The Wire is terrific storytelling and great TV. It’s also an example of how ambitious, original material can get produced—if pitched effectively.
Let’s look at how David Simon pitched The Wire and see what we can learn about how to present our most original ideas in a compelling way.
Lead With a Familiar Context
The Wire is a drama that… will be, in the strictest sense, a police procedural set in the drug culture of an American rust-belt city, a cops-and-players story that exists within the same vernacular as other television fare.”
Simon knows that he has a new and ambitious take on the genre of police procedural. However, he doesn’t lead with his complex, intellectual ideas about writing a Greek tragedy. He leads with what is familiar.
To sell an original idea, give the originality a familiar context.
Use Comparisons to Give a Sense of Precedent
…The Sopranos becomes art when it stands as more than a mob story, but as a treatise on the American family. Oz is at its best when it rises beyond the framework of a prison story and finds commonalities between that environment and our own, external world. So, too, should The Wire be judged not merely as a descendant of Homicide or NYPD Blue, but as a vehicle for making statements about the American city and even the American experiment.”
This part of Simon’s pitch (clearly customized to HBO), demonstrates that there is precedent for a show like The Wire.
While there hadn’t been a cop show like The Wire before, there had been other successful shows that were complex and went beyond the classic genre fare.
End With What’s Original About Your Project
…In the end, the cost to all sides begins to suggest not so much the dogged police pursuit of the bad guys, but rather a Greek tragedy. At the end of thirteen episodes, the reward for the viewer—who has been lured all this way by a well constructed police show—is not the simple gratification of hearing handcuffs click. Instead, the conclusion is something that Euripides or O’Neill might recognize: an America, at every level at war with itself.”
Note that even when Simon finally says the words “Greek tragedy,” he still gives the context of the familiar “well constructed police show.”
Admit That Originality Presents A Problem
Creative professionals tend to value uniqueness and originality, and that’s important. The desire to do something original stimulates others to innovate, entertains audiences in new and challenging ways, and holds a mirror up to new aspects of our culture.
However, originality scares executives. To a decision-maker, words like these…
- “breaking new ground”
- “completely original”
…are code for: “so far, projects like this have never been successful.”
The more original your idea is, the tougher it is to sell because there isn’t a precedent to show it can work.
Improve your pitch by using a familiar context and examples of successful precedents.
One More Thing
After the fourth season of The Wire, the possibility emerged that the show would be cancelled before the fifth and final season.
Luckily, it wasn’t. However, Simon emailed TV critic Alan Sepinwall the pitch he would have used to persuade HBO CEO Chris Albrecht to keep the show on the air (via All The Pieces Matter: A Critical Analysis of HBO’s “The Wire”):
I’m going to tell him, ‘Chris, one day in the distant future, you will find yourself sitting across from a man who doesn’t understand who you are, what you did, what you accomplished. He will stare at you, uncomprehending, as you explain the fundamental actions, accomplishments and motivations of your life, until finally, you look him in the eye and say, ‘I was the guy who kept The Wire on HBO for its full five-year run.’ And that man will then cock his eyebrow, nod, and reassess the paragon of enlightened humanity before him. ‘That’s really great, sir,’ the man will say finally. “But it’s 2 a.m., so you need to finish that drink and go home.’”
Simon identified that the pitch that could hook Albrecht would be about his legacy. He was prepared in advance for a meeting that might not happen—and that’s a pro move.
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What else can we learn from Simon’s pitch?