Tales from the trenches: John Gray pitches ‘Ghost Whisperer’
by Douglas Eboch & Ken Aguado
In August of 2013 we published our book about pitching, The Hollywood Pitching Bible. While the book was intended to offer solid advice about selling projects for film and television, along the way we also discovered how the pitching process can become a way to analyze and understand something more fundamental about the nature of a story – a way to decode the DNA of the idea itself – understand it, reverse-engineer it, perfect it. The response to the book has been fantastic and we got some great feedback from readers. Many asked that we amplify some of our ideas, and also include more real-world examples.
So for the second edition of the book, we asked creative professionals who have sold pitches for movies and television shows to tell us the story of their pitch. Each of these stories illustrated one (or more) of the points we made in the book. Hollywood Journal has graciously offered to publish some of these “tales from the trenches.”
– Doug & Ken
I’ve been lucky enough to work with John Gray several times over the course of my career, both as an executive and as a producer. John is easily one of the most gifted, innate storytellers I know and his prolific and diverse body of work is all the proof you need that this is true. But when John shared the story of how he sold Ghost Whisperer, Doug and I were scratching our heads about where it should be placed in the second edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. Sure, it was a colorful personal story, but John’s story was also a textbook example of how to do pitching right on every level, told by someone who knows how it’s done. His story could have been placed anywhere in our book and it would have made perfect sense. Doug and I flipped a coin and decided to place John’s story towards the end of our chapter “Pitching for Television”.
– Ken Aguado
In 2004 I was happily toiling away writing and directing fairly high-end movies for broadcast and cable. Many of those movies and miniseries were done for CBS. I had no thoughts about or even desire to do series – I loved the nomadic life of movies, where I could immerse myself in a world and a location for 4 or 5 months and then on to some completely different world and location.
One day, a CBS executive called to ask if I would be interested in a series idea, about a woman she had met through famed psychic James Van Praagh. This woman, known as Mary Ann, could, according to Van Praagh, see the spirits of the dead who had not crossed over. In fact she could help them cross over. If you were dead and had crossed over, she couldn’t see you – but if were dead and still hanging around, she couldn’t miss you.
Always loving a good ghost story, I agreed to meet Mary Ann. I was expecting an exotically dressed mysterious woman, probably with a hard to place European accent; what I got was a salt of the earth Midwestern woman with a big infectious smile and an ex-Marine husband with a crew cut, who were about as normal as they come. Just so happens she can see dead people.
While we were sitting in Starbucks, I asked her if she could see any dead people in the vicinity, and she proceeded to clue me in to the presence of at least 3 ghosts right there in Starbucks, and why they were still there, and what they needed in terms of closure to cross over (I ended up putting this scene in the pilot).
As I drove away, I felt very strongly that I wanted to, that I could, make a series out of this. I love the horror genre, and I love strong character driven drama. Here was a chance to fuse both. I also saw it as a chance to work out some of my own feelings and fears about death, closure, and redemption. I think it’s important in anything you pitch to have a personal component, even if it’s hidden, that resonates with you and is something you’ll want to keep exploring. Without that I think you make a much harder road for yourself. I told CBS I was interested.
Now, it was up to me to come up with a take for the show, a way into the world, who the main characters would be, and what the template of the show would be on a weekly basis.
My producing partners, Ian Sander and Kim Moses, and I spent about a month or so shaping and developing the show. My feeling was to center it on a normal young woman, just starting out, who, in spite of this gift (curse?) of being able to deal with the dead, is just trying to have a life, get married, start a business, like anyone else. Her constant conflict would be whether she could in good conscience ignore the spirits around her who need her help. Each episode would begin as a mini-horror movie, then evolve into the mystery of what the ghost needed to cross over. I anticipated a several episode arc during which the main character would agonize over whether she should tell her fiancé/new husband about the fact that she sees dead people.
My first pitch was to CBS, since of course the idea originated there. I felt obligated to go there first. By the time I went in for the pitch, I had worked out the world of the story, who the main characters were, how the guest cast would come in and out of each episode, the tone of the show, and what the template of each episode would be – the appearance of a ghost, the mystery surrounding its presence, procedural beats to solve the mystery, the main character discovering what particular piece of closure is needed to send the spirit on its way, resolution.
Because what’s most important to the network is not so much the pilot, but how the series will work and stay fresh for a season, and hopefully 5 seasons, I actually don’t spend too much time on the pilot itself in a pitch.
I happen to love pitching, I love storytelling, and I look at pitching as a piece of performance art.
My job is to get the listeners to forget where they are and what they were doing before and what they have to do later and get them totally lost in the story and the characters. They have to feel my passion for it. And pitching the characters is crucial, because that’s what keeps the audience coming back week after week. Doesn’t matter how great your plots are, how clever your gimmick is, if you don’t love the people (or at least be fascinated by them) you have nothing. So I spend a lot of time (relative to the whole pitch) painting pictures of the characters and what makes them unique and why we can’t wait to spend time with them every week.
Over the years, I guess I’ve come up with a way of pitching series that I’m most comfortable with and seems to be effective. The way I start (after the obligatory small talk and traffic complaints) is to jump into the teaser of the pilot – I make sure it’s arresting, visual, and compelling – and gives us a good sense of what the main character is like – and I end it on a cliffhanger. I then leave them hanging, as it were, and step back and talk in a broader sense about the series, the world, the characters.
I try to use examples of random episodes that give a good feeling for the direction the show will take, and the potential for the growth of the characters. I try to show the entire palette of the show; a quick example of how it will be scary, how it will be mysterious, how it will be funny. I like throwing out bits and pieces of dialog. I talk about the visual look of the show; and how we will use music.
It’s also good to come armed with research or some other visual aids. My producing partners came prepared with some pretty compelling audience research about the growing fascination at the time with all things supernatural, and some interesting box office figures for the most recent horror movies. The sad truth is, more often than not, executives are mostly looking for a reason to say no. This keeps them safe, at least for a time. You have to provide so many overwhelming reasons to make them feel safe saying yes, that even the most frightened executive will feel comfortable going forward.
One of the last things I’ll do is give at least 3 brief loglines for additional episodes. Once I’ve made it through all of the above, if I still feel the room is warm and I haven’t overstayed my welcome, I’ll come back to the pilot and finish the pitch on what happens and how it ends. However, if I feel the pitch has gone really well, and everyone is feeling good, I’ll leave well enough alone. I think it’s important to know when to quit while you’re ahead.
I think it was just a day or two later that we got the call – CBS was buying the pitch and I would start writing the pilot. This was a great feeling and there was an hour and a half or so of celebrating, then the next network call comes which tells you exactly what pilot the network wants, which may not be the pilot you thought you sold. In our case, CBS had told us they loved the fact that they didn’t have any other shows like this on the air; but in the development process they slowly but surely made sure it looked like nearly every show they had on the air in terms of it being a procedural; the solving of a mystery became the central focus of each episode. They also felt strongly that we should go into the pilot with the husband of the main character already being fully aware of her abilities. I fought hard against this; to me this was taking away a huge conflict for the main character, and we all know that thing about conflict equals drama etc.
I lost that battle, and many more – but I can’t fault CBS in any way – they know what works for their audience and under the CBS template the show lasted for 5 years, always winning its time slot, even in its last season, and almost always winning the night. The trick is learning to work within a network’s parameters and still make it personal and satisfying to you.
Click below to read a few additional “Tales…”:
Tales from the trenches: Paul Guay pitches ‘Liar Liar’
Tales from the trenches: Grady Hall pitches ‘Spartacus’
Tales from the trenches: Robert Eisele pitches ‘The Great Debaters’
Tales from the trenches: Tony Gayton pitches ‘Hell on Wheels’