Let 'Stranger Things', 'Breaking Bad', and 'The Sopranos' Teach You How to Pitch a TV Series
What's the power in being able to pitch a TV series or feature film effectively? Well, it could mean getting your ideas made rather than scrapped and thrown in some studio executive's trash bin.
Some of the greatest stories ever told were those that got shot down at least once. There’s something about genius projects that can scare a lot of studios and networks — whether it’s pushing the envelope in multiple genres or covering more controversial ideas. And yet, the way that people cling to these shows has proven how genius these ideas really are.
So, which award-winning shows almost didn’t make it? And what lessons can we learn and utilize when it comes time for us to pitch a TV series or feature? Have a look!
Originally, the Duffer brothers saw a lot of rejection. In fact, before they even pitched their hit series Stranger Things, they were hitting walls. Executives didn’t want to hear a word, and brothers Matt and Ross worked their way into writer’s rooms by making a small-budget horror flick.
It was after this experience and their subsequent work with M. Night Shyamalan that the brothers started pitching their idea for a horror sci-fi show tentatively named Montauk, named after the infamous conspiracy theory about a military experiment on children.
This show was rejected initially by between 15 and 20 networks, with most of the feedback being to lose the focus on the children or make it a kids’ show, rather than a serious horror series about middle schoolers. Matt and Ross Duffer refused to do so as they insisted this would ruin “everything interesting about the show.”
The brothers then decided to pitch the show to Netflix and won over executive Shawn Levy with their clear confidence in the project. As the show got picked up, it became the Netflix hit original series, Stranger Things, which was released on the streaming service in the summer of 2016 and will have one more season before concluding its epic story.
The lesson here — getting a pitch rejected, whether it's a TV series or feature, doesn't necessarily mean your idea is bad. It might just mean that you need to keep looking for the right home for your project. As Matt Duffer said in a CBS interview back in 2016:
"There's a line I like that Dustin says in episode 6, talking about Eleven — ["She's our friend and she's crazy!] I feel that way about Netflix. Netflix is our friend and she's crazy."
Vince Gilligan wasn’t known for many big successes before he conceived of Walter White and his ultimate journey as a “science teacher turned kingpin.” It wasn’t until he’d reached a rock-bottom low point of seeing his ideas rejected by multiple studios that he and his fellow writer Tom Schnauz started joking about how they’d make a living next. The idea of cooking meth in an RV was one of those suggestions made by Schnauz, inspired by a news story — and it stuck with Gilligan.
Whether it was Showtime and their preoccupation with Weeds, another drug-centered show, or FX with their numerous shows focused on similar characters to Gilligan’s Walter White, the idea of Breaking Bad was seeing rejection left and right.
Still, HBO was the most baffling loss of all — with this drama-fueled network being an obvious choice for Vince Gilligan’s crime series. However, Gilligan described this meeting as the worst of them all, and the executive he pitched “could not have been less interested.” They didn’t give him a flat “no” in the room, though. Instead, HBO’s executives left him “on the meat hook” for a long while, with their lack of a response to his follow-ups speaking volumes.
Of course, AMC finally made their connection with Gilligan and allowed him to make one of the most riveting series in television history — with award-winning performances from Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston that made the show a staple for any binge-watcher today.
Hailed by many as the godfather of cable television, The Sopranos ushered in a new era for crime dramas — and for TV in general. In fact, it’s known as one of the best television shows to date. But The Sopranos was also rejected many times before it got its big break.
Starting as an idea for a feature, the show’s creator, David Chase, first pitched the TV series with a pilot that had no murder in it. Every network passed on it, ending with Fox. CBS even balked at the idea of Tony Soprano being a character that went to therapy, while Chase believed this angle was the main reason for making the show worthwhile.
After Fox declined to move forward, Chase had to rethink the series he was trying to sell. He realized that the missing murder and betrayal were things that audiences wanted to see in a mafia show — so he remedied that missing part before finally approaching HBO.
The rest is history, as HBO loved the idea and “plucked” Chase out of his “development hell at the last minute” by taking on and making The Sopranos one of the most critically-acclaimed TV shows ever produced, even inspiring a prequel feature, The Many Saints of Newark, which was released in 2021.
Pitching is hard. Not only is it nerve-wracking to be in a room with people that hold the future of your project in their hands but getting rejected doesn't feel great.
But guess what — hard doesn't mean impossible. In fact, you can make pitching your superpower if you learn from those who've done it successfully, unsuccessfully, or dozens of times for a single project, just like the showrunners of Stranger Things, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos.