Denise's question: Why shouldn't I use one-sheets when pitching TV ideas?

Hey, folks–

Today’s question comes from Denise, who recently asked a question about preparing a “one-sheet for a TV pitch, a one-page description of her show idea to take into a pitch.  While I gave her some pointers, I was also careful to articulate that I never… repeat: NEVER… take a one-sheet, or “leave-behind,” into a pitch meeting.  To which Denise asked…

Why do you say never leave or send in a one-sheet? Are you worried that
a producer or agent won’t see the possibilities for development, or
even worse, that they may take the idea as their own?

Well, first of all, Denise– the one thing I’m almost NEVER afraid of is someone stealing my idea… mainly because ideas almost never get stolen in television.  I know people think they do, but the truth is: the fear that an idea may get stolen is the first sign of an amateur writer, a newbie who’s not yet ready to play in the professional world of television. 

Now, I know everyone’s heard stories of people who supposedly had their sitcom idea stolen… or some cop show that ripped off their episode idea after a pitch… or an exec who loved their drama and took it to develop with another writer… but again, the truth is:

A)  Most of these stories are not true; they’re like urban legends of Hollywood
B)  If there is a grain of truth to them, they’re grossly exaggerated or misunderstood

I don’t say this because everyone in Hollywood is scrupulous and watching out for writers’ best interests.  I say this because TV, unlike film, is a writer-driven medium, and if you’re pitching a television idea, it should be not only because it’s a great idea, but because you’re the only person who could write it.  You see the world in such a unique, specific way that the show can’t possibly be done without you.

Desperate Housewives,” for instance, didn’t reinvent the wheel; we’d all seen suburban soaps and mysterious dramedies (“Picket Fences?”  “Twin Peaks?”).  But it was Marc Cherry‘s incredibly specific world-view that made this show fresh, innovative, and indispensable.  The same goes for the early days of “CSI;” we’d all seen cop mysteries, but Anthony Zuiker had his own special take… a take that couldn’t have been recreated without him.

In fact, I always like to say that if you’re worried your show could be stolen… you haven’t adequately done your job in developing it— and it’s probably not ready to be pitched or exposed.

So no– I’m never worried execs will use a one-sheet to steal my idea, because (even though I don’t use one-sheets) by the time I’m pitching in the room, I know my idea is unique enough that it can’t be done without me.  It may not be BOUGHT– in fact, it usually ISN’T bought– but it certainly can’t be stolen without me.

So having said that…

Why DON’T I use one-sheets?  Well, a couple reasons…

1)  IT’S YOUR JOB TO INFUSE EXECS WITH YOUR PASSION FOR THE PROJECT.  In other words, half of selling an idea is getting buyers excited about an idea– and that’s dependent on your own excitement for the idea.  In fact, when you leave a pitch, the person listening to the pitch usually must bounce it off their own superiors; in other words, if they liked your idea, they must in turn pitch it themselves– to the next exec on the food chain.  So you want to get your exec as fired up as you are.

But if you leave them with a one-sheet, it keeps them from needing to be enthusiastic and passionate.  They can just hand their bosses the one-sheet and say, “Read this, I love it”– which isn’t usually the most provocative way of getting someone else excited.  So by providing them with what you think is a great selling tool, you’re actually hamstringing their need and ability to sell.

2)  IT’S TOUGH TO SEE POTENTIAL CHANGES IN A ONE-SHEET.  When buyers read something on paper, they tend to see it as being set in stone.  Let’s say you pitch a sitcom idea about a little girl living with divorced parents… but during the pitch, the exec says, “We already have a project with a little girl– could it be about a little boy?”  You say, “Absolutely– no problem!” 

But then you hand them a pre-prepared one-sheet for a show about a little girl.  Two hours later, when reviewing the one-sheet– or passing it to a superior who wasn’t in the original pitch– it’s likely that all the exec will see is a show about a girl.  After all, it’s written right in front of them!  So even though you discussed the changes in the room, buyers don’t often remember those conversations.  And even if they do remember, they’re still holding a document about a show they don’t want.  And when you’re hearing hundreds of pitches a year, you don’t have the time or energy to endlessly re-evaluate every idea… especially when there are always new (and often better) ideas coming through the door.

Having said all this…

Sometimes execs do ask for a one-sheet, especially if I’m using notes in the room.  So how do I handle this?…

I usually say I’ll send it to them later.  I tell them the document in my hand is full of scribbles and changes, but I’ll get them a clean copy later that day or tomorrow.  This allows me to do two things…

A)  I can go home and revise the one-sheet, incorporating any suggestions or changes they offered in the room.  So when they DO look at the one-sheet, it’s more of a perfect fit for their specific needs.

B)  It gets my name and project in front of them one more time.  So while they’re going to leave my pitch and take six more meetings that afternoon, I know they’ll remember me again when my one-sheet shows up– with a friendly email– in their inbox the next day.  (Sometimes I have my agent send the one-sheet; sometimes I do it myself– it just depends on my relationship with the exec or producer.)

C)  It allows me to get their email address.  So even if I don’t sell the idea, I can hopefully start a relationship with the exec.  Eventually, I’ll invite them to lunch or drinks… or have another project to pitch… and the more I nurture that relationship now, the more primed they’ll be to buy a project down the road.

Anyway, I hope that helps answer your question, Denise… good luck with your pitch… keep reading… and keep asking questions!

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