Tom Forman – why you need me if you want to crack the US

Tom-Forman-RelativityThe meeting always goes the same way.

On one side, you’ve got me and my development exec. On the other, a smart producer from Spain. Or Israel. Or Timbuktu.

We’re knee-to-knee in the Majestic lobby. Or camped at a table at the Carlton.

If it’s after lunch, we’ve ordered wine. If it’s earlier, we’re pretending we’re okay with Evian.

The laptop is open, the pitch deck in hand, and we’re about to have the same conversation we always have. And I mean always.

Producer: Take a look at this sizzle reel for my new show. It aired in my home territory to great numbers. I think it’s a sure thing in the USA!

Me: You know, that is a pretty good idea. We’d need to tweak it slightly for American audiences, but you’ve got something special and we’d be thrilled to partner with you and bring it to the US. Our buyers will really get excited.

Producer: Yep, they were excited.

Me: I’m sorry. They “were” excited?

Producer: Well, a few months back I flew to Los Angeles and New York. I pitched the show to a few networks myself. They were interested in the room, but the conversation stalled.

Me: What nets did you pitch?

Producer: Just a few. CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox. CW, USA, TNT, and WGN. My US agent had me swing by TLC, Discovery, Lifetime, A&E, History, MTV, VH1, Logo, WeTV, AMC, Bravo, E!, Oxygen, Reelz, Pivot, Tru, Showtime and OWN. And, oh, I had lunch with the Golf Channel. They passed because the show isn’t about golf.

Me: First, respectfully, everyone passed. If they didn’t call you that very week to buy it, it’s a pass. That’s how they do it in America. Second, which one of us should pay for this wine? I’m thinking you.

Producer:  We should partner up on this project and take it back out. It didn’t sell the first time, but I’m thinking the right production partner could make the difference.

Me: Hey, I’m pretty good. But I’m not that good. Nobody is. You went out solo into the dog-eat-dog American market and didn’t sell. Maybe because you were pitching the wrong people, or didn’t precisely tweak the format for US buyers and viewers. Plus, those buyers likely got spooked that you don’t have boots-on-ground creative and production infrastructure in the US. That can make the process unwieldy and expensive.

Doesn’t really matter why they passed, because rebooting a failed pitch process is typically impossible. You get one shot with buyers in the USA. Next time, let’s have this meeting before you pitch, not after. It could have ended differently. And, oh, sorry for crushing your dreams. I’ll buy the wine.

I certainly don’t blame the producers. With well over a hundred channels commissioning original content, American network execs are actively courting international content creators. US nets offer comparatively enormous budgets. Plus, nothing supercharges international format sales like a hit in the United States. Who wouldn’t jump on a plane and pitch?

The most competitive, most lucrative territory in the world represents an almost insurmountable challenge to even the most determined international indie producer

 

But it rarely ends well. The most competitive, most lucrative territory in the world represents an almost insurmountable challenge to even the most determined international indie producer.

US buyers require sellers to understand both their uniquely American audience and the constantly changing competitive landscape in the States. They expect an understanding of the ways even a strong existing format must be modified for the USA. They need producers to navigate their frustrating financial models. They demand top-notch execution, and they’re rightfully wary of the complicated process of marrying an international creator with a domestic production services provider.  That’s a lot to ask of someone who doesn’t live and work and create in the United States.

Those of us who’ve grown up making TV in the USA have spent our careers getting to know our viewers, our networks, and their often bizarrely American tastes. We know what they’ll love, what they’ll buy, and just as importantly, what they’ll find weirdly offensive or confusing or… European. We have a deep understanding of what’s working at this moment. We have personal relationships, network precedent, and the production infrastructure that can ensure smooth sailing.

Those of us who’ve grown up making TV in the USA have spent our careers getting to know our viewers, our networks, and their often bizarrely American tastes. We know what they’ll love, what they’ll buy, and just as importantly, what they’ll find weirdly offensive or confusing or… European

Basically, we’ve got the stuff that makes it easy for a buyer to say yes. So when you bring your big idea to the States, you want one of us in the room with you. Or maybe even in the room instead of you. And you want it the first time the idea goes to market, because there won’t be a second.

One quick case study: this year at Relativity Television, we had the pleasure of working with UK producers ClearStory to adapt their format Sex Box for the US market. Over a series of Skypes and conference calls and productive brainstorming sessions, we jointly “Americanised” the show. We pitched the project, engineered a four-network bidding war, and ultimately produced the series for WeTV in the US.

That’s how you do it. And it’s just one recent example. We’re currently working with an intentionally small number of talented, independent, wildly creative producers from around the world to modify their formats for sale in the United States. Sometimes we’re making minor tonal changes. Sometimes we’re doing a wholesale rethinking of everything from show structure to air pattern.

Instead of pitching US buyers directly or planting your project with an international distributor who doesn’t entirely understand my territory or my networks, email me. We can meet, and I’ll buy the wine.

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