There’s quite a spread of what’s categorized as unscripted programming: Reality, Factual, Non-Fiction, Informative, Documentary – the list goes on and on – but actually, almost all of them are at least partially scripted (if not outright staged) and certainly: edited for story.
Sharing his insights on pitching non-fiction programming is Kelly McPherson, one of the three co-founders of Karga Seven Pictures (a Red Arrow Entertainment Group company). With over 500 hours of produced programming – and eleven new and returning series in production, including Booze Traveler (Travel), Hunting Hitler (History) and Cry Wolfe (Investigation Discovery), this Los Angeles-based ProdCo is recognized as one of the top international non-fiction and unscripted production companies in the world.
Kelly shares: “Factual and Informative, to me, are the same. They both sound so dry but they’re not at all. They are one way of telling a story, a way to unpack information via facts within the context of a good story. A new spin on something viewers thought they knew or something they didn’t know anything about at all – ideally something buzzy.”
With Reality, there’s a game plan: you lay out the parameters and we see what happens. As an example: in Ace of Cakes: every week we followed three cakes – whatever happens, happens. It feels as real as possible.”
“With Structured Reality, the format is front and center. Formats very straightforward. Viewers and distributors respond to repeatable formats: Rachel Ray’s $40 a Day – there’s a simple beauty to it.”
“Docs can be particularly dangerous territory,” Kelly shares: “because you’re often following a story that unfolds over a year – or three – or five – and you have to let it play out. They’re all about pacing but they don’t conform to TV schedules and budgets which are always so tight.”
Kelly continues: “With salvage shows, it could take two to three years to raise a shipwreck and maybe not find treasure. With process shows, you might have to wait and follow a trial as it plays out in the criminal justice system.”
How Do You Build a Series Around That?
“You have to figure out a way to tell the story in an efficient, but satisfying manner,” Kelly explains. “You have to find substantial steps to make each episode pay off for viewers: there’s some sort of victory or new discovery – and break that down into episodic chunks. Let’s say you’re tracking police detectives over three years and the case takes them to twenty-seven different places, you’re gonna want to boil it down to the five or six most important (or interesting) leads.
With HBO’s Jinx (2015), that followed the life and deaths of Robert Durst, who reached out to the director, volunteering to be interviewed. Unaware his microphone was still on, while talking to himself in the bathroom mirror, he admitted: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” The day before the finale aired, he was arrested on first-degree murder charges. The six-episode limited series won a NATPE Breakthrough Reality Award that year.
Kelly comments: “You don’t necessarily know how it’s going to turn out. Such a dark, creepy character, you can’t make that up. But it all starts with access. And you have to have the financial wherewithal to follow that story for years.”
A great storyteller – whether that’s the writer, producer, director or editor – can find the story. Sometimes they’re like modern media archaeologists, digging through bins and bins of shot footage, archived photos, journals and letters to find their story spine, their unifying theme. Usually the story emerges or evolves – sometimes totally morphing from your original battle plan. Documentarians need time and creative space to find and refine the focus from a mountain of research material.
“Science always travels well because it’s universal,” Kelly explains. “History is evergreen but can be tougher than science.” Perhaps this is because history is so geographically and culturally rooted?
The History Channel, Discovery, National Geographic
“Three of our prime development targets are History, Discovery, and NatGeo,” Kelly confides. “They each do what they uniquely do so well, but there can be some overlap at times. In that case we customize our pitches to reflect their respective mandates. For example, NatGeo might want science and exploration, whereas History might prefer the untold story or hidden history of a subject everyone thought they knew, while Discovery might want survival or build shows. ” As funny as it sounds, you could go out with a show that encompasses all of those elements, then it becomes a matter of emphasizing one element over the others, depending on the network you’re pitching.
“Men at Work” Docs
“When we started our company, it was the beginning of the reality craze. Men at Work Docs were tearing it up. Axe Men, Ice Road Truckers – everyone was fishing in that same pond. We never put all our eggs in the basket of having to find big characters to sell shows. We typically start with the concept then do the casting. In other cases, we’ve started with talent and then built a show around their personality and skills. One potential issue, if you’ve built it all on talent and have a problem with the talent: you could be in trouble. Whereas, if the concept is sound, you have the bones of a good show no matter what- and can then adapt it to fit your cast. There’s no right or wrong way, but we’ve had great success with concept-driven shows.
Don’t Pitch a Show You Have No Idea How to Make
“Sure, you want to be ready for whatever happens in the room. You want to be able to adapt the pitch on the fly, to absorb their questions and be in a position to deliver but we feel really strongly about this, Kelly admonishes: “we never pitch a show we can’t make. We’ve all worked with people who’re much stronger at pitching, who pitch shows with no idea how they’re gonna make them. They’re great in the room, they sell the show – but the show never lives up to its pitch. I know multiple instances of people who sold shows who didn’t even know if a certain world existed. It’s one thing to improvise in the room – that’s fine – but totally winging it and over-promising could be detrimental to your reputation and your bottom line.
“Our development meetings are generally fun and free flowing.” Kelly describes. “The three partners generate show ideas, we have a great development team who bring their ideas, and we also take outside pitches. We have a shared sensibility of what we like but, of course, there are projects one of us will like more than the others. After we start to crystallize the concept, the next thing we do is figure out where it goes: what networks should we take it to? The networks are constantly changing and evolving. When you’re just starting out, it can be tough to have the bandwidth for all of this. You are your own development department and you don’t have a lot of excess cash for sizzle reels. You definitely don’t want to spend $50K on a show that only has a possible home at one network. That being said, we also prefer doing targeted development for specific networks – especially ones we have a strong track record with.
“The most important thing is to HAVE A POV!,” Kelly emphasizes. “A story you want to tell and the way you want to tell it. Don’t leave it mushy and wishy washy. Take the guesswork out. Make their life as easy as possible by providing them with a succinct way they can pitch your project: this is a show about this – but here’s the great hook. Workloads are so heavy. The more you can do the heavy lifting, the better.
Come in with confidence and strong project you believe in. Even if it’s way out there, the thought process behind it can be as impressive as the show. And if that project’s not exactly right for the network, they often keep you in mind for other projects they’re developing internally.”
Work With Us
“Give me the short hand. Aside from pitch meetings, send me a logline or hop on the phone with me. I might be able to save you a lot of time with that particular concept. Maybe we have something almost exactly the same already in development or I know of other projects like that out there already in production.”
Heather Hale is a film and television screenwriter, director, producer and consultant. Her next StoryTellers on WalkAbout retreat is in September in Lucca (Tuscany) Italy. Her How to Work the Film & TV Markets is due out June 2017 (Focal Press) and Story$elling: How to Pitch Film & TV Projects is due out next February, 2018 (Michael Weise Productions).