Edinburgh ’18: U.S. commissioners talk pitching approaches

The numerous opportunities for UK and European producers to create content for the U.S. market was front of mind during a panel discussion at the 2018 Edinburgh International Television Festival on ...
August 27, 2018

The numerous opportunities for UK and European producers to create content for the U.S. market was front of mind during a panel discussion at the 2018 Edinburgh International Television Festival on Friday afternoon (Aug. 24).

The panelists, made up of an esteemed group of non-fiction broadcast executives, discussed their strategies for the year ahead while also providing insight into how best to format a production pitch meeting.

Featured in the session were Gena McCarthy, EVP and head of programming at Lifetime Unscripted & FYI; Chachi Senior, SVP of alternative series and development at Paramount Networks; Rachel Brill, SVP of unscripted at Epix; and Mike Stiller, VP of development and programming at History.

Below are some of the key impressions from the “Meet the U.S. Commissioners” panel, which was moderated by Natalka Znak, president of London- and LA-based prodco Znak & Co.

The fewer the better

A seasoned development executive, Paramount Network’s Senior said one thing he’s learned since stepping into a broadcaster’s chair is that producers have a better chance at landing a development deal if the focus is on selling one idea at a time.

“I sold shows for 20 years, and made them. I used to be guilty of [pitching] five ideas – it was a numbers game. Now that I’m a buyer, I only buy from people who come in with one idea. When they pitch it, it’s as if the show is going to happen even if I don’t buy it – I need to see the passion behind the idea.

“It’s almost as if I want them to fool me into thinking that they’re only going to be working on that project.”

And while producers and filmmakers may want to keep their ideas malleable so the buying network has leeway for input and direction, Epix’s Brill said the MGM-owned network is in search of the opposite of that.

“We are a place where filmmakers, producers and talent are going to flourish – we just give you the guardrails to say go and make the show you want. We don’t want to have to inject our own creative ideas because ultimately executives don’t make the hits that producers do. We want you to make the show they way you want to make it – it either works or it doesn’t.”

Just don’t pitch your project over LinkedIn.

“I get that all the time,” added Brill. “Please don’t do that.”

A tape isn’t always necessary

According to A+E Networks executive McCarthy, having a showreel with over-the-top production values, while helpful, isn’t something of utter necessity. What’s more vital is knowing about the network, she said, and knowing what its executives are looking for, what’s worked on the brand and to be aware of the range of the content they’re looking for.

“I respond most to titles and concepts, and I buy off paper all the time,” McCarthy explained, but cautioned its not an exclusive practice. “I would like more; if you have them on tape to bring it to me, if you have a one-pager send it to me and maybe I can give you a little bit of development money.”

“Depending upon the show, you can read the people you work with and you know what they respond to,” added Paramount’s Senior. “Some shows I sell just through paper and talk, even if there is a tape. Sometimes the tape hurts because when you submit a tape it’s very hard for people to break away from that tape. They watch that tape and think that tape is actually the show. But when it’s just a tape, it’s still in development.”

Conversations are key

History’s Stiller said that while an intended pitch may fizzle out, the ensuing conversation and the topics that stem from it may well fit the network’s brand a lot better and in turn, lead to an opportunity.

“Everybody has a different process, but a lot of the stuff I’ve been working on lately has been conversation-based,” said Stiller. “They might be pitching something, maybe it’s a ‘no’, but you try to get to know who you’re talking to in terms of the producers – what they do and what they do well – and you might start a conversation that becomes a pitch or turns into something.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.