10:00am PT by Lesley Goldberg, Bryn Elise Sandberg
Fall TV: The True Stories of How 14 Freshman Shows Were Pitched
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Another year, another batch of potential breakouts looking to lure the mix of viewers and buzz that NBC's The Blacklist generated a season earlier. Garnering early attention among the 2014-15 season's two dozen new offerings is the Shonda Rhimes-produced How to Get Away With Murder (ABC), telenovela Jane the Virgin (The CW) and genre plays Gotham (Fox) and The Flash (The CW).
There are recognizable works — comic adaptations, romantic comedies and, in the case of ABC, diversity — and a new cadre of film stars, led by Viola Davis (Murder) and Octavia Spencer (Red Band Society) making the leap to TV. "I've never been the show before and with this, I was the show … what was there to refuse?" Davis says of TV's appeal.
But if history is any indication, stars don't guarantee viewers — and second-season renewals are hard to come by. Not that cancellation scars have stopped talent from attempting new hits — the fastest rebounder of late being Dylan McDermott, who is returning to CBS with psychological thriller Stalker only a few months after the same network axed his 2013 starrer Hostages.
See more Faces of Fall 2014
Kenya Barris, Black-ish (ABC)
My daughter was trying to describe a kid in her class to me and she's going on and on, and finally I had to stop her and say, "Are you talking about the only other little black girl in your class?" And she was like, "Oh yeah, I guess so," and I was like, "Well why didn't you just say that?" She was like, "I don't know." I looked at my wife and she was like, "Isn't that beautiful? She doesn't see color!" And I was like, "No, that's ridiculous." It was the moment when I realized that they were growing up in a totally different world, for better or for worse, than I had, and it was the impetus for this show. That's how we kicked the pitch off.
Brian Gallivan, The McCarthys (CBS)
Even though The McCarthys is only loosely inspired by my family, a lot of real stories about the Gallivans were part of my pitch. I told one about coming out to my brother John and his wife, Debbie. At the time, they had baby twins, and John and Debbie were sleep-deprived and totally overwhelmed by being new parents. When I said I was gay, my brother, who had a baby crawling all over him, said, "Sometimes I wish I was gay." His exhausted wife added, "I wish you were every day of my life." Even though the pitch also included descriptions of the McCarthy characters and storylines, my family started to think it was just me telling crazy stories about them at every network. They started thinking that any one of them could go to Hollywood and pitch a show. I expect them to arrive here any day.
Matt Miller, Forever (ABC)
I came up with the idea when I was putting my 5-year-old son to bed, and he asked me, "Daddy, are you ever going to die someday?" I didn't want to upset him so I said, "I'll never die, don't worry." Then I thought about how you're supposed to build trust through honesty and all that stuff, so I said, "I wasn't completely honest with you. I will die someday, but it won't be for a long time and by then you'll probably want me to be dead," at which point he burst into tears. I started kicking around the idea: What if a character wouldn't or couldn't die, and the amazing things that you could do with eternity? But then what if his son wasn't immortal? Would the pain of watching him grow old and die be too difficult to bear? I started to play with this idea of the thing that we all want most in the world, immortality, being a little bit more of a curse than a blessing.
Ben Queen, A to Z (NBC)
My kids had these alphabet flash cards and during the pitches I'd hold up ones and describe the episode for that particular one. The card would say "A" on it and show an apple but I'd explain that in our show "A is for Acquaintances" and that's the episode where our main characters meet. I brought in five cards and described those episodes. Some of the cards had chew marks on them from my 1-year-old son.
David Caspe, Marry Me (NBC)
I was going around pitching the show about my proposal to all of these executives, and I hadn't yet proposed to Casey [Wilson]. Of course I'm a whore and will do anything to sell the show, so I'd tell them, "The other cool thing is that I'll be living it as it's happening. I'm going to propose to Casey soon. But please don't tell her if you see her, I'd like it to be a surprise." That makes me look like a real prince.
Nick Santora, Scorpion (CBS)
I had four days to put the pitch together. After I met with Walter O'Brien, I knew within minutes what the tone of the show was — funny, because geniuses live their whole lives as fish out of water and fish out of water are funny — and heartfelt, because there is something heartbreaking about being so intelligent that you are one in a billion, and that can be quite lonely. I banged out the structure for the pilot over a day — practically every scene — and went in to pitch some of the other producers. I told them I didn't have time to streamline it so I was going to pitch the whole episode and they'd just have to sit through it. I've never had a project where the final product was so similar to the initial pitch. Two days later I pitched CBS. Nina Tassler was enthusiastic and said, "There's no way we're not making this show."
David Goyer, Constantine (NBC)
I met with WBTV, who after working on the Dark Knight films and Man of Steel, were specifically interested in me adapting one of the DC properties for television. I was interested in something a bit more left-of-center — and that's when Hellblazer came to mind. I'd been a fan of John Constantine since his introduction in Swamp Thing, even going so far to have had a fan letter published in the comic when I was a teen.
Jeff Lowell, Manhattan Love Story (ABC)
This was a script I wrote a few years ago that was just sitting on a shelf. Executive producer Peter Traugott slipped it to ABC last fall and they said they loved it but didn't buy it to develop it, which made me think maybe they didn't love it quite that much. I had a delightful surprise when they called in early January to say they were greenlighting it. It changed very little from the draft they bought to the draft they shot. Paul Lee said after the table read, "Don't screw it up by changing too much."
Margaret Nagle, Red Band Society (Fox)
Red Band Society already existed as a Spanish series created by Albert Espinosa, so my job was to figure out how to crack the pilot in a way that might be meaningful as well as entertaining to an American audience. My extended family is filled with doctors and nurses, and my brother was in a coma as a child, which the execs at Fox didn't know when they thought of me for the pilot. The material spoke to me, and I was able to use my personal familiarity with this world in very real ways. I wound up creating eight new characters for the pilot.
Kevin Hench, Cristela (ABC)
We built the pitch around the bits from Cristela's stand-up that best captured her life. Pitching can be arduous, but watching the way people responded to Cristela and her stories, I knew we were on to something.
Andrew Kreisberg, The Flash (CW)
It was year one of Arrow and about nine episodes had aired. Greg Berlanti said we should do a spinoff. I was like, "Are you kidding?! We've barely figured out how to make this show!" Greg's initial pitch to me — that we introduce Barry Allen in episodes eight and nine of season two, have him get struck by lightning at the end of 209, and then do a pilot in the spring — is pretty much exactly what we did!
Barbara Hall, Madam Secretary (CBS)
The idea of creating a show about a female secretary of state was brought to me by Morgan Freeman and Lori McCreary, and Nina Tassler at CBS. We all liked the idea of pulling back the curtain on what happens in the state department, as it seemed like an underexplored arena. We also liked the idea of depicting how a female secretary of state might navigate the worlds between presidential cabinet and home life. I felt she shouldn't be a lifetime politician, so I pitched giving her the history of being a former CIA analyst turned academician. I wanted the job to come to her so we could maintain a fish out of water/reluctant hero quality. International event, inter-office politics and personal life constituted the three-pronged approach I pitched as the division of story.
Emily Kapnek, Selfie (ABC)
My 14-year-old helped me with a lot of the visuals I put together for the pitch. We created a fake Instagram account for Eliza that centered around her taking selfies at inopportune moments, like during a family member's open-heart surgery. We also did a selfie slideshow, which featured some of the most iconic selfies, to help illustrate that no one is immune. The Mandela funeral selfie (featuring Obama) occurred right around this time.
Gary Glasberg, NCIS: New Orleans (CBS)
Every year I sit down with Mark Harmon to talk potential sweeps episodes for the original NCIS. I pitched Mark a storyline about this little NCIS office in New Orleans run by this larger-than-life agent I'd heard about. Mark said, "Gary, that's not a sweeps episode, it's a series." Next thing I knew we were talking to the CBS execs. I came armed with photos of New Orleans and a soundtrack of Muddy Waters on my iPad. A few months later I was polishing spinoff scripts over my Christmas hiatus.