Saturday, February 13, 2010

Report from KidScreen Summit 2010

For a time I didn't think I'd be attending this year's Kidscreen Summit because I wasn't a featured speaker or panelist. But, then I got the idea to propose a panel on the rise of low-cost/high-yield indie animated features. In other words, an animated feature made between for an average of $20 million dollars catering to a niche market or courting the mainstream success of hit indie films such as The Blair Witch Project, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Paranormal Activity.

The purpose of the the KidScreen Summit is for network executives, production studios, marketing folks, new media wizards, and distributors to meet, reconnect, and do business. As we all know, the business of entertainment has been changing year-to-year. One sign of the times was the abundance of independent producers in attendance. My friend, producer Melanie Grisanti, remarked that ten years ago most of the people like herself would have representing a production or a network, but these days producers are often between projects, working as consultants, and using the Summit to hustle up work much like creators might do. I've always thought that producers and animation artists were on the same team and now they are also in similar situations. An interesting trend showing that we have a long way to go before our industry fully recovers.

As a creative person attending the Summit, there's always a moment or two where the "business side" confounds me. On one hand there are business execs saying that a kids media pitch has to have a multi-media strategy built in from creation, which should include a games component, web specific content, etc. But, then you hear others say, "It's about finding great characters." I side with the latter because the internet and games worlds are filled with tons of failed character liscenesed product that makes no connection with an audience. Besides, what happened to the time when execs used to advise pitchers NOT to come in with a merchandizing plan showing characters on T-shirts but to instead concentrate on creating a strong character-based property?

So much of this confusing noise comes from these new media specialists or consultants that need to justify their own services. But, the bigger concern is that if creators bog themselves down with trying to hit every target at once as they develop an idea, they will end up with a big fat zero. Remember that Poochie episode of The Simpsons? That's just the type of creation you get with such thinking. You don't need a committee to be destroyed by committee-style thinking.

Two terms I kept hearing at this year's Summit was IP (intellectual property) and "play platforms" (another term for "toyetic" or how kids play along with a series through toys and games, etc). So don't make the mistake of calling a pitch a "creation" or ancillary areas "consumer products." Those terms are so "1999," which is incidentially the last year an animation mega hit was created (SpongeBob). SpongeBob predated a time when a would-be creator needed to worry about a plan for "play platforms." But, some how despite this, Spongebob proved itself pretty adaptable to those areas––even ones that weren't even invented yet in 1999. Food for thought.

One of the best sessions I attended at the Summit was "30 minutes with Kate Klimo," the VP & Publisher at Random House Children's Books. Klimo told us about Random House's new agenda to translate their books into animated TV series. I asked her if this was having any effect on how they were evaluating their children's book submissions. She said that at first it did have an effect on that process, a negative one. Having to look at book pitches with the added burden of imagining them as a TV series property greatly slowed down the works. They had difficulty choosing projects and trying to plan so far in advance also complicated their contract negotiations with author/creators. After a short while, they realized their mistake and decided to consider book proposals as strictly books. If and when a book takes off to big success, Random House can take that property and try to develop and sell it as an animated series. Listening to Kate Klimo was like a voice of reason in a sea of noise and a good reminder that creators should focus on creating great characters, be they in books, films, or animation pitches.

All this aside, my ticket inside KidScreen was my panel event spotlighting the new model of indie animated features. Here's a list of my panelists along with some insights they shared with the audience.

Iginio Straffi
The Founder and CEO of The Rainbow animation studio, as well as creator of its most famous product, the Winx Club series, which, culminated with the Winx feature film “The Secret of the Lost Kingdom." Beside its headquarters near Loreto, Rainbow now has offices in Rome, Spain, Hong Kong, The Netherlands and Singapore.
Iginio confessed to being a dreamer with a whole drawer full of feature film ideas he'd love to make one day...but, he lamented that the U.S. market seems near impossible to crack into. He treated us to a funny clip from a 3D movie his studio is making featuring the misadventures of some ancient Roman soldiers. The clip was well directed with snappy timing and clever writing. Maybe Roman soldiers could be the next big thing? After all, who would have thought pirates would have come back into style?

Fred Seibert
The president and exec producer of Frederator Studios. He is currently the executive producer of six cartoon series on Nickelodeon's networks --including, the new hit series Fanboy & Chum Chum, and he's developing animated feature films at Sony Pictures and Paramount Pictures.
Fred has been targeting an underserved segment of the audience by developing animated feature films that fans of (say) Family Guy might pay to see. He noted that up till now the only films made for this audience are live action comedies such as The Hangover. Fred revealed he had developed a feature called Super Fuckers about a bunch of screw-up teen superheroes. Despite trying to gear some of his features towards underserved moviegoers, Fred explained that he's a "pop culture guy" who's goal is to make hit product a-laThe Beatles.

Heather Kenyon
The VP, Project Development and Sales, Starz Animation, a Division of Starz Media, where she is seeking projects suited for Film Roman for TV, features and the direct-to-DVD market. She is the former senior director of development, original series at Cartoon Network, and the former editor-in-chief of Animation World Network.
Heather explained that Starz is aiming to keep their features down below the $50 million budget mark. Their first feature venture, 9, cost $30 million and grossed $32 million in US box office. She noted that in America, Disney has traditionally defined what people think of as the animated feature but that perception can be changed over time with films such as 9 that sport different subjects and design approaches. She thinks this area of animation is growing: the smaller, differently targeted animated feature. 

Paul Young
The co-founder of Irish Animation and Design studio, Cartoon Saloon, Producer of the animated feature The Secret of Kells and Executive Producer of the animated children’s series Skunk Fu!. He is currently in development on a number of projects including a new Feature film by his studio partner Tomm Moore, Song of the Sea.
Paul accepted our congratulations on the Oscar nomination of The Secret of Kells and suggested that Cartoon Saloon would like to become the Jim Jarmusch of animated features, making small interesting films. He said that Kells director Tomm Moore's blog helped generate a lot of interest in their film during the long period in which it was made. When I asked him how they made the most of their meager $6 million Euro budget, he answered that all the money is up on the screen. Everyone worked for low wages in order to make the film as good as possible.

My main point was that the easy mistake for an indie to make would be to try to imitate a Pixar experience at a fraction of their budget, schedule, and resources. During the 1930s and 40s, the Warner Brothers Animation unit couldn't imitate what Disney was doing at that time so they became something else, culiminating in Loony Tunes and Merrie Melodies. And, while foreign and domestic indie animated feature films have not yet created a major stir in North America, barriers like that were made to be broken. After all, who was looking for a 4 piece band from Liverpool prior to 1964? No English music star had amounted to hill of beans in America prior to the Fab Four's arrival. That logic tells me an indie animation Blair Witch-sized hit is inevitable. And, just like The Beatles ushering in the British Invasion, it might knock this barrier down once and for all.

Outside of the panel event I was buzzing around the Summit taking meetings with production companies, show creators, and network executives––sometimes pitching the show ideas Xeth Feinberg and I cooked up, and sometimes just comparing war stories on working in the business. Best of all were the opportunities to say hello and spend some time with old Nickelodeon collegues Kay Wilson Stallings, Teri Weiss, Dr. Alice Wilder, Koyalee Chanda, and Sarah Chumsky. I also enjoyed catching up with Little Airplane's Tom Brown and Tone Thyne, and former Little Airplane mainstay Heather Tilert, and Big Bad Boo founders Shabnam Rezaei and Aly Jetha. There's so many things going on at any given time that it's possible to miss someone completely. For example, I didn't see the Ottawa International Animation Festival's Azarin Sohrabkhani, who was there to check out Kidscreen's panel events for TAC research, until the very last hour of the three-day event.

Besides my official pitches, I was also the animator of a pilot for another project being presented by creator Shelly Delice with her partners Linda Kahn and Melanie Grisanti. It was fun to check in with them from time to time to see how their meetings were going.

Walking around the Summit you can grow contacts very easily. Your friends introduce you to their friends and its easy to meet others at the coffee station, on couches in the delegate's lounge, or simply by talking to your neighbor seated beside you at an event. A lot of these meetings have the potential to grow work, especially work with clients outside of the New York area. And, that can mean a lot in periods when work is scarce in the big apple. I don't consider myself a business person, but I take the business of my career very seriously.


Charles K. said...

Nice recap of the Summit, David and congratulations on another successful panel!

There are plenty of examples out there that demonstrate that low budget certainly does not equal low quality. With examples like Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues and indeed, The Secret of Kells, I think we have a lot of great animation to look forward to in the next decade or so :)

David B. Levy said...

My low budget hero is 40s RKO producer Val Lewton. I share your notion that low budget does not automatically equal low quality. In the right hands a low budget leads to innovation and could lead to something new. Another example is Yellow Submarine. Without the resources of Disney they focused on design and created a work of genius.

Now if only one of these $20 million dollar animated features can make Pixar money... then we'll see the birth of a whole new era of animation. It's going to happen. Just a matter of when.