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Sizzle Reels: Produce Before You Pitch (Part 2)
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Part 2: Turning Your Great Show Idea into an Effective Sizzle Reel

By Dan Abrams


So what should a producer do?

1) Fully develop the idea on paper first. 

Think through how it would be seen by an audience and also logistically how it would be produced. Research other shows within the genre. Don’t get caught in the room pitching an idea that has a giant flaw you simply hadn’t previously thought through or even worse a show idea that was fairly recently done before and failed. Have some close friends (whether professional producers or "regular people”) be a sounding board and evaluate your idea. If they don’t understand it then you need to work on your pitch. If 100% of them hate it then seriously reconsider if it’s worth your time.

2) Determine the commercial viability of the show idea.

- Research the programming of all potential networks/buyers. Know what are hits and also what bombed so bad they want to avoid anything remotely similar. If you have an agent (or access to one) they might be able to tell you what the network currently says they are looking for. However, just because your idea is outside their explicit mandate doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t or shouldn’t pitch them the idea. Some buyers even say that they don’t know what they want until they see it.

NOTE: You may be well served cutting somewhat different versions for different potential buyers/networks.

- Have some understanding of what it will cost to produce your show. Some of you may be able to ball-park it as you’re coming up with the idea. Some of you may have the wherewithal to do a full and detailed budget. Some of you may have line producer friends who owe you favors and some of you may pay for that professional budget. However you choose to handle it, make sure you have some practical number in mind so that your not being overly unrealistic pitching a million-dollar per episode show to a small cable network that never spends more than $100K.

3) Build your value and your negotiating leverage.

 If you’re building a show around someone or some intellectual property be sure you have a deal in place first. It would have been tough to pitch Dog The Bounty Hunter without the actual bounty hunter who is named Duane "Dog” Chapman. Or imagine trying to convince anyone that there’s a magical "dog whisperer” without having Cesar Millan. If you’re building a show around such a personality it behooves you to lock up that talent with a signed legal contract. These are sometimes called talent-deals, options or shopping agreements. Have at least one legit, lawyer-approved contract in your files for when you meet someone you want to build a show around and have that lawyer on speed-dial. When it’s time to sign such an agreement, like virtually everything in business, virtually everything is negotiable. What is "standard” depends on the particular players and circumstances involved.

That established, here are a few rules of thumb:

- if it’s a big established celebrity or piece of intellectual property, unless you have a personal relationship, they are less likely to "attach” themselves/their IP until there is some sort of "firm offer” from an actual buyer (real money changes hands). If your spirit is undeterred, in any event be sure to be nice to the assistants who are the gatekeepers to the decision-makers. Try to get an introduction through a friend-of-a-friend. Consider reaching out to your contacts on social networks (e.g. Facebook and Linkedin) to find a connecting path to your ideal project partners. And if you’re lucky enough to interest a celebrity in your project, know that you will likely have to do a deal that "locks them to the project”. So don’t BS any reps that their client is your first choice if, in reality, you are simultaneously courting multiple targets. It’s fine to pursue a bunch at once just be upfront about it.

- if it’s a big story in the news, know that you are probably not alone in courting that person to sell it to Hollywood.

- if it’s a new piece of talent (or, better yet, a "regular person”) then they are probably more likely to sign just about anything you give them. Like Dov Simens (founder of "2-Day Film School”) says "if there are two buyers for one project then everything is negotiable but if there’s only one buyer then nothing is negotiable”. Go ahead and try to get the best possible terms in a powerful agreement very early in the development of the project. If you wait until things "start to happen” then the talent will be more likely to recognize their value and thus extract terms for favorable to their side (at a cost of yours). If you’re working independently on your own projects, don’t feel too guilty about getting great terms for yourself early on. Remember that you’re working for free and there’s a high likelihood that it will never sell and you will have wasted your time, energy, resources for nothing. And on the opposite side of the spectrum, if it’s a big hit then the talent will undoubtedly have the greatest upside payoff. Not only will they be the star of a show with its attendant compensations but also they’ll also have increased value for other ventures (writing a book, movies, merchandising, big speaking fees etc.) Given those possibilities, it’s only fair that you have favorable terms.

CAVEAT: Most importantly, know that any agreement/contract you sign needs to be at least tacitly approved of by the final buyer. Many terms may be unenforceable in practice. When it comes time to negotiate the show sale with the buyer(s) your previous agreements (with talent, intellectual property holders, producing-partners) are useful but not bullet-proof. Nevertheless, at the earliest stage you’re likely to have the best chance of getting favorable terms (which include words like "exclusive”, "in perpetuity”, "throughout the universe”, "in all media now known or hereafter devised”). And if you are going to ultimately realize you can’t make a deal with someone it’s better to now ASAP.


4) Determine what kind of tape you are going to make. Here are some popular kinds:

a) "Rip-o-matic”: Exclusively cut from existing footage from other sources (often digitized from a DVR). Note that doing this without permission from the copyright-holders is technically illegal and exposes you to civil liability. Nevertheless, this kind of sizzle is produced quite often. (Duration: 1 to 7 minutes)

b) "Talent Sizzle”: Instead of pitching the show, this kind of tape focuses exclusively on the talent/subjects. Often capturing them in their natural environment, interacting with people as they usually do coupled with soundbites from sit-down interviews. (Duration: 1 to 5 minutes)

c) "Teaser Sizzle”: An exciting promo that does not explicitly outline the elements of the show or specifically how it works. (Duration: 1 to 2 minutes)

NOTE- There is not a clear consensus as to whether any sizzle should explain the "who, what, where, how” or if the sizzle is only meant to interest the buyer enough for you to pitch the specifics in the meeting.

d) "Standard Sizzle”: An extended promo like a movie trailer which showcases the talent/subjects involved, an overview of the show and gives a specific sense of the creative direction/vision. (Duration: 2 to 7 minutes)

e) "Presentation Tape”: A bit like the standard sizzle but likely also with full scenes if not full segments/acts to present how the show will actually look to the TV audience. (Duration: 7 to 20 minutes)

f) "Independent Pilot”: A full version of the show as it would be seen by the TV audience and produced for the budget you had.

In all of those types of tapes, it is common to include some music and graphics. While it is also illegal to use copyrighted music without permission from the copyholder, this too is commonplace. The level of graphics necessary depends on the project. Most sizzles can probably suffice with the tools already available in Final Cut/Avid. However, if your "AfterEffects/Motion/Maya” graphics whiz buddy is willing to help out then it might be worthwhile.

Go to Part 1

Go to Part 3

Dan Abrams is the Supervising Producer of the "The Outdoor Room with Jamie Durie” airing on HGTV