The Secret to Success in Hard Times - Tenacity
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While my daily grind is playing media processor between man and machine, I think all of us vidiots fancy ourselves as creators.
I started out making stop-motion shorts with a Quasar VHS camcorder in 1984. There was no deadline, no budget. I wasn't aware such things existed. I was fourteen and I just wanted to make TV shows.
In 1990, I began my pitch-quest. I was working as a camera operator for the local ABC affiliate in Lubbock, TX. While watching COPS with my buddies one night, I envisioned a local version shot with Lubbock's finest over a local backdrop, with suspects that viewers probably know.
Small markets have their downsides, but they do make it easy to schedule meetings with persons of position. I scheduled a meeting with the local Fox affiliate's program manager.
He loved the idea, but weeks went by with no response. Then he stopped even taking my calls. I was surprised to watch the premiere of his version of the same show the next season.
I had handed my first show away on a silver platter, but managed to take the experience as a compliment. At least he liked my idea.
THE HARD LIFE & SNERK
My wife, Nancy, and I met in 1995, and in our first living room together, we began constructing sets for a stopmotion claymation comedy called "The Hard Life." It featured a laid back duo with grand visions of great things they'd probably never get around to doing.
We scripted nothing, and did not shoot with hopes of selling anything. We simply had fun, created, and only later decided that MTV should look at it. Viacom accepts unsolicited material, or at least that's what the receptionist on the phone said when I cold-called the network. I signed a release, mailed a pilot/treatment package, and waited. And waited.
And then came my first letter of death. If you have ever been turned down for anything, you know the "We have received your submission, but unfortunately..." letter I speak of. Anyone that pitches shows will become familiar with them. Think of them as trophies. At least that's how I see 'em.
Nancy and I had our first child the next year, and turned our creativity towards children's programming. Long time friend and artist extraordinaire Mark Gilmore brought his puppets and a story board to our home in Nashville. Over the next 36 hours, we shot a pilot for a children's show called "Snerk."
It was a true midnight production. I got permission to borrow a Betacam from TNN, the network where I was staffing as an editor -- after I borrowed it. I got permission to shoot in a grocery store after getting the shot, and got permission from TNN to edit the pilot after hours in TNN's linear suites, after I'd already edited it.
I did the blind submission thing with both PBS and Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon called back twice with teases, but after months of phone-pitching on my lunch break, the only thing that came from the Snerk project was an awesome weekend and my kids' favorite video.
In 2001, I was staffing for an entertainment company in Indiana that specializes in making tour spots for prominent bands. You've seen these commercials: "Sunday! At your local Aaaampitheatre! Your favorite Baaaaaand!"
I met with one of the bands, gave them a couple of mini-DV cameras, and explained that I wanted to make a show from their home movies, called "Beyond Backstage." The band I pitched was Styx, and they agreed! It led to a show I am proud of to this day. Rare are the projects that turn out ex-freakin-zactly how they were envisioned, and this one did.
The submission process could not have been easier, as I edited it on the clock and turned it in to my boss when done. It floated its way to the top, legalities trickled down, and in the end...nothing.
Again, I saw it as a positive experience. It was cool to have had the opportunity to create a pipe dream, and it was partially the success of this project that gave me the courage to start my own company.
By 2004, I was self-employed and needed a project I could be passionate about. I've been a car-lover all my life, so I created a documentary series about car enthusiasts called "Moddin' Art."
It's cool because I simply shoot what I'm doing on weekends anyway, attending or entering various motorsports events. I record these events first person, paying an entry fee and shooting the race, show or meet from the participant's point of view.
I've pitched "Moddin' Art" to network after network over these past 4 years, with no agent or entertainment attorney. I'm not holding out in the name of pride. I just haven't found a suit that digs what I do yet. If you can get an agent to represent your project, man, do it.
For the solo show-slinger, there are pretty much three ways to get a pitch opportunity. Two of 'em are "who ya know," and "right place at the right time." While these sometime work, they're not something you can count on.
That leaves cold-call pitching, whether to the networks directly, or by attending conventions designed specifically to couple show creators with show buyers. NATPE (National Association of Television Program Executives) is an ideal example. For your entry fee, you get the opportunity to sell your show or concept to networks and agencies.
Even though I couldn't really afford the trip this year, with so much invested into Moddin' Art already, I didn't feel like I could afford to miss it either.
I was thirty-eight and this was my first personal response to a life's calling. I scraped up our last nickels and flew to Hollywood, where I believed the rainbow to end.
Days 1 and 2 of the festival consisted of seminars and panel discussions covering all the "what to dos" and "what not to dos" when pitching a show. It dawned on me that I had not pitched a show in person since sitting with that dude in Lubbock almost two decades ago.
I had mailed hundreds of pilots, treatments, sizzle reels and one-sheets, and I now wallpapered a wall in my office with network rejection letters. Going by the "ten nos for every yes" rule, I was due big time.
Day 3 was what they call the Pitch Pit, three 10-minute pitches for everyone at the Hollywood House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard, with an executive from someplace impressive at every table, and an actual timer set for ten minutes. It's fair to picture an amusement park for grown ups with ADD. There is much line-standing, huge, short-lived adrenaline rushes, then more line-standing.
There was also a bull pen, a place for pitchers to scavenge over random availabilities with elite catchers of content. It is not a line. The most aggressive get the most pitches, and I managed 7 of them.
It was exhausting. It was exhilarating. It was a fine combination of dream and disappointment. It was actually awesome to have a heartless stranger stare at me without emotion and say "Pass."
I had a couple of prospects who were not interested but knew someone who might be, and a few who took my one-sheet and a sizzle reel. I had my phone in my hand and was supposed to be calling Nancy and the kids with a "Woo-hoo!" right now, but the "We love it! Let's do it!" response still eluded me.
I spent the next weeks following up on every lead I could, and turned up nothing. I was back to cold-calling as I worked my way through an online cable network directory.
I was in the Bs when I stumbled on The Boating Channel. I had never heard of them, but I envisioned "Moddin' Art" on the water. After all, it's about people, not cars, and it would be as easy as hoppin' on a boat and hittin' some lakes.
I called them, the receptionist sent me right through to the president of the company, and I verbally pitched a water-based version of "Moddin' Art." After five minutes, a sample reel of some sort was eagerly requested.
I had recently been on a cruise as a cameraman on an unrelated shoot and had shot a segment for "Moddin' Art" while on the ship. It was just kind of a documentary of my trip, but it was all I had that was boat-related, so I sent it in. It was such a long shot that I didn't even mention this one to my family.
Once again, weeks went by. I was on a shoot for a new project when I got a call from The Boating Channel. They took my sample reel much more literally than I anticipated, and tucked away on the side of a shoot with my cell phone, I heard an enthusiastic voice describe a dream gig to me: I'd go on cruises in every episode, and would document my trips as the average Joe in a new series called "Fantastic Voyages."
About the time it was soaking in that this man wanted to pay me to repeatedly go on vacation, I heard, "We love it! Let's do it!"
It had been a quarter of a century since I first picked up a camera and held big dreams. In that quarter of a century, I never stopped working toward those dreams. My cell phone still in hand, I called home.
"Hey honey, I just sold a TV show I wasn't tryin' to sell, to a network I've never seen before!"
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