Viewpoint: Todd Lituchy – a pilot’s progress

The concept of US networks adapting international scripted series for the American market is nothing new.  In 1971, CBS turned the British Till Death Us Do Part into All in the Family. In 1977, Man About the House became Three’s Company. This year, I am told that 14 pilots produced for the five major English-language broadcast networks in the US were adaptations of foreign scripted projects.

Mysteries_of_LauraThe five networks ordered nearly 100 pilots this pilot season; split roughly 50/50 between dramas and comedies. Of these, approximately 24 will make it to air as a full-fledged TV series this coming autumn. One of these, The Mysteries of Laura, which my company sold to Warner Bros. on behalf of Boomerang in Spain, was lucky enough to win the lottery and secure a spot on NBC’s fall schedule.

Getting scripts sold and having pilots made are huge achievements. Getting a series order is the TV equivalent of finishing a triathlon. It’s a whirlwind from start to finish.

We secured the rights to Laura in May of 2012, partnered with a well-known producer and received interest from Warner Bros. almost immediately. We agreed commercial terms about six months later. Warner Bros. attached a writer and then things slowed down. Contract negotiations were then on-and-off for a period of 18 months. It went very slowly, until Warner Bros. decided to move fast. I do not begrudge them at all; the buyer is always right. Warner Bros. had hundreds of scripts that they were working on for pilot season. It was too early in the process to know which ones had heat and would be given the go ahead of a pilot commitment.

I truly believe there has never been a better time to be pitching scripted formats to US companies. According to recent reports, there are more than 40 channels in the US (plus the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Xbox) commissioning scripted series. With that being said, having a great format or a great show idea is not enough; you need a great “package” to be considered by a US network.

You need to be thick-skinned because there are lots of armchair quarterbacks out there

We have been lucky enough to learn through experience, the importance of putting together a package that not only catches the eyes of the US network executives, but galvanises them enough to order a full series. Of course, the process starts with a great scripted format, however, to get that project over the finish line requires layer upon layer of “stamps of approval” and the backing of a studio or production company that believes in the team attached in the project.

To best sell your format, you need to start at the very beginning with your pitch and share materials that ensure your format can translate for the US market. You need someone who knows the US market well enough to help you customise your sales materials and present your format in such a way that it clicks with what US buyers are looking for. Having worked for three US studios and one US network, I am in the unique position of having US insight as well as an eye on the international marketplace. Before The Mysteries of Laura was ever pitched into the US, we spent significant time and resources creating US-focused materials and a “hit list” of producers we thought would have the best chance of getting the format off the ground.

Todd-LituchyWith the average drama pilot costing in excess of $6 million, the stakes are incredibly high. You don’t just want a proven recipe; you need to increase your odds of having a hit. You want a team of producers who will act as chefs and recreate the recipe to a US standard. This team needs to have a track record to give the network executives further peace of mind. We had this team in Jeff Rake (Boston Legal), Greg Berlanti (Arrow), Aaron Kaplan (Terra Nova) and director McG (Chuck).

Then it came to casting – the actors and actresses who will bring the characters to life. Debra Messing, Josh Lucas, Laz Alonso and Janina Gavankar were chosen to stack the deck in our favour.

All along the way, there will be press announcements, and instantaneous feedback. You need to be thick-skinned because there are lots of armchair quarterbacks out there (they love your actress, they hate your actress, the networks are wasting development money on this?).

The whirlwind ended last week when the five networks announced their 2014/15 schedules. The chaos is over, but now the real work starts – delivering a series that garners enough viewer support to last multiple seasons. Believe this though: the high of crossing that finish line with a series order cannot be beat.

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