Editor’s note: Pitching my books as a film or TV project was been on my bucket list for years. In 2020, I got a chance to do it. Here’s what I learned pitching Netflix.
It’s late July 2020. We’re six months into the pandemic. Vacations are on hold. I’ve finished the substantive draft of Chaos Calling and submitted it to my editor to see if I’ve resolved her concerns with the pacing and plot.
Creatively, I was bored.
I came across this Hollywood Reporter article in a colleague’s LinkedIn feed. Netflix Canada had opened a call for Canadian film/TV pitches. And anyone could apply–no credentials needed!
The deadline was August 5. And I thought, why not? Life then was so stagnant. I was itching for a little excitement and to learn something new.
Watch my Tiktok about what I learned pitching Netflix. It’s had +38,000 views.
I talked with K, a cousin of mine who’s an actor and screenwriter. She introduced me to J, a long-time colleague of hers who also acts, writes and produces. We got together (virtually) and talked about my options. J recommended pitching an idea I wasn’t super attached to, so we picked a separate (unpublished) YA book series I’m also writing.
We set the story up as a film with trilogy potential. Here’s what I learned.
#1: Pitching film/TV is its own animal
Publishing has the query letter. Startups have the pitch deck. TED has the talk about a big idea. Marketing consultants have the project proposal. I’ve pitched all of those contexts, but film and TV requires an intensely visual format with its own rules.
TV shows have a pitch bible–Stranger Things has a really famous example, but there are many others. After debating the merits, we picked a film pitch. For this competition, the rules said it had to be no more than five pages.
My collaborators recommended we make it:
- Visual–The pitch sets the tone and atmosphere for the project, and can be more important in some ways than the story in terms of getting people excited about the project.
- Succinct–Going over the page limit is frowned upon if you’re an unknown.
- Diverse–The series characters were already diverse, but we also looked for fresh opportunities to mix things up.
#2: Imagined casts help producers see character analogues
The pitch included short character biographies to highlight each main or supporting character’s conflict and arc in the story. To my surprise, K and J suggested we visually cast the parts on the page with real working actors.
I would have floundered on this piece without help. I’m not fluent enough with up-and-coming talent in Canada or elsewhere to have a sense of who would be good for what, who’s career is hot, and who has the kind of trajectory that would mean the project would be mutually beneficial.
- Don’t pick all A-list actors (e.g., The Rock, Angelina Jolie, etc.). It inflates the price of your project and makes you look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Which I didn’t. Anyway!
- Matching the actor’s vibe to your character’s will help you convey your idea for what kind of energy the person brings to your story. I relied on K and J for this aesthetic. As an outsider, assessing that was a total head scratcher.
- What I might like about an actor is not at all what producers or other actors see in a performance. For them, it’s range, momentum, versatility and economy of choice. “But I like them,” is never a strong enough reason.
#3: More special effects = bigger budgets, more competition
I won’t lie: This one’s a heartbreaker for the speculative fiction crowd. It’s not our fault that our minds run toward stories that innately demand special effects or sets that require CG augmentation to look good.
But those pieces do make a speculative fiction project more expensive without a built-in fanbase to justify the ‘yes.’
Compare the last superhero franchise instalment you saw to a pitch for something like Malcolm & Marie, a film with two primary speaking parts shot in one location in roughly two weeks. If both ideas are pitched by unknown talents, the financial commitment alone makes saying yes to the first pitch hard.
Without getting into the details, my project involved significant character CG, prosthetics and a lot of water shooting (day and night). Not great odds in my favour.
The value of experiential goals
Building the document, collaborating on the visuals and thinking through new aspects of my story was a delightful creative experience. I submitted it with joy.
So, you ask. What happened?
About two weeks after I applied, LinkedIn notified me that an Entertainment Analyst at Neflix had visited my profile.
Do I know anyone with that title? No. Have I ever seen a notification like one in my feed before? Also no.
I talked with A. M., a colleague who used to work in finance in the film industry (not for Netflix). “Well, you made it out of the slush pile,” she told me cheerfully. “Between 60 and 70 percent of projects are so bad they’re an automatic delete. Someone cared enough to send an analyst to go look at your stuff. The fact that you haven’t actually published those books probably killed their interest.”
I mean, fair?
Honestly, the whole experience was so satisfying that getting out of the slush pile felt like a cherry on the top of my creative sundae.
I’m so proud of the pitch document that K and J helped me to build. It’s beautiful and helped me to refine my thinking about that series. I learned a lot and made a thing I love.