READER QUESTION: I Don't Live in L.A.; How Should I Sell My Reality Idea?

Today’s question comes from CONNIE, an aspiring reality producer who lives in a state far from Los Angeles…
“I was at a party and ran into an acquaintance whose brother is a [low-budget film] producer… and I told him broadly about my [reality show] idea.  He said that he might be interested in developing my idea.  Do I need a lawyer to negotiate for me?  I don’t know where to begin to find a good entertainment lawyer – especially here in the provinces.  Should I sell to the first bidder and get out, or should I try and find an agent and hold out for a more legit company?  What would you do?”

Hey, Connie—

Thanks for the question… this is an interesting dilemma, especially for you and all the other readers who live far from the madding crowds of Hollywood.

The first thing to discuss is how TV shows are actually sold.  Unlike in the rest of the world… where buying/selling transactions mean Person A pays Person B an agreed-upon price to wholly acquire a product, then Person B goes away… television works a bit differently.

When a network “buys” a TV show idea, they do acquire the rights (usually), just like in a traditional business transaction.  But RARELY does the seller/producer go away.  In fact, the most important part of a TV idea is almost NEVER the idea itself… it’s the writer/producer/storyteller behind it.  A mediocre idea in the hands of a talented and proven producer is almost always more attractive and sellable than a brilliant idea from a total novice.  So the TV network wants, needs, and often EXPECTS that person to stay around.  In fact, it’s nearly impossible for a total novice to sell an idea at all, no matter how brilliant it may be.  

(This is for many reasons…  A: networks and studios want to hire producers they know can execute their own vision, B: networks and studios also tend to hire producers they’ve worked with and continue to trust, C: EVERY IDEA—no matter how original its creator may think it is—has been pitched, developed, or done before; so an idea itself rarely has value… it’s the producer’s vision and execution that make it unique and sale-able.)

As a result, when a TV network or studio buys an idea, they don’t just pay the seller one large paycheck and then own the property in a single transaction.  In fact, because the seller usually sticks around to produce the project, there usually isn’t one set price.  Rather, the buyer and the seller agree on a producing fee which is paid to the producer over the life of the project.  

So, for example, if you sold a TV network or studio a show called “Connie’s World,” they probably would NOT say, “We love this idea, Connie—we’d like to buy it from you for $100.”  Instead, they’d say, “We love this idea, Connie—we’d like to produce it with you.  We’ll own the project—or at least the majority of it—but we’ll pay you $60 to produce the pilot and $40 per episode to produce the subsequent episodes.”  (These numbers aren’t accurate, obviously—they’re just examples.)  These “producing fees” would be negotiated between you and the buyer at the outset.  You may also negotiate maintaining ownership… or a certain amount of ownership… in the project.  The “real money” in TV comes from owning TV shows, or pieces of their backend, not in producer fees… so it’s to your advantage to maintain as much ownership over your project as possible.

All of this helps answer your questions, because if your producer-friend wants to “buy” your project outright, it says two things to me:

1)  You shouldn’t do it.  Or at least, you shouldn’t “sell” him your project in its entirety.  Partnering with him is a different thing… and he may make a valuable PARTNER, which we’ll discuss in a moment.  But I wouldn’t wholly sell him your idea.

2)  If he wants to “buy” your idea outright, it suggests he doesn’t understand how television works.  Now—you don’t necessarily say this in your question, so I’m kind of inferring… (and to be fair, you say he just wants to “develop” it, which seems more appropriate)… but just be warned: whenever someone—especially a not-established TV network, studio, or production wants to “buy” an idea—it’s usually a red flag to me that they don’t understand how the TV business works.

So the question is… IS THIS GUY THE PRODUCER/PARTNER FOR YOU?

Only you can ultimately answer that question, but use these criteria to help…

To produce a TV show, or convince a buyer you can produce it, three things must be covered by the selling team…

1)    You need a strong creative vision (this is primarily where you come in, since the idea is your baby)

2)    You need the ability to physically produce the show… to shoot it, budget it, prep it, post it (and practicalities will often affect the creative vision/execution, so your physical producer should be someone you trust creatively as well)

3)    You need to have the connections and track record in order to sell it.  Buyers like networks and studios rarely take meetings with strangers and newbies, let alone buy projects from them.  So you need to have someone who can get you in the door and convince buyers you have the ability to make this TV show.  If it’s not you, or a producing partner, it can be agent or manager.

If you don’t have all three of these points covered yourself, that’s when you need a producing partner… in this case, your film producer friend.  

The questions you must ask yourself are:

•  Does he have the ability to produce this show physically?  Not just as a one-off, like a movie, but as a long-running series?

•  Does he know the appropriate reality executives and producers to pitch this to?  And if so, does he have strong enough relationships with them—or a track record—to convince them he can do this?

If the answers to these questions are yes, you’ve found your partner!

If the answers are no, you may want to keep looking.  Partnering with the wrong person can hurt you more than not partnering with anyone, because you burden the project with unattractive attachments, and that makes it a tougher sell to execs and producers.  So be very careful about who you partner with!

Having said that, I understand that you want to move forward, and this producer may be your one resource to helping get this project off the ground.

Perhaps you can work with him simply to develop the concept and shoot a sizzle reel or demo.  He probably won’t work for free, but you could negotiate a plan to pay him only for his work on this stage of the project.  It could be a work-for-hire arrangement, in which you pay him just to help you develop the idea and shoot a sizzle reel.  Or it could be arrangement in which you defer his compensation and pay him only if the idea sells.  You could even offer him a piece of the project’s backend if it sells; HOWEVER—since, at this point, you have no control over how much backend—if any—you may get, you can only offer him a piece of YOUR potential backend, not the whole project’s.  (In other words, let’s say you offer him 15% of the backend; you can’t really offer him 15% of the show’s backend, you can only offer him 15% of YOUR backend.)

To answer your final question, Connie—do you need a lawyer/agent/etc. to negotiate this?—probably.  I’m NOT a lawyer/agent/etc., and I know very little about the machinations of these things… but you should have legal representation any time you want to legally protect yourself or your ideas.

Having said that—I don’t know how many entertainment lawyers are out there in your neck of the woods.  Mo
st of them, obviously, are in places like LA, New York, Nashville, etc.  And, unfortunately, I think you’ll have a nearly impossible time convincing one—if they’re not already your best friend or relative—to take you on as a client.

However, there probably ARE lawyers in your area who can handle this… or refer you to someone you can.  Ask around at entertainment-related places that would have these connections: local TV stations, radio stations, talent agencies, commercial production companies, universities with media departments, etc.  You’ll have to pound the pavement a little, but I promise: there are probably less than six degrees of separation between you and your lawyer.

Anyway, Connie—I hope this helps!  Good luck with your project, and I hope to see it on TV soon!

For the rest of you… if you have questions, please don’t hesitate to email me at WDScriptNotes@FWPubs.com

Talk to you soon!

Chad

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