Saturday, March 1, 2008
The Hard Sell
Warning. Those of you prone to jealousy should turn away. As I write, I’m trying to stay cool as the California sun beats down on my computer. Remember warm air? We last experienced it in Northumberland in April 2007. For an hour or two.
I’m over here talking to broadcasters about one of the ideas we’ve been developing in our Byker office over the last few months. I’m pleased to say it’s getting a pretty good reception. When I say “good”, it means that they’ve politely sat through the DVD I’ve played them, rather than brusquely cutting me off with “Not for us, Tom. Anything else?” It means they quite like it, not that I can go out and buy a mansion in Beverly Hills. There’s a long, precarious path from pitching to production, about as arduous as the route to the pitching stage from the first glimmer of an idea.
At least this week’s experience is going more smoothly than my first terrifying pitch in the US years ago. Gerry Anderson (yes, Mr Thunderbird) and I wanted to make a sci-fi drama series called Space Precinct. Trouble was, it was going to cost around $36 million dollars and we didn’t have any money. So when a man rang me and asked if I’d like to go to New Orleans to take part in a “pitching seminar” at a convention of broadcasters I leapt at the chance of exciting a few buyers with our idea. As I walked towards the conference theatre, I heard a low roar not unlike a hundred thousand Romans preparing for the entry of the gladiators. The vast room was packed. What I hadn’t appreciated was that this was a pitching contest, a sport akin to bear baiting.
Four of us were given five minutes each to present our ideas, and then we were to be cross-examined, X-Factor style, by a group of judges each of whom made Simon Cowell look like a pussy cat. I was last to go. The previous entrant, a sweet French documentary producer called Natalie with a perfectly decent if rather Gallic idea, was already in tears. The other two sat red-faced and depressed, head in hands, two years’ development work torn apart in just ten minutes.
Chief inquisitor was Greg “Mr Nasty” Dyke, who was then head of London Weekend Television. Now Greg and I have a bit of a history. We were at university together and, I’m pleased to say, we are still quite good friends. But our relationship had hit a bit of a rocky patch after I’d competed against his company for the London television licence. Even though he won the bid, it took him years to forgive me. So that day he decided to take sweet revenge.
I played the showreel, which had cost months of preparation and not a little cash. Greg went straight for the jugular. “I can’t think of a network in Europe that would take it”. The other judges took his lead. My show was dead in the water.
Just then, an extraordinary thing happened. From the middle of the audience a man in an expensive suit stood up. “My name is Kloiber. I represent RTL 2”. It was Germany’s most important buyer.
“I would like to buy this series”.
There was a stunned silence. Then laughter. Surely he was joking? But with a wonderful Germanic wave of the hand, Herr Kloiber continued. “I would like to offer $100,000 per episode for a seven year licence”. Then wild applause, and a man from Tokyo stood up and made an offer for Japan. Within five minutes I had raised enough money to get the show into production.
Ah, such sweet memories, I think the sun has gone to my head. That’s the sort of thing that can happen in America. But for a show conceived in Byker?
Well, let’s see.