When considering to pitch a script or idea for a TV show that would be scripted (Sitcom, Movie, Drama Series, Mini-Series) its important to understand the process that an executive or TV Producer undertakes in getting a television show produced. Knowing this process will help you bring the most valuable elements within your ability and resources to any Producer that would consider purchasing your screenplay or treatment.
Producing is a largely collaborative process that requires a broad ability to exercise and facilitate all aspects of the industry. One must have the sensibility and creative instinct of a writer and director, while having a polarizing view of material that you often find with Network executives... and eventually the viewer. A Producer will first focus on identifying or creating material that falls within any mandate given by any of their executive buyers at a variety of Network of distribution outlets. That material may come in the form of a hi-concept short pitch, a spec screenplay, a manuscript or novel for adaptation, a news article that will become the subject of a story to be developed, and treatments or synopsis' of original concepts for development.
Before a Producer brings their script to a network or studio, there is a process of development and packaging that may or may not come into play depending on the property the producer is selling. If the Producer has acquired the rights to a bestselling autobiography, they may only need to attach a top notch writer or star to the property to make a sale to a network or studio who will then finance the writing of the screenplay and other elements leading to production. However, the majority of producers are seeking that next great idea that can translate into a hit television show.
When scouting screenplays and TV scripts for purchase and development, a producer or development executive is looking for that core creative idea that is not only great in theory, but will be great in reality and can be physically produced in a way that brings true entertainment value. When a great project is found, it may only be in treatment form. That is, the creator has detailed a brief, but descriptive outline of the show, usually 2 pages or less for reality-based, and 5 pages or less for scripted programming. The show has a great title, a very marketable logline, and a treatment that shows all of the elements involved in the show as it plays out with a great hook, twist, or payoff in the end.
The producer then "options" the script from the creator/writer and is entitled to the exclusive rights to sell the story to a Network or Studio for production. During that option period they will pull together other key elements that may be required for presentation to a buyer. This may involve commissioning an established writer to write a script adapted from the treatment, or finding a show runner (Executive Producer/Writer) who the buyer likes that will oversee the creative and physical production of the show.
There may also be on-air talent attached to the project such as a Host or key principal who is appropriate for the concept of the show and/or currently valuable in the market place. They will also be monitoring and strategizing the various outlets who may buy the project while tailoring the package to fit each. Keep in mind that an active production company usually has in total 40 to 60 projects in development at the company, all in various stages; early development, pre-production, production, turn-around from a studio, revised for new packaging or set to pitch at a slate of networks and studios.
The process is long, but this illustrates the need for new and original projects to fit an ever changing mandate from the networks and advertisers.
In addition to understanding the producer's role, every creator should have in mind the basic fundamentals of each scripted genre produced for television:
Sit-Coms: The situation comedy- A 30-minute format that centers on a central group of characters living together within a unique situation. A treatment for a sitcom will include the premise of the situation describing how the characters came together, the circumstances that hold them together, a description of that world, and an outline of the characters describing their specific agendas, attitudes, peculiar habits, and how they relate to one another. A bullet-point list of sample episodes described in very short paragraph for each will illustrate the story arc that a season will have, and prove longevity for the series.
If you are a skilled and/or established Writer, the best sales tool for a sitcom is a sample script for the pilot episode. This will be 22-24 page TV script. If script writing isn't your forte, you may consider finding a partner who has experience in this area and will write the script to become your partner in the project as it sales.
TV Movies: A two-hour filmed program, usually focusing on a current issue in society, or subject that is highly marketable.
For the sake of pitching a script to be developed as a TV Movie the important factors are the following: A strong protagonist involved in a dramatic story that explores a theme, social issue, current (or historical) event that would have the broad appeal of a Network audience, or the very specific taste of a cable network producing that particular genre of story. Anything "brand" oriented can find success if you are delivering a unique angle to the story. "Brand" relates to the subject of the story holding identity or intrigue within the public conscience. The writers job is to bring to light a perspective on the subject that hasn't been told before, and that is both entertaining and informative. The most important marketing angle for a Television film is that is fact-based.
The sub-genres within the arena of TV Movies are as follows, but not limited to: Suspense Thriller, Western, Family Drama, Comedy, Coming-of-Age, True Crime, Historical, Fantasy, Bio-pic or Drama based on true events.
There are three key elements that are very important to any development executive or producer considering your project; the story, the key character, and the commercial viability of the project:
Event or Story : There are always moments or dramatic events in our lives that are so incredible one could think "this should be a movie!". However, one event does not make a dramatic story unto itself, and many times a dramatic story does not suit well for a televised or filmed adaptation. However, such specific events can become the focal point by which a larger dramatic story is told that a producer or network may take an interest in. How has that event changed someone's life? What led to the event or events, and what new course were the people or persons involved set on? What is the point of social relevance within this story? What does the main character overcome or accomplish that brings redemption or irony to their life? As you will always see, it is never just about an event. It's always about the person.
First, identify the protagonist (Hero, or main character) from whose point of view the story is told. This is perhaps the most important choice when adapting a story to be dramatized. It may not always be the most obvious or centralized character when first looking at the story that is being covered, but it should be the most unique. And it is that person's story arc that we will witness as the movie unfolds.
What makes a unique protagonist?: People love inspirational stories of the underdog who survives against all odds. It more often gives the viewer something to relate to and root for. It is an example of a choice in Protagonist that brings an emotional experience to the audience.
When exploring the development of a unique protagonist or main character in your story, there are some very important choices to make when illustrating this person within a screenplay, and more importantly, when giving limited information in a three to seven page treatment that you will submit to producers. If you look at all the great character-driven pieces you will see that what is explored in each protagonist is not just the obvious, but sometimes the opposite. In a hero, don't just focus on the great qualities, but find his weaknesses and downfalls. This gives him a human quality. Conversely, in a main character who is primarily bad or of criminal persuasion, find his qualities that are good and explore his struggle within his poor choice making in life . This helps an audience care or sympathize with someone whose plight may be clearly with ill intent, but brings truth to the story by "humanizing it". Not everything or person is black and white. To bring a three dimensional illustration to any main character of a story, one needs to approach that character unassuming and ready to discover all sides of the person and what makes them tick.
Commercial Viability: An important aspect of any dramatized story is that audiences love stories that are based on true events. The important thing for any writer or producer to understand in trying to sell a true life story for adaptation is knowing or discovering what issue or subject within the story has social relevance at this time. These "issues" of social relevance can be anything, eg. How a family copes with a son or daughter fighting a war, same sex couples fighting for adoption, or an athlete who overcomes certain death by cancer and survives to come back and win the most grueling athletic event in the world. All of these stories have issues that impact society heavily or in a unique way. If you believe that your personal story, or the story of a person whose life you are writing into a treatment for adaptation could have the same impact of relevance it is important to find that key issue and point of view that an audience will be enthralled by. The audience wants an emotional experience that they can relate to on some level. Find that message in your story and you may garner the attention of producers who want to develop it into a movie or series.
Mini-Series: Most Mini-Series are based on historical events or biographical narratives that take place within a unique time period. The Old West, Ancient Rome, 18th century America or even the Far East. However, there is a great spectrum of stories that have been adapted into "two-part" mini-series that can be classified as "Fantasy" and "Holiday" event programs. Some are based on best-selling literary properties, and some are original screenplays.
If you do not hold the rights to a novel for adaptation, or a fully developed screenplay that is ripe for adaptation as a mini-series, the best approach is to pitch the story in treatment form. A producer who believes that is holds value for development will make a deal on the story and then hire a writer to pen the script, or sell the project to a network who will then package that project with appropriate writers and producers. Again, the key for the creator is STORY. Build a unique narrative that has wide public appeal and may fall within the current mandates of production companies and networks.
Drama Series: Similar to the sitcom, but a world apart in terms of story and content, the dramatic series is built heavily on strong main characters that live and work together within a specific situation. When considering creating a dramatic series, concentrate heavily on character development and the direction of story development that would evolve over the course of a season (22 episodes). Having a written pilot script is critical for garnering the attention of producers who would be able to package the project for development so that it would be presentable to a network. This is the arena for serious writers who are willing to break down preexisting genres to find new areas of story, and develop three-dimensional characters that are strong enough to support an ever changing and evolving story line.
It's also worth mentioning that some Made-for-TV-Movies are "back-doors" to a pilot for series. Meaning, it is possible that a drama series be developed from a movie. So consider cross-development if you feel it has the wheels.