By Ross Raffin
“I'm sorry,” the executive told me, “no one is looking for a 'Mr. Robot meets x.'”
Three months earlier, another said, “no one is looking for a 'Game of Thrones set in x.'”
Reference films, a form of high concept pitches, are not everyone's cup of tea. Some people consider it an indicator that a concept contains no new elements (an infamous story refers to the trend that started once “Speed” was pitched as “Die Hard on a bus.” According to legend, one executive finally came out and pitched “Die Hard in an office building!”). In order to successfully use reference films, screenwriters needs to:
- Know what reference films are meant to accomplish in a pitch and
- Observe reference film “etiquette.”
The same pitch, given with different reference films, will receive very different responses. If the listener's interpretation of the pitch is contrary to the references (imagine pitching a brilliant half hour comedy using “American Horror Story meets Scandal”), the listener will be spending so much time trying to reconcile the references and pitch that he or she is unlikely to even hear the funniest aspects. Mismatches can occur between references and pitches when it comes to tone, plot structure, production value, genre, and character type. As remarked above, half hour comedies should not have horror references. Similarly, a “Law and Order” like procedural shouldn't refer to two plot-heavy television series. A grounded one hour drama set in a schoolhouse shouldn't use Terra Nova and Game of Thrones as references. The references in a show about an angelic teenager dealing with sexual assault should not be “Hannibal meets It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia.”
A good reference film not only establishes the tone of a show, but also shows what is unique about that tone. That is where there must always be two elements to references (“Show A meets Show B” or “Show A with/in/during Y”). The first element gives a sense of genre, structure (one hour drama? Linear storytelling), and at least part of what is entertaining about the project (stylized violence? Unbridled cynicism? Raunchy dialogue?).
The saying goes, “Hollywood wants 'fresh' not 'original.'” Executives need concrete reasons to stake their reputation on a script. Unless the filmmaker is well known enough to BE a concrete reason to stake a reputation (see: Christopher Nolan), there has to be a recognizable commercial element. Where you find innovation and a relatively unknown screenwriter, you are likely to find existing intellectual properties that executives used as their concrete reason (see: Walking Dead, Dexter, Daredevil, and other shows with a “D” in them).
The best place to demonstrate “freshness” is in the secondary element of the reference (the y in “x meets y”). The primary element gives a baseline for genre, structure, and consumer market. The secondary element provides a contrast to the listener that lets him or her infer elements of novel entertainment. Consider the references for Fox's “Scream Queens”: "American Horror Story" meets "Glee". The listener first thinks of "America Horror Story's" terror-filled, bloody, sadistic anthology. This is then contrasted to “Glee” which, let's be honest, has characters all of us want to see dead. It's easy to infer how this could be an entertaining, gripping, and above all popular show. “Alien,” when pitched as “Jaws in Space” conjures up the horrors of an unseen monster below with the utter isolation of outer space (note, however, that this reference would not work today). The right combination of references could get you more script requests than the most perfected ten minute pitch.
Beyond these fundamentals, however, a reference must also follow what might be called “Hollywood etiquette.” Essentially, there are a set of unwritten rules that, when violated, can turn references into a liability.
As an example, never reference a feature that was considered a box office failure or a television show that was canceled mid-way through season 1. Executives consider it at best a sign of amateurishness and at worst a sign that the project will fail.
For television, at least the primary element (the “x” in “x meets y”) should have been made recently. “The Cosby Show” was a huge success, but audiences' tastes have changed so much that executives have no reason to think duplicating a twenty year old success will work.
While some “etiquette” can be generally applied, some of it is specific to the executive being pitched. Why weren't major executives interested in “Game of Thrones set in x” or “Mr. Robot meets y?” The answer is more obvious when taking the perspective of a television executive at a major studio.
“Game of Thrones” and “Mr. Robot” are two of the most popular shows on television, and everyone has taken notice. That's why every major network is working on their own “Game of Thrones set in x” or their own “Mr. Robot meets y.” Time after time, I found the executives passed on my idea because they had “their own Game of Thrones” or “their own Mr. Robot” which they were developing.
The personal taste of executives differ, so it helps to tailor references to the person. The ABC executive doesn't want to hear that a show is like “Californication.” The Hallmark Channel executive doesn't want to hear a pitch for “Breaking Bad meets Dexter.”
Beyond the technical aspects and etiquette of references, there's always the element of chance. There may be an HBO executive who wants a “Game of Thrones” or a Hallmark executive looking for the next “Dexter,” so there will always be exceptions to the above guidelines. However, unless you have some special knowledge about the situation, your best bet is to have references that are both.