Friday, April 04, 2014

Don't Pitch to Buyers, Pitch to the Audience - Part One

(Update:  The video of the talk is now online here.)

In March, I gave a talk at Animatic T.O, a monthly lecture series about animation started by Barry Sanders and now continued by Andrew Murray as Barry has moved to Halifax.  What follows is an expansion of that talk with the opportunity to offer links.

The whole notion of pitching is an odd one that only exists due to economic circumstances.  People working in media that are inexpensive can go straight to the finished product.  A painter doesn't have to describe the colour palette and the composition of a work, he or she just paints it and shows the final image.  A singer doesn't describe how a song will sound, he or she just sings it.  Animation and other film creators are stuck pitching because creating the finished work is too expensive and time consuming to allow a person to make it without help.

Unfortunately, a pitch is a poor substitute for the finished product for a variety of reasons.  The ability to pitch is a wholly separate skill from the creation of ideas.  Extraverts have an advantage in pitching over introverts, but either type of person can have good ideas.  Furthermore, there are so many variables between an idea and the finished product that a great idea can result in disappointment.  Too much depends on the budget, the schedule, the crew, input from investors and chance.  We are all familiar with movies that look like they will be great before they're released but end up as failures.

There is another odd aspect to pitching.  The person with the ideas doesn't get paid to pitch, but the person without ideas gets paid to listen.  Yet without people willing to pitch for free, the listener has no job.  It's sort of backwards.

Often, the people taking pitches have no history of creating anything.  They have never written, drawn, performed or directed anything for an audience, yet they are the ones sitting in judgment of someone who most likely has.  If the people taking pitches were genuinely creative, they would be creating their own projects for the company and would not have to listen to ideas from anyone else.

Most ideas never reach an audience because the potential buyer says no.   Anyone who has pitched knows that rejections vastly outnumber positive responses.  Should an idea be accepted, it rarely goes into full production.  Usually there is the interim step of development, where the buyer pays the creator a small sum to refine the project further.  The money is not enough to live on, so the creator has to split his or her attention between a day job to pay the bills and refining the idea.

Should an idea go into production, the creator will most likely lose ownership of it and will have to negotiate screen credit, a role in the production, and financial compensation.  This is all complicated by what's known as Hollywood accounting, where projects that are earning money never seem to make a profit.

With the exception of Hollywood accounting, which is a legal form of theft, there aren't any bad guys.  While a creator sees a work as polished and developed, the buyers see it as raw material to be shaped to their own needs.  Buyers have no reservations about changing a work in ways that they think will make it more successful.  As animation requires a hefty investment, they are simply trying to reduce their risk and increase their profits.  Unfortunately, this usually means bending a work towards something that is already successful, meaning that it imitates something else, and the changes are possibly ones that the creator disagrees with.

Steven Pressfield is the author of the novel The Legend of Bagger Vance.  He was hired to write the screenplay, but when Robert Redford got involved with the film, Pressfield was fired so that another screenwriter could be brought in.  Pressfield understood.  In his book, The Authentic Swing, he writes, "The original writer is a pain in the ass.  He has ideas.  He has a point of view.  And the worst part is he believes he possess the moral authority to give voice to these ideas.  You have to get rid of the original writer."

Furthermore, "The writer is not allowed to complain.  You made the deal, dude.  You cashed the check.  Be grateful and shut up."

The key phrase here is "moral authority."  Creators feel that they, more than anyone else, have the right to shape the material.  After all, they created it.  Business people, having taken ownership and invested money, feel that they should be in control.  By selling the rights, the seller has given up the legal right to have a say.  We may agree that the creator has "moral authority," but the owners and the legal system recognize no such thing.

Once a creator gives up ownership, there's more at stake than "moral authority."  When a project is finished, the creator can't continue to work with the characters or other elements without permission from the owners.  I heard an interview with Pete Williams, the creator of the animated MTV series Undergrads, on the Guys with Pencils podcast.  Williams is attempting to revive the series, but because MTV owns it, he has to negotiate to get permission.  Even though the show was his idea, MTV has the right to charge Williams a license fee for trying to revive something he created but they own.  It's strange when you need permission and have to pay to work on something that was your idea to begin with.

If the owners decide to revive a project in the future, they're under no obligation to get the creator involved.  While I don't know specifics, Van Partible, the creator of Johnny Bravo, was not involved with seasons 2 or 3 of the show he created.  In superhero comics, it's fairly standard for the creators of a series to be replaced by new writers and artists in order to maintain sales.

While a creator may have a good personal relationship with the buyer, there's no guarantee that the buyer will remain in place.  Company managements change, companies merge or get sold.  It's possible that nobody involved with the original purchase will be around by the time a project is completed.  This is why it is so important to negotiate a creator's legal relationship with the buyer.  As Sam Goldwyn said, a verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

Does pitching have an upside?  Yes it does.  Pitching gives you the opportunity to meet people in positions of authority.  While a creator is probably surrounded by a community of other writers or artists, they're less likely to have relationships with business people.  Enlarging your network is always a positive thing.  Pitching may lead to job opportunities if the people you are pitching to are impressed by you, even if they don't like your idea.

But if you really care about your idea, I believe you shouldn't pitch it to buyers.  If you get someone interested, it will be altered beyond your control and at best, you will have to share ownership and will most likely lose it completely,

To be continued.


Barry A Sanders said...

I'm really glad you are posting this and I'm proud for my little part in getting it rolling. Looking forward to the upcoming parts. So when do you write the book version?

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this! Really fascinating and chilling stuff.

Mike The Writer Guy said...

A very interesting post. I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on pitching alternatives. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Ever seen the film "Ed Wood"?

As Orson Welles says to downhearted Ed Wood in the film, "Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else's dreams?"

If you have an original idea, just make it - in whatever medium you have at your disposal.

Steve Hulett said...

In the states, we can all blame Congress for wiping out "moral rights" a century ago and inventing "work for hire."

If you don't negotiate protections for yourself when you sell your baby to the highest bidder, you're at the conglomerate's tender mercy.

(The only creator I can think of who negotiated effective safe-guards for herself is J.K. Rowling. She had the leverage to get what she believed she needed. It always helps to have a mega-seller that lots of corporate types want.)

Unknown said...
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D.C. said...

Great post, many thanks! As a content-creator whose been making a living pitching his own ideas these past few years, it's nice to see the advice here gain some additional credence.

The financial reality of developing your own content is always the trickiest or most difficult part. Not that the goal should always be to monetize your creations, but without that goal as a content-creator, you're not being realistic or professional. I wish someone had grabbed me by the shoulders much earlier in my career and told me to start pitching by building relationships with other producers, content-creators, distributors, financiers, broadcasters, investors, and so on. Having a good idea is great, being able to animate it into a pitch is great, but developing it into a pitchable product that fits into the market is both costly and time-consuming-- and the cost is often your own time and money.

When I launched my own company, I decided we wouldn't be pitching to studios for "a sale" but rather developing concepts we could eventually realize ourselves and with our partners. So far this has been working, but man, it's a tough racket! The artists I've work with to develop visuals in areas I'm not skilled have always been straight up about the cost of commissioning them, and even though you may offer the promise of credit and profit participation, very few artists I know have the interest in working on deferral or future profits. In other words, most of them have no interest or financial capability of being a content-developer in partnership with a small company... they'd rather see the pay from commission.

There's a line between what it takes to develop content yourself as a artist-producer, and simply being an artist. What people don't often realize is that content producers are generally the lowest income lot of the bunch.. we can't sell illustrations, or models, or renders.. we sell developed ideas which includes work by a writer, a producer, and artist(s)... and usually we foot the bill ourselves. Anyone interest in joining this club, need only have a never-ending desire to do whatever it takes to get their ideas off the ground while earning next to nothing for doing this. But it sure is fun! And yeah, its kinda rewarding when it actually works.

Luke LaRock said...

This has changed my whole outlook on what I'm trying to accomplish. I have an animated series I've been making and posting on YouTube called Pine Vinyl. I dreamt of it being seen by HBO (as it has similarities to Life and Times Of Tim) and having them contact me about making into a series. But I love my little show. I don;t want to give it to someone for blood money. Thank you for writing this. It was empowering and I'm just going to continue making my show how I want. And continue working my day job.

Anonymous said...

Hey D.C., the reason for that is simple - everyone promises deferred pay or share and artists are tired of promises which may or may not be empty :)

I run my own business in creating artworks for high end TV commercials and would have to think very hard about deferred payment, mainly due to past experiences. These range from empty promises to people expecting you to work for free simply because you enjoy what you do. Never mind the fact that my art supports my family and pays all my bills ensuring i stay in business.

I have created my own idea for a cartoon aimed at adults and stick to my guns - I do all the work myself. Of course that means all I can do is a mini-series and that's where it's at right now, gathering its audience. I learned to animate, edit, etc. I pay for VOs but that's all I can afford. I have had interns wanting to participate, however I turned them down as I simply could not have someone work for me for free.

gganimation said...

Great read! Opened my eyes to the pitching process a great deal more. Thanks