Does my Pitch Reel Need High Production Value?
Well, what exactely is Production Value anyway? If you already work in Hollywood you’re familiar with this term. Production Value is a term we use to mean having high value… when media is manufactured with high value elements such as exotic or otherwise hard to come-by location(s), high marque value cast (scripted), expert lighting performed by skilled (and costly) technicians with high value instruments, shot on high end camera systems with high end lenses, and edited by skilled (and costly) post production professionals employing dazzling (and expensive) visual effects, etc. etc. etc.
But the question is, does your pitch reel require high production value? The answer is - Maybe? It really depends on what you’re trying sell. But 99.9% of the time the answer is “No”. What’s most important is the idea - period. A pitch presentation or reel that's beautifully produced (high production value) around an average and otherwise unoriginal concept is the pitch equivalent of putting a silk hat on a pig. If your real reason for producing a pitch reel is to show off your skills as a media craftsman - i.e. you’re an aspiring Director of Photography or any of the multitude of crafts that are employed in the production of media then you probably want the reel to feel as “high end” as possible. But if your bottom line goal is to feature your idea and show its commercial potential to Hollywood Executives then you don’t need to be deterred by production value concerns.
There are countless examples of pitch reels that sold shows that were screen captured from poor quality Skype interviews or grainy footage shot on cell phones. Case in point: "The Shahs of Sunset” is a reality show that’s enjoyed multisession success on the Bravo Network. The pitch reel for Shah’s consisted of hours of sit-down interviews with it’s cast (who at the time were completely unknown). Production value - very low. These interviews were taped with a camera on a tripod with a fixed frame throughout. That is to say there was no variety in the shots or angles. The lighting was flat and unappealing. This pitch was the antithesis of "Production Value” yet it gave the Executives at Bravo enough to see the potential in its characters and they ordered a season of the show. The rest is history - multisession success.
What’s the takeaway from the example above: One word, “Character”. The Shahs are big colorful characters. Network executives don’t need beautiful lighting nor 4K HD footage to see it either. The Shah’s pitch could have been shot on an IPhone and it would have still sold. When pitching reality programming in particular, character is paramount. If your subject characters are interesting then you’ll be able to get that across even with the camera on your mobile phone, a consumer camcorder or even a webcam interview.
The point here is, don’t be intimidated by Production Value. Hollywood makes plenty of underwhelming movies that cost north of $100 million dollars. Many of these movies look amazing but at the end of the day the story just falls flat and no amount of production value can cure that. If you have a good idea with great characters to build a show around, don’t be deterred by the fear that your reel won’t be slick enough or professional enough.
A Caveat - AUDIO. One element of your reel that is extremely important is AUDIO. This mostly applies to shooting interviews. Executives need to clearly hear what your characters have to say! So when you’re shooting video of your potential show subject and the focus is on WHAT your character is saying, plug in some headphones to your recording device (your phone or camera) and monitor that audio! What you hear is what you’re recording. If your subject is standing next to a noisy appliance or there’s a car alarm blaring in the background then your going to make it hard for Executives reviewing your Pitch to concentrate on what’s being said. Anytime you are shooting interviews slow down and find a location that has decent light and low to no background noise.
Never has there been a time when the basic tools to create quality media were so accessible. Chances are your mobile phone shoots higher quality video then the $50,000 standard definition camera systems that most newsrooms employed up to the mid-2000’s. Not to mention a DSLR or HD camcorder you might already have. These tools are ubiquitous in our modern age. Don’t be afraid to use them to help realize your idea or vision!