Ben Blacker: Pitching a Television Series

Ben Blacker, who has developed pilots for USA, FOX, Paramount, and Spike TV, walks us through how to sell a television pitch.

Regardless of how innovative your concept or brilliant your script, you’ve got to convince a television network that your project is worth pursuing to see it on air. Ben Blacker is a master of the television pitch. Blacker and his writing partner, Ben Acker, have written episodes of Supernatural, Nickelodeon’s Supah Ninjas, a Wolverine graphic novel for Marvel, and have developed dramas for USA, an animated series for Nickelodeon, and other pilots for 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and Spike TV. Acker and Blacker are also creators of the Thrilling Adventure Hour, a sci-fi live production and podcast that emulates radio shows of the 1930s and ’40s, and Blacker also serves as moderator of the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast, where he interviews television’s top showrunners, developers, and writers in addition to scribes from other entertainment genres.

Blacker knows pitching, which means he’s a pro not only at crafting intriguing characters, but also creating equally unique sales presentations to woo the networks. Here’s his advice on how to land the hard sell.

Get In Media: What is a standard pitch process like for a television series?

Ben Blacker: There really isn’t one. It’s all down to the individual. We did a panel at [the ATX Television Festival] called Pitch-Pilot-Pickup and had Liz Tigelaar [creator of Life Unexpected] and Julie Plec [co-executive producer of The Vampire Diaries] and Kyle Killen [creator of Awake and Lone Star] and some other great writers and producers and executives and they each described a different way of pitching and all of them work. Someone like Kyle likes to write out a full script for himself. He has like three pages that he memorizes and adheres to. When Ben and I go and pitch we keep it pretty loose. We like to make it as conversational as possible so we get our ideas across, we get our premise across, we get characters across, but then we really want to make it a conversation between ourselves and the executives that we’re pitching to. The main thing is to keep it clear, keep it brief, and keep them laughing even if it’s a drama. You want to have that goodwill in the room. The trickiest part for anyone is being able to read a room and figure out what to steer into and what to steer away from. It comes from doing it.

GIM: Do you have a particular structure that you personally use for pitching?

BB: We’ve done it all different kinds of ways. We did a whole dog and pony show once where we took one of the pieces of our Thrilling Adventure Hour show, “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars,” and we pitched it as an animated series to Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and Disney and The Hub [network]. We brought in the actors, we brought in musicians, and we presented scenes from the show. We brought in artwork. It was a real production and we sold it and it was great and it was a great process. We’ve done it all different ways to varying degrees of success. It’s just about finding the right process for the project.

GIM: Once a show is picked up, how much of a say do you have in the series once a studio gets involved?

BB: It’s still your show. Here’s the thing. Television more than any other creative medium is a collaboration and you need to be aware of that going in. There’s often an “us and them” approach or outlook from writers between us and the executives. The executives are where they are because they’re pretty smart. I think the days of executives failing upwards are mostly over. I mostly talk to writers who have had good experiences with executives. I’m talking about development executives primarily. You have to be ready for that collaboration. Their notes might not always be notes that you would get from another writer, but the fact that they’re giving the note means something. They may not have the language to express what they’re actually feeling about the scene or the theme or whatever it is, but ultimately the fact that they have a question about it means you should take another look at it.

There’s also the thing of you want this to be the show that you pitched. You want it to be the show that you love and you have to love it, because it’s a difficult process and it’s a long process. You have to maintain your ownership of your project and you can’t let yourself get bulldozed. Ben and I have done that. We’ve said yes too often and ultimately what happens is the project gets watered down because there are too many voices in it. You have to trust your own voice while still responding to the outside questions.

GIM: You mentioned at the ATX Television Festival that your worst pitch experience was for a show you described as “Sesame Street meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Can you give some more details?

BB: MTV used to do these … kind of marathon pitch sessions. This was probably 11, 12 years ago. We had been working with an MTV exec that was terrific and really believed in our project. [MTV was] going heavily into scripted stuff, supposedly, at the time, but the way they did these marathon sessions is they rented out a room at House of Blues and for two days they paraded writers through. You put on a little show and pitched for whatever it was, five or ten minutes. Our exec was so high on our idea and we had created artwork for it and stuff that he said, “You guys are going to be the closers. You’re going to headline this pitch marathon.” The nature of these things is they don’t happen on time, so by the time our slot rolls around, there was like five minutes left. Everyone was empty. They had been drinking all day. They were ready to leave and so we had about three to five minutes to pitch this kind of mythology-heavy story. It did not go over well. It was nerve-wracking and nobody wanted to be there. We couldn’t get the ideas across. They didn’t want to listen to it. The artwork looked great, but ultimately that’s no way to pitch stuff.

GIM: You’ve written about the tendency in Hollywood to pigeonhole writers, but you’ve worked on a broad array of projects and seemed to have avoided that. How?

BB: I think you have to kind of brand yourself early on and generally that brand can become a pigeonhole, which I totally understand. There are sci-fi writers. There are comedy writers. Whatever it is. We’ve been lucky in that our brand early on became I guess a couple things. We are characters guys. We can write character. It doesn’t matter if it’s drama. It doesn’t matter if it’s comedy. We love both. We are generally seen as comedy people because of The Thrilling Adventure Hour, but when people come to the show, it’s the characters that they fall in love with. Whether it’s Frank and Sadie from “Beyond Belief” or “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars.” Because we have genre elements in that show, we’ve been able to kind of work in the genre world and the comedy world, which don’t often crossover, so we get to kind of cover both of those territories.

GIM: You’ve also spoken about how the best way to understand television writing is to analyze TV. When you are watching a show for analysis, what are you looking for?

BB: It’s not necessarily looking for anything. It’s just kind of watching things with either a critical eye or an analytical eye. When we first started out … we would deconstruct episodes that we would try to emulate. If we were writing a sort of horror-comedy or sci-fi comedy hour-long, we would look at a Buffy episode and we would reverse engineer it. We’d see where the act breaks are, we’d see how many scenes in each act, we’d see what happened both in the character story as well as in the plot in every single scene and we’d write those things down. You do that enough times for enough different kinds of shows and it becomes intrinsic to your television watching.

I was watching a show this morning and I was not quite connecting with it and I couldn’t figure out why. At a certain point a character said something that made me realize, “Oh wait, they haven’t set up what this character wants and this is our third time seeing her and they’re finally setting it up.” That’s why I couldn’t connect to this character or her story for the first twenty minutes of the show. At a certain point, it’s not something that you consciously do, but you watch enough TV, you watch enough movies, and you’re going to take these things.

I just taught a workshop in Italy, this screenwriting workshop, and one of the assignments that I gave to the students was to find a movie or a TV show that is similar, either structurally or thematically, to the project that you’re working on and reverse engineer it. See what makes it tick and then go through again and look at your script. See if it matches. See if it makes sense.

GIM: What mistakes do you see young writers making?

BB: So many, but they’re necessary mistakes to learn how to navigate the business and how to write. I think the biggest mistake I see because of the Writers Panel and because of Thrilling Adventure, because I am fairly available on Twitter and Facebook and things, is that … young writers can tend to overstep their bounds and maybe ask for things or expect things that they’re not ready for. You can’t hand over a script to a showrunner during a Nerdist Writers Panel. That is frowned upon. Things like that where you kind of have to know your place in the industry hierarchy. It’s all fine to try and network up, but you still need to be aware of who you are and what you do and what your capabilities are, but also what your limitations are.

GIM: You’ve spoken with so many writers and developers for Nerdist Writers Panel. What tips have you picked up from them?

BB: Honestly, I learn something every single panel. Whether it’s about pitching or writing or being in a room or things involved with the job. I learn something every single time and sometimes it’s what not to do. One of my favorite people’s advice, which I haven’t actually gotten to execute yet and I honestly wonder if I can, was from Hart Hanson who created Bones and The Finder and is really a funny guy, a terrific guy. He’s kind of smarter than his material in that he knows the kind of shows that are going to get on the air. [Bones is] a show he likes, but it’s not necessarily the show that if you were given millions of dollars and told to go write the thing that you want to write, Bones isn’t necessarily the show that he would write. But he knows that a certain kind of show gets on the air and his advice for that was when coming up with the concept for your show, and Hart is Canadian so he put it this way, when coming up for with the concept for your show, frame it in a way that a little old lady living in a trailer in British Columbia can talk about the show. So for Bones it’s, “I like the show about the lady who solves murders by looking at bones.” Then we tried to do the same thing for Terra Nova because we had one of the Terra Nova writers on that panel and we couldn’t. The show is too complicated. It’s too muddy and that’s why people didn’t respond to it. I really love that piece of advice.

There’s other stuff. When Ben and I first got hired on Supernatural, I had a lot of writers come through [the Nerdist Writers Panel]. One of the questions I asked was, “How do you work in the room when it’s your first room?” and I got some great advice from that, one of the most important being sit there and listen. Really listen and don’t talk just to talk. Listen to what’s going on, see what the room needs, and fill that gap.

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