Who has tried to sell a network/studio on an idea for a TV series by producing an episode on their own?
June 12, 2012 2:49 PM   Subscribe

Who has tried to sell a network/studio on an idea for a TV series by producing an episode on their own? Stories of success and failures both welcome.

Let's say a group of people with some money (or the ability to raise it) wants to create a TV series. Could they make a pilot episode (43 minutes), or just some example scenes from a proposed pilot or series, or even an extended trailer like you might see in a movie theater, and use that to get attention from a studio and/or network? Do you know any stories where people tried that, and it did or didn't work?
posted by jayfrosting to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
People have done this with web tv shows. Two examples are "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and "Web Therapy". I'm not involved in either show, but I believe the folks who are have written quite extensively about their process.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:50 PM on June 12, 2012

South Park began as a number of shorts with high pass-around value.

Beavis and Butthead began as a short as well.

I think I read somewhere that the The Office (UK) began when they shot an abbreviated pilot and showed it to the right people.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:23 PM on June 12, 2012

I work in tv, have sold a web series to network, am pitching/have pitched different types of projects to production companies/networks.
The best/standard method of selling a fiction series is with a good script. If you have the resources to make an amazing looking full-length pilot episode, the best thing to do with it would be go public on YouTube, get organic public interest/views/press, and then hope it draws agents/production companies with interest out of the woodwork. It's a double-edged sword, though. Even if it looks great, a low view count on YouTube can work against you, so if you go that route, you have to worry about making something great AND the marketing of it.

For "unscripted" reality type shows, a pitch tape is most common right now. The bare bones would be just casting interviews with the principles. If the personalities are strong enough, that can be enough. A more standard "pitch tape" would include casting interviews and some scenes or raw footage of what you eventually intend to be on the show.

The trailer for something that doesn't exist yet is kind of a dead end. It doesn't help a development exec really know what he's looking at, except maybe that you can make a good (or bad) trailer.
Example scenes are probably most relevant on a directors demo reel, not so much to sell a series.

All my above info is assuming you have no track record in tv. These rules don't apply to a successful show creator, celeb, or anyone with any kind of juice. Exceptions get made for the very best stuff (like the South Park example above), but it is very rare.
Your question makes it sound like the idea is in the fiction/scripted hour space, so it's all about an amazing script. Google "pitch deck" and "show bible." You'll want something along those lines in addition to your script, depending on the kind of show. A bible would include the character breakdown, details about background & setting, developed story arcs beated out for the first few eps, and a season one synopsis.
Next steps would be looking for an agent to rep you/the show OR a production company with a network track record who will attach and pitch with/for you. The chances of a network buying a script/pitch from a person with no track record/agent/established production co. behind them are nearly zero.

With a script & bible you can start to approach production companies who have made work in a similar vein to your show idea, and pitch them.

Couple of quick words of advice:

If it's a scripted series, unless you can make a product that looks TRULY amazing, keep it on paper.
There's a little more leeway in the unscripted space, but don't let poor production quality hurt the perception of your concept.
Start saving for your entertainment lawyer now. They're expensive as hell but you should never sign anything without one. Seriously, if you hope or plan to ever sell any media property to any corporate entity, start preparing for that now. If you're lucky enough to ever really need one, it happens fast, and you should not skimp. Expect to put down a retainer in the neighborhood of $5000 to start.
First time creators always get a crap deal. Get a success under your belt, make someone a few bucks, then you have a little leverage to negotiate with.
Pitching/development is a long and hard process. Like, years of expensive agony type long and hard. It is not glamorous or fun.

Oh yeah, a recent example of what you're specifically asking for is Fuse TV's "Billy On The Street."
Independently produced web video ---> Funny or Die web series --> Fuse TV broadcast series.
posted by FeralHat at 4:25 PM on June 12, 2012 [13 favorites]

Party Down was picked up by the Starz network on the basis of a pilot episode independently filmed and produced by the creators.
posted by ronofthedead at 4:52 PM on June 12, 2012

Thanks for the responses so far. Yes, for this question, assume the creators wanted to make a standard 22 or 43 minute TV show and had no real contacts in the entertainment industry.
posted by jayfrosting at 5:24 PM on June 12, 2012

This site has a lot of advice about this.
posted by dozo at 9:09 PM on June 12, 2012

It seems like people are much more willing to try it with a 30 minute comedy or reality show than anything else, which makes sense.
posted by jayfrosting at 2:28 PM on June 14, 2012

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