Saturday, October 10, 2009

Animation Development

Animation Development From Pitch to Production by David Levy is a very good book about a very bad process.

What's good about it is that Levy does not minimize the difficulties of pitching and maneuvering a creation through the broadcast bureaucracy. He interviews creators and development executives about the various stages of the process and he is as quick to point out mistakes made by creators as those made by broadcasters. Levy has pitched his own material for over ten years and he is not shy about relating his own experiences, including those with unhappy endings or those where he later recognized he was at fault.

If you are interested in selling a show to television, this book is the best preparation in print that I'm aware of. If you've just toyed with the idea, this book will let you know what you're up against and perhaps persuade you that there are better ways to spend your time.

The development process is a badly flawed process on multiple fronts. One of the ironies is that development executives are paid salaries where the people who create ideas to pitch to them create these works for free. Should an idea be accepted for development, the amount of money a creator can expect to see to develop a script or bible will be minimal and the process will take a long time, meaning that creators can't afford to devote their full time or attention to the idea in question.

Development executives seem to know everything a successful show needs except how to create one in the first place. They are also unwilling to devote time to determining if an idea is worthy or not, so creators are forced to start off with the barest descriptions of a show. Should a creator put effort into a more detailed proposal, the odds are that the executives won't bother to read it and may also consider the creator someone who isn't willing to collaborate. On the one hand, executives want creators with a vision; on the other hand, they want creators who will be happy to take direction. In effect, creators are asked to suck and blow at the same time and the proportion varies depending on the executive, the broadcaster and the day of the week.

These executives are powerless to actually put anything into production, so their notes are questionable to begin with. Should they like something, they have to sell it to their superiors and there is no guarantee that the development people share the taste or prejudices of their bosses.

If a creator is lucky enough to move to a pilot or a series, the creator has to hire a lawyer to negotiate the right to continue on the production and for a share of profits or royalties. It's a certainty that the creator will have to give up ownership of the property in order for it to go forward.

The system is set up so that major corporations have a creator work for peanuts until such time that they think that there's money to be made, then they take ownership of the property and allow the creator to continue contributing for as long as it is convenient. The corporations would no doubt point to all the money they spend on development, but the majority of that money is spent on their own employees, not the creators who bring them the material they need to survive. The entire process is so drawn-out and stacked against creators that it's a measure of creators' optimism and commitment to their ideas that anyone bothers to pitch in the first place.

Anyone who watches television knows that the results are nothing special. The majority of shows fail, even with all the work that goes into their creation. Except for pilots, usually made on a shoestring, the development process completely divorces the idea from the execution, which can often be crippled by budget, deadline or choice of subcontractors, something the creator will not have final control over.

Levy is the eternal optimist; someone who feels that his career has been enriched by pitching and development. It has led him to some successes and to some employment opportunities on projects he didn't create, so who is to say that he is wrong? My own feeling is that any creator committed to an idea would be better off figuring out a way to develop it without interference, even if that means the idea isn't realized as animation. From my perspective, as someone who managed to get a show on the air, the compromises are too high a price to pay.

In any event, I do wish that I had the chance to read Levy's book before my series was sold and went to air. There is valuable information here about what to expect and I recommend this book for that reason. I hope that one day the book will be a historical curiosity about a process that didn't survive the changing media landscape.

12 comments:

Brubaker said...

"Levy is the eternal optimist; someone who feels that his career has been enriched by pitching and development. It has led him to some successes and to some employment opportunities on projects he didn't create, so who is to say that he is wrong?"

I can see that. Joe Murray, who had two shows aired, wrote a book called "Crafting a Cartoon" where he describes the life in television animation, the process and what the executives do. Also, having a background in independent animation, he writes on alternative ways of getting a cartoon out.

While he does point out that there are lots of cynicism in TV animation, in the end he's not too pessimistic about it. The shows he worked on were successes (Rocko especially). Not a monster hit, but good enough to develop a following, and it gave him opportunities he otherwise wouldn't have.

Few months back I interviewed Chowder creator Carl Greenblatt. I asked him if he's optimistic about the future of animation (creator-driven types in particular). His response:

"I actually think that creator driven-cartoons have a great future ahead of them. And luckily, most executives at other networks I’ve talked to genuinely believe that the best shows come from that process. There’s a lot of good opportunity out there now, and I think we’ll see some good stuff coming out in the next few years."

I read a snippet of an interview with Craig McCracken. Even after getting laid off by Cartoon Network, he remains optimistic about the future of animation, saying that there are more variety of animation now (whether on television or web) than when he was a kid, and says he can't wait to see what the next-generation would produce.

I do have to agree with Craig on that part and I personally am looking forward to what the future would bring, whether its mainstream or through indy circut.

In the end, television's not for everyone. Obviously from your case it's not meant for you. But for others like Greenblatt or McCracken they make it through. Guys like Joe Murray handels both models, having a background in independent animation as well as on television. Recently he announced that he's starting a website called KABOINGTV.COM, where he would showcase his animation and hopefully other's.

It depends on your vision, I guess.

(sorry for the longish rant. I realize this is a blog comment and not a message board)

David B. Levy said...

Hi Mark,
Thanks for the review. Your insights are thought provoking as usual. In a sense there are three issues at play here:

1) How to best develop and pitch your idea in the current system
2) Where to best spend one's time to develop the voice and execution needed to succeed with #1
3) The odds that are stacked against you in the flawed and frustrating world of development.

The third issue is a ready and reasonable excuse to not get started. In this industry we are what we make ourselves. If one's goal is to write, simply start to write.

As you mention in your review, I can point to my time spent developing and pitching projects as something that has aided my career. It has opened opportunities that I would not have had otherwise and diversified my skill set. Issue #3 above is not likely to go away anytime soon. And, I'm not going away either.

Steve Schnier said...

Hi Mark,
I have to agree with David Levy, I am much further ahead in my career because of the animation pitching and development work that I've done. As with David, development deals have opened the doors to writing assignments on pre-existing shows. Having a show of my own (Freaky Stories) produced for 3 seasons has provided a multitude of benefits, opening doors both in business and socially.

While I'm not pitching animation at the moment (working on a live action reality show, because it interests me) the skills that I developed in animation development and pitching have put me well ahead of the game.

I'd also like to point out that I've recently (in the past week) started a blog about the art and science of pitch bibles. You can check it out at http://pitchbibles.blogspot.com

Jim Caswell said...

Another important post to help us all understand the hurdles of the present day business.

The models for web based series/pitches to build an audience are as yet unformed but growing daily.

In Canada, you need a broadcaster to trigger funds to develop a web based series. So they'll get a piece of the series they didn't come up with by merely acknowledging the viability of an idea. A clear conflict of interest.

I enjoyed Mr. Levy's book as well.

Steve Schnier said...

Jim, you only need a broadcaster if you want to access government funding options. You can always go the private funding route.

Brubaker said...

Steve,

Wow, I actually remember "Freaky Stories". Here in the 'States it aired on FOX Family (now ABC Family) as a back-up segment to "3 Friends and Jerry" (A Swedish series).

Steve Schnier said...

Yeah, but Fox Family butchered it. Freaky was designed as half-hour episodes - the way it played in Canada. In the U.S. and the rest of the world, it aired as interstitials. The wrap-around segments had amazing animatronic puppets with stories of their own.

David B. Levy said...

Great to hear that pitching has had a positive impact on your career too, Steve.

Mark, we totally agree on the problems in the current development system, and I do mention them in my book. But I chose to emphasize self-development, which is important to the individual no matter how good or bad development systems are. My compass has always been to worry about what I control.

In fact, I'm in talks now to sign a fourth development deal and it's something that never would have happened had I let the woeful state of animation development talk me out of my dreams.

I guess this view is what makes me an eternal optimist? I feel more like a realist.

Steve Schnier said...

David is right. You can't let the current development situation get you down. And you can't be content with just landing a development deal - the 'end game' is to get your show into production. I've done it once and come 'this close' on two or three occasions in the past few years. The simple fact is that having a show in production is life changing. Not so much in Canada, but defintely in the US.

Corey said...

Well, I have barely just started pitching, I've never even actually 'pitched' any ideas in person, I've been sending PDF's of show ideas to any email addresses that I can find. (By the way, why doesn't Nickelodeon & Cartoon Network list development emails on their site? Am I not looking hard enough?)

I found Joe Murray & Dave's books to be extremely helpful. Dave's book really helped me to put into perspective how I want to spend my time developing my ideas and getting them to networks. I don't think I have the gusto to last 10 years pitching like Dave does, but I would like to keep making pitches and send them out anyway. All the while trying to find alternate ways to get pilots, or shorts made.

Thanks Mark for your insight as well.

Marty said...

Insightful information to say the least, but now, as a complete greenhorn, I have no idea which road to take.

I have four companies kicking the tires on my pitch concept, and based on the experiences of those contributing insight here, the actual odds of bringing this thing to fruition are not as good as I had hoped.

Any comments, suggestions or feedback moving forward would definitely be appreciated.

Morgan said...

This post is extremely brilliant and interesting to read. The information you include about Animation development is awesome. Thanks for sharing this valuable information.