Category Archives: TV Producing

What is a backdoor pilot?

For all intents and purposes, a backdoor pilot is still the first episode in a series, however, it’s filmed like a standalone movie. Often times these pilots can be two hours long. The episode still has inherent commercial value, so they can still air it if they decide not to order to series.  Networks do this to hedge their risk and use it as a proof of concept to see if the show is worth turning into a series. They will air it, see what type of ratings/reception it receives and use that information to determine whether or not they will order to series.

The term “back door” comes from a tactic that networks often use to test spinoff series. What they do is produce an episode within a series that introduces new characters and “sneak” this episode into the season…hence the term “back door”. The network will use the ratings and viewer feedback from that episode to decide if they want to create a spinoff series. The best of example of this is NCIS which is a spinoff from JAG. In season 8 of JAG, there was a dual episode that introduced the characters for what would become NCIS. And then, in season 6, they aired the two-part episode “Legend” which introduced the characters for what is now NCIS: Los Angeles. Again, this all goes back to strategy of creating a TV episode that “test the waters” to see if it’s worth bank rolling into a new series.


What is a first-look deal?

Let’s say you just directed a film that won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, or you’re an actor attached to a film that did gangbusters in the box office, or you’re the creator of a nationally syndicated TV show. You are what we call a PROVEN TALENT. The studios and TV networks need people like you to create content for them and hedge their risk in this volatile business. To do this, they will offer you a first-look deal.

This is an agreement that’s made between an above-the-line talent and a movie studio, network, TV studio or production company (for simplicity sake, let’s call this “the company”). Most A-list actors, directors, producers and writers have an overall deal. This agreement basically states that the talent must allow the company right of first refusal to produce, finance and/or distribute any of their projects. In other words, the company gets first dibs on anything the talent develops. If the company passes on the project, the talent is free to shop that project elsewhere. In return for this arrangement, the company will pay the talent and annual fee and cover all their overhead expenses to run their company. If it’s a movie studio, the company will provide office space and other amenities on the lot. Another benefit for the talent that the company will funnel all their property to them. So if the company acquires a huge property, they’ll approach their talent with overall deals first. For example, Disney owns THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, and since Jerry Bruckheimer has an overall deal with them, they will go to him first to produce the film. Or when Paramount acquired Transformers, the first person up for the job was Michael Bay since he had a first look deal with the studio.

NOTE: This is different from an overall deal where anything the producer develops must stay within the studio and can’t be taken elsewhere even if they pass.

If you want a quick reference on where the latest overall movie studio deals are, search Variety for their latest “Facts On Pacts”.

Here are some overall deals you should know:

Jerry Bruckheimer Films
Boxing Cat Films (Tim Allen)
POW! Entertainment (Stan Lee)
Mark Gordon Company

Warner Bros
Appian Way (Leonardo DiCaprio)
Carousel Productions (Steve Carell)
Green Hat Films (Todd Phillips)
MalPaso (Clint Eastwood)
Life’s Too Short (Chuck Lorre)
Lin Pictures (Dan Lin)
Ninjas Runnin’ Wild (Zac Efron)
Pearl Street (Ben Affleck, Matt Damon)
Revelations (Morgan Freeman)
22nd & Indiana (Bradley Cooper)

Aggregate (Jason Bateman)
Apatow Productions (Judd Apatow)
Blumouse Productions (Jason Blum)
ImageMovers (Robert Zemeckis)
Imagine Entertainment (Brian Grazer, Ron Howard)
K/O Paper Products (Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci)
One Race Films (Vin Diesel)
Wild Wild West  Picture Show (Vince Vaughn)

Happy Madison (Adam Sandler)
Overbrook Entertainment (Will Smith)
Scott Rudin Productions
Smoke House (George Clooney)
Syco (Simon Cowell)
Trigger Street (Kevin Spacey)
Hey Eddie (Kevin James)
Laurence Mark Productions
Original Film (Neal Moritz)

20th Century Fox
Bad Hat Harry Productions (Bryan Singer)
Film Rites (Steve Zaillian)
Lightstorm (James Cameron)
Peter Chernin Film
Red Hour Films (Ben Stiller)
Scott Free (Ridley Scott)

Plan B (Brad Pitt)
Bad Robot ( JJ Abrams)
Di Bonaventura Pictures
Platinum Dunes (Michael Bay)
Sikelia Productions (Martin Scorsese)
Four By Two Films (Sacha Baron Cohen)

Tyler Perry Productions

What does it mean to sell a TV show with a penalty?

If you’re one of the lucky ones who sell a TV show to a network, often times they’ll pay for  your pilot script (or pay to have your pilot written if it hasn’t already been done so) and that’s the end of the road for you. They might even produce your pilot and never air it. I’ve watched dozens of pilots that have never seen the light of day. To avoid this, high profile producers/writers will demand a penalty in their purchase agreement. This is also referred to as a PUT PILOT. What this means is that if the pilot doesn’t get produced and aired on TV, the network must pay a huge fee to the producer/writer of the show. This can range for low six figures to low seven figures depending on the contract. I’ve even seen deals that include a series penalty which means if the network doesn’t order the show to series, they must pay a penalty. Networks can also use this as incentive to make sure the producer/writer sells their show the them and not one of their competitors.

What is a Treatment?

More often than not you’ll hear writers, studio execs and producers throw around the term “treatment”. SEND ME THE TREATMENT! I’LL WRITE YOU A TREAMTENT etc. This is because a treatment is one of the most versatile tools in the business. More on this in a bit…but first off, what is a treatment?

There is no precise definition of what a treatment is. Every treatment is written in a different format or a different style based on what it is used for. Generally speaking, a treatment is a document that summarizes a particular project. It could be for a narrative film, a scripted television show, a reality show, a documentary, YOU NAME IT. The content of a treatment varies along with the length. I’ve seen treatments ranging from 1-20 pages long. At the very least, a treatment should have an overview which describes what the project is about. If it’s a scripted film, explain what the story is. If it’s a reality show, explain the overall premise. If it’s a scripted TV show, explain what the series will look like. You should also include descriptions of the main characters and for TV shows, always include several story ideas. If it’s a reality series, be sure to include the format of the show.

A treatment can be used for many purposes. The most common use is a sales tool. Often times a buyer won’t have time to read an entire script, or is too busy to schedule a pitch meeting. An easy solution is to send a treatment. This will give the buyer a sense of the material in a short period of time. It’s almost like a written pitch. Often times writers will write the treatment first to help them in their writing process and understand what their story structure will be.

Producers will often write their own treatments and use it as a tool to communicate with writers. For example, if a producer comes up with an original idea that he/she needs to hire a writer for, one of the best way to communicate his/her vision is write a treatment and have the writer work off of it.


TV Hierarchy Of The Writing Staff

For scripted television shows, the writing staff is paramount, and often large in size. They can range in sizes from four writers, all the way to twenty writers. Comedy shows, and talk shows often have more writers than dramas.

Showrunner: On the TV credits, the showrunner will receive an executive producer (EP) credit. Often times, he/she will be the last EP mentioned. In TV world, the showrunner is king; unlike the film world where the director is king.

Executive Producer –  These are usually upper level senior writers with lots of writing experience. The help the showrunner in running the writer’s room, and developing the series.

Supervising Producer



Story Editor – This title often given to the senior staff writer.

Staff Writer – Once the story is broken and laid out by the writers room and approved by the showrunner, often times the staff writer will be assigned to type up the first draft of the script.

Writers’ Assistant – This person does not take part in the story creating process. Their job, for the most part, is be present in the writers’ room and take notes while the writers are developing story.

Writers’ PA – Much like a production assistant, this person is in charge of small accounting issues, getting lunches and coffees for the writers.

What is a “Beat”?

“Beat” is a term used a lot when developing or explaining a story. Beats are extremely important in communicating the direction of a story and to keep a story moving. It is a piece of information that can be conveyed in a quick moment, a sequence, or in an entire scene that moves the story forward. Often times when writers are trying to figure out their story, they will use what’s called a beat sheet. A beat can often be described in one sentence. For example, “The big bad wolf blows the straw house down.” This helps the writer determine what’s important in the story and what moments are needed in order to compel and audience.


The Do’s and Dont’s of Pitching

Brevity is beauty

DO Try and find ways to keep your pitch as brief as possible without eliminating pertinent information that will capture your audience. Think of it like telling your friend about an awesome movie you just saw.


DON’T worry about being overly thorough. Your only objective is to captivate your audience with your story and character(s). Once you have done that, your audience will ask you questions and it is at that point where you can divulge into other details of your idea.



Unless it is absolutely imperative to convey a certain visual image, you shouldn’t need to bring any props. What happens is that your prop becomes your crutch. You shouldn’t need diagrams, objects, pictures, or power point presentations to pitch a good story. If you require these things, your idea is probably not very good. You should be able to pitch your project to anyone at any given time, at any given place.


Adapt – Have other ideas prepared.

One of the important skills with pitching is being able to adapt in the room. A lot of times, through unforeseen circumstances, an executive may tell you that your idea has been pitched already, or is not something they are looking for. Your job as a pitcher is to be able to adapt and find a way to give the person at the other end of the table what he or she wants. If the rest of your ideas are half decent, and pitched briefly (and you’re not a complete arrogant jerk) chance are, the executives will want to hear more. That’s their job; to find new ideas and new material. You won’t have very many opportunities, so you might as well make the best of it. The hit TV show Rugrats was the 8th idea pitched during a pitch meeting. The executives passed on the previous seven.


Leave the business to the professionals

DO have an idea of what your budget may be, or what marketing strategies you might use. It’s never a bad idea to conjure up a budget for your own personal knowledge…but


DON’T bring marketing materials or budgets to the meeting. These sorts of things will not help you sell your project and this will all be re-worked by the studio should your project get picked up. Neither budgets nor marketing materials will help you in closing a development deal with a studio or production company.


Attaching talent

If you have the means and ability, DO attach a well-known, accomplished talent            to your project (ie. Lead actor, Director)


DON’T make a cast or director lists. Chances are, your list will be similar to their list, and it will not help you sell your project. It will not impress the studios if you start naming A-list actors or directors that you “wish” will be attached to your project.


Enthusiasm & Passion

DO show enthusiasm and passion for your project. This may seem like common sense, however, people do not realize how far passion travels across to your audience. Most of the time, your audience is not only interested in the project, but they are more interested in the person behind the project. You could have the next Oscar winning project, but if you don’t show your passion it will not sell. Feel free to stand and use the room when delivering your pitch. Look happy and thrilled to be delivering you pitch (even if it’s a horror project).


DON’T put on a show, or a sales presentation. Over-enthusiasm can be a bad thing. Remember, in their minds, if they want to buy your project, they’ll have to work with you on a regular basis, and being an over-the-top showboater might sway them not to. When you give your pitch you want to feel like you’re telling your friends about a movie you saw on the weekend.



Leave-behinds are 8-10 page documents outlining your project. They usually including a synopsis of your story, target audience, summary of characters. Whatever you do, DO NOT give them the leave behind before you start pitching. It’s called a leave behind for a reason, not a “give first”. After you finish your pitch, you may learn that what the buyers want is not outlined in your leave behind. Or you may learn that the weakest part of your pitch is the one thing you emphasize in your leave behind.


TIP: Leave behind for TV shows should show two key things: Character breakdown (detailed and interesting), and “where is this story going”. Show a season arc, or a series arc. They like to think about longevity and they want to know that you have thought about it too.

Verbal Presentation

DON’T read from a piece of paper or cue cards. Executives hate this. If you know your project well enough, you shouldn’t need to read. This disconnects you from the buyer. Remember, the executives are not just buying the project, they are buying YOU. Therefore, you need to connect with them, and moving your eyes/head back and forth between a piece of paper does not accomplish this.


DO engage in a conversation. Pitches should not be presentations. Every pitch is a job interview. The need to be assured that they can work with you no matter how great the project is. The best pitches are the ones that transform into conversations. This is the best way for executives to get to know you, and to get excited about your project.



Know your project but be open minded and flexible

DO show your audience that you are creatively flexible and easy to work with.  Nine times out of ten, when a studio or network buys your project, they are going to tear it a part. Part of the pitching process involves selling yourself to your audience and showing them that you will be a good partner, despite whether or not your project will sell. At the same time, convey that you know your project in detail and that you have your own personal vision.


DON’T refute suggestions given by your audience. You need to show that you are not only open to creative suggestions, but that you appreciate them. BUT, whatever you do, DON’T use the phrase “whatever you want it to be”. If an executive asks you a creative question, you tell them what you feel is the best answer, because that is what they are looking for.