Every writer has a TV pilot in mind. Maybe you have even finished the script. But the eternal question is what do you do once it’s done? How do you get it into the hands of decision-makers at US Networks?
You probably already know there’s no silver bullet. But there are methods that consistently work.
1 – Write An Interesting, Original Script
It should go without saying, but if you don’t have an original and engaging pilot, you’ve got nothing. But how do you know what decision-makers will find interesting? How do you know what the public wants to see?
Don’t worry about it.
Good stories, stories you should write, will be the ones that you connect with personally. Your script may get rejected by dozens of production companies and agents, but you only need one to say yes. What’s something you would be obsessed with if someone else made it first? Has someone made it? No? Go write it!
Hint: write your pitch first. Test it on your trusted friends. If the response is enthusiastic, write it. If there are flaws (wrong protagonist for the story, no driving theme, etc), fix them before you’ve sunk your valuable time into writing the whole thing. You may go through a few ideas before you settle on one that’s worthwhile.
2 – Win (Or Be A Finalist) In TV Pilot/Screenplay Competitions
Screenplay competitions will absolutely get you noticed. That is, the right ones will. That is, winning the right ones will. At bare minimum be a finalist. Check out TV writer fellowships such as NBC’s Writers on the Verge, Fox’s Writers Intensive, Humanitas New Voices Program, ABC Writers Fellowship, and pilot writing competitions such Tracking Board’s Launch Pad, AMC/Austin pilot competition, and Sundance Episodic Story Lab.
3 – Make A Web Series Or Proof Of Concept Short
One of the themes you’ll see over and over is “if someone else likes it, it’s worth taking a look at.” A web series with lots of views or a short that gets some festival buzz are fantastic ways to get attention from the right people. The good news for you is that with resources like free video hosting, inexpensive equipment rentals, and your own ingenuity, your ability to reach an audience is completely in your own hands. Many good web series like Broad City and Web Therapy got their starts online. If you want to learn the craft, Raindance LA has great courses: Web Series Certificate and Making and Promoting Your Short Film that can put you on the right track.
Hint: one thing to keep in mind is that your format may have to be adjusted to fit the medium. Shorts have to stand on their own as a good story from start to finish (not just a teaser of your larger story). If you make a web series, you may have to sacrifice some of the bigger budget ideas. The trick is to balance these changes with the original vision for your show.
4 – Network, Network, Network!
Before you cringe, take a breath. Networking doesn’t have to be that thing. You know. “Work the room, meet everyone, get your card into as many hands as possible.” In fact, it shouldn’t be! Agents and executives are people, too, and as obvious as that sounds it’s worth reminding yourself.
Yes, get into networking events. Just do it. Meet-up.com has great ones, your local film festivals are always great places to meet other filmmakers, and Raindance hosts one of the best industry mixers in Hollywood and all other Raindance hubs around the world. Get there early so you have someone to talk to and don’t think for one second “what can they do for me”. You have no idea what a relationship will turn into over time, the point is that you must nurture that relationship in an authentic way.
Ask yourself, would you want some fast-talking stranger to walk up, ask you how much money you have, and hand you a business card? Or have someone friendly walk over, make a joke about how awkward these events can be, and then strike up an interesting conversation about things you like? I promise you, a few meaningful connections trump dozens of shallow connections. Every. Single. Time.
Hint: ask questions. Obviously you’re not there to grill them, but when you start a conversation with a stranger the most awkward part is determining when it’s okay to talk about yourself or to ask a question. Just ask questions. Yes, introduce yourself. Yes, answer if they ask you something. But if you can make your partner feel respected and listened-to, you are setting yourself apart from the people who are scanning the room while half-listening to what’s being said. And you’ll hear the most interesting stories this way, too!
5 – Get Repped By An Agent Or Manager
Having an agent isn’t a necessity to getting your pilot picked up, but it can be a much faster route. Ask your friends who they know. If you’re in a major hub like Los Angeles, chances are you’re no more than 2 degrees of Kevin Bacon away from an agent. Personal introductions are a great way to get a meeting.
Other ways, as mentioned above, are to win a screenplay competition/get lots of web series views/win short film festivals/network. Cold-calling and mass emails are a sure bust. How many times have you responded to something that felt like spam?
MOST IMPORTANTLY: Have a well-known person (maybe a producer who is friends with the agent or mgr., and whose opinion they respect) make a call for you and recommend you. Recommendations are the only way that some agents or mgrs. will read your script these days. For a producer to be willing to recommend you, they most likely will need to read your material (and they are more likely to do so if you have a contest win or finalist). Industry pros want to have some level of reassurance that you are talented.
The typical length of time it takes for someone (a rep — or a producer/prod. co.) to read your material is about 2 months (with follow ups). It is almost always necessary to follow up — and it needs to be done in a nice way (dropping an email to say something like “Just following up to see if you’ve had a chance to read my pilot script ___________ . Looking forward to discussing further!” Also realizing, at a certain point, if they stop answering your emails that they may never read. (Or may have read and not liked — or had readers cover who didn’t like — and just don’t want to pass). That’s fairly common these days.
6 – Set It Up With An Established Production Company
This is probably the hardest thing to achieve here, and works much the same way as finding an agent. Additionally, you can find online pitchfests that will give you the chance to pitch your idea directly to decision-makers for a small fee. Just remember that pitching is a skill in and of itself.
Join Cynthia Riddle’s TV Writers Foundation Certificate Course for Raindance Los Angeles (In person | Live Online | VOD).
CYNTHIA RIDDLE has written film/TV projects for CBS, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Lifetime, Showtime, MGM, Starz, Netflix, Disney, Nickelodeon, PBS, and MarVista. She has two feature films heading into production in 2017 — Curtains (a WGA Feature Writer Access Project honoree) to be produced by the Academy Award nominated producer of Dallas Buyers Club and filmed in Paris, and true crime drama The Romeo and Juliet Killers.
Cynthia and frequent writing partner Peter Hunziker’s pilot script, Blood Brothers, was a Top 20 Finalist in the 2016 AMC/Austin Film Festival screenwriting competition (out of 9,100 entries), as well as a Finalist in the Sundance Episodic Story Lab, and winner of the WGA’s Drama Queens pilot competition.
Cynthia and Peter penned the award-winning, highly-rated CBS/Hallmark Hall of Fame film Crossroads based on the true story of a man who forgave the teen driver who killed his wife and daughter while drag racing. They also wrote the popular film, Puppy Love, for Hallmark Channel, and celebrity biopic, The Brittany Murphy Story, which aired on Lifetime.
Cynthia has produced award-winning short films that won/were finalists in the Coca Cola Refreshing Filmmakers Award and Project Greenlight. She has an MFA in Screenwriting/Film Production from UCLA, and was a former development executive at MGM, launching her writing career with a writing/producing deal at the studio. Cynthia serves on many Writers Guild committees including a long-term stint as Vice Chair of the Committee of Women Writers. She is on the Board of the LA Femme International Film Festival, and also teaches screenwriting at UCLA and Raindance LA.