The Reality of Reality

Posted by
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto

Today’s guest post comes from Stage 32 member Michael Rome. Michael is an attorney with over thirty years of legal experience. He is the founder of Rome & Associates PC and Hollywood South Productions, both of which are based in the Atlanta area. He is a graduate from the Florida State University School of Law and is admitted to practice in Georgia and Florida. He is also on the ABA Committee for Entertainment Law and an out-of-state member of the Beverly Hills Bar Association.

In his entertainment law practice Michael often serves as production counsel for television and film projects. His other clients include screenwriters and actors. He has received numerous feature film credits as attorney and producer, including the recent science fiction Remnants starring Tom Sizemore.

Reality shows have been Michael’s primary focus in television, which led him to the formation of Hollywood South Productions. He started the business so reality show creators had an affordable option for the creation of sizzle reels to be used in pitches to production companies and networks. Michael currently represents the lead talent in a new reality show that is currently a strong candidate to be picked-up by the Lifetime channel in the spring of 2014.

Michael is a guest speaker in entertainment law for classes at Florida State University College of Law and is developing a class for Film & Television Production Law in conjunction with the law college and the FSU Film School. He has also given presentations at the Dragon Con Film Festival and the Atlanta Get Connected Panel on Lawyering for Indie Film & TV.

I thank him for contributing to the Stage 32 Blog.


Creating a reality show seems like something any of us could pull-off with a good idea and a pen…after all it’s only about reality. Although there’s a seed of truth in this, much of what we assume about the development of ‘unscripted’ television isn’t accurate. The truth is often counter-intuitive and little understood outside the industry.    

IDEAS ARE A DIME A DOZEN. The old joke was that every food server and taxi driver in Hollywood had written a script. Today it’s a treatment for a reality show concept. From a legal perspective these are very different situations because you cannot copyright an idea; you can only copyright the realized expression of your idea. So handing your screenplay to a producer in the back of a cab isn’t a problem, as long as it’s been registered with the Copyright Office.

On the other hand, there is no way to copyright a reality show idea. There may be some protection in copyrighting a detailed synopsis or “treatment” of the characters and plot line, but even this may not be enough. In 2012 CBS found this out the hard way when it tried to stop ABC from airing “Glass House”, which was similar in concept to “Big Brother”. The Court denied CBS its request for an injunction and said the new show would probably be different enough from “Big Brother” to avoid copyright infringement. The judge also commented that hard to copy.

Even though a reality show concept is difficult to legally protect it may not matter much because producers have probably been pitched a similar idea to yours numerous times. They receive thousands of submissions and there’s very little new under the sun for them. The greatest misconception on the part of the general public is that the idea or ‘hook’ is the most important part of creating a successful reality show. So what are the TV executives looking for?   

IT'S ABOUT THE CHARACTERS STUPID.  During Clinton’s presidential campaign a sign posted in the election headquarters read, “The economy, stupid." If you hung a similar sign near your computer it should read “The characters, stupid.” For reality or scripted television it’s the characters who keep us coming back to the next episode. Sure, the hook might bait initial viewers, but the sustainability of the series depends on audience involvement with the characters.

So it’s not about protecting your idea; it’s about protecting your real asset…the talent. If you’re lucky enough to run into a real life character who has potential; you may have found your reality show. So make sure to secure and lock-down your future star with an exclusivity agreement drafted by an attorney familiar with reality television.

THE PITCH MEETING IS DEAD.  Mark Burnett who is the creator of “Survivor” may be able to walk into a network or pick-up a phone and sell a concept, but otherwise you need to forget anything else you envision about the process. Someone new to the business will need to take a much more common approach and pitch to a production company.

Similar to many modern day movie studios, the networks fund and broadcast the show, but they didn’t create it. In the film and television industry the projects are actually made by independent production companies. If you get a production company excited about your concept and characters, they might cover the expense of the ‘sizzle reel’ (see below) and try to sell your show to the networks. Pitching directly to the networks should be considered a last resort.

PAPER TREATMENTS.  There are two important presentation documents for a
pitch; the one-sheet and the treatment. The one-sheet is similar to the layout of a movie poster, with some important differences. A logline summarizing the show in a couple of sentences should appear near the top of page. (This is sometimes referred to as an “elevator pitch” because you should be able to summarize your concept within 30 seconds.) The one-sheet will also contain a brief synopsis around twenty-five words long, a tagline or teaser, and contact information. The graphics should reflect the tone, theme and setting of your concept in a simple but effective way. Look on the internet for examples.

The one-sheet should be accompanied by a one or two page treatment which details each character and the plot lines. (A single page treatment could appear on the back of your one-sheet) Focus on the characters’ unique personality traits and include the decisions and confrontations that generate the chemistry and conflicts. Reality television is still storytelling so include some exciting moments and how the story evolves over time. In short, even though reality television is unscripted you still need to construct situations that create the potential for drama and humor.

SIZZLE REELS. The other major pitch tool is the “sizzle reel”, which can vary in length from three to seven minutes. Reels longer than seven minutes, which may also contain full scenes, are considered “presentation reels”. What will the production company be looking for in the sizzle reel? It won’t be your filmmaking skills, instead it’s a chance for the producers to view and experience the characters. If you can get the production company enthusiastic enough about your concept and the characters, the production company could decide to cover the costs for making a professional reel, and then send it around to their network contacts.  

At the 2012 Realscreen Summit a panel of leading producers and network executives agreed the shorter the better for a sizzle reel; and that the most common problems were “Fake-fighting, trailer-style edits with too much blaring music and an over-reliance on straight sit-down interviews.”  The panel was unanimous that Coldplay should be banned as background because their music screamed “just another sizzle tape.” As to music in general it’s important to remember that use of copyrighted music without permission is considered infringement. Since you will not be able to use popular songs without paying an exorbitant amount of money, it’s best to find a website with free music in the public domain or find a struggling film composer who may be willing to help out for the experience and recognition.

If you’re unable to talk a production company into covering the expenses, you might consider hiring one to create a professional level sizzle reel. Since costs can range from $20,000 to $100,000, your first step should be to have them craft a proposed budget. Many companies will charge a fee of a thousand dollars or more for putting together the budget, so you will want a provision applying the fee as a future credit towards making the reel. If you decide to go forward, make sure any agreement requires the production company to help you pitch the show to the networks.

SUBMISSION PROCESS.  What’s the process for getting an independent production company to consider your pitch? First you’ll want to locate the ones that specialize in the type of reality show you are pitching. There are numerous sub-genres, including: Docu-Series, Competition, Makeover/Renovation, Dating, Supernatural, Survival, Talent Searches, etc.  As usual the best tool is the internet; and you don’t need to limit the search to your local area.

Many companies no longer accept unsolicited submissions, so you’ll need representation by an attorney or an agent from a known agency. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is weeding out the mountain of submissions the production companies would otherwise need to review. In addition, submissions from unrepresented individuals make the production companies more vulnerable to allegations they stole someone’s reality show idea. Your attorney or agent will send your submission with a cover letter to the production company and will often include a signed release stating you own all copyrights associated with the reel and materials or have permission for use from the rights holders. As discussed above using copyrighted music without permission is the biggest problem in this area.  

Even though paper treatments without sizzle reels are still reviewed by some of the production companies, you should try to include at least some amateur footage of the main talent. A written description of the characters cannot compare to the impact of seeing a sample of them in front of the camera…even if you only used your smartphone.    

YOU ARE THE PITCH. If you’re lucky enough to meet with a production company or network in person, you may be surprised to know the producers and network executives are evaluating you as much as they are your pitch. They want to know you have enough passion to see the project through, while at the same time being a little flexible about your concept. In short, they want to determine if you’ll be a good team member for the show.

Even if your meeting is scheduled for an hour, the pitch itself should take no longer than ten to fifteen minutes. This is still a relationship business, so leave plenty of time for of back and forth conversation. The executives will ask questions about the show and may even try to poke holes in it. For this reason it’s important to know everything about your concept and even do some dry runs (without over rehearsing). You need to be good at reading the room and willing to change your pitch on the fly. It’s a balance between being prepared and being yourself, and you don’t want to appear like your putting on an act. The dress code will reflect this…a nice pair of jeans and shirt should suffice.

It’s important to know as much as you can about the production company or network ahead of time; such as what shows they have produced and which ones are doing well. Finally, it’s critical to have more than one idea for a show. If they like you and your initial idea it’s not at all unusual for them to ask if you have any other ideas. For many reasons they may not be willing to produce what you’re pitching, but they’re always looking for good ideas.

THE PITCH AGREEMENT.  If the production company agrees to cover the expenses for submitting your show to the networks, the next step is entering into a pitching or shopping agreement. This contract is a type of option agreement where you grant exclusive rights to the production company to develop, produce, and shop your reality show to the networks. The option period is for a set time and a common length could be something like nine months; with an automatic three months extension if the production company is in active negotiations with a network.

If the show is green-lit you will enter into an agreement with the network for ‘reasonable and customary’ fees, and the production company will enter into a separate contract to produce the show. If your concept isn’t picked-up by a network, all of the rights will revert back to you. The production company will own the sizzle reels and paper treatments created by them, but will sometimes agree to transfer it back to you. When it’s all said and done, your greatest tools may be patience and resilience. It took some of the popular reality shows many years to make it onto the air.


Like this blog?  Please share it on social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc), your personal blog, or anywhere else you feel appropriate.  Thank you.


Michael is available for remarks and questions in the Comments section below.

Find Your Cause - Stella Adler and Me
RB's Stage 32 News, Notes, Discussions, and Other Fun Stuff (March 28th, 2014)
register for stage 32 Register / Log In