We hear more and more about pitching these days in Australia as we incorporate this aspect of American culture without somehow having absorbed the American ability to pitch. At least, most of us haven’t. Rick Kalowski is one Australian who is clearly better at pitching than most, but that didn’t stop one television network executive from giving this feedback to Rick’s pitch of ‘At Home With Julia’: This is not a show, it will never be a show, please stop wasting your time and move on.” The show was subsequently produced by the ABC TV, where Rick currently works as Head of Comedy.
Pretty much all of the panel have worked together on one project or another. Nicole Minchin, Amanda Brotchie and Adam Zwar represent High Wire Films, Debbie Lee currently works for Matchbox Pictures but was previously commissioning editor at the ABC, and before that SBS, and Jennifer Collins is currently Head of Entertainment at ABC, but is shortly to head off to become Head of Fiction at Screentime.
There were some gems in this session, such as Rick’s recollection of a VHS tape from Chris Lilley showcasing his character Mr G. At the time Chris couldn’t get work as an actor and felt he was failing as a stand-up, and had decided his best bet was to create his own show.
And to cut to the chase, Rick exhorted budding comedy writers to send him a pitch before getting a producer attached, if they don’t already have one. He told the audience at this workshop that his section of the ABC reads all submissions, and if they think one has possibilities, they will be in contact.
Of course, he also said that in order to pitch successfully you have to have done your homework. You need to know what’s already on air, and what has been successful in the same genre as your project. Rick said he’d received countless pitches at SPA, and he was surprised at the number of times people hadn’t been aware of similar shows already on air on the ABC, or famous sitcoms that have been made in New Zealand for years.
Brevity is a virtue, where pitches are concerned. Especially paper pitches, which ar apparently usually far too long. At the end of the session Rick went into detail on the five page pitch. One page for the concept, and no longer. One page for all the characters, and no longer. One page for a sense of story progression and the episodes. One page for two or three examples of what happens, the narrative arc. And one page on tone and style, and a paragraph on the program making team.
Brevity is good for verbal pitches too. Keep it to one or two lines, no more, and don’t overcomplicate things. Remember, it’s hard for the listener to absorb a verbal pitch, and all you’re trying to do is to hook them to want more. “Be positive and take your time,” Nicole Minchin advised. “Keep it simple.” Jennifer Collins: “What is it offering the network?” Debbie Lee: “Distill it into two lines, make eye contact, express your passion for the idea.”
However, Adam Zwar, co-creator of Wilfred, Lowdown and Agony Uncles, told the audience he’d heard of people getting the green light from a half page pitch, but it had never happened to him. Quite the contrary, with Wilfred they had an award-winning Tropfest short, and a pilot, and still they had to write all 13 episodes to convince the network to go ahead. “In Australia, from my experience you have to do a hell of a lot of work,” said Adam. “You have to know the characters inside out, the tone of the show, so that you can answer any question that’s put to you in a pitch session.”
Adam had a great tip he’d learnt from someone else, which is that if you’re pitching a comedy, make sure you mention the word ‘hilarious’.
Rick said he’s starting to see more pitches using Powerpoint, which can provide more of a sense of the feel of the show, with embedded stills and maybe video. Although several people, including Rick, said they didn’t want to be made to watch a clip from the project during a pitch meeting, as he would feel under pressure to be positive rather than feeling free to respond naturally to it.
Adam reminded people that you should rehearse your pitch, tell it to yourself in the mirror, tell your friends and watch where their eyes glaze over. Preparation is all.
As a group, the panel canvassed why Australia doesn’t do studio sitcoms – the last one was probably Hey Dad, or The Newlyweds, or Mother and Son. They all love studio comedy, and as Rick pointed out the ABC has a strong tradition of studio audience shows in factual, so why couldn’t they do comedy? And while Rick isn’t a fan of either, he noted that The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men were the two most profitable shows in the world.