Pitching & Producing TV In Today’s Media Renaissance…
A Conversation with Executive Producer Darryl Trell – Sr. VP Production & Development, Brian Graden Media
“Why do I care about this person, and why is it important that this story be told right this second?”…
…Such is the self-imposed tough-love standard Executive Producer, Darryl Trell lives by when forging paths for new programming as Sr VP Production & Development at Brian Graden Media. And story is the touchstone for this renaissance producer whose talent sees no boundaries, delivering both scripted and unscripted entertainment on the highest levels of TV and Film.
From his formative years at Discovery Networks producing cornerstone programming when “reality TV” was real- to his move into feature film producing for legendary studio chairman Bill Mechanic at 20th Century Fox (“Caroline” and “Hacksaw Ridge“)- to his arrival at Brian Graden Media where he creates original TV formats and acquires international format rights for the trend-setting trailblazer, Graden, Trell knows story as the singular force behind all success, no matter the genre, no matter the medium. And he knows how to deliver it.
In our conversation, Trell shares some clear insight on his approach to pitching and producing, along with some sharp advice for new creators and producers pitching in today’s TV industry. He also throws some cold water on everyone clambering to pitch and sell a TV show idea or movie to Netflix. We invite you to enjoy our talk with this prolific producer.
Scott Manville | TVWritersVault.com: Thanks for the time, Darryl. I’ve known you as an industry member of our platform as your company (Smoke & Mirrors Creative.) had optioned a few projects pitched here, but I first started following your career when you launched “Mobbed” at FOX…one of my favorite shows at the time- just a great format with feel-good-drama, performance, and a big pay-off moment in each episode. You brought some real heart to Reality TV with that.
Darryl Trell | Brian Graden Media/Smoke & Mirrors Creative: Thanks so much. That show was really a turning point in my career and how I view the TV medium. For the most part, my early years in this industry were spent developing and producing TV for the Discovery Networks. It was tremendous learning experience and an incredible place to work, but I got the itch to do more and widen my horizons. As it does for many producers, it led me to want to go strictly into scripted. I spent the next 5 years working for Bill Mechanic (former studio head of 20th Century Fox) and did the deep dive into producing feature films. That too was an invaluable experience which gave me access to top talent and a view into the creation of incredible projects. It was also during that time that the writer’s strike happened. I wanted to keep busy, so I reconnected with an old buddy and we formed a partnership and dove back into unscripted TV with the creation of Mobbed. After seeing the reaction to the project (both on set and through the outpouring of support after it aired), I came to realize that, for me, the medium and the genre didn’t matter. All that mattered was that the material evoke some sort of emotional reaction. So, today, I am working on scripted projects, unscripted projects and even a stage play.
|“From Bill Mechanic to Brian Graden, David Permut, Howie Mandel – they all have impressed upon me that everything starts with a good story.”|
Scott Manville: As we’ve seen the ebb and flow of popularity between unscripted programming and scripted programming, tossed back and forth over the past few decades, you seem to thrive in both arenas, and always deliver great story. Is understanding “story” the common thread for success in any genre? Can you peel that onion back a bit and share with us your approach to discovering and developing both Film and TV projects that resonate with audiences?
Darryl Trell: Absolutely. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from icons in Hollywood. From Bill Mechanic to Brian Graden, David Permut, Howie Mandel – they all have impressed upon me that everything starts with a good story. In scripted, you really have to forget the package for a moment – forget who the writer is or who is attached to star or direct. If the material moves me, it’s worth a further look. The packaging is icing on the cake (and needed to sell). For unscripted, it needs to be based in more than a notion. For me, it has to answer the question of why do I care about this person, and why is it important that this story be told right this second? In the case of a format like Mobbed, it all started with the phenomenon of the flash mob. We knew we wanted to start there, but that wasn’t enough to get someone to come back week after week. So then we began the exploration with Howie Mandel into how to “use” the flash mob to tell an emotional story. The actual emotion doesn’t matter – it can be anger, grief, happiness… as long as you walk away from it feeling something.
Scott Manville: When you’re in a room with TV or Film executives, pitching and selling shows…What is your strategy to engage them? What’s your touchstone that keeps your focus in the right place?
|“I started reflecting on my pitch style and noticed that I was far more successful in selling shows that I had some sort of personal attachment to.”|
Darryl Trell: My strategy has evolved over the years. I used to be very scripted in my sales approach – learning every statistic behind the reasons this concept will work on that particular network, but as I spent more time out here and the network executives became friends of mine, and the meetings became less and less formal, I started reflecting on my pitch style and noticed that I was far more successful in selling shows that I had some sort of personal attachment to. My passion for it came through as genuine. In that way, I always try to pitch every show from a personal perspective – starting simply with why I first got interested in the project. I may have had a friend going through the same life crisis as the character in the script, or I may have been moved personally by this chef when I went to his restaurant and that’s why I think the world needs to see this on their screens. If I have to convince myself why a particular project should sell, I can never do it justice in the pitch room.
Scott Manville: In contrast to that, when you’re on the other side of the fence and a screenwriter or producer is pitching a show to you for collaboration on a series, what do you hope to experience or find when being pitched? What often disappoints you?
Darryl Trell: I was actually just having this conversation with a producer-friend of mine and he had the perfect way to describe the shortfalls in most pitches – so I will steal his thoughts here a bit… Most people, be it scripted or unscripted think that they have an incredible show concept, when, in fact, all they have is a notion – not at all a fleshed-out pitch. For example; in reality, if you were to come to me and say “I’ve got a show about tracking one serial killer in every state,” and that’s it… well, then you don’t really have anything except a notion. That’s not something I could get behind and sell. However, if you had come to me with the same idea, but as told from the point of view of the country’s foremost criminologist who also has an amazing backstory about how s/he got into that line of work (and you have the person signed to a contract) – then that’s a starting point for development that I would be interested in.
Further, in scripted; if you were to send me a script or treatment for a buddy comedy set in the college fraternity world (aside from the fact that it has to be funny), there needs to be a new and unique way into the material that has not been explored before.
Ultimately, you should always assume that at least 5 other people are currently pitching the exact same project. That’s just the reality of pitching anything that’s in the zeitgeist. That means there has to be a reason for a buyer to pick yours above the 5 others. That means a unique way into the material, amazing talent, or undeniable IP.
ScottManville: We have a lot of people pitching docuseries at TVWritersVault.com- that genre brought our first pitches from our creative members to production and broadcast…So for those everyday people whose business, family or lifestyle may be “TV worthy”, what do they need to get on tape to back up the details of what they’re pitching as the show? Let’s say it’s a family business…
Darryl Trell: Docuseries comes down to 3 things:
1. A unique view into a world that no one has seen before (is your family business so unusual that you have never seen anyone else do what you do? A unique product or service?)
2. Does that business lend itself to exciting television? For instance, what is the process of creating that product or performing that service that would make for an exciting 45 minutes of TV (and different every week)? And…
3. Are the personalities of everyone involved on the level of the best characters you’ve seen on TV?
As far as what they should get on tape to back this all up – interviews with everyone involved and an explanation of exactly what it is they do and the steps involved in doing it. The biggest mistake you can make is to “tell me” how “we are all so crazy” or “every day is completely nuts around here.” Telling me that doesn’t make me believe it. Show me. And, further, it’s not all about being “crazy/nuts” anymore. It’s just about being genuine and passionate.
|“Don’t waste your money and time creating an elaborate reel. If we like the pitch, we’ll do that for you.”|
Scott Manville: A technical question…For a new producer who’s piecing together a sizzle reel or a short film…proof-of-concept…what are some of the fundamentals that need to be there technically to let the potential of the story or idea be communicated while minimizing the distraction of “production quality” or lack of, as an Executive puts eyes on it?
Darryl Trell: This really depends on what you are pitching. If you are pitching yourself as a filmmaker and you want me to look at you as the “asset” in the pitch – your unique eye into the material- then the piece really needs to have a totally new visual style. Budget shouldn’t stop you. You need to work within that budget to get my attention in a new way.
Someone was pitching me a very expensive format surrounding skydiving, mountain climbing and world travel. They obviously didn’t have the budget to travel the world and shoot a proof of concept, so they made an incredible sizzle using stock footage, stand-ups, projections and dolls! It was such a fresh way to present the material that we immediately optioned it.
If you are pitching talent or a business, don’t waste your money and time creating an elaborate reel. If we like it, we’ll do that for you. Spend the time on fleshing out a well written pitch on the show format and then get your talent on tape with a simple interview (even a skype will do), but make sure that the personality comes through on the video.
Scott Manville: We’re in a golden age for independent producers, especially with digital content and streaming outlets. How does Brian Graden Media navigate and integrate with that stream of business?
Darryl Trell: We’ve done quite a bit of business with digital content and streaming outlets. We have a series on YouTube Red (Escape The Night), One on Complex/Rated Red, one on Facebook, and even one on Spotify. With the rapidly changing industry and the trend going to a la carte pricing, we see these digital distribution outlets no different than any other cable or broadcast pitch. The budgets may be small (though some of these are even higher than cable), so you really just need to know your audience and be able to scale the show up or down without losing the essence of the show.
|“Brandon and his team over at Netflix are in a position to be very selective. In order to break through the clutter, you need to stack the deck with both the concept and the packaging.”|
Scott Manville: Your company has found success pitching and selling shows to major streaming outlets. What are some of the key factors for developing and pitching an ideal project to Netflix?
Darryl Trell: Netflix is an interesting beast. For many of the reasons discussed above, they have become THE go to. Everyone wants to do a project with them and because they have such a broad demographic and wide slate, they hear just about every pitch in town. Because of this, Brandon and his team over at Netflix are in a position to be very selective. In order to break through the clutter, you need to stack the deck with both the concept and the packaging. An A-list talent EP or voice over, an extremely hot director, writer, or DP – coupled with an undeniably original concept or a piece of IP that is recognizable or in the zeitgeist… Short of walking in with all of that, you really won’t get any attention there.
Scott Manville: Where do you see the future of broadcast TV Networks heading by comparison to independent streaming studios? Or is it a convergence of the two and we’re all just watching whatever rectangular device is in front of us?
Darryl Trell: Ultimately, I don’t think the broadcast networks are going away anytime soon. The budgets may shrink a bit and we may see more integrated marketing and product placement, but they will be viable buyers for years to come. As a content producer though, I think that the distribution model matters less and less with each passing year and the quality of the product matters more and more. With DVRs, on-demand, and streaming, the consumer is time shifting and screen shifting everything – so when you ask someone what they watch, they may be able to name their top 10 shows, but I doubt if they could name what network they all air on and at what time, and on what day. It doesn’t matter anymore. Good product, marketed correctly is now far more important then the network it’s on. “This Is Us” could have just as easily been on Netflix or HBO, but NBC took the swing and it’s a hit. There is nothing that defines a network by the product anymore (other then a few outliers like HGTV) so every single distributor (broadcasters included) is looking for premium content in each and every show they consider.
Scott Manville: Reality TV has reinvented itself time and again over the past 60 years, from Candid Camera, to Survivor, to Duck Dynasty, The Voice, along with standout hits you’ve created. We’ve also seen reality TV programming brimming with docu-style series, allowing us to vicariously experience other people’s lives and worlds. What is the trajectory of “Reality TV” programming now?
Darryl Trell: The buzzword right this second is “premium.” More than ever, networks are looking for projects with a story that has to be told right this second and have attachments that take the project to the next level creatively. From top notch directors and DP’s that bring a unique eye and shooting style to the material – to cutting edge filming technology, to A-list star’s involvement in a very intimate way – every network seems to want producers to walk in with a strong package that takes the project to the next level. By the way – I actually think this is a really good thing for alternative programming. Anything that pushes the genre creatively to step up the product, in my opinion, is a great thing.
|“He’s created new genres, trends and new shows that are just ahead of their time. He pushes us to do the same every day.”|
Scott Manville: What’s on the horizon for Brian Graden Media and Darryl Trell?
Darryl Trell: At BGM we have been meeting on this every week to discuss where we should be focusing our efforts in the future. From a 10,000 foot view, we have been and will always be a product first company. Brian’s entire career has been about creating trends. From his work at the MTV Networks, to South Park, and Hit Record – he has created new genres, trends and new shows that are just ahead of their time. He pushes us to do the same every day. On a more micro level, we are constantly looking at the distribution models to find the new entries into the market that are hungry to make their mark in a new way and develop a business model that allows us to service those outlets in the most efficient and mutually beneficial way possible.
For me specifically, I continue to look for great projects no matter the genre or medium and develop and package them into undeniable, fresh, and premium entertainment. Very simply, I just want to share more and more stories with the world and find the best way to do that.
Scott Manville: What are three pieces of advice you can share with new producers and creatives pitching TV shows?
1. Before you meet with an exec, make sure you do some research into the types of projects he/she does. Don’t come with 20 projects like a watch salesman. Put your best foot forward by pitching 1 or 2 projects that fit with that exec’s sensibility.
2. Pitch a show concept, not a notion. If someone else could be pitching the exact same show right now then you shouldn’t be pitching yours yet. Package it with talent (an expert, author, writer, or on-screen talent) or find some underlying IP to option or get a fitting A list talent to EP. You have to assume that at least 4 other people are pitching the exact same show at the same time you are. So why is yours better? What do I get with yours that I can’t get anywhere else?
3. As part of your pitch, you should have an idea of what network or networks would be an ideal home for the project. And have anecdotal evidence to support it. You need to actually be familiar with the networks and types of programming on the networks you suggest. Just because there is a travel element to your show, does not mean that it’s a fit to pitch the Travel Channel…
Scott Manville: What do you love most about your work and career producing television, and what single task do you most look forward to within the many specific steps of creating and producing TV shows?
Darryl Trell: Producing television has allowed me to meet some of the most interesting and inspirational people in the world. I love getting to know them and telling their stories. It’s a privilege I do not take lightly and a part of the job that I love.
As with any job, there are parts that I dislike – the deal making and the slowness of this industry is overwhelming to me on a daily basis. But once the deals are done and we get through the tediousness of pre-production – it’s exhilarating to show up on set that first day and see it all come together. The cast and crew become family and there is a bond created through production that I don’t see happening in other work environments. I feel privileged every day, to do what I do for a living.
Scott Manville founded TVWritersVault.com creating the first industry marketplace online to deliver shows from new creators to global broadcast on major cable networks, including; Lifetime TV(U.S./U.K.) Discovery Channel, A&E(U.S., Australia), SyFy (U.S., U.K.), UKTV, Foxtel and others. Manville has served as Producer at Relativity Television and is a former head of development for Merv Griffin Entertainment.