Monday, January 2, 2012

Animondays Interview: Linda Simensky -part II

*I'm a sucker for photos filled with my animation heroes. Here's a photo via Michael Sporn from a 2007 post on Annecy. Left to right are Sporn, John R. Dilworth, and Linda Simensky in 1992.

Happy New Year to all! As my first post of 2012 I'm happy to present the conclusion to my interview with the PBS Kids VP of Children's Programming, Linda Simensky.

For all those pitching in 2012, best of luck to you. Enjoy the experience, get as much as you can out of it, and be open to other measures of success. You may not sell your project out of the gate, but you'll be on the road to building better communication/storytelling skills, and make important new relationships with producers and development execs that could lead to job opportunities (if not a deal on your creations down the line).

Linda's answers are straight-forward, practical, and should help you on your way. Good luck!

13-How useful have pitching extras (such as a bit of finished animation, voice or song track) been to you in a typical pitch meeting?
Seeing a demo of the animation can sometimes help show us more about the idea. There have been times, such as in the WordGirl pitch, where Soup 2 Nuts came in with a very funny piece of animation, and we all fell in love with it. On the other hand, we've seen a number of horrible demos that have pretty much killed the projects for us. As for other extras, such as theme songs or voice samples, if we already like the idea for the show, these are often interesting to see, but I can't think of time when the extras made us change our minds about an idea.

14-How much time should a creator give a network to get back to them with a verdict after a pitch meeting?
It varies, but I'd say that it often takes a fair amount of time. You can get a rejection fairly quickly but contructive feedback takes time. If several people are going to look at an idea, and someone is going to put some notes together, it can take a while. Also, the higher up the executive is in the company, the more time it will take to hear back from them.

I tend to look at projects in relation to each other, and that adds time to the process.

Since our department does more than just development, sometimes production takes precedence over development.

It is okay to call or email and check on the status of your project, as long as you don't start to nag. You might get a faster answer if you pose your question as "I am curious to know what you thought," as opposed to "Please give me an answer as soon as possible."

I am usually swamped at work to begin with, and there's usually something going in production on that needs immediate attention.

15-Is the Paper Development deal (where a network options a project and commissions more scripts, designs, or storyboards) the standard first deal in your development process, or do some projects go right to pilot or series? If so, why?
In past jobs, there were always the development deals, followed by pilots. At PBS, we have a slightly different process, and the experience for each show is different. The producer and the producer's experience, the kind of show, and what the show seems to need all determine the approach we will take with that property. Some go right to series, some start with a set of shorts or a Web site, some go to pilot, and some may go direct to broadband, an option we are currently in the midst of designing.

If a series is pitched by someone we are already working with, we may determine we are comfortable with that producer and move ahead to a series without a pilot. But when we have questions about a show or a creator, we might ask for a pilot or some further development to answer those questions.

16- What amount of each year's green lit projects are initiated by or that involved celebrities as a selling point?
None at present, but people often end up casting more famous voices. PBS seems to attract a number of actors who are interested in being connected with PBS, either for their kids or because of their appreciation of PBS from their own childhoods.

There hasn't been a point, either, where we've felt that we should pick up a show just because it featured a celebrity. It all comes down to the strength of the show, with our without the celebrity. After all, the chance of that celebrity dropping out of the show for some other obligation is pretty high, so a show needs to work on concept alone.

17- What is your opinion of shorts programs (such as What a Cartoon! at CN, and Random Cartoons from Frederator/Nick)? What are the pros/cons of such programs?
These types of programs are great for giving emerging artists the chance to make a short and get experience. The odds of getting a series through these sorts of programs are pretty small, though, probably smaller than if you just pitched to the network.

18-Besides looking at pitches, what are some of the other duties a network development executive juggles?
At PBS, there is no member of the kids programming department who handles only development. We oversee all of kids programming, so we handle program strategy and scheduling, development, and current series. In addition, we work closely with other departments, so we are involved with Interactive, Marketing and Branding, Business Affairs, and several aspects of management at different levels. We speak at and arrange a number of meetings each year with the PBS stations, as well. We're always in meetings about any number of topics.

19- How open are you to re-looking at a previously pitched (and rejected) project, assuming that the creator has made a large amount of changes and improvement?
Sure. We have looked at many projects at several different stages. I can think of several projects that came to us that weren't what we were looking for. After numerous discussions and changes, a few have ended up in our commissioning rounds. I think it is rare for an idea to come in fully figured out and fitting perfectly into our lineup. Everything usually requires some feedback.

For some projects, though, if they aren't working after a few tries, it's usually best to move on.

20- How much experience should a would-be creator have before they are ready for their own pilot or series? And where should they best get that experience?
At PBS, producers and creators must have series experience, and preferably experience in kids educational programming, as well. People starting out should want to have experience -- I would imagine it is fairly daunting to be running a 40-episode first season order with no background in producing. Given this huge level of responsibility and how much freedom a producer gets, I would prefer to work with people who have experience producing a series.

21-Any advice for new comers to pitching on how to best manage & cope with the emotional rollercoaster inherent in the pitching process?
Go into the process expecting to hear "no" most of the time. Use your experiences to learn more about pitching and more about the networks you are pitching to. Try to get as much experience as possible working on other shows.

22- How, if at all, do you think new platforms for animation such as on smart phones, ipads and the internet will change the future of the network development process? *NOTE: this Q & A dates from 2009.
At PBS, new platforms have already changed the development process from creating a series to to creating a multi-platform property. Certainly now there are more opportunities to get ideas seen in other media, and more opportunities to get experience. Eventually, there will be a number of creators who will be able to say they got their start on the web or on cell phones, but at this time, there aren't that many. There is something about those formats that emphasizes quick laughs over character development and storytelling, which are still the cornerstones of TV series.

23- How much effort have you made in building relationships and friendships with would be creators, and how important is it to do so?
I wouldn't call it an effort, as much as a positive side effect of working in the kids TV and animation industries. At this point, many of my friends are from the industry and we've become friends because we are interested in the same things. I wouldn't say I have attempted to befriend everyone I've worked with, but many of us spend a fair amount of time together, either on the phone or in meetings or at meals, and we've gotten to know each other pretty well. These relationships help because they allow us to be honest with each other. But these sorts of work friendships have to happen naturally.

24- How much effort do you put towards monitoring trends, fads, and other factors that might effect the sellability of shows? If so, how does this effect your network's development process?
At PBS, we do focus on different areas each year, but the changing directions tend to have more to do with what we feel we need to close programming gaps. We notice fads, but we don't have to do anything about them. As far as trends go, we've always been more interested in creating trends than following them. It's hard not to notice if several people are doing similar shows, but there's never any pressure to follow anyone else.

25-Can you estimate, in a year, how many pitches your network receives, options, and picks for pilot production?
We probably receive somewhere between 200 and 300 pitches per year. Only about 20% meet our criteria and get serious consideration, such as feedback. About 10-12 make it to the two final greenlighting rounds, and two to three shows per year go to series.


Michael Sporn said...

How odd to come upon a picture of myself when I'm prepared to see Linda's photo. This is a really good interview. Thanks.

Michael Sporn said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David B. Levy said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Michael.