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How to Pitch an Idea – Irene Gardiner

Arts Access

I think I have a really good idea for a documentary/programme. How do I know if it is a good idea?

First of all, think really deeply about your idea. Can you easily tell people what it is in a simple sentence? That’s a good clue that it’s something you’ll be able to sell to others. If you can’t express it in a simple sentence then think some more about your idea – see if you can focus it a little more clearly. What is the main story, and what are the side stories and issues?

So I need to write something about it then? How much information should I include?

Write a simple one-pager on your idea – the main idea, and how the story will move out from that main idea. Who are the key characters if it is scripted, and who are the key interviewees if it is unscripted? What form is it going to take – a one-off or a series, and what number and duration of episodes. Writing this will help to focus your mind on your idea and what its real essence is.

Okay. I’ve written the idea down. Now what?

Depending on how experienced you are, you may now want to enlist some help – either by taking your idea to a production company, or to an experienced freelance producer or executive producer. Check out the major screen production companies in New Zealand either by heading to SPADA’s membership page, or checking out the NZ On Air funding rounds – these companies are also online – so see what you think – and what might be a fit for you. Ask around. Likewise if you want to work on your own, but with the support of an executive producer, ask around about who might suit you and your project. SPADA (Screen Producers and Directors Association) can help provide you with some advice, or help point you in the right direction.

If I try to find a producer at this stage, will I need to pay them?

If you decide to work with a freelance EP there will be a fee attached – so ask about this and what their rates are early in the piece. A lot of EPs will give you the first bit of advice for free to get you started, and some won’t charge till your project gets through the development process and into production, but you can’t bank on that. So be clear what their expectation is. Working with an experienced EP can be a good path for a developing producer – it’s like a mentorship role, and you may feel that approach provides you with more autonomy and flexibility. A good EP will support you to do the producer role yourself, but with them there as your security blanket and a constant source of advice and support.

What if nobody seems interested in my idea? Should I shelve it?

Generally speaking it pays not to get too wedded to any one idea in the early stages. It’s a tough industry, and you may well get told early in the piece that your idea has little chance of happening. Don’t be put off by that – let it go for now, and try other ideas. A time might still come for the original idea.

What if people seem too interested? Should I be worried someone will steal my idea?

Don’t be frightened of sharing your idea with a production company or executive producer. In my experience of the NZ production community, people are not sitting around just waiting to steal your ideas. You need a level of trust. There’s always a risk that someone might do the wrong thing by you, but it’s unlikely, and it’s generally better not to be too suspicious and controlling of your idea at the outset, as it may put people off working with you.

If you are working with a production company, and your idea does become a reality, you can work out your rights at that stage. What role are you taking on the production? Are you just expecting to be paid for that role, or do you want a share of any profits? There are screen industry lawyers and others who can help you with this side of things to make sure you get a fair deal.

Okay, so now I have my pitch and a producer seems keen to get on board. What is the next step?

So you now know who you’re working with, and you’ve got your one-pager polished and clearly explaining what your project is. It’s an important document – make sure it really captures the programme you are wanting to make. You might now be working with a production company, or you might be being guided by a freelance executive producer, or you might be doing it yourself.

Now you need a platform. Have a think about which platform your idea suits best, and try them first. And then work out from there. There used to be an informal industry etiquette that you tried one platform at a time, and waited for a no before you tried the next one. This has changed a little in the more multi-platform online age, so you may want to submit to more than one at once. Or start with the two most likely, and then try a few others.

Make sure you personalise your pitch document – don’t send something with Three’s name on it to TVNZ. You’d be surprised how often that happens. When it’s time to send your two-pager off to your desired platform, make sure you find out who the right commissioning executive is first. For the bigger TV networks you should be able to find this online. Otherwise ask around, or come to SPADA and we’ll point you in the right direction.

A media platform has expressed interest! What should I expect?

If you get a positive response, you can supply a more detailed proposal and budget as requested. Be guided by what your platform is asking of you. Don’t make your proposal any longer than it needs to be. Just the key information about content, style, key personnel and budget. Network executives are very busy people and they won’t thank you for hours of extra reading work while you take pages and pages to get to the point. Don’t expect to have endless meetings with commissioners, and don’t feel you need to pitch in person. That doesn’t actually happen all that much these days.

Once you’ve submitted your idea, keep track of it and its progress through the system, but don’t over-nag. Again, a busy network executive won’t thank you for emailing or phoning them every day to check where things are at. But check in from time to time to keep things alive.

Your platform commissioner is your client, your customer, and – as the old saying goes – the customer is always right. Be courteous in all your dealings with them. They don’t have to take your project on, and they don’t have to help you. Most of our commissioners here in NZ actually are very helpful. But make things as easy for them as you can. Keep all your communication clear and courteous. Make your programme proposals as focused and clear as you possibly can – people need to be able to see what the show is about just by reading the first few sentences.

Great. Now, what about the money? How can I find it?

Platforms sometimes fund commercially appealing TV ideas from their own pockets, or with the support of corporate sponsors – historically TVNZ has done a lot of this, and Three has funded some of its own shows too. This may reduce a little now with the strain Covid-19 has put on network advertising revenue, but it is still a possible avenue for funding of your project, if it is something very broad appeal in nature. But if your project is something with more of a public good focus that meets NZ On Air and Te Mangai Paho’s criteria, you will now be at the step of the process where you need to seek their funding. Continue your courtesy and clarity through the funding process. NZOA and TMP also have online submission processes – get familiar with these in advance of deadline day. Make sure you are registered. Make sure you have everything ready and prepared that you need to submit. NZOA and TMP staff are also generally helpful people, but don’t over-burden them with silly questions that you can find out yourself by looking around online, or asking others. You can find the dates for NZOA and TMP rounds on their websites, but it’s important to remember that platforms have their own pitching deadlines.

You may think you have plenty of time till the NZOA or TMP deadline, but in fact the network may have decided which proposals it is backing well in advance of that. This information on the network deadlines is either available on their website or you can simply email and ask a commissioner in advance of each funding round.

What if I don’t get the funding I applied for? What can I do?

If a project doesn’t get funding, you can ask why – but do this in a polite and constructive way and you’ll likely get a polite and constructive reply. Get abusive, and you won’t. It’s old-fashioned advice, but it’s amazing where please and thank you will get you. If you end up getting a “no” for your project, be gracious, and understand how tough it is to actually get an idea to happen in New Zealand. We have a small population, tight budgets and a high demand on funding, so many great ideas never see the light of day.

Don’t assume your idea is no good because it didn’t get through, or that the broadcasters/funders are mad. It might just not be your idea’s time. Put it away for a while, and see how you feel about it six months later. Is it worth trying again?

I live in Ōtautahi, and want to stay here, but I know most of the media platforms and funders are elsewhere in Aotearoa. What should I do about that?

It can make it a little bit more challenging, as a lot of the platforms and funders are based in Auckland and that can make it hard to form personal relationships with the funders or the platforms. So if you live in Christchurch, definitely make an effort to visit the funding organisations or media platforms when you’re in Wellington or Auckland.

Likewise, if one of the guilds, such as SPADA, has an event in Ōtautahi –make sure you attend.

For more information go to www.spada.co.nz

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