It’s a familiar sight at film festivals the world over: aspiring filmmakers boldly pitching their killer ideas to commissioners with the expectation that if their concept is strong enough, they’ll win a commission. Sadly, TV rarely works like that. The assumption that ‘the idea is king’ is wrong – it’s one of TV’s myths, widely accepted by commissioners, but rarely admitted to the first-time producers who think a great idea alone will jump-start their careers. As a commissioner, it’s much easier, and often much wiser, to go for what might initially seem a less good idea from an established producer than a better idea from an unknown.
The idea is king myth is often perpetuated by commissioners. It’s difficult to admit to prospective producers that however good their idea is, you just don’t trust them to deliver it. Rather than get into a debate about whether they are up to making the film or not, it’s much easier to say that the idea isn’t strong enough. End of story. On to the next pitch…
In an ideal world, commissioners would work harder to find a way to nurture new talent so that more brilliant new ideas made it through. Rewarding though this might be, it can take an awful lot of time and effort, which is hard to justify unless someone has unique access to a really amazing story. Commissioning films from a producer with a proven track record is just so much easier.
As the series editor of ‘Natural World,’ I often weigh the quality of an idea against someone’s ability to deliver it. I’m always looking for films with strong, engaging stories – our budgets just aren’t high enough to be able to move viewers with the power of amazing imagery alone in the way that Planet Earth so brilliantly does. So, we have to rely more on engaging people through storytelling, which isn’t as easy as it might seem. I’ve seen great stories badly told, and average stories spun out brilliantly. Too many aspiring producers, and quite a few established ones, don’t seem to have the first clue about storytelling. So even if they’ve come across a great story, do they know how to tell it? And can they continue to adapt and refine it through all the vagaries of filming?
As a newcomer, the odds are certainly stacked against you, but there are still things you can do to break through and win that first commission. First of all, play to what should be your strengths: energy and passion. You’ll approach a film with much more enthusiasm than the old hands, and that can more than compensate for inexperience. But your biggest selling point is potential – your potential to be the hot new talent of tomorrow, producer of a breakthrough film that takes the genre in a whole new direction. In this respect, not having a track record is your greatest asset. At least you don’t have a mediocre one. Work out how to prove you have the visual flair and strong instinct for storytelling that makes you a great filmmaker. And remember, it’s often not the strength of the story the commissioner’s worried about, it’s you.