It is generally accepted that the industry-wide pitch to commission rate is ten to one, and for some people even that’s optimistic. Here are some of the tried-and-tested tricks that will help you get your idea gets commissioned.
Everyone thinks that their idea is the best on they’ve ever heard, and commissioning editors are the same. According to research carried out by The Research Centre, commissioners said that 20-50% of programmes they commissioned were their own ideas.
Some established producers and production companies, such as Thom Beers’ Original Productions (Deadliest Catch, Ax Men, Ice Road Truckers) have such a strong relationship with a commissioner, and a track record in making a certain type of programme, that a commissioner will pick up the phone and ask them to make a show to their specifications. Bingo.
What if you don’t a superstar producer reputation? As long as you are able to get a meeting with a commissioning executive, you can still swing it so the commissioner gives you a commission, or more accurately they will give you the intelligence you need to pitch an idea that they will feel compelled to commission. However, they might not do it overtly, or even consciously.
When discussing your slate of ideas, be alert to other ideas presenting themselves to you. If a conversation about the history of art wanders off topic and ends up with the commissioner musing about their passion for comic book superheroes, that is your cue to pick up the idea and run with it. If you know something about the subject, introduce the possibility of you developing a programme about modern day superheroes, or some such and try to get their buy-in for your off-the-cuff idea. If you don’t know anything about superheroes – find out pronto and present a worked up proposal next time you meet.
It’s always useful to have two people pitching – the one who isn’t actively pitching can listen for throwaway comments that might suggest a fertile area for future development.
When you return to present your show, the commissioner probably won’t remember the original conversation, and so will be impressed with your good taste in suggesting such an idea. If they do remember that it was their own idea, you have to hope that they haven’t been telling to every producer who’s walked through their door since about it – if they have you have to hope you are the first past the post with a workable proposal. Speed, in this situation (and most development situations) is of the essence.
It’s always better to put most of your development effort into those proposals that have the best chance of being commissioned – and the commissioner’s own ideas should be top of your list.
What if the commissioning editors don’t have your mobile phone number on speed dial?
Commissioners need to feel reassured that any programme they commission will be made and delivered as agreed, on time and in budget. That’s why they tend to have a ‘stable’ of five to ten favoured production companies that they work with, and also why it’s hard to break in if you are a new producer.
So, what to do? If you are the executive producer, series producer or producer of a hit series, you will suddenly be taken much more seriously by the commissioners. So if you have built up a strong track record in a certain genre, won awards or had a ratings hit, capitalise on the golden halo effect that has on your professional reputation. Now is the time to dust off all those ideas you’ve had in your bottom drawer and given up all hope of producing.
This also works for independent filmmakers – if you suddenly get a lot of festival buzz, critical acclaim or a huge online following, TV commissioners will be much more likely to entertain your ideas. Think Adam Curtis, Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock. If you fancy making a documentary for TV, work out which channel is the best fit for your individual style and make an approach. If you are really hot property they won’t be able to say no.
Again, speed is important. As the buzz fades so will your power to influence – capitalize on it while you can.
What if you’ve yet to direct your own film, or never even worked in TV? You’re doomed, right? Not necessarily.
The best way to get your idea commissioned is to have unique access to a story, a location or a person. If the idea is compelling enough, the commissioner will buy it and work out how to make it later.
This approach will work if:
• You are the centre of the story – e.g. you have a rare condition suitable for a shock doc (you also need the stomach to expose yourself physically and emotionally in front of millions of people)
• You have unique expertise and can present your knowledge in an accessible way
• You have access to important, never-seen-before, historical documents or film archive
• You can secure access to someone else with any of the above
• You can offer exclusive access to an off-limits location
You need to work out which channel would be most interested in what you have to offer and approach them with your proposition – to guarantee a commission you need to give them something that is relevant.
So, for example, you might be one of Barack Obama’s inner circle and he’s give you permission to film a year in the White House. Sure-fire commission? Not necessarily.
If you pitched that idea to the Food Network, they wouldn’t commission it, as it isn’t relevant to their niche audience. Pitch an ob doc based in the White House kitchen during the Obama’s first year in residence and they probably would. If you were clever, (and a very good friend of Obama) you could pitch a catering team ob doc to Food Network and a documentary on Obama at the White House to another channel.
If your access is so strong that a commissioner can’t turn it down, it doesn’t matter that you’ve never picked up a camera, as they will partner you with a trusted production company or experienced filmmaker.
Of course, while each of these methods increase your chances of success there are never any guarantees that an idea will be commissioned – unless, perhaps, you are an award-winning director with unique access and count a dozen or so commissioning editors among your closest friends.