Sunday, December 28, 2008
The Most Important Element In a Pitch
ASIFA-East recently held a pitch workshop event with career coach, packaging agent, entertainment lawyer, and teacher Jim Arnoff. The point of the event was to help would-be creators better sell their creations (not to teach one how to create a winning cartoon pitch itself). The problem with such a discussion is that it may lead some to believe that by following one specific plan, they might reach their goal of having their own series. Don't get me wrong, the event was informative and helpful but, I could tell that most would-be creators in the audience operated under the assumption is that (creatively) they already have it in the bag.
The truth is that most projects pitched are half-baked at best and most creators are not ready for the responsibility of making a winning cartoon should they even get a deal. The most responsible among us try to make themselves ready for the day when they earn a cartoon series. I keep coming back to a wonderful quote by my friend, Fran Krause: "Don't expect anyone to pay you for what you haven't yet done yourself."
Its easier to define what makes a successful cartoon pitch than it is to define what makes a successful cartoon. A successful cartoon pitch is one that leads to a development deal/option/pilot or series. A successful cartoon, one that might spawn a series, is a much more subjective thing. All the elements (writing, design, color, animation, direction, sound design) must blend together to create a satisfying experience.
No pitch element (shy of making an entire pilot yourself) shows how a creator and his/her team will blend all those ingredients together to guarantee that the end result will live up to the promise of the pitch. Its no wonder that (for a deal to be struck) it often comes down to a creator's reputation and the strength of their relationship with the development executive/network.
Mo Willems is a great case. Cartoon Network didn't wake up one day and decide, "Gee, I need a show where a non-verbal sheep gets chased around by military agents inbetween bursts of sketch comedy." Instead, all they knew was they wanted to make a show with Willems. He had already proved himself with countless films for Sesame Workshop as well as his own Nickelodeon mini-series, The OffBeats. Willems also had a strong friend and champion in Linda Simensky, (who was then a Cartoon Network development exec), ensuring that he was wooed by Cartoon Network much in the way a hot rock band might be wooed by a record label.
The idea he proposed (as clever and fun as it was) might have been the least essential element of his green-light. Willems' track record beyond Sheep only proves how smart Cartoon Network were to gamble on him in the first place. He went on to head write Mr. Warburton's Code Name: Kid's Next Door just before launching into the stratosphere as the most successful children's book author since Dr. Seuss. ***image above from Sheep in the Big City.
Jim Arnoff (speaking as a packaging agent) advises that would-be creators aline themselves with a production company and build a strong team of creative partners before pitching. While I can see the value in that, I believe the danger of such a plan creates a handful of additional gate-keepers to block one's path. Is building such a team the most important ingredient to selling a show? In all fairness, I'm not suggesting that Jim Arnoff believes this is the case. He merely offers a road map by which some projects are sold.
Bill Plympton often tells students not to start their own studio businesses right upon graduation. He argues, they won't have enough contacts and experience to succeed that early on. Instead, he suggests such students first cut their chops working in the industry for at least seven years. I'd argue for similar advice for would-be creators. First work in the industry in a variety of capacities, preferably for episodic animated series. Learn production and see what nuts and bolts come together to build a crew and a production process, and what it takes to make a show delivery. Along the way, its okay to develop and pitch your own productions, but, the key is to understand that the most important thing to develop (towards the goal of selling your animation creation) is yourself.