Disney Taps Company-Wide Talent for TV "Pitch-a-Palooza" (Exclusive)

TV Group president Ben Sherwood's employee competition heard over 300 ideas for TV shows, including a 'Modern Family' meets 'The Wonder Years' sitcom from a 29-year-old video distribution specialist that might just be the next hit comedy.

One afternoon in October, ABC Studios' Cort Cass settled in to hear yet another sitcom pitch. This one, billed as Modern Family meets The Wonder Years, centered on a widowed Midwestern dad who tries to connect with his three teenage kids as he re-enters the dating pool. The more the vp comedy development listened, the more he liked it. The idea had humor and heart, and it was personal in a way that ABC breakout Black-ish had been. But this pitch was different: It came not from a Kenya Barris or a Shonda Rhimes but rather from Jon Moze, a 29-year-old video distribution specialist in Disney's digital media department.

With Cass' endorsement, Moze now has become a winner in Disney's second annual Pitch-a-Palooza, an internal competition designed to boost morale and, yes, find the next hit TV show. As part of the Palooza, more than 300 pitches were heard by 21 executives across the company last fall. In January, 10 winners were announced; each was awarded $1,000 and the chance to have their idea move through the development process. "We want to celebrate the idea that everyone can contribute creatively and that everyone who loves what we do can have a voice in it," explains Disney-ABC TV Group president Ben Sherwood. "And knock on wood, there's a hit television show that's going to emerge from this."

To make the process less daunting for those not familiar with the pitch process, Sherwood enlisted a slew of the company's top producers to offer tips. "Do not be nervous … people can smell fear on you," says Barris in a promo video. Adds Aaron Kaplan, "The story's got to be there, the emotion's got to be there." Every network in the portfolio also offers specific guidelines with regard to its programming needs. ABC, for instance, was seeking character-driven procedurals and deeply personal family comedies; cable channel Freeform was after female-skewing coming-of-age stories; and Disney XD was hoping for an action-adventure miniseries that appeals mainly to boys but also is inclusive of girls.

So, what exactly happens if an idea goes all the way? Per Sherwood, there's a chance an employee's position in the company could change as a result. "Maybe they go from accounting or finance [and] get to achieve their dream of working in the creative side in development," he says. At the very least, they'll have a chance to remain involved with the project. For ABC lawyer Joy Teitel, whose pitch about a reality show that re-creates relationship conflicts was one of last year's winners, she got to be involved in the casting, was on set for the pilot presentation and gave notes on the network cut. (The project remains under consideration at Freeform, and no other Palooza pitch has made it as far.)

Though the idea was borrowed from colleague Gary Marsh, who had done a smaller-scale version at Disney Channel, Palooza has been a pet project of Sherwood's. His other staffer-centric initiatives include wishing employees a happy birthday on Twitter and an employee-of-the-month-style program. A photo of the "most valuable person" hangs in the lobby of Disney's Burbank offices, and the recipient is given, among other things, a special parking space for that month and a Starbucks gift card.

When it comes to the Palooza winners, Sherwood likes to personally deliver the news. Moze was in the middle of a seven-person meeting about set-top boxes and digital MPVDs when big boss Sherwood unexpectedly appeared with a lavish assortment of Disney-themed balloons.

"It's one of the happiest times of the year when I get to walk in and surprise someone, and then give them $1,000 and balloons," says Sherwood, adding with a laugh: "Next year, we're going to get a Goodyear blimp."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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