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9 tips: how to get your best idea commissioned for TV/Netflix

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  • Post last modified:January 1, 2021

You have the best idea. EVER. It’s new, it’s fresh, it’s something completely different from anything else. Maybe you’ve already written the script for it. You know millions of people will be interested. But now what?

You want to get your idea commissioned so it will be developed and broadcasted. But how do you go about doing that? There are several options. You can set up your own production company and produce your idea yourself. But that takes a lot money. To produce an average series costs between 5 and 15 million dollars per season, money you most likely don’t have in your bank account.

Option two is to send in a proposal to a broadcaster or a producer to have it commissioned. All good and well, but how do you do this?

How does commissioning work?

Let’s talk shortly about how commissioning works in the UK and the US. In the UK, every TV channel has a channel controller who works with multiple genre commissioners’ editors. They can either be responsible for a specific time frame and day or for a specific genre. They decide what will be shown and when. So it’s to them that you have to pitch your idea. On the channel’s website, you can often find where to send your idea and how.

In the US, it’s a bit different. There you will often need an agent who’s going to introduce your idea to the showrunner (the series’ producer). I googled every American channel for their idea submission page, but found none. So you’ll need someone who has the connections to pitch the idea for you.

The same goes for streaming services. Most don’t want unsolicited ideas, meaning ideas from individuals without any professional background. For example, Netflix only accepts ideas and scripts from literary agents or from partners they already have a relationship with. Same goes for Amazon.

Begin: how to get your idea commissioned

9 tips to get your idea broadcast

So how do you get your idea to be broadcast on television? Well, you send in a proposal. Normally, this consists of a title, a logline and a description (sometimes also called a synopsis). Sometimes you will also be asked to provide the first part of the script and/or a show reel.

In order to get your idea produced, each of these elements needs to hit the spot just right. Here are 9 tips to make that happen:

1. Have a strong title and a clear logline

Okay, let’s start with probably the most important point.

The BBC receives 200 ideas a week. To stand out amongst those seems daunting, doesn’t it?

Kate Phillips of the BBC says:

‘The best ideas, historically and at present, are the simplest ideas. One that you can sum up in one sentence and the audience gets straight away.’

Think of a short title (no more than 32 characters if possible) and describe your idea in one line – also called a logline. Be sure to focus on your core idea: your line might be very polished, but it will be of little interest if it doesn’t get your idea across. Stress what makes your idea unique. This also applies when you send in a script: the commissioner will first look at your title, logline and the first page of the description.

2. Tailor your description to the right channel and person

Let’s say that you submitted your idea to Channel 4. They rejected it. So you move on to the BBC. You change the name in the description to the BBC and send it to them, right? Bad idea. To get your idea noticed, you need to do more than that.  

It’s not just the name that’s different. Channels have different core values and target audiences. Fox is different than CNN. In order for your proposal to be effective, you have to appeal to these core values.

Before you write your proposal, analyze the content, tone and audience of the channel the proposal is aimed for. Find out what kind of language they use. Is it formal or familiar? Is your channel’s audience young or old and how does it change the tone of their content? Make sure you know the channel you’re pitching to and adjust your proposal accordingly.

When submitting your proposal, you may be able to choose to which commissioner you send it. Choosing the right one can make a big difference. A day time commissioner has a lower budget at his disposal than a prime time commissioner. So it doesn’t make sense to pitch your multi-million dollar project to someone who doesn’t have the cash to finance it.

Your proposal should also fit into the channel’s programming. Day time programming for example consists mostly of family friendly content. That’s great if you’re pitching a children’s show. But if your idea is for a horror series, then you need to pitch that to a night time commissioner.

So you can see it’s important to match your pitch to the person/channel you’re pitching to. Unless you enjoy getting rejection letters.

3. Find a production company to collaborate with

Outsiders often make the mistake of thinking that all they need to do is sell a good idea. That the channel will then take care of the entire production. But that’s not how it works. To get your idea produced you will actually have to do the producing yourself.

Shooting a movie in the night
Shooting a movie in the night

So what do you do if you don’t have your own production company and you don’t want to set one up? Then you need to find an established production company that is willing to work with you to execute your idea. Many production companies are open to individuals sending in their ideas. Some even have a special page for it on their website.

Some production companies are also happy to do the commissioning for you. This can be an advantage as they have the experience and connections (and you probably don’t). When partnering with a production company it is very important though to make sure that you keep the intellectual property rights to your idea. Or have a simple contract signed up about division of ownership. Otherwise the company will end up making all the money.

A lot of commissioners will only accept your idea if you have a production company backing you up. For example, UKTV only accepts proposals if they’re affiliated with or from an independent film company. The BBC has the same rule, unless you want to send in a script for fiction.

Even if you do have your own production company, it might be a good idea to partner up with a bigger one. This is especially true if you’re working on a large and complicated production.

4. Create a breakdown of the script

When you’re pitching a scripted show, it may be usefull to be able to give a commissioner an approxiation of the budget and the production time. To be able to do this, you need to make a breakdown of the script.

A breakdown is an analysis of a script in which all of the production elements are reduced into lists, like the shooting days, the amount of actors needed and the number of costumes.

It is not common for a commissioner to ask for a breakdown when you do your first pitch. However, sometimes it can help take away some doubt about costs. And that might just be the thing that allows you to close the deal.

Script movie
An example of a script breakdown

First time you’re doing a breakdown? Read my article here about what costs go into a film/serie production.

5. Look beyond traditional TV

In the introduction, I already mentioned Netflix and Amazon. The fact that these are streaming services doesn’t make them any less interesting to pitch to. After all, they need content just as much as traditional broadcast channels. They might even be your first choice as the ratings for television are slowly degrading and streaming services get more popular and standardized.

The Lizzie Bennet Dairies
This is a series on YouTube with 100 episodes, based on the book Pride and Prejudice. It was created by a professional company, but without any commissions by big broadcasters. You can watch the episodes here.

But there are even more options. Online channels like YouTube and VICE are also very popular at the moment. Check out which content providers exist and then compare them to see where your idea fits best.

There are also advantages to excecuting some of your ideas on a public video platform. These allow you to build recognition and a reputation, while keeping production costs low.

6. Get noticed at film and television festivals

Festivals are the place to be seen. They often hold pitching competitions, where you can win some money to help get your idea produced. Although it often isn’t enough for the whole production, it’s a start and might give you a head start. Yet, money isn’t the main reason you should participate.

Pitch at festivals to get seen. Many commissioners are present there, scouting for new talents and ideas. You wouldn’t be the first to go home with your idea commissioned or with a few business cards in the pocket. Did you know that Fleabag was discovered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013? At the time, it was a one-woman play of just half an hour. But the BBC liked it so much that they commissioned it and worked with Phoebe Waller-Bridge to create a television series out of it. This series has won six Emmy’s and two Golden Globes by now and is extremely popular. So get out there, extend your network, make yourself seen and get known.

7. Consider making a sizzle reel or taster tape

A sizzle reel or taster tape is a short video of no more than 10 minutes. It gives the commissioner a taste of your idea. You don’t have to record the show, but it should convey the feel or vibe of the show or series.

Some companies want a video when you first submit your idea. Most ask for it if they’re intrigued by your idea and want you to pitch it further. Nonetheless, sending the reel immediately can give you a head start as it can sometimes much more effectively get the idea across.

The Crown S4
This picture is from the series The Crown and was used as a primary publicity picture for the fourth season. What feeling does it convey? What impression? Images and videos even more can give a impression of what one can expect.
PS. If you want to read about the accuracy of the The Crown, click here

I do want to note here that the reel should be made professionally. Don’t make a video at your kitchen table while your cat walks by in the the background. Think of your reel as your business card. It needs to make an impression and leave the other person wanting more. So, if you go for the reel, it’s wise to invest some time and money into it. It’s the first impression of your idea a commissioner will get, so make sure it’s a good one.

8. Make your idea future proof

If you submit your idea today, it won’t be ready for broadcast tomorrow. As I mentioned earlier, Fleabag was commissioned in 2013, but the first episode wasn’t broadcast until 2016. So it took three years to develop. Your idea should be interesting now, but must remain so in the future.  

Usually, about 18  months pass between the idea getting commissioned and it getting broadcast. So if your idea revolves around the world championship that starts next month, you’re too late. The movie 2012 was released in 2009, a couple of years ahead of the event so as to be still interesting for the audience. But even smaller aspects can influence your idea. If you choose to make a trend the focus of your idea, the trend may have passed by the time your idea is realised. Look ahead of time and try to anticipate developments that may make your idea’s outdated.

9. Keep trying

If your idea doesn’t get commissioned on the first try, keep going. Your idea might be good, but perhaps it doesn’t fit the timeframe. Or the commissioner is already working on a similar idea: maybe your proposal about a coffee competition isn’t the only food competition idea send in.

It helps to know trends in production. By using your network to keep track of what’s hot (and especially what’s not) you can prevent your idea being lost among many similar proposals. It might actually be smart to go along with a trend, but you must always introduce something new and unique.

Working on an idea

Try to improve your submission every time. Maybe your logline can be stronger, shorter, better. Ask yourself if the title is captivating enough? If the commissioner gives feedback, make sure to use it. Keep progressing.  

To wrap it up

Getting your idea commissioned is difficult. Many ideas come in every day and yours needs to be picked out from among them. Use these tips to improve your proposals and the way you submit them and hopefully you’ll soon be called a producer of your own show. Let me know how you get on!

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Dr Frieda Birnbaum

    Finding a producer or manager to connect to Netflix is not a reality. I
    have several shows that would be interesting, informative and intriguing. The hard part is to get someone to represent me and to open doors for successful and timely shows.

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