Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Television Animation Development!

TAG's teevee animation development panel took place before a packed house last night, where moderator and TAG board member Karen Carnegie Johnson hosted a panel of cartoon execs:

Eric Coleman, Senior Vice President of development at Disney Television Animation,

Carin Davis, Vice President of Creative Development at Film Roman, and

Eric Homan, Vice President of Development at Frederator.

All three shared their insights regarding the 'toon biz with a rapt audience that was interested in what these three are looking for, and how this development thingie works.

Below, we present some of their wisdom:

Eric Coleman: When you're pitching, you want to make an impression. It's the idea and the execution of that idea that's important. If you come in with: "I've got a show about a kid who gets trapped on the internet ..." Well, we get a lot of that. But how do you execute that idea, and what are the characters?

I would caution people about going too overboard. We get nervous when the pitching person wants to come in 15 minutes early to set up. It's important to bring the characters in the pitch to life, but there is no one way to pitch. But we don't want to see printed t-shirts, lunch box designs, things like that.

Carin Davis: Bring in a write-up of your idea, it doesn't have to be a script or a bible. Don't give me a lot of ideas, just one or two ideas that you are passionate about. (If you're an artist) don't be be afraid to pair up with writers. But don't do music, (we're not looking for that) ... especially if you're a bad singer ...

Eric Homan: I would say if you have a "kids on the internet" type idea that is totally great, then do it, if its a different take. What do you bring to the table that makes it original?

Eric Coleman: Different development executives at different studios are looking for different things. Everybody says they want a "Sponge Bob," but what they mean is they want a huge hit.

For the Disney Channel, right now it skews to girls, and we're looking for shows that will also appeal to boys. We want something that appeals to both boys and girls, not something that's "gender neutral" that will be tolerated by boys ... or tolerated by girls. We're looking for contemporary shows, not castles in the forest type stuff. Pitch things that relate to kids today, whether it's human or non-human. We're looking for fresh shows.

Six to eleven is our basic demo, but keep in mind the older end of that demo. It's the mark of death when kids think it's a "baby show."

Disney XD (formerly Toon Disney) is developing more for boys, twelve-year-old boys. There might be something happening with the recent Marvel deal. That took us by surprise it happened so fast, and we'll see what comes out of that.

Carin Davis: People pitching should come in with a couple of story lines. When sombody comes in with "four kids caught on the internet," I want to know who those four kids are. We're part of Starz Media and programming for pay channels where people pay an extra $15 a month, so we're looking for programming (beyond just kid shows.) Recently we've done direct-to-dvd features like Hell Boy, Rob Zombie and so on. Stars Toronto is an all c.g. studio in Toronto that's doing movies that Disney, Pixard and Blue SKy aren't doing. Recently they did 9 which had an indie sensibility and had good luck with it.

Eric Homan: Frederator is independent, and looks at every kind of show because we sell everywhere. If it's an adult show you have three or four places you can go. Studios and networks will tell us what they're not looking for. Right now, for example, action-adventure is a tough sell.

All three execs: Pitching your idea to studios doesn't mean that pitch is owned by the studios, but all of us here listen to lots of pitches, and some of those pitches are similar to each other.

Eric Homan: At Nick a few years ago, when they were doing their shorts program, three people came in with three pitches that had characters with heads that were fish bowls, and the fish in the bowls did the talking for the character.

Eric Coleman: Studios aren't looking to steal ideas. If somebody comes in defensive and worried about being ripped off by a studio, then development executives know this is probably the first time they've been at the rodeo.

Development Times

Carin Davis: Development times are almost always long.

Eric Homan: Yes, development time can be glacial. It took years to get a series greenlight for Adventure Time (which will air on Cartoon Network next Spring).

Eric Coleman: I'll get your show greenlit in three hours (laughter.) No, it takes a long time. After you've pitched, nudge us if you haven't gotten a response from the development team in two or three weeks, send us an e-mail.

There's a long time when you're in the development stage. Testing and decisions have to come from higher ups, and it can be slow.

About the process, someone on my development team will take most of the pitches (I do less of that now; I've paid my dues.) If they like it, next it will get pitched to me. There is a whole host or reasons why the development process -- from pitch to aired show -- drags out.

There is bible development, scripting, boarding, character designs, the pilot (6-8 months), then testing with kids in focus groups. One of the best focus group stories? We had eleven to twelve year old girls -- a tough focus group -- and there was a girl who was the leader. Through the whole presentation she sits there gravely, never laughing. At the end the moderator asks: "So ... what do you think? This somber girl says: "Oh, that was hilarious."

Testing and focus groups aren't what greenlights a project. Greenlight decisions go up the ranks.

There's a need for artists to network. It helps to be in the studio, ono a show. It's harder to break in (with a pitch) if you're far away. ... The trick is making a show you want to make.

Eric Holman: Frederator has a deal with Sony, but it's in the early stages. Sony is fond of c.g features and hybrid films (c.g. and live action). I gravitate toward cartoony stuff. I want to see things that should be animated. ...

Formats for t.v. animation (c.g., hand-drawn, flash animation) is cyclical. Formats fall in and out of favor. Nick has a number of c.g. shows now. Flash was big a couple of years ago, now it's less so. Creators have a big influence on the type of show it is, what the format is.

Carin Davis: Live action scripts sometimes get pitched as animated scripts. The writer will have been around pitching it as a live-actino project, then say, "Oh, it could be an animated project." Welll ... maybe. But it should be something that works in animation. Otherwise, why make it in animation?

Eric Homan: When we were doing development of shorts at Nickelodeon, we paired an artist with promising pitched with four or five different filmmakers, and he developed a series out of one of the pairings.

Eric Coleman: When you're developing a pitch, pitch to a friend who will be honest, who will tell you if your stuff is funny or not. It doesn't help you if he lies and says it's wonderful when it's not.

And we don't care if you're nervous when you're pitching, we're interested in the quality of your idea, and it's execution. Don't keep pitching the same idea. Let it go, and pour your creative spirit and energy into the next thing.

What we're looking for changes over time. You want to find out what different development folks are looking for. I had a good clean pitch today, for example, but it's like other things already in development.

It's good for the pitcher to understand that "no" is really "no." Sometimes the development person can't put his finger on why the pitch doesn't "go," sometimes it's a chemical thing.

Eric Homan: Sometimes we say no because it's just not wanting to be in business with particular person. We don't want to be in the room with that person for a long period of time, and development takes a long time. That could be somebody who's difficult, somebody who doesn't want you to change a word of their script.

Eric Coleman: We're looking for people to develoop original ideas and shows. Anything that seems obvious, isn't worth my time.

When you're pitching to big networks or conglomerates, they want to own all rights. I've seen things get complicated when rights on a great idea have been pre-sold to a smaller company.

Eric Homan: Artists who pitch need to look and see how other people did their show. Many times they developed relationship with development execs, and over a period of time they kept pitching and got a show created and greenlit.

Carin Davis The core idea of the pitched show should be timeless.

Eric Coleman: Disney is interested in "timeless" shows that keep their relevance. That doesn't mean "of the moment." Kids in show don't have to reference their "MP3 devices," something that will date it ....

That's the gist of the presentation. There was a lively question and answer where such things as "faith-based" programming was touched on ("It's a small market and Disney doesn't do it, but certainly there's a niche there. Veggie Tales has certainly made money ...")

All in all, an informative evening. People stuck around afterward to jawbone about the process. With luck, fortitude and clean living, some folks will use the knowledge gleaned last night to become successful pitchers of genius ideas and land themselves some long-running cartoon series.


Anonymous said...

great stuff, except for one thing. studios do end up 'stealing' pitches b/c of the direction toward which all the ideas are flowing. ideas flow upward to executives and color their judgement. credit gets lost quickly and easily. trends bias development toward what other studios are doing. other shows absorb new ideas quickly and instantaneously. shows cross-pollinate all the time. is it on purpose? is it intentional? it certainly is economics.

Steve Hulett said...

And it's been going on as long as there's been art and literature.

D.W. Griffith developed film language; everyone helped themselves. Disney pushed animation in a certain direction and everyone aped it. You can't copyright style and/or approach. Otherwise a tv film producer like the estimable Glen Larson ("borrowing" from Star Wars with the original Battlestar Galicta) would be in jail.

You're right about ideas "cross pollinating" but there is no way to stop it because its impossible to prove plagiarism ... except in rare instances (the Art Buchwald case against Paramount comes to mind.)

Anonymous said...

Harlan Ellison comes to mind, suing Cameron for Terminator and settling for an undisclosed amount. it takes true grit backed up with a volume of published work. that's the only antidote against the forces of hollywood. in the end, that's the only thing that is capable of bringing an original voice to the studios. today it is harder than ever, and getting worse every day.

Anonymous said...

>>If somebody comes in defensive and worried about being ripped off by a studio, then development executives know this is probably the first time they've been at the rodeo.

Rather, if an executive believes a person is worried about being ripped off, the executive can be pretty certain that this person hasn't been ripped off yet, and will not deal well with being ripped off for the first time. Better to deal with people more used to being ripped off where an implicit agreement already exists. Then, when everyone shakes hands, it is understand that a great ripping off is going to take place all around.

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