Q&A With Chris Abbott

Chris Abbott is one of the most successful writer-producers in television, with credits like Magnum PI, BL Stryker, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman and Diagnosis Murder.  She’s just written a terrific book called "TEN MINUTES TO THE PITCH: Your Last Minute Guide and Check-List for Selling Your Story."  And all proceeds from the book benefit the Writers Guild Foundation.

Tf_pitch_1She’ll be signing her book this weekend at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 23, 11-12, at the  Writers Guild Booth.

Why did you write this book?

Leonard Stern, from Tallfellow Press, came to me with the
idea. He saw it as the second book in
their “Ten Minutes To Success” series, which began with “Ten Minutes To The
Audition” by Janice . I liked the idea; it seemed to me I had seen
dozens of books about writing, but none about pitching and I believe they are
two distinctly different talents.

 There are a thousand “How To” books for writers on
pitching and selling scripts. What makes
yours different from all the rest?

 A thousand? Really? Honestly, I didn’t think
there was even one book out about pitching as I was writing it. I have noticed, since, one other book. Nevertheless, I’m sure you’re right,
hyperbole aside, there must be several books on pitching. Mine is different insomuch as my professional
experience is different from the other authors. I think it would be valuable to read everyone else’s book as well as
mine. But the value of mine is that it
is very practical; it is very small so you can take it with you; it has stories
from lots of successful writers to amuse or enlighten; it doesn’t take long to

Before you even get into talking about pitching itself,
you pay a lot of attention to the importance of seemingly irrelevant things…
like double-checking the address, arriving very early, going to the bathroom
before the meeteing, bringing a pencil and paper, turning off your cell phone…
but they aren’t irrelevant things, are they?

 When Leonard first talked to me about this idea, it was subtitled “A Parking Lot Primer For
Wrters.” The idea was that you’re in the
parking lot, you’re ready to go pitch
your heart out, what are the things you want to remember before you get into
the office?

 So that accounts for some tips, like “going to the
bathroom”, that you might not see in other pitching books! But there is something that I hope is a bit
more profound behind the seemingly mundane ideas. For example: Are You In The Right Place? This
isn’t just about making sure you have the correct address (although without
that, you are doomed to failure); it is
also about making sure you’ve brought the right kind of pitch to the studio
that is likely to consider buying your story. Each of the ideas has its own Zen-shadow idea I think writers need to
seriously consider before even showing up in the parking lot. 

Is your book primarily aimed at people pitching for TV
episodic assignments, pilots, and MOWs? Or does the same advice apply in the feature film and reality-show

 I have no idea what applies in the world of reality
programming. “Ten Minutes To The Pitch”
was written primarily for people who will be pitching movie ideas or pilot
ideas. I think pitching for MOWs and for
episodic assignments is much like, if not exactly like, pitching for features
and pilots… so I think the book can benefit anyone who’s going in to
pitch. I think the book can even benefit
someone going out to sell themselves in some other arena. It’s mostly practical advice about
interviewing for a job. The job in this
case happens to be writing a feature film or a pilot.

 I also think the book is aimed at those who have spent a
fair amount of time pitching. There’s
something comforting about reading horror stories and success stories from your fellow writer. Writers, I think, mostly do what they do
alone and it’s good to find out that other people have gone through the same
crucibles you’ve been through.

 What is the biggest mistake a writer can make during a

 I suppose it depends on the person to whom you’re
pitching. I’d have to go with: arguing
with the person you’re pitching to. Don’t argue with them about anything! Not even the weather! It just
annoys them and that’s all they’ll think about during your pitch. And if they tell you what’s wrong with your
story, and you know that they’re complete idiots and missed the point
altogether – still don’t argue. You
won’t win. 

What was the worst pitch you ever had to sit through as a
show runner?

 Honestly, Lee, I don’t remember any particularly bad
pitches. Usually, by the time people are
pitching to the show runners, they have a sense of pitching. The stories may have been not right for us –
or maybe we’d already done the story they were pitching – but for the most
part, the writers were pretty good at what they were doing. Doesn’t mean they couldn’t improve by reading
“Ten Minutes To The Pitch,” however!

 What was the worst pitch you ever made someone else
sit through?

 Well, okay, I’ll tell you this. I was working with a writing partner and we
had sold a story idea to an episodic TV mystery show. After we had gotten the approval to “go to
story,” which, for those of your readers who don’t already know, means we could
go home and write up the story we had just sold in more detail, my partner
decided he hated the story and we should change it. I didn’t know that was a really bad idea, so
I agreed. We came in, not with the
fleshed out story outline the producers had bought, but with an entirely
different story which, incidentally, they hated. I could almost see the blood pressure rising
on one of the producers as we pitched him our new “improved” idea. I never made that mistake again.

Can you survive in television if you’re a good writer and
storyteller… but uncomfortable selling yourself and your stories to others?

 I’m curious as to why you would be uncomfortable telling
your stories if you are, in fact, a good storyteller. But, for the sake of not arguing with the
interviewer, I’d have to say, yes – and
no. If you can sell that first script,
people will be willing to trust your writing ability more than your enthusiasm
for verbal pitching. But as difficult as
it is, these days, to sell a script, I’d advise any writer to try to learn to
become comfortable telling stories.

 Sometimes people ask me, “Can I make it without moving to
Hollywood?” I say, “Sure. You can make it where ever you live. But you can’t make it as a Hollywood writer
unless you’re willing to come to Hollywood. ‘Cause they aren’t going to come to you.”

 I think the same thing is true about not wanting to sell
stories. If you can’t sell a story, how
are the buyers supposed to know you can write it?

 I think selling yourself is another matter altogether. If you have an agent or a manager and if you
don’t run with scissors and can play well with others, that’s probably all you
need. I don’t think you have to be
Willie Loman to write him.

 You’ve written for, and worked with, stars like Burt
Reynolds, Tom Selleck, Frank Sinatra, and Dick Van Dyke. Do you approach a script or a story
differently when you’re working with a “big star” than you would if working
with a relative unknown?

 The “Big Star” vs. “Relative Unknown” doesn’t factor into
how I pitch. What does, though, is
this: am I pitching to an actor? Or to a
director? Or to a studio executive? Or to other writers? You want to draw people into your story and
you want them to see why they should put a whole lot of money and time into
producing it. So you want to pitch it to each of the principals in
ways they will best understand it. It’s
been my experience that actors see stories from the point of view of their
character and their character only. Even
if their character isn’t the protagonist, it’s good if you can find a way to
pitch the story from their character’s point of view.

 Remember Truffeaut’s “Day For Night?” There was a literary conceit of a reporter
interviewing each of the actors during the production of the film, and each
actor began by saying that this movie was about his/her character. As funny as it was, I think it’s a very good
clue about how actors look at stories.

 Line producers, on the other hand, are going to want to know
how the heck you’re going to make this movie for the money. And if you can give them some reassurance on
that, your life will be a little easier.

 Other writers (ie Showrunners) like to hear cool ideas they
haven’t thought of themselves. Obviously, they’re the hardest people to pitch to!

You’re an experienced showrunner…of shows created by
others and shows you’ve created yourself. Can you talk about the differences between the two experiences? What’s it like running “your own show” as
opposed to taking over a show that’s previously been run by others?

 I have only created one show myself (so far!) but you’re
right, I have run a number of shows created by other people. They each have their own challenges. The hardest thing about running a show you’ve
created (at least in the one case I can look back on) is just trying to get it
up on its feet in time for airdates. The
show I created, “Legacy” for UPN, shot on location, so in addition to getting
scripts ready, we had to find – or actually created – a space we could use for
sound stages. “Legacy” was also a period
show, so we had to gear up costumes and sets and props to get us through the shooting
period that other shows, either non-period or even period shows that have been
on the air for a while, don’t have to worry about. So that was an incredibly stressful period.

 I have found running someone else’s show a bit less
complicated because so much has already been decided. If you treat the stars and the studio and the
creator (if he/she is still around) as partners and with a modicum of respect,
it seems to go fairly smoothly. I know
this sounds like it’s easy. It’s
not! As you know, yourself! It’s running every day just to stay in
place. But at least you’re not running
in place and digging a hole at the same time!

 What can aspiring writers do to hone the skills needed to
be “good pitchers?”

 Practice, practice, practice. Ask others to listen to your pitch and give
you feedback — not on the story – but
on the pitch. Did they get lost? Were they pulled into the story? Are there any places that dragged or that
went by too fast?

 I think it’d be good to offer to do
the same for your fellow writers. It’s
good to hear how someone else pitches and discover what works for them and what

 But, in the end, the pitch is your
voice, your vision, your idea. So it has
to sound like you.

 There are so many approaches to
pitching…and you have many examples in the book. Ultimately, doesn’t it come down to trial and
error, a writer discovering what works best for him or her? Is the way a writer pitches like the way they
write, a reflection of his or her personality and unique point of view?


 Or are there some basic rules and
accepted customs that all writers are expected to follow?

 Well, I think there are some basic
rules and accepted customs that all people are expected to follow. The same rules apply to writers. Don’t show up nude, for example. Don’t wipe your nose on your shirt. Don’t insult the photos of their children on
their desks.

 I think you can expect a
semi-standard 20-30 minutes in which to give your pitch. Don’t feel you have to race through it and
give some of your time to the next writer through the door.

 I think you should basically give the
people you’re pitching to a beginning, middle and end to your story. And you should give them anything really,
really cool and unexpected… but not because of custom but because that’s how
you’ll sell it.

 I guess that’s all I know about that.

 Is there really a freelance
episodic market left? Is it harder for
writers to break into television today than it was, say, ten years ago?

I don’t know, although I suspect not. And I don’t know, but I suspect yes. But that’s no reason not to try. It’s always hard. But somebody has to write the scripts. It might as well be you.

How well do the executives remember the pitch when they
finally get the finished script? What
happens if the script deviates from the pitch they loved?

 I’d say if the script is working, deviations won’t be
minded. But if there are specific partts
the executives loved and you take them out and you don’t warn them in advance –
start looking for a new day job.

 It’s been my experience that the executives like to
participate in creating the script. If
you change it substantially, you’re insulting them. Now why would you want to do that? On the other hand, if the spirit of the notes
is in the script and you’ve given them
essentially what they remembered buying, they’re not going to haggle over a
couple of minor changes.
How important is a leave-behind? Should it read like a rerun of the pitch in
tone and energy? Or should it be a more
detailed document? Or should it be less

 I’ve never left a leave-behind. I think it’s really hard to read treatments;
they don’t have the same energy and spirit that a verbal pitch has or that a script
has, for that matter. So I think they’re
the deadliest selling tool.

 If you’re forced to leave something behind, then I would
say, make it the best written version of the pitch, not just a copy of the
verbal pitch. Make it advertising copy,
somehow. Find the way to give the reader
an idea of the conflict, the characters, the really cool scenes…. and then try
to get them to let you come in to pitch it again yourself!

What is your take on the state of the episodic TV drama
today? It’s the dominant form in
prime-time and, some suggest, we are experiencing a “golden age?” Do you think this is true? If the approach to story-telling in episodic
drama has changed, how so… and is it for the better?

 I’m just grateful to see that TV
drama is coming back. It seems like we
went for a long time without much in drama except “reality” programming. I do think the approach to story telling has
changed, but I haven’t studied it enough to give you a cogent answer. I suspect whatever my answer would be, I wouldn’t
say it was for the better or for the worse. However people want to hear stories, that’s the way we should be telling
them. So if the new approach is
attracting viewers, great. That’s what I
want to hear!

3 thoughts on “Q&A With Chris Abbott”


    I just had a delightful interview with Chris Abbott (of Magnum PI, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, etc. fame. As soon as I get it into shape, I’ll be serializing it here.
    Chris is promoting her new book Ten Minutes to the Pitch. Her book is a very usefu…

  2. Chris,
    Is the Quinn Martin announcer-Hank Simms still alive.I read that he had retired. Anyway to get intouch with him? Where can I find a list of the other great tv announcers of the 70’s?


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