How to sell a show to Netflix with the help of an easily digestible pitch document, according to a workshop by one of the streamer's execs

  • A Netflix exec shared best practices for pitching a show during a three-hour workshop on Stage 32.
  • Insider outlined the key takeaways for TV creators.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Netflix is commissioning shows from around the world like the French heist series “Lupin” and the Japanese sci-fi thriller “Alice in Borderland,” which have become global hits.

With the streaming-video giant on the hunt for more local-language series, Netflix broke down some best practices for pitching series t0 its executives, during a three-hour workshop hosted by Stage 32, a social-networking and education platform for creatives and professionals in the entertainment industry.

Christopher Mack, director of talent investment and development at Netflix, said during the February 4 workshop that he had given the presentation more than 40 times to educate creatives around the world — particularly those outside of the traditional Hollywood studio system — about how to make their ideas stand out.

Mack said there’s no single formula for pitching Netflix or developing a hit show.

“We don’t know what we’re looking for, but we know it when we find it,” he said.

But he shared elements that Netflix looks for in a story, advice on how to make the show bingeable, and a sample structure for a pitch document that’s easily digestible for buyers.

One key, Mack said, is for creators to stay true to their culture and voice. He said Netflix is interested in local-language content, meaning it wants to work with local creatives on content that shines a light on culture.

“What we’ve found is the content that’s true to the culture is the content that actually travels better than the content that tries to be Americanized,” Mack said. “Maybe it’s because, with Covid, this is our way of traveling and seeing different cultures.”

Questions creators should ask themselves before pitching Netflix

Before taking a concept to Netflix, there are a few components Mack said creatives should search their own stories for.

Netflix execs look for these elements in pitch meetings and will likely ask creators about them:

  • Hot-button topics that haven’t been often explored in TV and film
  • Themes and genres that people can’t get on linear TV, like nuanced explorations of teen sex or family scandals
  • Proven genres and storylines that can be flipped on their heads, like the Korean drama “Kingdom” did with the zombie genre
  • Broad appeal, even if somewhat niche
  • Actors and other on-screen talent who are attached
  • Books, articles, or other intellectual property you plan to explore on screen, such as author Maurice Leblanc’s fictional gentleman thief Arsène Lupin
  • Ideas that are distinct from what linear-TV networks are producing. If the concept would work for a local broadcaster, it’s probably not right for Netflix, Mack said.

‘Netflix essentials’ for making a show bingeable

The secret sauce that makes Netflix so addictive is the bingeable nature of its programming. It’s what makes you go from pressing play on “The Queen’s Gambit” to staying awake at 3 a.m. to finish the whole series.

Netflix has found that character is core to keeping its audiences hooked.

“What we’ve found is that character is actually a little more important than plot because character-driven series are the ones that tend to be more bingeable,” Mack said. “Viewers develop relationships with character, not plot.”

Here’s Mack’s advice for making a show more bingeable, which he called “Netflix essentials”:

  • Character driven: Mack said to fully reveal characters’ back stories so that readers relate to and understand their motivations. He said to think of a TV show or episode as an illusion that takes viewers out of the real world. That illusion breaks when viewers question characters’ choices. The characters don’t need to be likeable (e.g. Walter White in “Breaking Bad”) but they do need to be interesting so that audiences are invested in their story arcs.
  • Tease at the start: Mack said Netflix’s consumer research found that people subconsciously decide whether they’re going to watch a show within its first five seconds. He said to hook audiences with an opening scene that gives them a taste of the show’s central character, conflict, and world. He suggested starting every episode with a teaser, unless the episode picks up directly after dramatic events that the last episode left off on.
  • Strong narrative drive: The hero in the story should be proactive and move the narrative forward, Mack said. Every scene should add to either the character’s emotional arc or the plot. That doesn’t mean the story needs move fast. Mack cited “Breaking Bad,” which started slowly but set up the character dynamics that drove the show.
  • Leave them hanging: Use cliff hangers at the end of each episode to leave viewers wanting to know what happens next. Mack highlighted three types of cliff hangers: a dramatic event or plot twist, a revelation that impacts the emotional arc, or information the audience gets that hero doesn’t know. “This is what drives the binging behavior on our service,” Mack said.

Building the pitch document

A pitch document that breaks down the story, characters, world, and tone of the stories into concise, detailed sections can make the pitch more easily digestible for buyers, and even to help with crafting a verbal pitch, Mack said.

He shared a sample structure for pitching Netflix, but said creators should make the document their own.

“What I like to say is, each section is a tasty portion of information that’s going to entice me to want to see more of your pitch,” Mack said, “versus what we usually get a lot of times is we get an information dump.”

Generally, Mack said a pitch document should be five to 10 pages of text, and include strong visuals that help convey the tone of the story.

  • Overview: A short synopsis that explains who the hero is and what they want, why they want it now and what happens if they don’t get it, and the central conflict. Try to keep it to one paragraph. And include a line on why the series is unique — such as a hot-button issue it hits on, a personal connection to the creator, or valuable IP. 
  • Story questions: These questions provide the answers that help Netflix understand if a show is right for the service, Mack said. Explain: Who are these characters? What do they want? Why do they want it? How do they go about it getting it? What are the central conflicts? What are the stakes? What are the themes? That last question hits on the central idea that the story is trying to get across. Mack recommends challenging yourself to describe the story without telling the plot.
  • World: Describe the world the show takes place in, including where it is, when it is, or what it is, as with the chess world in “The Queen’s Gambit.” Mack said to set the show in a world that helps tell the story, be it a key moment in history that ties back to the central idea, or a town that becomes a character. “The past, the fantasy, and the future are very expensive to make, to produce, so make the ‘when’ necessary to the story,” Mack said.
  • Tone: Describe the feeling and atmosphere that you want the audience to feel, such as a revenge story that’s darkly comedic. Mack highly recommended using movie, TV, and other visual references to sell it. The creators of “Stranger Things” channeled ’80s paperbacks and images of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Poltergeist” to help sell Netflix on it. Mack said tone is crucial in a pitch because Netflix strives to have a mix on the service. “It helps us kind of figure out how many of a type of show to buy” and be “more informed buyers,” Mack said.
  • Character descriptions: Describe each of the main characters, including their backstories, traits, and arcs. Again, character is key in Netflix shows, so be concise but convey the character’s depth. Think about where the character will be in their life at the moment the audience meets them, their internal and external story arcs, and the relationships between characters.
  • Season summaries: Summarize the overarching emotional journeys of the main characters during the season, and the emotional plot points that will drive the story arc. Mack suggested including a season summary for each main character. He cited a story-circle infographic by “Community” creator and “Rick and Morty” executive producer Dan Harmon to help guide creators. This section is typically one to one and a half pages long.
  • Potential episodes: Share eight to 10 ideas for potential episodes, with brief, one-to-two-sentence descriptions. This helps convey how the action will play out. To brainstorm, Mack suggested focusing on the main goal for the protagonist during the season, and thinking about the “mini goals” that could help them get there and the barriers that could get in the way of their success.

A recording of Mack’s full three-hour presentation, which has in-depth examples on each section, is available on Stage 32.

Disclosure: Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Business Insider’s parent company, Axel Springer, is a Netflix board member.

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