Monday, June 13, 2011

NATPE Pitchcon 2011: Interview w/ Peter Lenkov, EP and Showrunner of Hawaii Five-O

NATPE Pitchcon 2011 took place last week at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. I ended up not pitching anything and attended as press, because I realized I wasn't ready to pitch... and I didn't want to waste an opportunity. I have been super busy on rewrites of my 2 features and also working on some TV pitch ideas, paired with my many keep-a-roof-over-my-head jobs...and Pitchcon made me realize that I need to put some more work into my pitches.

I do have to point out that much of Pitchcon is heavily focused on reality TV. Thursday's first two panels were most enjoyable for me, since they offered some of the only content about scripted stuff.

The first session was with Peter Lenkov, executive producer and showrunner of CBS' Hawaii Five-O. He talked a lot about how this show was unique because of its source material, a hit show that aired from 1968-1980. Peter wanted to respect the original show, but also do something fresh and new. You might think that a CBS procedural is all about weekly cases, but for Peter, it came down to character and figuring out the backstories for these people - and he still focuses on character in the writers' room today. "I wanted to do a premise pilot," he said. "Most networks don't like origin stories. But the value that I could add to this [franchise] was that I didn't know who they were. I could make these people three-dimensional. Why are they so good at their jobs?"

Peter didn't pitch this idea to CBS; CBS already had the idea and then came to him. Still, he did a lot of research and preparation, and had to pitch his take on the show. He brought photos of who he thought the cast should be and came up with rich backstories for each character. "I think it was the easiest pitch I ever had because I was so passionate," he said. "It went really smooth." Over the years, Peter has had both successes and failures. "I learned that I'm only gonna take jobs that I'm passionate about," he said.

Why are networks doing so many remakes? "It's a franchise, it's a brand," he said. "It's easier to sell. [The original] Hawaii Five-O is still playing in repeats, so it's an easy sell to audiences here and internationally." He does acknowledge that some people are turned off by remakes. "There is baggage that comes along," he said. "Why give this one a try? It's hard to win those people over."

Peter said that usually a studio asks for a show bible and about six sample stories - but he did 28 sample stories. "Some we used, some we didn't," he said.

What does he do as a showrunner? "You're sort of running this company. You spend three million dollars every eight days," he said. "You hire a great crew, hire the best writers, deal with talent, negotiate deals, etc. I hire the best people to take care of all that stuff. I don't want to know how much things cost. You get people who are experts. Your job is putting out fires, being with writers, coming up with stories, approving stories."

As a producer, he looks for "something promotable" when he's being pitched to. When he's in the writers' room, he looks for a great story  - solid characters, something you can connect to. He also looks at the size of the plot, how it will advance the characters. He thinks about "what the little stories are, the stories that make us love our characters and root for our characters."

Next up, I'll post advice from producers, network & studio execs who spoke at Pitchcon.

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roxyturtle said...

I decided to fly out from NYC and attend this conference after reading your post on it a few weeks ago, and I have to say THANK YOU! It was such a great experience. Looking forward to your take on the rest of the conference.

Dan Williams said...

Wow, what a great wealth of refreshing information! He did 28 stories! I sort of think it's a good idea for a writer to collect stories. When an intriguing news story appears, I copy and paste it into a Word file, as a story I've connected with. If I was a showrunner, and a writer came in with such a file, maybe 200 stories with the plot points outlined for me, so he or she could passionately pitch ten stories in a couple of minutes, I think I'd hire this writer pretty quickly!

Sasha said...

I like that he talked about making stories smaller/human-scale. That's something I personally am working on in terms of my TV scripts. It's so fun to go epic, but I think you get lots more emotional resonance from the smaller stuff. Maybe because it feels more intimate?

What did everyone's pitches look like, that you ended up feeling unprepared?