work with casting directors. However, you can flip it around and ask for casting suggestions if the matter comes up during a pitch.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.