TV industry veteran Michel Rodrigue reveals how to get the right partners - and the fairest deals - to take your format from idea to screen - and beyond.
You have an idea for a show you think will make a great format. You’re an independent writer, not attached to a production company, broadcaster or distributor. To be successful, you’re going to need ... Partners.
First, you need something to sell.
My friend, the late great David Lyle, defined a format simply as “something somebody else wants to buy”. As a writer/creator you need to develop your original idea as fully as possible into a strong narrative structure, and lay it out in a readable document - a ‘paper format’.
However, broadcasters don’t generally accept pitches from writers/creators unless they are already associated with a successful series. So it is essential to ‘partner’ with a qualified producer with current contacts with the broadcasters you are targeting.
So how do you get a production partner?
Your paper format contains the detailed development of your idea. But to pitch a producer, you may need a ‘deck’ - a picture-heavy sales tool (e.g. a power-point presentation of 15-20 pages) that takes them through your format quickly, emphasising narrative, mechanics, action, character, location and context.
The producer likes your ‘Deck’. Now what?
Getting over the line is hard. And the support you need to achieve it comes at a cost. If you have deep pockets, you can get a producer to work for hire, pay their fee and costs - which could represent a significant financial commitment. Alternatively, and more common, is to share the Intellectual property (IP) with your producer.
Some producers will want more than others, but in our experience a fair share is 50/50 of the IP between writer/creator and producer. The key thing here is that the more work you’ve done yourself in development, the more your format is ‘something somebody wants to buy’, and so the better percentage deal you’re likely to strike with the producer.
Once the deal is struck, the producer may introduce you to their in-house development team who work with you to finesse the pitch and add a ballpark budget. The producer may feel the Deck is sufficient to pitch a broadcaster, however, before getting the broadcasters’ commitment to production, your producer will likely need to prepare a short ‘sizzle’ reel or, in some instances, a full pilot, together with a detailed budget. All this is part of the producers’ investment, and justifies their % share.
However, let’s not forget that down the line, the broadcaster and distributor may also want a share of the IP.
So your original deal with the producer should allow for ‘equal dilution’ if and when a new player is awarded shares. In other words, if your split with the producer is 50/50, and a new partner comes in, you and the producer reduce your share by the same amount to make room for the new partner (e.g. 50/50% of 80%, the other 20% going to the new partner).
Will the broadcaster want to be a new partner?
Basically, yes. Broadcasters have different appetites for IP share. UK broadcasters are limited by law to a maximum of 15%, some broadcasters are happy to get their costs reduced if they don’t get shares. And at the opposite of the spectrum, US broadcasters will buy you out as they want 100% of the IP. (Better get a non-US broadcaster to air your format first - if it is good, the US broadcasters will be happy to buy a format license…).
The situation is different again with streamers, I will address that in my next blog.
Of course, if your format does well in its home territory, you are going to want another partner, to distribute your format internationally. Generally, distributors should be happy with 25-35% of the distribution license sale, and should only ask for IP shares if they contributed financially to the development, pilot, or other large expenses.
So, in summary, getting a format from an idea, through pitch, deck, sizzle, pilot and first series to a licensed adaptation abroad, is a long process (we have taken 4+ years from first pitch to first episode - worth the wait, as the series in question is now in 12 countries and counting).
Above all, it requires partners. And you should expect and prepare for all those partners to want a slice of the pie in return. We recommend you try to get all this done in your own country/market, where you know and trust your partner.
Alternatively you can hire an international format consultant from the get-go to find trustworthy partners at all stages of the processes, and negotiate fair deals. My door is always open!
Michel Rodrigue is CEO & Partner of global consultancy The Format People.