James Carroll: How to write a serial drama pitch
If you can’t sell your TV drama idea based on the kind of log-line the audience would read in the Radio Times or on Netflix and iPlayer, it’s going to be tricky to pique anyone’s interest. Production companies, development producers and channels don’t have time to read lengthy pitch materials for every idea. You can imagine how difficult it is for a producer to allocate time to reading books when they are mid-production, the same for a commissioner who is receiving tens of high-quality pitches per day to review.
We often work with clients to devise short pitches based on their books, whether that is a few paragraphs or a treatment of anywhere from one page to a few pages. We don’t have to write the entire show ‘bible’ (which could be a hundred pages) but we do have to show producers that there is something special worth developing so they will read the book and make an offer. Sometimes this ‘development lift’ helps secure a book adaption. The producer then invests time and resources into developing the full pitch and – having secured the option – finds creatives and key cast to pitch it to a network.
Downton Abbey: a case study
With last week’s news that the film is officially happening, let’s take an example of the classic and hugely successful ITV series Downton Abbey. A one-line pitch could be:
British historical period drama television series set in the early 20th century.
But that’s not very enticing. So how about:
A chronicle of the lives of the British aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the early 20th Century.
A longer log-line might read:
This historical drama follows the lives of the Crawley family and their servants in the family’s Edwardian country house. The programme begins with the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, which leaves Downton Abbey’s future in jeopardy, as Lord Grantham’s presumptive heir — his cousin James – dies aboard the ship, leaving him without a male successor to take over the seat upon his death. As a result, Lord Grantham must search for a new heir. As the programme progresses through the decade, other historical events happen leading up to Lord Grantham declaring in 1914 that Britain is at war with Germany, marking the beginning of World War I, which becomes a major plot on the programme.
Followed by a synopsis of Episode One:
As Daisy the kitchen maid opens up the house, a telegram is delivered. It is 16th April 1912 and the Titanic has gone down, taking with it Lord Grantham’s heir, James Crawley, and his son, Patrick. So who is the new heir? Not just to the earldom but to Downton Abbey, itself, which is entailed to the title. Violet, the Dowager Countess, assumes Robert, the present Earl, will break the entail and make an heiress of his eldest daughter, Mary, but Robert is not so sure. To make matters worse, his wife, Cora, has her own money tied up in the estate, and there is no way to extract it without crippling Downton. Even if Robert could break the entail, or take Cora’s money out of it, would he want to?
Below stairs, a new valet, John Bates, arrives. Bates was Robert’s batman during the Boer War and Robert welcomes him. However, he looks as shocked as the rest of the servants when he sees Bates’s limp. Will this hamper his duties? Cora’s maid O’Brien and first footman Thomas, who wanted Bates’s job, deliberately try to sabotage his first days at work.
Mary was supposed to marry the heir, the late Patrick Crawley, but his death has freed her to move on. She believes her own prospects have changed for the better, and now she angles to catch the young Duke of Crowborough. Her sister, Edith, was in love with Patrick and seethes with resentment towards Mary. The Duke arrives at Downton, ostensibly to present his condolences, but after dinner he requests an interview with Robert, presumably to ask for Mary’s hand. But when he learns that Robert is not intending to challenge the entail he withdraws his offer, without ever in fact making it.
It was Thomas who bought the Duke to Downton, luring him with the prospect of the Grantham money. He and Thomas shared a summer dalliance and Thomas intends to use this to further his own career, blackmailing the Duke with his own letters if he has to. However, the Duke is one step ahead of Thomas who can only watch as the incriminating pages go up in flames. Meanwhile, Robert informs Bates that his disability is interfering with his work and he will have to go. Bates seems to take the news well, but the Head Housemaid Anna hears him crying in his room. However, as Crowborough leaves, Robert finds himself unable to let Bates down in this way and to the amazement of Cora and the servants, he asks the valet to stay.
Mary’s fury is matched by Cora’s surprise when they realise Robert has made up his mind and will not challenge the entail. He has discovered the identity of his new heir, a distant cousin, and intends to write to the young man and invite him to Downton.
Don’t fall into the trap of not giving away plot details or endings in these kinds of pitches. The industry reader needs to know so they can make a decision. (There are of course exceptions to this rule – but it’s slightly unhelpful when an alleged ‘synopsis’ ends with ‘will X character be able to fulfil her dream to Y?’ That’s not a synopsis!)
Full disclosure, Downton was not adapted from a book (although Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes has said he was inspired by Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel The Custom of the Country about a Midwestern American woman social climbing in New York). This episode summary was written for the Downton press pack after the series was made, so it might be more detailed than an initial treatment. You can find the full pack here along with character summaries, which are still a good guide.
As a comparison from a totally different genre, see the the original pitch for Supernatural, an American fantasy series created by Eric Kripke which has run for 13 seasons and counting:
Things to keep in mind when writing these kinds of pitches:
The simpler the better – is there a more efficient and precise way of explaining things?
Get to the unique selling point in the first few sentences.
Explain the whole idea and broader context – demonstrating the potential for future series and spin offs.
Who is this pitch for? Will it be like things they have seen before? If so, how is it different?
Clear beginning, middle and end storyline – what are the overarching themes?
A producer might pitch with sample video material, scripts and storyboards but we don’t need to create that much at this early stage.
My cheat sheet of things to consider including in TV drama pitches (not always in this order):
Format (e.g. 8 x 60 min)
Log-line – one sentence
Few more short paragraphs of pitch (e.g. on the world)
Central characters (occupation, name, age, description, storyline maybe)
[Links to true stories – if there are any]
Central themes and messages (e.g. family secrets, cover-ups, feminism, secret histories)
Inspiration/audience – references to previous TV / other similar shows etc.
[Ep by ep summary and beginnings of ‘show bible’ notes]
You might organise your document in a much shorter format but including most of the elements above – for example, under the headings: Log-line, Characters, World, Episodes, Background.
Find some more useful tips at BBC Writer’s Room.
James Carroll is Northbank Talent Management’s Broadcast and Brand Licensing Agent focusing on ‘book to screen’ and TV presenters. Tweet questions @james_carroll.