Dina Hillier: Developing Network Comedies

To get her dream job, Dina Hillier landed an internship and wouldn't let go. Now the former VP of Comedy Development for Sony Pictures Television is helping young writers attract the attention of major networks.

 

Dina Hillier’s career started where her internship with Sony Pictures Television ended … or rather, didn’t end. After interning in the current programming department during her last semester in college, Hillier knew she wanted a job with Sony, so she refused to leave.

When my semester was over, I just kept showing up,” Hillier says. “I just kept coming in and just waited until something opened.”

The strategy paid off when a job opened up for an assistant to the then head of current programming. Hillier scaled the ranks before moving over to comedy development, a department where she would get to work with writers and showrunners to curate and develop new comedy series Sony could shop around to networks. Hillier retired as Vice President of Comedy Development two years ago, now she’s serving on the board of the ATX Television Festival in Austin.

GIM: What was the scope of your job at Sony?

DH: In comedy development, there are two different ways that a project can come to you. You can have writers come in and pitch you an idea. We also, as a company, have deals with writers who would then be exclusive to us. Then they would also come to us with ideas or maybe we had an area that we’re interested in or that we know the networks are interested in … where we need a writer to take on turning it into a TV show. There are lots of different ways ideas can come to you.

We then work on the pitches. We hone the pitch so that it’s very clear and concise and we then go out and pitch to the networks. We have to decide where to take it [and] when to take it there. There’s a whole kind of fun science behind it. It could be a cable idea versus a broadcast idea. It could be both. You have to kind of pick and choose where you’re going to go, but most of the stuff we did was for broadcast. We would take it to NBC, ABC, FOX, and CBS. We would take the pitches out, pitch them to each individual network, and hope that one, if not more, would be interested.

Ideally, you have many buyers and they bid over it, fight over it, and we then develop the scripts with the networks and, fingers crossed, you get picked up for pilot. You know, a typical [pitch] season, we’d take out maybe 100, 200 pitches. In a good year, you could have 40 scripts that you’re doing for the networks and you’re lucky if you get one [on air]. The odds are against you, but it’s a fun process along the way.

GIM: Those are intimidating odds.
“I’m the perfect example of somebody who just went out there and just kind of did it. I just went and I didn’t leave and I kept showing up, and that’s the key.”

DH: They are. It’s hard. The good thing about television is that things move very fast. With features, you always hear about it sits on the shelf for two years or it takes five years and then your star drops out. In TV it’s like every year you keep going over and over it again, but then you’re also working on these projects, some that you’re so attached to, you love, you still believe in, and then it’s just gone. It’s over. The network says, “We’re not going to do it.” We always try to keep alive the projects we really believe in by taking it to a different buyer or redeveloping them maybe in a different way, but yeah, it’s sad. You get so invested and then it’s just over, you give up, and you’re onto the next season. It just moves very fast, which I personally like.

GIM: When does pitch season happen and how long does it last?

DH: Everyone starts pitching around June. Mostly after Fourth of July is when things really get geared up and it’s all through the summer. By September, people start to run out of money and then they’re off and working on their script. For our timeline, ideally, we would get our first drafts in by Christmas and then we’d get them to the network by post-Christmas break. They would start kind of making decisions on what they’re going to pick up [around] January, February, and then we’re shooting in March. It moves very fast, because once things get picked up, everyone’s fighting for the same actors. It is crazy.

GIM: If a network takes a show, what is the likelihood that the show is going to get on the air?

DH: It’s a frustrating process because there’s so many factors. Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason. It all depends on how many slots they have open, so you’re shooting a pilot not knowing if the shows that are on the air are going to be on. How many openings are they going to have? They could have one opening and we’re making 20 pilots for maybe one slot to open. You have to think about what [your show] going to pair up with. Is it going to pair up with Modern Family? Then it’s going to be a very different show than what you’re going to pair up with Big Bang Theory or whatever else is on the air, New Girl.

You have to think [about] what they are pairing it with, the demographic, and target for that night. What’s working for them now? Is there a new president that came in? Do they have a different vision for the network? There are so many times too when you’re developing something and at the beginning of the year they want a show about aliens, so you develop a show. You happen to have somebody come in and do a show about aliens, and by the end of it when you’re turning in a script, they’ll go, “That’s the last thing we want to put on the air.” It’s always changing. The target is moving at all times. Truly the stars have to align. It’s crazy. There’s no formula for it. There are so many factors involved, which is frustrating and exhilarating all wrapped as one.

GIM: What’s the best pitch you’ve seen?
“I think a lot of people, and even people that have been around for a long time, they want to pitch you what the pilot’s going to be, but we never want to hear that, unless it’s a premise pilot.”

DH: Sometimes some crazy idea comes in and you’re just are bowled over by it … but it doesn’t always have to be that. It can be just a simple idea. … Dan Harmon, who we all knew and loved from things that he had done, we just knew he was a great writer. He did [the 1999 unaired series] Heat Vision and Jack, which was just something that everyone in that industry loved. He came in and pitched a very simple idea about a group of people in community college, but the difference between his idea about community college and most of the others that you’ll hear is that he had these super specific characters and you’re picking them up in such a specific place in their lives. The characters were so vivid that we just saw the show. We all completely fell in love with it. That’s what we always focus on in a pitch and that’s what sometimes people forget to do. It’s all about the characters. … I remember Community as being something really fun, just hearing and knowing this is something special that’s coming from the brain of someone who’s different and sees things in such specifics that we just knew it was going to be a cool idea and very fun.

GIM: It’s often said that writers are no longer just pitching a show; they have to pitch an idea that’s big enough for six seasons and a movie.

DH: Exactly. … I think a lot of people, and even people that have been around for a long time, they want to pitch you what the pilot’s going to be, but we never want to hear that, unless it’s a premise pilot. We did a show, Happy Endings. The first episode was this guy gets left at the altar and they’re all in a group of very close friends. How does that affect the friendship moving forward, because they’re all best friends? That was a key part of the pitch because it was really the catalyst and the reason for being. But in general, yes, you have to see how this is going to live on TV for ideally 100 episodes and on occasion six or seven seasons. [The pitch is]: Here are the characters, here’s the world, here are some sample episodes. It could be an episode of season one. It could be an episode of season five, but it’s just a typical episode of the day-to-day what you are going to see. Where does the comedy come from? How are the characters used? Who populates the world? And it’s hard to do in a pitch. You don’t have a long amount of time, so it’s something that you kind of learn over time. The ideal pitch is getting out the characters, explaining what the show is, and then showing us, “I have 1,000 episode ideas. Here’s what you see week to week.” You try and put the best ones out there to give a sense of what the show is and the tone of the show. …

GIM: Should pitchers be aware of what they can get away with in terms of networks? Should [network censor limitations] be factored into a pitch?

DH: Here’s the thing, if you love your idea and you love your pitch and you have a very clear sense of what it is, then own it. If you see a version that’s a little bit less raunchy and you feel like that’s something you could do, great. Yes, if someone comes in with a show about a stoner and every week this is their life when they’re stoned, CBS is not going to put that on the air. … I think CBS is a little bit more traditional multi-cam sometimes than others. Yes, there are certain networks that will allow you to cross the line a little bit more than others, but having said that, you have a show like Two and a Half Men, which is probably one of the dirtiest shows on the air, so you never know. Listen, yes, it will limit you if you go a little bit over the line, but you also have to think about the kind of show do you want to do. Do you want to do It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia? Then do it, but know that there will be fewer buyers that might want it. You’re just limiting how many places it could live.

GIM: If a new writer is trying to get in front of you, what’s the best way to do that?

DH: Meaning if you just moved out to LA and you don’t know anybody? Find out who works where and shoot out an email. You’ll be shocked how many people would respond and sit down with you for five minutes. First of all, it’s asking everybody you know, “Hey, do you know anybody who works at a studio or a network? Do you know any agents?” You’d be surprised how many people would love to help others.

I had zero connections. I knew nobody that was in the entertainment industry. I’m the perfect example of somebody who just went out there and just kind of did it. I just went and I didn’t leave and I kept showing up, and that’s the key. … Be the first one in, the last one out, and any opportunity you are given to read something, file something, be in on a meeting, go to a taping or a table read, you do it and you stay there as long as you can. That is the key.

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