Breaking through in the non-scripted world can be one of the biggest challenges for independent producers with credits but without the big-name show on air.
So what’s the best method to go about placing your body of work in front of a broker? It’s not necessarily what you know, but who you know, says legendary agent Mark Itkin (pictured).
The “In Conversation with Mark Itkin” panel at Realscreen Summit on Tuesday (February 2) saw the Los Angeles-based Itkin present insight into the behind-the-scenes work of television following his departure from the agency business. In his 34-year career as an agent for what is now WME, Itkin negotiated sales for The Real World, Project Runway and Deal or No Deal?, while being instrumental in bringing Hell’s Kitchen and Big Brother to the U.S. –
What follows are several of the lessons learned from Itkin’s session:
1) Passion is key
One of the most important qualities for an agent in the television business – whether it’s scripted or unscripted – is passion. To be successful in the industry is to have a passion and interest in the client, the client’s work and in the genre.
“To be really successful you really have to love the area you’re in,” Iktin advised. “You have to care about your client and be honest with them to be able to say yes and no if a client presents you with something you don’t really think is saleable based on your own tastes and on the market.”
In addition, successful agents must be able to follow up effectively with prospective buyers and clients, employ the capability of expanding someone’s vision tenfold, and, above all, be a great salesperson.
2) Why game shows aren’t cutting through in primetime
“That’s a very easy answer. I say this respectfully; I don’t believe that any of the current network buyers really understand the genre,” Itkin said. The biggest problem is that network executives will develop programs that don’t contain any “meat on the bones” and are either weak from the outset or derivative, says Itkin, whose love of the game show format forged his 34-year career.
Designing a successful game show that will move the genre forward requires a buyer who “really understands” the format and is willing to take a chance on something that’s “something simple, fresh and different.”
3) You have to let the producer produce
Networks that have encouraged producers to let the creative juices flow and develop the program that they have pitched are typically the buyers that producers want to bring their best projects to, Itkin said.
“Maybe this is old fashioned and clichéd, but I’ve always believed that if you buy a show from somebody, and they’re a producer with a very good track record, let them produce the show,” he explained. “Most of the people on the buying side haven’t been in the trenches producing shows.
“What I normally say to my clients is that even if you close the deal and it’s not perfect, if you have success, you will have leverage to go in and make it a better deal later on.”
4) Swing for the fences
“I’ve heard this so many times and it just boils my blood when a buyer says ‘we’re not ready to take a big swing.’ I think that’s the biggest cop out excuse that a buyer has, and a buyer should never say that to an agent or to a supplier because that’s just fear-based,” Itkin stated. “If it’s a big swing, it may be a little costly, but if you really believe in your gut that there is something game changing about that idea, I would take that chance because you never know.”
5) Getting in the door isn’t easy
The most useful method at a producer’s disposal for getting repped is to employ a shared connection, whether through a lawyer, manager or another producer.
“Once you get through the door, if you find somebody who’s passionate about your ideas, then that’s all you need,” Itkin said.
But even that connection may not be enough to get the producer a face-to-face. It may not be until a buyer shows interest in purchasing a particular program in your slate. While the agent may not sign you, noted interviewer and Bunim/Murray founder Jonathan Murray, they will make that first deal for you.