Newbie Tip: How to Make A Million Dollars from a One-Sentence Idea Written on a Napkin


Warning: If you prefer the genial, let’s-enjoy-this, happy go-lucky me, you might want to skip this entry.

I don’t mean to get all Josh Olson on anyone here, but I am very close to taking a cue from his now-infamous “I Will Not Read Your F*cking Script” piece published in The Village Voice and adapting it into my own “I Don’t Want to Hear Your F*cking Reality Show Idea.”

It used to be that every cab driver, bartender and barista in Los Angeles had a spec screenplay and a honed pitch for it ready to break out at any opportune moment. Armed with a basic knowledge of format, some screenwriting books, a computer and a few months of weekends, it’s never been as daunting a thing to take a stab at screenwriting as, say, going to auditions every day or raising the money to make an independent feature. Screenwriting is a low-cost entry point to the Hollywood machine that with some solid time management skills can be pursued in addition to a day job. The people who try know it’s a million to one shot, but still, they keep banging out their tales in the 90 to 120 page brass-brad-bound lottery tickets you all know as spec screenplays.

Accepted fact in the world of traditionally scripted entertainment: It takes time to refine an idea and make it presentable.

Why, then, do people assume that simply vomiting up loglines that occur to them on the bus / in the shower / while watching other reality shows constitutes creating a reality show? And why on Earth do they submit them blindly to anyone in reality tv without so much as a preceding query? Do they have any idea what kid of peril that puts someone in, should they submit, wholly unsolicited, a one-sentence concept that’s broadly similar to something the recipient might have in the hopper already?

Imaginary scenario: A television show about celebrities competing in a bake-off is in development at the network level. The creator and the network have worked together for several weeks to refine the game play, attach the perfect celebrity host, and have generally polished their little gem into a diamond brilliant enough to move forward on.

Then, one morning, a baker at a cupcake shop in Maine wakes up and thinks: “How about a show where celebrities have a bake-off?” The baker, having no connection to the television business but sure that he’s just dreamed up a single sentence that will earn him millions, cruises the net for email addresses, sending off a dozen or so communications like this one:

Dear Reality TV Stranger:

I have an idea for a show in which celebrities have a bake-off. It could be cakes, cupcakes, donuts, whatever! If you are interested, please respond.

-Baker Joe

Ironically, Baker Joe has just spent more time figuring out where to send his query than he has spent refining his idea.

Imagine the expression of horror experienced when the creator of the celebrity bake-off discovers this thing in his inbox. He’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t, as telling the baker that he already has a show like this in development will read to the baker as “Great idea. I’m going to steal it.” If he doesn’t respond, the baker will see the show on television six months later and think he should sue over the idea he submitted, unsolicited, to the reality show creator, who surely stole his idea.

There’s a true story from the traditionally scripted world about a writer who took things into his own hands when a fan submitted, unsolicited, a concept for a sequel to one of the writer’s works that was quite similar to the sequel the writer was already working on for a studio. Again, imagine the shock. When he told the studio, they were similarly struck by apoplexy. It was a no-win situation that would almost surely result in a major nuisance lawsuit. The only remedy the writer had was to threaten to sue the fan for loss of livelihood should his similarly-themed sequel be shelved over fear of legal reprisal from someone who had submitted, completely unsolicited, an idea, a brain fart, a simple concept somewhat similar to something that had taken weeks and months to work on. The fan signed a waiver of rights to the material submitted, and the project proceeded… the hilarious part being that surely, somewhere, the fan or his friends probably remain suspicious that his or her idea was “stolen” by the writer and studio.

Bull.

If you submit something unsolicited to an agency or production company with a no-unsolicited-submissions policy, your work can and will be returned unopened or destroyed in the envelope you shipped it in. That’s how seriously they take their “no unsolicited submissions” policies. And with the erroneous presumption in place that screenplays are written, but reality shows are just crazy one-sentence ideas that turn into million-dollar paychecks, why wouldn’t some litigious idiot just fire off pages and pages of loglines by email, blissfully unaware that in doing so, he’s creating big trouble for himself (by appearing unprofessional) and the people he submits his work to? Even if his ideas are good, they are probably not going to be read or acted upon.

It’s harder for an individual to set up an effective firewall to the outside world. I can’t control who’s going to send me an email or what that content might be. And as often as I ask, however politely, in every public appearance I make and over and over in online advice forums, people still send me their damned one-sentence show ideas.

This, of course, isn’t helped by the fact that at least one published book on reality television actually suggests at one point that you “crack the email code” in order to pitch by email, calling it “a helpful trick for gaining an audience with those whose attention may be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.” The author even claims that this worked for him as much as 60 percent of the time. The book jacket fails to mention an interesting fact found on the author’s website: that he is currently a VP at a grain company, which is slightly different than being a full-time creator and producer of reality television.

Hulk… smash!

Breathe.

Relax.

Okay, what I want to say in response is…

um…

don’t do that.

Develop your idea into a thing that is more pronounced and special than an idea. Explain the format and, if applicable, game play. Attach your stars, if that needs to be done to bolster your presentation, taking care not to create a show that would never happen, such as “It’s a reality show where President Obama’s family reviews cupcake bakeries in Maine.”

Register your treatment (not just your vague logline) at http://www.wga.org, which costs all of about twenty bucks. You can swing twenty bucks.

Get an agent or an entertainment attorney. Have them set meetings with production companies that actually make shows in the vein of what you have created and/or have a relationship with a network you think the show might be a good fit for. I’ll say that again a little differently: Have some idea of what network the show could air on.

Then, and only then, will your concepts be read and considered. Unless your uncle is in the business.

One last time: Don’t send unsolicited material unless you know for a fact that someone accepts such things. It’s too competitive out there to act like an amateur.

26 comments on “Newbie Tip: How to Make A Million Dollars from a One-Sentence Idea Written on a Napkin

  1. I love this, and it happens all the time!! At least I have the “Oh, I’m just an editor that puts the show together once it’s already shot” excuse! Last summer someone hunted me down on facebook from Georgia to tell me he was going to be the next big thing and I needed to give him a reality show stat…like “Flavor of Love” or “I Love New York”. I was polite and refused then was hounded for another month straight with the guy demading e-mail addresses to all the EPs I knew……crazy people!!

  2. Wow Troy,

    Loved this post. However, made me feel a little bad about calling you with my idea last summer. I hope that I fall at least into a slightly different category (in that I already had it partially shot, and now its sorta in development).

    Definitley a great post, pretty informative and great way to look at things.

    Kirk

  3. Kirk:

    Your case was entirely different.

    a) I’ve known and worked with you for years, so you’re hardly a stranger.
    b) You asked if I would speak to you about your project and included no information about the subject matter or concept in your initial query.
    c) If you had sent me an email that said “I have this idea about a competitive sandwich-making show” or something totally blind, I’d have given you the same speech about submitting unsolicited material.

    I hope your show does find a home. It’s terrific.

  4. I have this great idea for….

    Just kidding. Excellent advice. Years ago, when i was just a pup, I wrote a song for a girl I was infatuated with. I sent the song, via my fan club membership, to a band I was a huge fan of. The song never went anywhere (either locally or with that platinum selling band) and now I know why (couldn’t possibly be because it was a derivative piece of sappy drivel, right?).

    What would you recommend for someone that has an idea to improve an existing reality series? Same advice? Something slightly different?

    • Thanks for posting!

      What would your motivation be for offering an idea to improve an existing reality series? Would you expect to be compensated for retooling an existing show, or do you mean creating a new show that’s a different take on something already on the air? If you mean the latter, then by all means create your own show… but most producers and networks won’t be terribly interested in unsolicited advice regarding their shows.

      During the development process, producers, production companies, creators and networks all hash through a great many ideas and approaches, so there’s some chance you might be presenting them with something they’ve already thought about and discarded. Further, your submission of any idea or concept without being asked for it puts both you and the show in legal jeopardy.

  5. Hey, so I heard this was an article about submitting unsolicited reality show ideas (I was too eager to post this that I didn’t bother reading the article yet), so picture this: “The Wart”: 20 co-eds living together for the summer, one has genital warts, and after physical challenges, cooking contests, eliminations, celebrity cameos, alliances, hot tubs, STD checks, and being forced to all share the same bed, one person will correctly identify the the person with “the wart” and win $1 million prize! Sounds great, right?

    I kid, I kid…but seriously, what if we don’t want to submit any unsolicited ideas for new shows but rather unsolicited opinions to the people currently producing certain reality shows that some of their new ideas that are being incorporated into the existing shows absolutely SUCK and are making the show painful to watch? Like, certain isles of redemption, or races that aren’t as amazing as they once were, or the paradox of the talent competition judge who doesn’t ever judge paradigm, etc.? Surely there must be a way to protect some of our most beloved shows from destroying themselves, and be heard by the people coming up with these bad ideas that I’m mad as hell, and I won’t take it anymore, so get rid of redemption fucking island already! How do we get our unsolicited but absolutely correct opinions noticed? You want to talk about nuisances? Try watching the ratings for your show plummet cause you didn’t listen to me and then having schmucks like me posting “I told ya so!” on forums and blogs and twitter. That’s way more annoying than a lawsuit.

    • I’d tell you that there are lots of ways to vent your spleen about your favorite shows without submitting material to them. For example, I’m sure most producers look in on fan forums at least occasionally to see what fans are saying about their shows and what they’d change to mix things up.

      But as I’ve said, if you’re gunning for recognition or compensation, keep those ideas to yourself.

  6. Josh Olson has been a kind gentleman to me in two social settings in the last month. And that’s WITHOUT me telling him I’m an even bigger fan of his notorious article than I am of A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. Just wanted to throw that out there. Besides being dead right, he’s actually nice to strangers seated next to him during dinner. Take that, Scribosphere!

    More importantly, why are Reality TV Troy posts appearing regularly on my beloved Crazy Days and Nights escapist gossip facebook page? Does the esteemed Mr. DeVolld by chance know Enty? Or…is it that you’re never both in the room at the same time? I promise not to fill in Commissioner Gordon, if I can get the direct number to the gossip Batphone…

  7. Any advice on how to protect yourself from a production company stealing a fully developed and original show concept/treatment?

    Some companies are willing to accept and read your treatment but first require you to sign a form stating you won’t make any claims against them in the event they make a show like yours.

    I understand this standard submission form protects the production company from people like Baker Joe, but conversely opens the door for them to steal good ideas.

    Where’s my protection from said production company stealing my fully developed idea? Is a WGA registration enough if I’ve signed away my right to make claims?

    • I think I may have accidentally just replied to you personally, KS, so forgive me if I repost here.

      Basically, my reply is that if you submit through an agent or entertainment attorney, you probably won’t be presented with that paperwork.

      Also, if you’re pitching with talent attached, have an exclusivity arrangement drawn up. I do know of a creator whose talent was approached by a production company after she pitched, and that they made a deal without her to do a similar show. Ouch.

      I’ve had moments where I was convinced that something I pitched wound up on the air, but knowing that no idea is ever my last and that I so often bring in shows that actually are coincidentally similar to things other people are pitching, I let it slide with a smile and console myself with the knowledge that I’m at least creating the kind of stuff that makes it to air.

  8. Thanks for the advice. I had an idea that I thought a majority of viewers might be interested in. I get the “unsolicited” suggestion quandary so I will keep it to myself. Reality show production should be left to the producers of reality television.

    • Richard:

      Don’t let me dissuade you from trying — that’s not the point of this entry at all. It’s just that if you have a concept, there are proper ways to get it out there into the TV universe, which is what all that business at the end of the post was about.

      Good luck!

      • I agree with you completely. What I meant was that my topic was based more on human interest than sensationalism. The approach to the respective medium should be appropriate and that is not always the case. The subject matter of the programming is not what your focus is on, but instead the approach that is taken when submitting ideas. I was agreeing with your attitude that some individuals should “look before they leap.” Thanks again for your heads up approach to the subject matter.

  9. Great blog, I got a good laugh here, from Troy, as well as the posts.

    Apparently, the public (especially mothers or grandmothers) feel compelled to tell / inform any creative / artistic professional, who is either in charge of a group, or sitting next to them on a plane, at length, how their kids or grandchildren also do what you do so well, as that’s my life story. At some point I learned to never really reveal what I do because #1 takes too much explanation and #2 the person always has a relative or friend who “also does that”, but truth be told, nothing like what I do.

    Also, why is it, when you mention what you do, people are compelled to bring up an obscure local name that “also does” what you do, and ask if you know them, even if they don’t?? Oh sure, I make it my life goal to seek out every competitor, who really isn’t one, and get to know them, lady! Would you go to a local restaurant and ask them if they ever heard of the chef from another one?? Arrrrggghhhh!

    I guess human nature and small talk drives them to do that, but it feels good to vent with you understanding types. I’m grateful to have never been “pitched” to by a taxi driver, omg!

  10. On cable TV, it seems many pilots are run as “specials” (usually numerous times in various timeslots) on a cable TV channel and if the “special” does well in the ratings, it is optioned as series. “Jon & Kate Plus Eight,” “Mythbusters,” “Dirty Jobs,” “How the States Got Their Shape,” and many other cable TV shows started off as “specials.”

    What about producing a “special” that is essentially your reality show done up in a self-contained single episode? It can stand alone but clearly could be changed into a series. Then taking the “special” and shopping it around to the cable TV networks. “Here it is. All done and ready to air.” Saying more than one network is interested, you then negotiating for what rating point would trigger them to option it as a series, what timeslot(s) it would aire in if optioned, how much they’d pay, etc. Saying you can get the funding to produce such a “special”, would that be a good option for someone to pursue?

    • This one wins longest hang-time before a response. I only JUST noticed that I’d missed it now.

      I would absolutely not suggest a gamble of that magnitude. If you wanted to produce a special and then shop it to distribs, go for it… but it’s ultra-rare and execs at the network level usually work with the creators from inception, giving notes and nudging the thing along in accordance with what they believe to be the wants/desires of their viewers.

  11. Good article. Few questions though. What kind of agent would the creator of a reality show idea obtain and two, isn’t this kind of a catch 22? I’m a no-name producer from the midwest that has produced a pilot for reality show idea, but being a no-name, agents wouldn’t consider me would they? It’s kind of the same situation. I can’t even get my foot in the door of an agency, in order to get my foot in the door of studios, because I have no credentials.

    • Ryan, I’m gonna give it to you straight. You kind of have to live where the food is. Most agents with enough pull to get you in a room will want to work with people who are local to New York or Los Angeles, more often the latter. What you are looking for in the way of representation, if you need it, is someone in the Alternative or Reality department.

      What an agent wants is to be working with someone who is already earning or has proven fairly recently that they can earn.

      Most people I know earned their credentials waaaay down the ladder from producing. It’s also as much about having a social group of working professionals around you as it is about being talented. I have hundreds of working friends and acquaintances that know me from social interactions over the last twelve years — I would be at a loss if I were back in Ohio trying to break in at the top level of the pyramid as a creator.

      THIS BEING SAID, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to present to a production company if your concept is interesting enough and/or you have real talent attached, exclusively, to the show. I would avoid trying to simply cook up formats — if you have an exclusive arrangement with a family that runs the world’s largest steakhouse, you have a show people will take a meeting on, no matter where you live. It’s up to you to travel and take those meetings, though.

      I totally get how you feel. It’s just how things really work.

  12. I had a brilliant idea for a reality competition show and worked out the details all the way to the winner. How do I get an agent or pitch my reality show if agents and producers are looking for people that made money in the business already and of course I will not solicit.

    • Hi, Luc.

      If it’s your first time out, you’ll be looking for an established production company to partner with. Look for one that has a track record of producing the kind of show you’re pitching.

  13. Troy, I’m going to put my two cent in as well. I am from the Caribbean and have shot a pilot already for a reality show and have the same problem of trying to find an agent in the usa to represent me, it’s not as easy as I thought even as simple to have that representation. If you have any other ideas that you haven’t already mentioned please, please pass it on. Thanks Mo.

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