TWIC/ Selling Your TV Show: Pilot, Bible, or Both?

This Week in Coaching is my totally public weekly career coaching diary.

Last week, I was talking to an emerging writer who was beyond excited about the new show concept he had come up with. The writer is super talented, but also unrepresented, with only a couple of loose industry-adjacent connections. He had heard that most TV shows today sell off of a pitch and/or a series bible, so he came to talk to me in order to establish a clear directive on what he should develop in order to sell his TV concept to a buyer such as HBOMax, Amazon or Netflix.

The answer, as you might suspect, is complicated, and different for every writer, depending on where the writer is currently on her TV writing track. Let’s break it down:

First, it’s important to remember that, more often than not, TV concepts, be they developed in the construct of a bible, a pitch, or pilot, are usually sold by writers who have had some TV writing experience within the industry (such as in a writers room), traction in the feature space, or both, under their belt. So while developing TV content is often highly encouraged by agents and managers (who are then tasked with sending out pilots and/or setting pitches), the majority of sales come from those writers who’ve had some level of professional traction. Keep this in mind as we break it down further.

In recent months and years, many of my professional writers have been able to sell pilots off of a strong pitch, for which they’ve developed detailed “pitch pages.” These pitches are often comprehensive and performative, spanning from 20- to 40-minutes, in which the writer expounds their connection to the material (otherwise known as their “way in”) or inspiration for the show, its world, tone, characters, pilot breakdown and multi-season vision (note that these elements are interchangeable based on whatever works best for the pitch). Such pitches can be taken directly to the buyers (such as Netflix, HBOMax or ABC Signature) if representation feels that’s the right, strategic move, or taken to production companies first (such as Esmail Corp, Monkey Paw or Lucky Chap), in order to bring such entities on board first to help shepherd and guide the project. As noted above, for these scenarios, it is often advised to only have developed a strong which (the word “only” being quite misleading here, as such pitches require a lot of work), with the bible and pilot being developed with buyer or production company involvement.

The decision whether to take out a pitch or a fully developed pilot is something that the writer and her reps will usually decide on together and strategically; they may deem the concept to be clear enough to go out with a pitch alone, or decide that the material at hand is so tonally specific and heavily execution-dependent that the writer will opt to try and get it on the page first, before it goes out to the town. In other words, while we are leaning more towards well-craft, deep-dive pitches at the moment, the required materials for a working writer to take material out are negotiable, for the most part.

Now, in my experience, when it comes to emerging writers, the situation is quite different. The writer may have developed a show concept that could pitch great, but without representation in place advocating for the work or pre-existing high level contacts, it would be tough to get that pitch heard at high levels anywhere. Before the writer is able to sell her show, she would need representation, and representation tends to seek out completed, high quality pilots before taking on a new client for representation. In fact, a couple of years ago, a writer I worked with developed a well written but somewhat ambiguous pilot, as well as a fantastic series document for a show she had come up with. While the pilot did not give us a clear indication of the show, it would all make sense once the bible had been read. However, I wasn’t sure whether this writer, both talented and unrepresented, would be able to get in the door on the merits of the bible she had developed. At that time, I had never met an emerging, unrepresented, unconnected writer who found success that way. With that in mind, I called up a close manager friend who had been able to get a slew of his writers their first pilot sales. He told me, in no uncertain terms I hate reading bibles. The only way I ever look at one is if I think the pilot is amazing, first. But I would never take something out from an emerging writer on a pitch deck or series bible alone. It’s too risky, and an unproven writer is too green for that.”

In other words: If the writer is unrepresented and doesn’t have high-level pre-existing industry contacts in place, she will likely have to write the pilot first in order to find an effective representative to help get the work out there. Once representation is in place, it may be deemed strategically appropriate to develop a powerful pitch in order to supersede the pilot, but as another manager once told me: “No executive is going to give you the time required for a pitch if they’re not a fan of your work already.” Which is true! Any time a working writer of mine would have their reps try to set a pitch with a company they had not met at before, a writing sample would usually be required before a pitch meeting would be set. So while getting your show sold may or may not require the fully developed pilot to be written first, getting representation and getting introduced to the professional TV-development space will require that you first deliver your strong pilot vision on the page.

My advice? 

A working writer should be able to determine the best strategy for her new show with her representation weighing in, be it taking out a thoughtfully developed pitch, as is the most common scenario these days, or going all in for a pilot script.

An emerging writer may ultimately be able to take out a pitch or a bible to help find its show the home it deserves but… in order to land the representative that will help her get there, she will need to write the pilot first.