Tales from the trenches: Tony Gayton pitches ‘Hell on Wheels’
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
Tony Gayton and I met when I produced his first feature film The Salton Sea for Warner Bros. Since then Tony has gone on to sell many other film and television projects (often co-writing with his brother Joe), including the highly regarded series Hell on Wheels for AMC. In addition to his great writing skills, I’ve always considered Tony as having one of the most adept and agile minds of anyone I’ve worked with. Doug and I thought the story of how he sold Hell on Wheels was a great example of this agility at work and we included Tony’s story in The Hollywood Pitching Bible chapter about picking the right project in television. –Ken Aguado
This whole thing started when my brother, Joe Gayton, and I were given a blind script deal at the production company Endemol. At the time, they were known mainly for reality shows like Big Brother but were looking to get into scripted shows. Joe and I put our heads together and came up with some ideas of our own, none of which were westerns. At this point, Hell on Wheels, wasn’t even a glimmer in our eyes.
We finally settled on an idea that everyone liked and worked out a pitch, which we took around town. The pitch was unceremoniously and unanimously rejected everywhere we went. It wasn’t the first time that has happened and I’m sure it won’t be the last (rejection can defeat you or inspire you – it’s your choice).
Endemol informed us that even though AMC had passed on the pitch, they really wanted to find something else for us. They wondered if we would be interested in trying to come up with a western-themed idea. Showing old western features and TV series is a big staple of AMC programming, so it made sense for them to want an original western series of their own.
I immediately remembered a documentary I had seen years before about the building of the transcontinental railroad. I remembered it was an epic American story and thought it would make a great TV series. It was just a matter of taking this gigantic story and coming up with a containable pitch. In hindsight, our pitch was still too big (we covered both the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific in our pitch) but I don’t think that was a mistake. You will have plenty of time to winnow your show into something produce-able, but at the pitch stage, it’s okay to go bigger if that helps you sell it.
We took a few weeks to nail down the pitch, before we pitched it to AMC. If memory serves, they bought it right away or damn near right away. The big lesson here is know what the needs of a network are before you go out and pitch. There were only a limited number of places that would even touch a western. Some ideas will work for a broader spectrum of networks but some ideas will only be feasible at three or four places. The good news is that there are more and more cable channels sprouting up every day, so the number of homes for your ideas continues to increase.
Click below to enjoy 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: John Gray pitches ‘Ghost Whisperer’