Imagine if you'd been working on a TV show for years, gone through the immense struggle of fundraising a season's worth of episodes, shot them, edited them, received an initial agreement with a network... only to then have everything stripped away because the powers that be chose to greenlight a similar show instead?
For most filmmakers, this would be a nightmare. But for the sketch comedy group Dinner For One, it was just not the end, but rather the beginning of something new.
After five years of waiting on another network to pick up the show, the group decided to take matters into their owns hands and release the project on their own.
Life Sucks revolves around three friends trying to make their way through middle school in the early aughts. The hook? While the three protagonists would be played by twenty-somethings, the large majority of the supporting cast would be actual middle schoolers from the location the series was shot at.
The production was actually used as an arts summer camp of some kind.
Their story is a cautionary tale for other makers in an ever-evolving TV distribution landscape. "Independent TV" is still kind of a new development. As the team defined the term in their Reddit AMA last week, "It's creating content without a network, in hopes of finding a network that will attach...For now, it's on things like Youtube, Vimeo, Amazon direct and companies like New Form but the landscape is changing so drastically. The problem we faced is that the networks aren't willing to buy an already made series. They want to make it their own, which is totally understandable. I hope this is going to change as more and more people develop their own work."
The big takeaway from the experience was that "There is a reason why people don't fund indie television. Networks want to put their stamp/brand on their shows and if you come to them with a finished product they don't know what to do with it. It's better to come into a pitch with a sizzle, season arc, and pilot and let them help create the version of your show they want. You really need video content in the room though, it really helps!"
"When we made the show, the five of us basically sent emails, texts, phone calls, set up meetings with anyone we knew to try to find a connection to someone in the industry."
One participant of the AMA who spent time in TV acquisitions confirmed the sentiment that networks aren't looking to purchase ready-made series admitting, "You're right about the network branding. We would look at completed series, often from other countries, but the price would also be pretty low given that A) the show wasn't known and B) it was already produced somewhere else and it made its money already."
So how do you get in the door in the for these meetings in the first place? Well, representation helps. The group had a manager and executive producer to get them in the room. But they had to do some major work to get representation on board. Their manager was actually a literary manager that connected them to a TV manager in his company during the pitching process.
Further reading: If you want to know more about how to get an agent we've got you covered.
"That's the part that changes for everyone in this business," they explained. "There is no one way of doing something which is one of the most frustrating parts about this creative industry! When we made the show, the five of us basically sent emails, texts, phone calls, set up meetings with anyone we knew to try to find a connection to someone in the industry. Our stuff got sent to a neighbor's lit manager, and we got a call back....months later! A couple skype calls later and a well made trailer and we were pitching. But that was after a year of contacting everyone and anyone. We also got a lot of industry response from festivals we went to. It's a great way to meet people, especially if you know no one in the business....like how we were!"
"All networks said we would have to reshoot the whole series if it was bought."
The interesting thing about Dinner For One's experience is that they had created the show all on their own prior to any pitch meetings. They crowdfunded $85,000, produced, directed, and did all the post-production without any network help at all.
"Our EP was a veteran Comedy Central TV producer and we worked mostly off of his notes and suggestions. We had added a director/showrunner and well-known actor to the mix but did not get to go as far as getting bought by a network because of another show getting greenlit with the same premise," they explain. "The biggest note we received after pitches was that they wanted a name attached...That veteran EP really only gave us notes on the pitch process, because we had pretty much already cut the show before we met him. But as far as supplementing network notes, we didn't get any notes from experienced TV folks, so we just trusted ourselves and the input of our close friends, cast and crew."
"The less people in the room the better!"
If you're interested in creating your own independent TV show, then perhaps the most significant thing to take away from Dinner For One's experience is that the days of cold pitching to major networks is probably over.
They pitched to TBS, TruTV, NBC Seeso (RIP) and Pop and they all were weary to buy a show without a star attached or celebrity showrunner. Even though it was almost half a decade ago, the group knew they should've been shifting their attention toward streaming services.
"Our representation was not able to get us in those rooms," they lamented. "They were really focused on trying to get us on a cable network (perhaps too old fashioned for the landscape)....we definitely wanted to get in those rooms but perhaps they were already developing shows with the same premise...i.e. Everything Sucks, Big Mouth, Pen15."
That's not to say that these meetings went terribly, they did initially have a deal in place, after all. So what did they do in the room?
"Our managers actually didn't want us to show the networks our full edited show. We created a sizzle and only sent the pilot or the pilot script if they were interested," they explain. "There are 5 of us that wrote and created the show so we rehearsed a 10-minute pitch all together about character arcs, log lines, season arcs, themes and storylines. So in the room, it was the network, the five of us and our manager and/or executive producer. The less people in the room the better! They really want to know what other shows your show is like...that way they have a better understanding of how they can sell it. We didn't actually edit the whole show together until we decided to put it out on YT. All networks said we would have to reshoot the whole series if it was bought."
Further reading: Find out how to write an elevator pitch.
"You realize how much there is that goes into making a show when you're doing it all on your own."
The group knew that even after all these negative experiences in their past, their hard work was worthy of distribution. So ultimately, they did it themselves. The project has been given new life on the internet. Now that its available to the public, a whole new world of possibilities has opened up. In their own words, now all they have to do is wait and collecting views on Youtube.
"After 5 long years of trying to sell it, we just want people to see it and spread the word," they admit. "We want to use it as a calling card to make the next thing and hopefully have our next show be picked up. So the next time we make something as a group, we don't want to be killing ourselves trying to create it. It was an incredible experience but I don't know if we will ever make something like this in the way we did again. You realize how much there is that goes into making a show when you're doing it all on your own."