We have been approaching the [Canadian] networks as writers, with the suggestion that if they like the material they can let us know which producers they respect and like working with. At which point, perhaps we would have a much better negotiating position for the option.
Is this foolish? Is it sort of like a man being his own lawyer? Can our inexperience screw up the network courting process? Should we go to producers first and let them sell the ideas to the networks?
As you've figured out, if you bring your show to a production company with a network interested, you can make a much better deal for yourself, but if you take the show to a network before you've got a producer, (a) the network may be less likely to take the project seriously, and might reject it out of hand and (b) the network might stick you with a producer you don't like or who, more importantly, doesn't like you. On the other hand, if you get the wrong producer attached first, he can screw up the submission to the network, or he may be in trouble with the network, and your project can get killed by being associated with him. (Though there, at least, you get a little option money.)
Oh, the humanity.
I prefer to go to a producer I like first. I'm attaching myself to my projects as a showrunner. Bringing a producer on board tells the network that here's a producer who's comfortable with me in that position, and who'll carry the show if I don't meet the challenge. It makes the show easier for the network to say yes to. It allows me to pick a producer I know, with whom I have a good working relationship or at least a good chemistry. Also, because I've got a deal in place with the producer, it makes it harder for the network to reject the goodies I've negotiated for myself.
On the other hand, I would only take a project to a producer after satisfying myself that he is welcome at the network I think is the right home for the show. So there's a bit of touching base before I actually offer the show to a producer. On the show I'm doing with G_______, I actually pitched the project orally at C___, then asked what producers they liked. They were kind enough to give me a list of companies they take seriously. So based on the list and my prior relationship, I offered it to G_______, and then I took it back to C___ as an official submission with an approved producer attached.
Your agent can help here if you don't have the contacts to ask these questions yourself.
I don't feel that networks really love a naked submission. It leaves them too much work to do. Sure, they can send it to their favorite producer, but that's too much of a commitment for a network exec. What if the producer rejiggers the show so they don't like it any more? How do they reject it then? Much better to wait until the project comes in officially.
You can make as good a deal as you insist on, though, whether or not a network is attached, so long as your project is strong. The key to a good deal is asking for low up-front numbers against lots of protections and money later. If you ask for a lot of option money, the producer's paying for it himself, so he's not going to give you much else. But if you go easy on the option money demands, then you can ask for more when the show goes. That's not the producer's money anyway. It comes out of the budget. What does he care?