Make it Sizzle
A sample structure for your very own development project.
One of the most common questions I get when asked about Unscripted TV is how to sell a show. While my primary role has never been as a buyer or seller, I’ve spent a lot of time working on sizzle reels, pilots, and taking sold projects from development to air (which is really like a second level of development, which I’ll cover in a later post).
My answer to any aspiring or independent producer looking to break their way in is to produce your own sizzle reel. I’ll note here that there’s rarely just one way to do things in television, but if you want to get noticed, I think there’s an immense amount of value in bringing your idea to life as a proof of concept. A good sizzle reel shows a production company that you have a great idea, a keen eye for talent, a sense of story, a knowledge of the current market, and that you have the chops to pull it all together.
Below, I’ll offer a sample structure that is commonly used for sizzle reels. But first, I’ll answer a few more questions.
What is a sizzle reel?
Basically, it’s a movie trailer for your to-be-produced TV show. Typically three to five minutes that paint a picture of a world, the characters that exist in that world, and the stories that can be told in that world. All usually set to a Dua Lipa track that definitely won’t be in the actual budget. YouTube has several that you can watch to get an idea, but I’d also suggest watching trailers or superteases for shows that currently exist - preferably in the space you’re interested in - to get an idea of how they “sell” their show.
How much does it cost to make a sizzle reel?
Hopefully as little as possible. Shoot it on your iPhone, use a RodeMic (usually < $100), edit it in iMovie. If you can add additional style or polish (Drone, DJI Osmo, fancy graphics) go for it, but don’t make it your barrier for getting something done. Seriously, if you want to shoot it for $0, just find a quiet place and skip the microphone.
Sample sizzle structure.
Below is a very loose template you can use to help plan a potential sizzle reel. Using this template could give you an idea of exactly how much footage you need to complete your reel, give you a clear direction of what pieces you need, and give yourself a beginning, middle, and end. For simplicity, this sample is geared towards a show based around a couple of characters rather than a large ensemble docu.
OPENING CLIP: Something loud or funny from your main characters. Could be an outtake, some drama, a joke - something that gets your attention, pulls you in, and draws immediate interest.
TITLE CARD: Name the show! (Knowing that a network sales team will change it later after 37 rounds of market research.)
INTERVIEW: Allow your characters to quickly introduce themselves. A little bit of who, a little bit of what, and a little of what to expect. (This is usually your second chance at hooking someone after the opening clip, so it matters a lot. It’s a good place to state who the character(s) are, but also what is different about them. Example: “I may just look your regular mom of four, but I run the nation’s largest trucking business.”)
SCENEWORK: Show something that supports the interview. A little bit of personal life (She’s a mom doing mom things!), a little bit of business (But Toby in the warehouse just dropped an entire pallet of Baby Yoda Chia Pets that were supposed to get to Rite Aid today).
INTERVIEW: If necessary, introduce another main character here (if it’s a larger cast, you’ll definitely want to get all your faces up front).
INTERVIEW: Or, have your main character brag about herself a little bit (not like, literal obnoxious bragging, but something that explains why their world is important, different, and why you NEED to be in it.)
SCENEWORK: Another beat of conflict or challenges within your character(s) world.
INTERVIEW: Setting up some of the stakes for the series (You’re transitioning from small picture to bigger picture, i.e. some of the ongoing stories you might see in this show).
SCENEWORK: Quick two or three beats that support the previous interview and showcase some of the stories that could emerge.
INTERVIEW: Playing off the chaos or drama, it’s nice to toss a bit of humor or self-awareness that makes you want to go along on this journey with them.
SCENEWORK: Something relatable, a “Stars, they’re just like us” moment. (Look, she’s trying to use TikTok and her kids are super embarrassed! Been there.)
TRANSITION: Around here, you’ll usually see a bit of a transition and open up your world. You may have met a couple of main characters by this point, but here is where you get to paint an even bigger picture. (Time to meet the wacky forklift driver in the warehouse who is most definitely a liability.)
INTERVIEW: New character(s), what opposition (or support) do they potentially pose to our primary character.
SCENEWORK: We see how this person might be an oppositional force. What extra challenges do they create?
INTERVIEW: What are our main character’s thoughts on these people? These challenges?
SCENEWORK: Character development beat. What do we see our main character doing to work towards her goals? Solve challenges? Overcome adversity. Your audience should see something in themselves that they relate to in their own life or that they strive to want to be.
INTERVIEW: Learn something personal. A challenge in their past that’s going to provide an extra obstacle over the course of this journey. Self-doubt, or a moment of reflection. (“I know people don’t think I belong here…”)
SCENEWORK: A moment of success in overcoming a challenge. Triumph, happy feelings. Hugs.* (*When it’s safe to give those again.)
INTERVIEW/SCENEWORK: It’s time to wrap this thing up because the friendly TV exec watching wants to eat their $15 Avocado and Burrata Toast before heading into back-to-back-to-backs, so we recap in bite and compliment it with supporting scenework. “The highs, the lows, the ups, the downs, the goods, the bad…but through it all, we find a way."
TITLE CARD: What’s your show called again?
LAST CHANCE: If you’ve got one more hilarious, jaw-dropping, or fantastic moment, put it here! Leave your audience with something memorable.
Cool. So now what?
If you’re so inspired, make a sizzle! I’ll reiterate, there’s not just one way to do this. If you’ve identified a great concept or great talent, the structure will almost write itself, but if you’re currently circling an idea, but not exactly sure where to start, I hope this breakdown helps.