HBO's top-level gatekeepers share the secrets to getting the green light.
If someone asks for your favorite TV show, chances are it’s on HBO. Is it Game of Thrones? Silicon Valley? Last Week Tonight With John Oliver? The Night Of? Or maybe it’s a Vice documentary, a late-night comedy special, or an Andy Samberg cycling mockumentary.
The HBO sizzle reel at Montreal’s Just For Laughs comedy festival demonstrated the massive scope of HBO's arsenal. A one-minute compilation, it ranged from sardonic Larry David exchanges to epic Night’s Watch battles. It featured an amazingly diverse slew of shows—all big hits, all engaging.
So, how do you get your own million-dollar idea noticed by the premiere cable network in the world? How does the pitch process work for shows like High Maintenance? Insecure? Look no further: two of HBO’s key creative execs are here to provide all the answers.
"People who’ve made a web series definitely stand out. It’s the perfect proof of concept."
Presiding over Just for Laughs' sold-out “Inside HBO Development” panel were Ada Chiaghana, Manager of Development and Original Programming, and Aaron Spina, Director of Special Events and Programming. Chiaghana is a creative executive who develops and produces original half-hour comedy series. She’s currently overseeing Silicon Valley Season 5 and Insecure Season 2. Spina’s wheelhouse includes on-air successes like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, High Maintenance, Vice, J Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only – plus many more in development, including upcoming specials with Michelle Wolf and George Lopez.
Below, we've compiled their priceless advice. The bottom line? They need your good ideas, and they want your shows to succeed.
1. Knock on doors
Their first piece of advice? Knock on doors. Meet the right people, work hard, and earn your keep. That’s how both of these high-powered honchos got where they are.
Chiaghana got her start as an assistant at Creative Artists Agency. She later joined Frabrik Entertainment (The Comedians, Bosch) and moved on to comedy development at BET, MTV, and ABC studios. This introduced her to the movers and shakers in cable—and, eventually, HBO. "We linked up, there was an opening, and I fit," she remembered.
Spina got a grad-level internship with Nickelodeon while studying at Syracuse’s Newhouse School. After he graduated, they hired him for six months, but it didn’t pan out. Instead of giving up, he walked down the street saying a mantra to himself: “I’m gonna get into HBO.”
"Don’t seek out the person with the biggest title to pitch your work to."
Soon, he landed a temp job. "I showed up every day, I knew how to answer the phone in a professional manner, and I was at a good desk," he said. The rest was plain and simple hard work.
The other thing these two have in common? They’ve always combined networking with hard work and talent, keeping their finger on the pulse. "Before HBO, we were always reading everything, out in the streets meeting people, keeping up to date," said Chiaghana. "And we’re still doing that."
One crowd member—a comedian scheduled to perform at the Just for Laughs festival later that night—stood up and brazenly pitched his show during the post-panel Q and A. At most festivals, this likely would have inspired boos. Here, the audience was more forgiving; many members even reacted to the shameless self-promotion with so-called "clapter."
The HBO execs were also good sports. "I admire your chutzpah," Chiaghana said, amused.
2. Send your work to assistants, rather than execs
“We’re always looking for talent,” Spina said. Whether browsing the internet, scanning magazines, attending festivals, or watching a live performance, he and his colleagues are constantly searching for the next unique voice. It’s up to you to put yourself out there.
But, as Chiaghana advised, there’s a science to getting noticed: your best bet is to work your way up from the bottom.
"Don’t seek out the person with the biggest title [to pitch your work to]," Chiaghana warned. "Usually that’s the very last person who wants to see your work. Instead, look for junior executives, someone’s assistant. That way, you can get actual eyes on your project. And you’ll have a potential advocate. When your work does eventually get to the top dog, you’ll have someone who’s invested in your project too, who will tell their superior, 'I love this.'"
This approach helps her, too: "After all, we still have to pitch up to our bosses," she said. "So come convince us."
3. Be prepared to talk about your next project
Okay. So, you’ve finally landed a meeting—maybe with an agent, a potential representative, or maybe even with HBO. What’s next?
Spina fills in the blank. "Once we find an artist we like, the next step is that we set up a general meeting. We ask, 'What else do you have?'"
He paused for emphasis. "Don’t show up empty handed. Create something. Bring something to the table. Whether it’s a pitch, a script, a web-series or a video, don’t show up empty-handed."
"Whether it’s a pitch, a script, a web-series or a video, don’t show up empty-handed."
If you're unsure about what your next project should be, according to the two on the podium, a web series is your best bet. "People come in all the time with ideas," Spina explained. "But people who’ve made a web series definitely stand out. It’s the perfect proof of concept. It lets us see tone, talent—everything we need to understand an artist’s vision."
Insecure is one example of a web series that transitioned to HBO. High Maintenance is another. "That show started with 19 episodes on Vimeo," Spina said. "My boss saw it, loved it, wanted it. And we got it." More recently, HBO acquired Fatimah Asghar and Sam Bailey’s web series Brown Girls.
4. Have a unique, clear, and personal voice
What's that magic ingredient that will turn your idea into an HBO series? If there’s any guiding principle, Chiaghana and Spina agree that it’s your personal voice.
"From the setting to the characters, all [successful HBO] shows have a unique, specific point of view," Chiaghana said. "A web series is a great way to get a sense of someone’s voice because they didn’t wait for someone to give them permission. They said, 'This is what I want to say and how I want to say it.'"
Of course, independent film works, too. Lena Dunham did it with Tiny Furniture (2010), her SXSW Best Narrative Feature winner that caught Judd Apatow’s attention and led to HBO’s premiere of Girls in 2012.
Chiaghana summed up the message: "Whatever the format, doing something on your own is the best way of saying, 'This is my way of telling stories.' That’s what we need to see in order to make a decision."
5. Tell a confident, engaging story with your pitch
“I see a lot of pitches,” Chiaghana said, both amused and exasperated. To separate yourself from the pack, she said, "be comfortable. Be smart. Be engaging. And if you’re a low-energy individual, send someone in there who’s fun."
"I know, it’s hard; I’m actually very nervous right now!" she said. "But be comfortable, be conversational, and just tell an engaging story. Bringing a pitch document to the meeting is fine, but if you’re so married to the paper that you can't go off-script—if you can’t ideate, and prove that you really know your world—that’s a deal-breaker."
Spina nodded in agreement. "Pitching, conversation—it’s all storytelling. So if you can come in and tell us your story, that’s all you need."
"But be specific," Chiaghana added. "Every single pitch that I hear has the phrase 'in this political climate,' or 'with the current state of things,' without engaging specifically what that is. It’s hard to say anything funnier or more horrifying than what’s currently happening; I get that. But your story needs to tell us who you are. Be sure that it comes from somewhere inside you."
She leveled her gaze at the crowd. "You can’t fake having something to say."
6. Stay true to your vision, and advocate for creative control
If HBO does, in fact, greenlight your project, what are the rules of the road?
"We work with so many different kinds of creators that our shows are pretty elastic," Chiaghana explained. "Sure, we look for shows that feel right for us. But the creators are the ones living it, burning to tell their story, so we want to trust their vision."
Development is a careful process. People on the outside sometimes assume that HBO has a certain agenda, that 'the suits' have a hot topic in mind—like diversity, for example—and that they will shape a show to fit preconceptions. Chiaghana and Spina were quick to dismiss that.
"The way our industry talks about diversity is super problematic," she acknowledged. "But at HBO, we like to hear stories from anyone. It’s not specific to a particular background or message. We look for work that is great, and we appreciate the perspective that shapes it."
"We never try to adapt someone’s vision to what we want it to be," declared Spina. He cites High Maintenance as a recent example. "The show’s creators were fearful about someone putting hands on their baby, so we said, ‘We want your show. We’ll expand it to a half hour, but you can just do what you’ve been doing.' And that’s what we got: the show on the air now is very similar to what they did before. It’s important to let the artists have control, to let the story dictate how the show is made."
"We never try to adapt someone’s vision to what we want it to be."
And what does HBO bring to the party? "Our job is to ask the questions an artist needs to answer in order to make their show the best it can be," Chiaghana said. "That’s what we did with Issa Rae." Chiaghana was referring to the hyphenate actor/writer/director/producer whose series Insecure premiered its second season on HBO this summer. "She’s funny, charming and has something to say," she continued. "That’s our criteria. But she still needed help."
"A web series has a different sensibility from traditional, scripted television," she explained, "so we often have to take a voice or a story and explode or expand its world. That was the case with Issa Rae. As we talked through the story with her, there were several different iterations of what the show could be. We came to the conclusion together that she wanted to tell this story about female friendship between women who live in this specific neighborhood, in this specific time of life. That became the show’s through-line, and we’re both happy."
Actor, writer, and director Danny McBride had a similar story to tell about his gonzo dramedy, Vice Principals, whose second (and final) season will premiere September 17. At a separate Just For Laughs panel, McBride revealed, "We had a very specific vision for Vice Principals… and HBO was cool with it. A lot of times, you get paired with executives, and when you see their phone number come up, you wanna shoot yourself. But that’s not the case with HBO. They never questioned whether we had the right approach or not. We definitely get notes, but these guys are so intelligent; even if we don’t agree on the execution about how to fix a note, it’s always rooted in something that needs to be fixed. In fact, HBO and I have collaborated so much that we understand each other."
For HBO's part, one of its cardinal rules is to never rush a show into being.
"We never rush artists in development," Spina affirmed. "We keep a distance, and it’s mutual trust. We try to be a home for you, the artist—a place where you’ll want to work again."
Chiaghana agreed: "Development takes time. But we trust the creators, the process. If we want to get a show on the air, we want to get it right. We don’t want people to think ‘I wish they’d done this differently.’ So we look for people we can work with 'till we get their vision right."
And that part is up to you.