Pitching Perfect: A Word From Development

Everyone knows a great pitch starts with a great series concept, but in addition to that what do executives like to see? Five top executives from major networks give us an idea of what makes them sit up and take notice...

Development executives sit through pitches each and every day and have seen it all -- from the dull reading off sheets of paper to action-packed pitches complete with singing dogs, marching bands and Aunt Rosemary singing the national anthem. Everyone knows a great pitch starts with a great series concept, but in addition to that what do the executives from top networks like to see? What makes them cringe and what impresses them? Here they let us know which elements are really important and surprisingly, the bottom line turns out to be pretty casual professional, but casual. So leave the singing dog at home and take some of their advice:

Kevin Kay, Vice President/Executive Producer, Development, Nickelodeon.

Kevin Kay

Vice President/Executive Producer, Development, Nickelodeon

Kevin Kay: I think shorter is better, especially for the first go-rounds. It's more about selling an idea than it is about selling a series, because I think you don't know whether you have a series or not until you really get into the whole bible and the designs and the stories that you're going to tell. But shorter is always better. I'd rather see two pages than twenty. Funny pictures. That's the key to me. There's got to be something that makes me laugh. Something that I can look at right away and it's visually either hysterical or different. That's gonna get my attention. Nothing that looks like the other stuff that we do. I think the biggest mistake people make is they say, 'I got the next Rugrats.' I already got the Rugrats. I'm fine. If I need the next Rugrats I'll call up Klasky-Csupo and they'll give me the next one. I've said this before, but I think it sort of hits the nail on the head. That picture you drew on the napkin at the bar last night where you woke up the next morning and you looked at it and you thought, 'What was I thinking? No network's ever going to buy this. I should stop drinking.' Then you put it in the bottom drawer of your desk. That's what I want to see. I want to see the idea that seems like it might be a little too outrageous or a little too over the top, because that's gonna probably be different than what everyone traditionally walking in the door thinks I want to buy. So, given that, the other thing is tell me a story. We're in the kid's business, and the family business is built on good storytelling. So, if somebody comes in and pitches me a story that sort of gets me from A to B to C and lets me know that they know how to tell a story, especially, for a young writer that I don't know or a young artist that I haven't met. If you can come in and tell me a story that's going to capture my attention and keep me riveted or laughing for five minutes, then, I can kind of get the sense that you can do that on TV too. I think that's the key.

Heather Kenyon: How would you want artwork presented?

KK: I think it doesn't really matter. It's different for everybody. It's great to see some character designs and some background designs. Or a key frame, a great scene, that's in the story. The best way and the ultimate would be to come in and tell me the story of your pilot and show me a couple of key frames that go along with it that show me the characters and what the world's going to look like. But, it doesn't really require that. Some people are not artists and some artists are not good writers. I think it's up to the network or the development executive to be able to have the vision that there's somebody in front of me that has part of the skills and knows how to do enough that we can help them do the things that they can't do. Or that they don't yet have the talent to do. It would be great to see some boards in whatever condition, whether it's the drunken bar napkin, or the big presentation boards. That's great to see, but I think it's different for everybody. The other part is it's also about personality. The best example is when Stephen Hillenburg pitched me SpongeBob. He had a whole board. He's an artist and he's a filmmaker. He had boarded out the whole story. That would have been great in and of itself, but he took me through the board playing all the characters himself and doing the voices and singing the songs. And it was hilarious...it was like, 'Wow. This guy is funny. He gets what's funny and he has all the other skills to go along with it, but he understands these characters and he knows this world.' I think that's part of it. You've got to sell yourself.

Jonathan Rosenthal, Vice President, Development, Fox Kids Network.

Jonathan Rosenthal

Vice President, Development, Fox Kids Network

First of all, don't deliberately take a long time -- you are pitching a concept for a television show, not a novel. If the person you are pitching responds to your idea it will be natural to spend a few minutes talking about it, otherwise limit yourself to 10-15 minutes.

Second, figure out who the show is about -- who the stories will revolve around and what those characters want. (As well as any weakness that may keep them from attaining their goals.)

Third, don't ever just read from your materials. As one of my colleagues here is fond of saying, "If that's what you're going to do, you might as well have just sent it in the mail. I can read." Tell a story (a short one). It should feel like I'm being pitched an episode of a show that already is on the air.

Fourth, do your research. Don't pitch inappropriate things to inappropriate people, even if you are doing so just to get the pitching experience.

As far as having art or something written to leave behind -- this is always a plus, but not critical. And as far as written leave behinds go, keep it short and sweet.

Other things I would suggest would be to rehearse the pitch at least a few times, and just to have fun. Best of luck and see you in the conference room.

Linda Simensky, Vice President of Original Programming, Cartoon Network.

Linda Simensky

Vice President of Original Programming, Cartoon Network

When some people ponder pitching to a network, I think they imagine themselves standing in front of huge foam core blowups of their characters, pitching to a boardroom full of serious network executives. When others tell me about the pitches they think we want at the Cartoon Network, they suppose that we want to see wild acting and jumping around. Some people apparently think that we'd like them to come in and read their pitch out loud to us...

The truth is none of those is quite the right situation for pitching to Cartoon Network. Sometimes I just tell people not to even call it a pitch, just to come in and show us their artwork and tell us what kind of cartoons they'd like to make. That's how we like to start the development process.

As for what to bring, a person looking to make a cartoon for Cartoon Network should have an overall idea of what the show is about, some characters designs and descriptions, and about four or five story ideas. The material can be rough, there can be several versions of the designs, and there can be Xeroxed pages from sketchbooks. Just these few simple items usually can tell us if the idea is right for us. No need for theme songs, storyboards, scripts or letters of recommendation. The artist should just be able to come in and tell us about their idea and what they want to do.

What helps more than anything is if an artist can bring along something that communicates his or her sensibility to us. That intangible sensibility is what makes one show about two dogs seem brilliant, and another show about two dogs seem boring and predictable. Artists have been able to communicate their sensibility through their personal films, Websites, comics, sketchbooks, etc. Even if something has nothing to do with the show being pitched, it's still helpful.

Since we deal almost exclusively with artists, our goal has been to keep the process relaxed and casual. And someday, when we change the name of pitching officially to "just come in and show us your designs and tell us what kind of cartoons you'd like to make," then everyone will be able to relax a little more.

Kim Christianson, Vice President, Programming & Development, Fox Family Channel.

Kim Christianson

Vice President, Programming & Development, Fox Family Channel

What I look for in a pitch is clarity and brevity. I love it when the verbal pitch is concise and to-the-point, i.e. a log-line that gives me an instant picture of the kind of show, followed by a brief run-down of main characters and what a typical episode might be about. In order to keep verbal pitches short, this usually means that the person pitching will come with a 7-10 page treatment (leave-behind) that describes the show and main characters. I am always thrilled when a person trusts me to read the material on my own rather than feeling the need to take me through every detail including a long, drawn-out back-story. A pitch that has confidence in its content rather than its packaging also impresses me. It is extremely obvious when the pitch spends too much time trying to wow me with inflated predictions about merchandising possibilities and "break-out hit potential" without the content to back it up. If the show idea is a comedy, the pitch should cite examples of how/why it's funny. Don't tell me it will be hilarious -- convince me! If the idea is for an animated series, it is best to have artwork attached, but be careful... Designs can make or break a pitch, so don't come in with the rough drawings you did at home hoping I'll "get the idea."

John Hardman

Director of Development, Kids WB!

John Hardman: First and foremost, I think the most important thing for us is that we can't accept any unsolicited submissions. All of our submissions have to come through either an entertainment agent or an entertainment attorney who we have a relationship with.

Heather Kenyon: Is there a case where you also have release forms artists could sign?

JH: We do, but our legal affairs department really discourages us from doing that. The exceptions that we make, for example, may be a creator who has ended the relationship with their agent. We may know them, they've had a TV show on the air in the past, so we know they're professional and it's just that they no longer have an agent. Otherwise, I would have to say certainly keeping it brief, focusing on the core concepts, the main characters, their relationships, giving us a sense for the tone, the setting and the breadth of the series is what I'm really looking for. Come in with half a dozen episode ideas so you can talk about how it actually plays out, as opposed to just the conceptual stage. Ideally it would be great if you had a leave-behind of some sort. That can be anywhere from a couple of pages, a brief overview, to a mini-bible of sorts which might be 10 to 15 pages long where we get all of those key elements that we've already talked about. Artwork isn't necessarily required, so don't feel you need to do that, and don't come in with the music for the main title. While we appreciate the thought and effort that goes into considering merchandising, we're a TV network and we're most concerned with the TV series itself and not the ancillary product. That's a great bonus, but it's a big warning sign to me when somebody comes in and starts pitching me how great the toy is going to be before they pitch me the series.

HK: And if people do have artwork, what sorts of artwork do you like to see? Do you like to see more situations that the characters might find themselves in, or just straight character design?

JH: Both are great. Certainly, the character design is very important and if they were in situational art, you'd still need to see them clearly. A lot of times what happens when they give you a set up, the action is in the forefront and the characters are in back. So you don't really know what the focus is in the series. Is it the characters or is it the explosion? But, also, there has to be a willingness to develop. This is development and changes to the artwork might be requested. They should come in with the knowledge that anything and possibly everything could change as we move forward and they should be open to collaborating with us.

HK: If they do bring in art to their pitch, do you have any preference whether it's on an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper, or a cocktail napkin?

JH: It doesn't concern me. It certainly wouldn't bother me if they Xeroxed that napkin onto an 8 1/2 x 11 leave behind just so I don't lose anything. That way I can put the whole package together in one paperclip and be done with it. I would prefer the artwork to be on 8 1/2 x 11 for those reasons. If you have a big board, what am I going to do with that board? Where am I going to store it? And if I have to return it to you, that's just a further hassle. Having it all so that I can pass it along to the next person to take a look makes it much more convenient if it's in one package. It doesn't have to be bound professionally. A staple in the corner is fine. They don't need to go to the extra effort to get a three-ring binder or spiral bound. Some people have even come in with book binding! Chances are I'm going to have to rip that up to Xerox it for everybody who needs to get a copy. A staple is just as convenient.

HK: So there's a whole production process that people need to be aware of.

JH: Exactly. The thing is you really appreciate it when they go through that extra effort, but it's just not necessary. For me and for us here, the idea is king. Presentation is secondary. Sure it gives you some extra bonus points if it looks nice and it's spelled correctly, but if you came in with Pokemon on one piece of paper with no artwork, we would still look at it very seriously.

The most important thing is the story, characters and relationship. The other thing that is very important for hopeful creators is to pay attention and study where they're going. Try to watch what's on their air. Understand what their basic philosophy is and don't come in with something that's totally inappropriate for my target audience and demographic. By watching our air you can get a strong sense of the direction that we're headed and the types of series that might be of interest to us. But then, you can also do some additional homework and find out what the target audience is and what the demographic is. If you've got an agent, that agent can certainly do some preliminary checking as well, as to what the needs are as far as genre, and whether we are looking for live-action or only animation.

Heather Kenyon is editor in chief of Animation World Network.

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