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5 Things to Keep in Mind When Making an Independent Pilot, From the Founder of the New York Television Festival

5 Things to Keep in Mind When Making an Independent Pilot, From the Founder of the New York Television Festival

The New York Television Festival, also known as the NYTVF, kicks off its ninth edition today in Manhattan with a keynote address from “Arrested Development” creator Mitchell Hurwitz. In addition to panels and talks featuring the likes of “King of the Hill” co-creator Greg Daniels and preview screenings of new series like Hulu’s “The Wrong Mans” and Fox’s “Us and Them,” the six-day festival features screenings of dozens of independently made pilots in various genres, scripted and non, all competing for awards and development deals with a growing slate of partnership networks like IFC and NBC. The number of deals available this year is 30, up from four in 2010, so clearly interest in new projects from sources outside those already established in the industry is growing.

NYTVF founder Terence Gray notes that the fest has been seeing many filmmakers with TV projects, in part because of their reaching out to IFP and Film Independent. “I think if you look at the networks and premium cable, you see that a lot of very well-respected filmmakers and directors have entered the television marketplace and they’re doing great series,” Gray observed. “Here’s a great opportunity to use the skills that they’ve honed in storytelling and independent film and migrate to television — we’re happy to showcase their incredible talent.” The growing demand from cable channels for original series and the rise of online platforms has also made for more outlets for new projects, and Gray adds that “my hope is with places like Amazon and Microsoft specifically, that there really are opportunities for emerging artists to come in and create great series for them.” That said, an indie pilot requires a somewhat different approach from that of a film — Gray offered us five tips to keep in mind.

1. Keep in mind the networks to which you’d like to pitch your pilot as it’s being developed. “Before an artist makes a pilot, they want to think about the destination, what networks or outlets they envision targeting. How would their projects fit into that network or a platform’s current lineup? Do your homework, see what the networks or platforms have in development. Having an eventual destination for a pilot can really help shape the idea from the very beginning of the concept.

“An artist should also know that the inclusion of adult material — whether it’s sex, extreme violence or language — cuts out about 95% of the eventual buyers. i wouldn’t say get rid of those things or compromise your vision, but having adult content is going to limit the number of places you can take the pilot. If you are going to broadcast television, you should know the audience and the marketplace and spend some time researching the network. Same thing for online, know what online destination would be a good fit for your project. One of the real keys is spending as much time with your ideas as possible before the cameras start rolling. When you make pilots, the most expensive time will be when you’re shooting, so make sure your script and ideas are solid before you go into production. One way to do that is to have other people read your script. Work with actors and have your script read out loud — it’s a great way for a writer and creator to get feedback before he or she goes into production.”

2. Establish a consistent world and tone. “Tone is incredibly important when you’re establishing a world, so whether you’re shooting something that’s super gritty or super goofy and surreal, make sure that the pilot is consistent throughout. One thing that’s going to help you set that tone is establishing a core group of characters, and even if your series has 40 characters in it, you don’t want to establish more than five to follow in the pilot. An audience need something to focus on, and that’s difficult if there are too many things going on. There’s enough to accomplish in the pilot without having to spend a majority of the time introducing all of these new characters, which often can lead to stalling the momentum and confusing the audience.”

3. Story progression is important. “No matter what, you have to always keep your story moving forward. One of the things that we see is that often pilot makers will worry that they’re not fully explaining things, so they’ll spend the entire pilot explaining the premise rather than giving an example of how an episode would play out. An audience needs to see more than a premise. They need to see momentum on both the character and the story level. Show, don’t tell — and one way to do that is to keep your scenes short. We receive pilots where the whole tape is one long scene, and that structure is really hard to pull off. More often than not, it just reads as stale.

“You have to get your characters moving, put them out in the world and have them interact with both outside characters and in different groupings with the leads. This will give a hint as to how those characters are going to interplay throughout the series. The story of any pilot can be really simple, since there are so many other things and introductions that you have to do. If you can have a B story, that’s great, but the most important thing, the holy grail, is that you cannot solve the main conceit of your show in the first episode. If your show is about two people getting over a divorce, do not have them get remarried in the pilot. Keep the simple story and the larger themes open. That’s a huge thing.”

4. Get a director and an editor. “We see a lot of pilots that are written, creative produced and directed by a single person. While they’re often good, they could have all benefitted greatly from an outside eye. It goes back to my point about having somebody else look at your script. It’s always good to take a critical look at your work and to have others help shape it. An outside director is only going to want to tell that story, and that can absolutely help prove the substance of a pilot dramatically. I would also recommend getting a good editor and working with somebody who has a lot of experience in post — it’s going to benefit your show greatly.”

5. Don’t neglect production value. “We often hear that the most important facet of creating a pilot is the voice, which is true, and that the production value is less important, and that is also true. But there need to be elements in place so that we can make sure that we actually hear that voice. Paying a little money for audio and lighting will contribute greatly to the overall strength of a pilot. It’s going to cut down on your post, and it’s going to make the whole thing better.

“When you’re making an independent pilot, the tape you create doesn’t have to be ready for TV today — that’s a little unrealistic. But the problems in production should not be distracting — that’s the key. You don’t need the executive that’s viewing to be taken out of the story because you can’t hear the dialogue or the lighting is really bad. Once you assess your budget, you can make sure the pilot you’re creating can be delivered for that price. I’ve seen terrific pilots that have had a budget of a couple hundred bucks well invested in sound, in lighting and in editing. But the pilots were by their nature simple productions. If you’re going to have a spaceship landing in act three, you better have the money to bring it in.”

At the end of the day, Gray adds, he has seen good pilots that break one or more of these tips. “I think the main thing for an artist is that they need to trust their vision, and just make great content, just produce — because the next great TV show is definitely out there.”

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