What’s the Big Idea? If You Really Have a Good One, Here’s How to Make It Reality (Guest Blog)

Development producer, creative consultant Ari Sturm breaks down how to develop an idea for a hypothetical reality TV show about the circus called “Clowning Around”

Everyone has an idea for a TV show or a movie. Just ask them. Or don’t; they’ll tell you anyway. But just because you think you have a great idea, doesn’t mean that you actually do. People always want to know what it takes to develop a TV show or film, which isn’t as easy as you would think. Writers and producers work really hard to tell interesting stories in new and innovative ways.

As a development producer for scripted and unscripted film and television, I used to dread the unsolicited casual pitch from strangers and family members. People would excitedly tell me about their amazing idea that someone (always meaning me) should totally do.

Several years ago I was in San Francisco at a holiday party full of people with whom I grew up. Over cocktails, I ran into a guy I went to middle school with — let’s call him Scott (because that’s his name) — and he enthusiastically asked, “You work in entertainment, right?” Scott barely waited for my response before blurting out, “The circus!” Just said it with pride, as though no one had ever strung those two words together before, followed by, “You should do that. You should totally do that. I give that to you. It’s all yours.”

Interactions like this used to annoy me. Now, however, I find them endlessly entertaining. As much as I enjoy people sharing their idea with me and thinking they’ve struck Hollywood gold, coming in at a close second is the gifting of their idea to me. The funny part is that most people’s “idea” is usually not an idea at all, but fragments of a character, a time period or a scene.

Now, of course, Scott didn’t present an “idea.” At best he proposed a location. However, Scott disappeared into the crowd, while I was left with the realization that people in, and outside of, the industry can struggle with how to develop a new idea into a fully formed concept and format.

Initially, my exchange with Scott can seem ridiculous, but truth be told, ideas for shows and films can come from the slightest of inspirations. In the past, I’ve been hired on projects that weren’t much farther along than “The Circus.” But what made Scott’s non-idea different from what happens in the development process are the details.

Developing an original project can be daunting, so in an attempt to explain and simplify the process, I’ve broken it down into three stages: idea, concept and format. It should be noted that these stages are not necessarily common industry vernacular, but are merely being used here to help clarify the process.

In its earliest form, an idea can be expressed in a single sentence that conveys the basic what, who and where.

Eventually, the idea will become a well-crafted logline. For our purposes, however, we’re looking for the basics, and we have a few important things to figure out. Let’s use “The Circus,” as our jumping off point. Now, is this a film or a television show? Animated or live action? Scripted or unscripted?

Here are a few examples of what an Idea for the circus might look like:

- A movie about a small-town girl running off and joining the circus to fulfill her lifelong dream.

- A docu-series following a struggling, family-owned circus.

- An animated series about a traveling space circus collecting intergalactic performers throughout the galaxy.

See, “the circus” could be anything. For our purposes, let’s go with a reality show. As a reality, or unscripted, series we need to know if we’ll be following one person or perhaps a group of people; if it’s going to be a soft-scripted show, or a competition program. There are endless possibilities.

IDEA: A reality competition where aspiring clowns compete for a chance to join the circus.

There it is, simple and to the point. We know what kind of idea it is, we basically know who the show is about, and we know where the show is set. So, let’s also give it a title: “Clowning Around.” In order for “Clowning Around” to become a Concept, however, we need to start building on the idea and get specific.

A concept is summarized in a one-sheet, which includes the Logline, tone, characters, location and structure for the show.

LOGLINE: “Clowning Around” is a reality competition in which 12 aspiring clowns compete in a series of circus skill challenges for a chance to win the ultimate job — a one-year contract with Cirque du Soleil.

Think of the logline as our mission statement, while everything that follows is there to support it. The concept one-sheet will explain how the competition works in fairly broad strokes. It will cover the basics of the cast and how the challenges may work. If we have a relationship with a clown school or Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, we would include that information. This is a single page document, so it will only be a few paragraphs long. Highlight the elements and concept of the show that make it so unique.

The most time-consuming aspect of developing a show, especially a competition show, is working out the format. I intentionally did not say the “most difficult,” because that is, and always will be, coming up with a great idea.

The format is how the show actually works, which is outlined in a multi-page pitch deck containing all of the detailed rules and challenges, episode breakdowns, cast sheets, host list, photos and art, and potential ancillary and multi-platform viewer interaction elements.

A format expands on the concept. The first few pages of the pitch deck will paint a picture of the show, describing its tone and idea in greater detail. These pages will include information on how contestants get on the show, what they’ll do to stay on the show, and how they’ll eventually win.

The next pages will break down every single episode and challenge for the first season. You’ll need to know if the season will be six episodes, or 12 or more. Following this, you may include several more seasons, with fewer details.

In the past, I have developed shows for which we had to break down every episode in detail through the first four seasons. Do not be in a hurry here. I have heard it said that a show doesn’t make money until year three, so the networks want to know that there’s enough material for a show to make it past two seasons.

Obviously, if you’re developing a docu-series then nobody will be eliminated (unless it’s about hitmen), but you will still need to break down every aspect of the show. A docu-series Format would outline in great detail who the characters are, what the life or world is like, and what the episodes would be about. For a scripted project, the pitch deck would have many of the elements of an early show bible.

The page following the episode breakdowns may include a host wish list with photos. For “Clowning Around,” Eric Stonestreet would hands down be my first choice, because he is talented and likeable, he’s great live, and best of all, in his younger years he worked as a clown.

After that might come photos of potential cast and locations, with a description for each. Also, companies these days are looking for shows that have multi-platform potential. I personally like to include a page of options for fan interaction and user experience.

Figuring out the format can be a lot of fun, even if it’s painstaking and time consuming. I liken it to creating your own world. You get to figure out how the world works, what the rules are, who gets to play and who gets to stay.

As you can see, working out these details takes time, which is why creating a reality show is not as simple as people tend to think. A lot of hard work goes into figuring out how best to tell these stories.

One final anecdote. Several years ago I consulted for two luxury lifestyle enthusiasts producing a reality show in a beautiful island location. They had already negotiated the rights to shoot in a specific locale, had invested in a director to produce a sizzle reel and the local island paper had even done a story on them and the production coming to town. On the surface it looked like everything was coming together.

I read over the article, looked through their materials, and watched the sizzle reel. The first thing I asked them was, “What is your show about?” Unfortunately, they didn’t know. After all the hard work and money they’d invested, they still only had a general “idea,” but no concept, nor format. Watching this realization wash over them was heartbreaking because they had underestimated how much work had to be done, and how much time and money they had already wasted without even knowing what their show was about.

Next time you think you have the next great idea, take a step back and think it through. There are a thousand directions one story idea can take, so go down all the roads until you hit upon the most unique and entertaining. Keep questioning, keep thinking, and keep creating. Good luck.