Friday, January 29, 2010

The Original Freaky Stories Pitch Bible

Here's the original 2 page pitch document that I used to sell Freaky Stories - or "Urban Legends" as it was known at the time. This isn't the actual document - the "original" original was printed on a heavy newsprint stock - from a dot matrix printer. This is a revised version from about a year later. The images were photos of airbrushed paintings that I did - pasted down and color photocopied.

The original intention of the series was that individual artists would be assigned stories, that they would produce in their own styles. There would be no true animation in the series. It was going to be advanced animatics and technical animation with a voice over narrative.

The voice over narrative was all that remained in the final production. We did the pilot as I intended, but it became very clear that we couldn't hope to find enough artists with a unique style, who could produce the work we needed to make it work. There were some who came through brilliantly - but when we got the series order, we had to go with conventional 2D animation.

As for the writing - it was very bare bones - just enough to tell the broadcaster what the series would be about. The animatronic puppet hosts, Larry & Maurice as well as the setting of Ted's Diner all came along later in the development process.What amazes me most about the original pitch - is how much I didn't know about writing.

Although I'd been in the animation business for over 10 years at that point, I hadn't written anything since high school - other than business letters and a few short stories. By "a few", I think they're listed above in my pitch document. My only technical writing knowledge came from this high school example - "Three Passions" from the Introduction to Bertrand Russell's autobiography:
It was Russell's 5 Paragraph Essay structure that I followed (loosely) - probably the most useful thing that I ever learned in my life. I think that aside from the English Class in which I learned this - the rest of my High School career was a waste of time - well except for that big explosion in Mr. Brett's Chemistry class...

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Before You Shop That Pitch, Script, Book...

Before you sent it out to Producers, Production Companies, Broadcasters, Distributors or whatever, it's advisable to submit your work to be archived by the Writers' Guild of America (or The Writers' Guild of Canada) Intellectual Property Registry and document your claim to authorship.

Registrable material includes scripts, screenplays, teleplays, treatments, synopses, outlines, ideas, stageplays, manuscripts, novels, short stories, poems commercial, lyrics and drawing - and probably a lot of other stuff that I haven't mentioned.

Everything that you need to know to register with the WGA (USA) can be found right here. The fee is $20 for the general public and $10 for WGA members. You can do it electronically and I highly recommend doing it.

Likewise for us Canadians - you can register here and it only costs $20 for members and $35 for the general public... WHAT? What a frickin' rip off! You're better off sending it to the US registry. Hell, that's where I send mine.

You can also do the Library of Congress thing - but there's more paperwork.

Now in addition to that - if you really want to be evil about it, do what I do. Whenever I write a pitch for a project, a pilot script or novel, I build a "canary cage" trap into the creative. This comes from reading too many Tom Clancy spy novels. But I really do this - its fun, easy and devious:

Imagine you're in a court room. Someone has ripped off your dream project. When they're on the witness stand, you ask them to read a paragraph from "their" work. They read it. Then you ask them to read the first letter of the first word in the first sentence.

They read it out. "S"

Read the first letter of the second word. "T" Third word? "E" Fourth word? "V" Fifth word? "E"

Of course I use something far less obvious than my name (or do I?) - but its always hidden away in there and I'm waiting for the day I can spring it on some unsuspecting evil doer... I hate to say it, but getting ripped off by a major corporation or even better some government agency - and being able to prove it in court, is like winning the lottery.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The 21 Things a Broadcaster is Looking for in Your Script or Pitch

Yeah, I thought I'd add some boring old practical stuff that you could find anywhere... Consider it a public service.

There really are 21 things - but the numbering slips because of the bullet points. Stupid Blogger.

  1. Always tell a story that makes people want to know what happens next.
  2. Open the show ithe a compelling situation so viewers stay tuned to their station.
  3. Create cliffhangers within the show so viewers stay turned to their station during commercial breaks.
  4. Scripts should answer the following 5 questions clealy, and the first two questions quickly:
  • Who's story is this?
  • What do they want to achieve?
  • What is stopping them from getting what they want?
  • How do they overcome these obstacles?
  • Do they achieve their goals?
  1. The dialogue should sound real. (Hint from Steve: After you've written the script, read it ALOUD! Don't read it silently to yourself, read it like you're TELLING A STORY. Does the dialogue sound natural? I bet that you'll want to make some changes...)
  2. Scripts should recognize the realities of production. Don't have 25 speaking parts, 2,000 extras and 54 new sets a week. Think economically. If there is a way to make a compelling story on a smaller scale - YOU'D BE WISE TO DO IT!!! Broadcasters know what can - and more importantly, what CAN'T be done on a TV budget.
  3. There should be an 'inciting incident' at the end of the first act, which sets the story in motion. Something should propel our heroes into their quest. (More about story structure in a coming post, if I get around to it.)
  4. The subplots should support (and at some point, tie into) the main story. Be cleaver about it. Watch any episode of Frasier or Big Bang Theory as an example.
  5. The endings should be believeable. Avoid situations where 'The Cavalry' comes ringing over the hill to save the day.
  6. There needs to be an interesting central idea or concept that drives the story forward. Try to avoid a "so what?" situation. The story needs to be interesting to more people than you.
  7. Try to create humour as a result of character, rathe than at the expense of character. Example: Rather than have the character simply recite funny lines, try to build situations where the character's strengths or weaknesses create the humour. Example: An obsessive compulsive neat freak on his way to a job interview... Its a swealtering day and he's stuck on a crowded city bus, next to a pig farmer - who just ate 2 bean burritos for lunch...
  8. The characters hsould remain consistent from scene to scene, or episode to episode. If a guy has a mean streak in Episode 101, he shouldn be winning a humanitarian award in Episode 103. But then again, if we slip him a couple of bean burritos before the awards presentation...
  9. Scripts should focus on STORY, rather than on camera or stage direction. Tell them WHAT is going to happen. Leave the HOW it is going to happen to the Director.
  10. There should be a 'rise' in the complications faced by the protagonists. To be interesting, the quest should get more difficult as they near their goal.
  11. There should be a balance between the forces of good and evil. Even if the good guys are vastly outnumbered, the audience should have some hope (however faint) that they will succeed in their quest. Otherwise, what's the point?
  12. Characters should be forced to make difficult and dramatic decisions while under pressure. Try to avoid classic, "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping" situation. Example: In any number of bad action movies, characters trade off-the-cuff remarks during life and death situations. That doesn't happen in real life. Conflict. Conflict. Conflict.
  13. There should be enough "backstory" in the show to keep viewers interested. What happened to the bad guy at age 14 to make him the rat-bastard that he is today?
  14. Create humorous or insightful payoffs to situations instead of preachy moralizing.
  15. Try to avoid the use of COINCIDENCE. There's never a Cop around when you need one, or a parking space in front of the building with the nice public washroom when you really have to pee.
  16. Show us the situation rather than tell us about it. Avoid talking heads wherever possible. SHOW IT - DON'T TELL IT.
  17. If there's a message, try to keep it subtle, rather than blatantly stated. Don't TELL me that smoking is bad for you. Show us the autopsy. Use a demonstration. It's a visual medium so, keep it VISUAL.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Is My Idea A Good Idea?

How do you know?

I mean, you've thought up an idea for a show. You think its a good idea - how do you know? Who do you ask?

Don't trust your Mom, Wife, Husband, Boy/Girl Friend, Dog, Cat, Budgie, Fish - because they love you and they'll love everything you do. So they're out. Can't be trusted.

And you can't trust your friends and co-workers. Because as William Goldman's "First Rule of Showbiz" tells us: Nobody Knows Anything. So the only way to know if its a good idea is...

Let the Market Decide.

In simple terms - if it sells, its a good idea. If it doesn't - it isn't a good idea. Which isn't to say that good ideas don't sell - I have a whole file cabinet full of BRILLIANT STUFF that hasn't sold for one reason or another. But if it doesn't have market acceptance - if someone outside your circle of family and friends isn't willing to put bucks into it - you might have a problem.

And that's where the pitching comes in. When I pitched Freaky Stories, I did it cold - with no knowledge whatsoever of the industry. I knocked on 3 doors before I made the sale.

At the CBC, their Head of Creative - a former member of a well known sketch comedy troupe, kept pontificating about the colour blue. To this day, I have no idea what he was talking about.

The second pitch, I don't remember.

The third pitch was to YTV - and it took a couple of additional meetings, but I got a development deal and some money from them. The rest is history. It took 10 years to bring Freaky to TV, but because I had some real market interest, I knew that I was onto something.

Just saying...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fall Down. Go Boom.

There are a million things that go on behind the scenes at a pitch session - that you have no idea are happening. You have no control over them and there's nothing you can do about it.

Case in point: Just before Christmas I made a broadcast deal for my incredibly amazing new show. Everything was in place. We were ready to go. The deal was a handshake deal with paper to follow. Slaps on the back! Hazzah's all around! And then what happened?




Haven't heard back from them. The director of programming isn't answering his phone or returning calls. Is my project dead? Is it alive? Did I do something wrong or is it a budget issue on their end? I dunno. They ain't saying.

So what's a boy to do? The only sensable thing, of course. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off and find another buyer for your show. The elements that made the show attractive to that broadcaster are still there for the next one.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dexter's Condo - Miami Fla...

While in vacation in Florida last month, my family and I - being avid DEXTER fans, decided to find the location where they filmed the opening of the show - and the establishing shots of his condo. Using Google and Google maps - it was no problem at all. We typed the address into our trusty GPS and in no time, we were travelling down I-95 towards Miami.

We found the condo - in a working class neighborhood. Typical of where a Police blood splatter analyst might live. As we drove up to the condo, I peeked through the bushes ...

And yes - there it was - DEXTER's Condo!

The plan was to scoot onto the property - grab a few snapshots on the lawn and then beat it out of there.

See? All we had to do was go through that little walkway and we'd be in! (That's me and my son Michael preparing to visit Dexter.)

Why ain't this thing uploading more pictures? Anyhow - if you look over my left shoulder in the lower picture, you'll see a little white sign. It says, "RESIDENTS AND GUESTS ONLY. ALL OTHERS WILL BE DETAINED FOR POLICE".

My guess is that the condo's residents have had enough of sight-seers and want their privacy. They don't care if I only want to take my picture on their lawn. They have people to deal with people like me... So we grabbed our snaps through the bushes, took a couple in the parking lot and went down to South Beach with all the other tourists.

So what does any of this have to do with pitching? Simple...


When you're pitching, in an office or at a market, you're in someone else's territory. If you're new - or even if you're an old pro, and they're gracious enough to see you - don't waste their time. Or yours.

Be prepared. Be polite. Respect the rules. Say what you have to say - and get out. Make it short and sweet. By the time they say, "Well, its really great that you've brought this to us...", or "Ahem... Well, I have to get along to my next meeting. Thanks for coming in..." You've overstayed your welcome.

Be concise. Rehearse your pitch - or if you haven't rehearsed it, know exactly what you're going to say, so you're prepared going in. Again, you only get one chance to make a good first impression - and I only get one chance to show my vacation pictures. So there...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

KidScreen Summit

The KidScreen Summit - the big children's and family programming conference and market will take place February 10th through 12th at the Hilton in NYC. You can check out their site here.

To quote from their material: "In 2009 the conference welcomed 1,400+ delegates from over 40 countries... Top decision and deal-makers in the kids business attend KidScreen." Obviously, this is where you'd go to pitch your show.

If you're going to attend KidScreen (or even if you're not) and would like to have your pitch reviewed and/or polished, please don't hesitate to contact me. I offer fast turn around and reasonable rates.

I can be reached directly at "steve dot schnier at rogers dot com".
A word to the wise - it's better not to wait until the last minute.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dressing For Success

We're going to digress a bit from the pitch bibles themselves. It's time for a change of pace. Let's discuss how you present yourself during the pitch, shall we?

"Why?" you ask? You're a creative genius! You're there to present the most fabulous idea that broadcaster or production company has ever seen. Right? Well, its more than that. It's a job interview. They're checking you out to see if they'd actually like to work with you - because if your pitch is as good as you say it is - this could be a very long relationship. And no one likes to work with jerks, losers, etc.

Here's a short story - Many years ago, I had a pretty good business doing logos and simple animation for TV commercials. The largest live-action production house in the country had a deal with the local optical house to do the animation. They in turn, subcontracted everything to me. Sweet, to say the least.

I'd show up every Monday morning, get the assignment, turn the art around and into camera by Thursday morning. Friday was the client screening. Clockwork - and a sweet deal. I had all the major accounts. My reel was state of the art for those pre-historic, pre-compter days.

But the thing was - I could never crack the agencies themselves. I always had to get the work "third-hand". I could never get the assignment directly - not for lack of trying. I was constantly making the rounds to the agencies with my reel. They knew me. They knew the work. They knew that I was reliable. But I never got a single direct agency job.

Then one day, one of the top guys - at the very top agency, told me a secret. He said that I wasn't substantial. I didn't convey the feeling of stability that would make a corporation comfortable in awarding me a job.

I was 29 years old. I owned my first house. I had a cool sports car. And I dressed in ratty jeans and a T-shirt, year round. I was proud of that. I didn't own a suit. I didn't own a sports jacket or even a pair of good pants. Just a vast collection of ratty jeans and T-Shirts. And they were judging me on that.

Frankly, my heart wasn't in doing commercial logos anymore - so I quit the biz and started pitching shows. But I learned something from that incident - you have to look like the kind of person they (meaning the person on the other side of the desk) would have faith in dealing with.

So I started to dress better. I bought my first suit. I got nicer jeans. Sports jackets, ties...

When I was a producer at Nelvana, I always wore a tie. I had dozens of them - ties with funny pictures on them - bad taste of another kind - but I was aware of it, and the impression that I was trying to convey.

Back to the present - and what does this mean to you?

There are a billion other people out there, with ideas that they're trying to pitch. You need every edge, every advantage that you can muster - so why not look your best? Why not take a shower, put on a nice shirt, clean pants and polished shoes - before you go to that pitch? What have you got to lose?

What? You don't own any Armani or Boss? You don't need to spend a lot to look like a million bucks. Walk around the malls. Check out the store windows for the current looks and buy what you can afford. (I was recently in a meeting. The executive asked if he could hang up my coat for me. Don't ya know it - but he checked out the label inside.)

The key items are SHINED SHOES and a crisply pressed shirt. You can pair them with old jeans and it will look great. Your duds don't have to be new - just clean and crisp.

Here's another hint - try a vintage look. Clean retro clothes are a great alternate solution. Every city has vintage clothing stores. If you're lucky enough to be in Toronto - check out OFF THE CUFF Menswear at 5 Broadway Avenue. Two blocks North of Eglinton Ave., just East off of Yonge St. (Tell them that I sent you.)

If you haven't got a clue as to how to put an outfit together, here are a couple of books that I'd recommend: Off The Cuff by Carson Kressley and Esquire Magazine's The Handbook of Style. Buy them, borrow or steal them (or just flip through them at the bookstore).

Or, if you want to be more of an individual - check out The Sartorialist - and read the comments.

Now, if you're a successful producer - with a track record of having pitched and sold a few TV shows - then feel free to ignore this and do your own thing.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Happy New Year Everybody!

Well, I'm back from sunny, glorious Florida - fit and rested after a much needed vacation.
We won't mention the hellish drive back and the 3 hour detour through the snowy backroads of rural Pennsylvania...

On the fun side, the family and I did visit Dexter's apartment while in Miami. As soon as I get the bugs in my computer fixed, I'll post some pictures and explain how all this relates to pitching TV shows.

Hang in there!