Scene Profiles: Nicola Lees of TV Mole – Everything You Need to Know to Get Commissioned

What is your experience within the television and film industry?

I started out working in local radio at BBC Solent in the newsroom and on a number of phone-in programmes. I’ve worked in TV for 14 years – everything from post-production and production co-ordinating to researching on a variety of science, archaeology and history shows for the BBC. I then specialized in Development and have had ideas commissioned on all the BBC channels, as well as Discovery, TLC, the Travel Channel and the Science Channel among others. During that time, I spent two years working in development in the USA.

I now run a mentoring scheme for Women in Film and Television, teach development and have written a book – Greenlit: Developing Factual / Reality TV Ideas from Concept to Pitch. I’m due to publish another in 2012, Give Me the Money and I’ll Shoot: Finance Your Factual TV/Film Project.


What is TV Mole; what does it aim to do?

It is a free resource for anyone who wants to develop and pitch factual TV programme ideas. It’s constantly updated with factual commissions in the UK, USA and beyond and I post development and pitch training opportunities, as well as funding sources and general industry intelligence. There’s also a very popular section on how to write a TV proposal.


What do you think are the most common pitfalls people fall into when developing a programme?

  • Only thinking about what they want to make instead of what people might want to buy.
  • Not watching enough TV.
  • Pitching subject areas instead of compelling stories.


If those are the pitfalls, could you give us three top tips for developing a programme?

  • Find a great story, or an interesting character, that no-one else has access to.
  • Subscribe to TVMole’s weekly newsletter to keep up with changes in the industry.
  • Think about the market – where does your idea fit? Learn everything you can about the most likely channels that would air it to see if they’ve commissioned something similar before (which is bad news if your idea is the same, or could be good news if it was a hit and they are hungry for more programmes like that).


Some people may not understand the commissioning and pitching process in regards to dealing with broadcasters; could you explain?

Increasingly, programme makers are having to pay for all the development costs upfront – research, proposal writing and producing a taster tape. Once you have a succinct one page proposal and a 2-3 minute taster you can start pitching. The reality is that commissioners don’t commission ideas, they commission people, so the sooner you can start building your contacts the better. If someone is interested in your ideas, they will ask you for a longer treatment and a budget; it’s likely that they will want some changes to the format before agreeing to commission anything, so be flexible. A good way for beginners to get a foot in the door is to get on one of the training schemes such as Documentary Campus who can help you develop your idea and make introductions to appropriate commissioners.


Do you have any advice to people who have ideas or content they would like to get commissioned  – how can they increase their chances of success?

  • Partner with an established production company that has a good reputation and track record in the type of programme you want to pitch.
  • Go to industry events where you can see commissioners talk and network – Women in Film and Television, Directors UK, BAFTA all invite commissioners to speak at their events. The Development Producers Group Meet Up (2nd Tuesday of the month in Covent Garden, London) is a friendly place to start.
  • Have lots and lots of ideas and just keep developing and pitching  – you can get great practice by entering pitch competitions and entry level markets such as the DFG Mini Meet Market at the Sheffield Doc/Fest.
  • Start building relationships with commissioners who are open to working with up-and-coming filmmakers, such as Lina Prestwood at Current TV, or get to know friendly production companies such as Mosaic Films and Dartmouth Films. Make sure you know their work inside out before you approach them and know where your ideas fit in their slate.


What do you think of the opportunities available to newcomers in this area?

It’s very, very difficult to get a commission, even if you have lots of experience and all the right contacts. However, it is possible if you are passionate about your idea and are tenacious. There are several funds that will help you if you can’t get a TV commission, such as the Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation, or if you have an idea about a biomedical subject you can apply to the Wellcome Trust for a Broadcast Development Award to get you started.


There have been cases where people have been unable to get their ideas commissioned so have instead decided to produce the content independently and host it online. Do you think this is the future?

I think that it will be one option for people, but I think there’s still nothing like the thrill (or kudos) of having your work screened at festivals, in cinemas or broadcast on television. If you host your work online you still have to find people to watch it and  promotion is a full time job in itself. Also, if you can’t find anyone to give you money for your film you need to take a long hard look at your idea and ask yourself why.


Following on from this, how has technology and the Internet had an impact on the work you do?

It’s much easier to find out what’s going on in the industry, share intelligence, and spot potential talent. Twitter is a great resource for finding jobs and meeting like-minded people in the industry. Many people I’ve met on Twitter, I’ve since meet at events and festivals and there’s a great sense of community.


Finally what does diversity mean to you?

In terms of development and commissioning, a great weakness in the system is that it favours the people who have experience (and can therefore deliver what they are proposing) over the people who have the best ideas, who might not have the experience to deliver the programme or the contacts to commission it. My ambition is for TVMole to level the playing field a little so that everyone has access to the same information and understands how the system works. I’m also a fan of people who have a diversity of experience that they can bring to their work: I worked as a trained A&E nurse before moving into TV and that gives me a different perspective on things and my first commission, The Guinea Pig Club, came as a direct result of my medical knowledge. A couple of my favourite documentary films at Sheffield Doc/Fest this year were created by non-documentary makers: ‘Senna’, which was directed by Asif Kapadia (a feature film director) and ‘Bombay Beach’ which was directed by Alma Har’el (a music video director who shot it alone except for a choreographer). That’s where the really interesting ideas and approaches are.


A huge thanks to Nicola for taking part in the Scene Profiles series – truly great, practical advice that is not always easy to come by.  For more information, tips and opportunities related to development, pitching and commissioning, be sure to visit TV Mole.

You can also follow Nicola on Twitter @tvmole.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *