Ghost Stories to Found Space: The Evolution of Show Concepts

For independent content creators, pitching a show that leads to a series is rarely a straight road. NATPE attendee, Mark Phillips of Philms & Telephision has experienced this several times. He shares the highlights of two twisty-turny development journeys: “A&E Bio had seen a very dark special, Insider Predator Task Force, that I had done for Court TV (now TruTV). They actually called me and asked me if I had anything else that was that dark. I told them I’d love to do something in the world of ghosts.”

“I pitched an idea I had and loosely cut together a very unstructured reel of people who had captured what they believed to be paranormal experiences on camera and sent it in. They circled around and around it for a couple of months – but passed. Four months later, they called me back and said: ‘You know that ghost show you pitched us? Could you deliver that by Halloween?’ This was in August. I had nothing going on, I was just recovering from a major illness, so I said: ‘Sure!’”

“I was ill and wasn’t at the top of my game and with such a short turn-around, the show looked awful, it sounded awful. But they put it on and it did huge numbers! Of course, they didn’t like what it looked like. My Exec got on bended knee and begged them to let me do a second pilot to air. It worked again.

Mark’s My Ghost Story aired 78 episodes and became one of A & E Biography Channel’s most popular shows. It later aired on LMN (formerly the Lifetime Movie Network) and is now available on Amazon Prime.

Found Space

“My latest project was bought by two networks: HGTV and DIY. I had been looking for a house back East in the Hudson Valley. All these ads read: ‘unfinished attic,’ ‘partly finished attic,’ ‘plumbing in the attic,’ ‘stairs to attic’ and I realized I had never seen a show on attics…”

Innovation is often the collision of disparate ideas. “There was an article in The Wall Street Journal about these homeowners in San Francisco,” Phillips remembers. “They loved their townhouse but they needed more space. Their home was quite valuable but they couldn’t afford to buy a bigger place. How could they get more space? Turns out: if they renovated their attic, they could add 2,000 more square feet of living space without increasing the footprint of the house!”

That synchronicity validated his gut instincts. “I called my contact at HGTV and said: “Let’s do a show on Attics. Attic Fanatic.” He said it was kismet. He had just finished taking a pitch for a show about basements. Find a contractor.’ That’s the key – who the talent is.”

‘My agent friends sent me reels. One was a really well-spoken African American contractor back in Connecticut. He doesn’t necessarily do attics, but… He was great – but his tape was awful. My connection at HGTV agreed. ‘You’re right, his tape is horrible.’ I told him: ‘If you think that he has some potential, I’ll go shoot my own tape.” And I did. And I sent it in.”

“My guy at HGTV said: ‘Let me share this with everyone else.’ They all get together in Knoxville, Tennessee to pitch prospective shows. They watched sixty-three proof of concept reels and chose three to go to pilot. Mine was one of them. But he said: ‘I think we should do more than just attics.’ These people are so smart. They know what they’re looking for. In a lot of these old homes – especially those that are a hundred years old, there are all these nooks and crannies – attics and basements – that we can turn into “Found Space – or maybe “Ace of Spaceas a potential title ideas.

“They gave me the money to shoot the pilot. It wouldn’t pass legal muster for one reason or another. Scripps Network owns HGTV and the DIY Network and they are very buttoned down. As a hired TV producer, I don’t create the brand. (They created the brand for My Ghost Story, too). So, meanwhile, I’m still in production on the pilot. I don’t have a title. I don’t have a brand. I’m at my favorite bar, Amazing Space. I called my guy with this as an alternate title. He loved it and said: ‘That’s fabulous. Amazing Grace was written in 1779, so we should be okay – but let me run it past legal.’ They approved it and I finished editing the pilot.”

“They aired the pilot. It did okay. My host had a friend who was a real estate agent who made a couple of suggestions. We kept tweaking it ‘til we got it right. I pitched another show on dollhouses. That idea was too specific – but they liked how out of the box that was – and told me to keep pitching new ideas. To build a good show, you need to get the talent in place first – that’s the most important thing. And of course: what’s your angle that is new and unique?”

Heather Hale is a 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).