Day Four: ATX Television Festival

The ATX Television Festival concludes with a pitch competition. A Disney Channel executive shares the worst pitch he's ever heard. 

Pitch competition winners, "I Made America."Pitch competition winners, “I Made America.”The last day of the ATX Television Festival began bright and early with the finalists of the festival’s pitch competition. Pitching the gamut from crime-based series to Saturday morning cartoons, the finalists had three minutes to provide a brief overview for their show idea to a panel of judges that included producers, show creators, and executives from CBS and Disney.

Pitching is the worst. It’s not what we do as writers,” said Ben Blacker, the panel moderator, producer of the Nerdist Writer’s Panel podcast, and a television writer who’s developed pilots for FOX, USA, Spike, Paramount, and Nickelodeon.

In three minutes, finalists provided a synopsis of the show’s concept, an introduction to the lead characters, a brief overview of major themes the show would tackle, and some information on how the creator would produce it stylistically. Pitches included “CrackDuck,” an Adult Swim-type of cartoon literally about a cartoon duck on crack, a supernatural historical fiction show called “Perennial” about a Wild West town where residents never age, and “Assisted Living,” a heartfelt comedy about a dysfunctional nursing home staff and their patients. The pitcher described it as “It’s people who can’t take care of themselves, taking care of the elderly.” 

Having an interesting plot was important, but an arguably more important component was strong character development. Dina Hillier, a former vice-president of comedy development for Sony, explained that it was the human element that gets shows like Community on the air.

Everyone’s pitched a show about community college. [Community creator] Dan [Harmon] pitched us characters we had never heard of before,” she said.

It was a combination of interesting characters and bizarre plot that ultimately won over judges. I Made America, a comedy series about the hijinks that ensue when six founding fathers time travel to the modern day. Pitched in full period costume, the potential show would follow John Adams while he works at Starbucks, Alexander Hamilton as he battles a gambling addiction, and James Madison who suffered an unfortunate time travel accident and can no longer function.

The fact that the show is currently a web series and a series of historically-minded Twitter feeds may be part of the reason why show creators seemed to have a concrete knowledge of the show’s trajectory, character motivations, and style.

There’s a big social commentary component,” said Liz Tigelaar, a panel judge and former executive producer on shows like Life Unexpected and Once Upon a Time. “[I Made America] definitely had a point of view.”

The show’s originality went a long way as well. All network executives on the panel stated that they were tired of hearing the same concepts rehashed time and time again. When asked what the worst pitch he’s ever heard was, Disney Channel director of development Corey Marsh said, “The two pitches you never want to hear at the Disney Channel are ‘alien crash lands in the backyard and is passed off as a foreign exchange student’ and ‘kid mayor.’” The worst pitch he ever saw combined both clichés.

Effective pitches immediately jump into the show’s hook and come with a memorable tagline viewers will understand. Bryan Seabury, an executive for CBS, said that one reason his network was immediately attracted to the Breaking Bad pitch was because show creator Vince Gilligan said he wanted a lead character that started out as a much loved Mr. Chips-like personality and slowly transformed into a character like Scarface.

I Made America billed itself as “like 1776 meets Workaholics.” Who wouldn’t be interested in that?


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