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.
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.
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.
Okay, what I want to say in response is…
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.