Thursday, October 19, 2006

To Pitch or Not to Pitch

I assume that everyone who reads this blog also reads Cartoon Brew. Amid Amidi originally commented on September 11 on an interview with Pat Smith, where Smith offered his thoughts on the pitching process for selling ideas to TV. David Levy then offered his thoughts on Amid's comments. Amid has now returned with a long, thoughtful piece about whether or not artists should pitch.

(I should point out that Michael Sporn also referenced this debate before Amid's latest article.)

I have to say that I agree with Amid's point of view based on personal experience. I pitched several TV series and managed to get one sold. My experience on that series makes it unlikely that I'll ever bother with TV again.

For those not familiar with Monster By Mistake, the series was based on a boy who accidentally gets affected by a magic spell. Every time he sneezes, he turns into a 7 foot tall blue monster. My thinking, as the creator, was that this situation was general enough so that any child in the audience with a social, mental or physical problem could identify with the boy. The show always had comedy and adventure in it, but the underlying message was that life was unpredictable and often unfair. People have to be resilient in order to survive.

A Canadian broadcaster, YTV, bought the series quickly cut the heart out of it. Being a monster couldn't be seen as a handicap; being a monster had to be fun. Our producer-distributor simply said, "Right," and my concept of the show went up in smoke. There was money on the table and the producer was not about to jeopardize it. My concerns were totally off his radar.

Other bad decisions were made over my objections as the series progressed. They had to do with stories, designs and business deals. I won't bore you with the details.

The experience completely soured me on working in TV. I now understand that even if someone is lucky enough to sell a show, the structure of the business is such that the creator has no leverage and that business people will act on their opinions, no matter how poorly informed those opinions may be.

Other people's experiences may be different. Actually, I hope that my experience was unusually bad and that other creators are not facing the same frustrations. However, I'm not willing to try again. I don't need the aggravation. When I left the TV business and started teaching, I realized that I wasn't angry anymore and I liked that feeling.

I have written a lot on this blog about the possibility of bypassing gatekeepers and going directly to the audience via the web. The nature of web video is still evolving and there are lots of issues (primarily economic) that have to be worked out. However, if you are a creative person with an idea that would make a good film or series, I'd think seriously about going straight to the audience instead of pitching. For one thing, you may never make the sale, and if you do, you may not recognize the work that results.

There's no story and no character that hasn't been done before. There's only your point of view to differentiate your work from everybody else's. If that point of view is stopped or twisted before it reaches the audience, the essence of your work has been destroyed. My experience tells me that it's unlikely to survive in the TV industry and if there are alternatives that will protect your point of view, you should seriously consider them.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,
I have had a series optioned right on first pitch, I thought WOW! first time at bat and I hit it out of the ballpark. I had only crossed the first hurdle. They found a co-producer and they were lining up for a Canadian broadcaster. Basically, after 3 years nothing happened except a lot of aggravation and nonsense I never could have imagined in my worst nightmares. And today, that show is rotting away back in my file cabinet.
That experience made me re-assess my carreer priorities and creating TV series is no longer one of them.
If you are not involved in every aspect of the process, your idea will get killed. It's that simple.


Steve Schnier said...

Hi Mark,
Like Jean, I had my series optioned on the first pitch. There were many years of frustration, but Freaky Stories made it into production and on the air, pretty much as I'd envisioned it. The production was a fantastic experience. Sure, there were difficulties and frustrations - but DAMN! It was a load of fun, rewarding in every way.

I've had a few properties optioned since then - and one or two have come within a hair's breath of making it onto the air. I'm sorry to disagree with you, but in my experience, getting a show on the air is the holy grail of creativity. I wish your experience had been a better one.

Anne-arky said...

"...getting a show on the air is the holy grail of creativity."

lol...Awesome analogy.

Despite dealing with weird executive notes and level upon level of beauracracy, crisis after crisis and and endless slew of strange, unheard of problems...there is still no greater high than being able to sit at a desk, draw your own characters for hours on end, and know by that some strange twist of fate someone is paying you money for it.

I'm sorry your experience was so terrible. I can't explain it, but for some reason all the horror stories I read about only make me more determined to get my little pilot on the air. Maybe this means I'm insane.

Here's to the hunt for the grail! :)

Mark Mayerson said...

Jean, I feel your pain.

Steve, I hoped to get a second show off the ground just to find out if my experience on the first was typical or not. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to find out.

Do you know if there's anyone in Canada who's successfully sold two animated series? I can think of lots of people who sold one, but I don't know of anybody who's sold more. That may be a sympton of how creators are not taken seriously in Canada.

I also fear that TV is changing in significant ways. NBC has decided to lay off 700 people and stop doing comedy or drama from 8 to 9 p.m. That's the equivalent of an army retreating. The question is whether or not they'll stop retreating or if they'll just get over run.

Anne-arky, I truly wish everybody luck. I just hope that if you manage to sell a show and draw your own characters for hours on end, they're still the characters as you conceived them and not fundamentally changed by the money people. If they do get changed, every drawing will be painful instead of joyful.

Steve Schnier said...

Hi Mark,
I don't think that "creators not being taken seriously" is the reason that there aren't many (if any) people who have created and sold 2 shows in Canada. It's a numbers game. YTV and Teletoon are deluged with hundreds of pitches a year. In the year that I pitched and sold Freaky to YTV, they received over 500 pitches - the number has surely increased today. My experiences with YTV and Teletoon have been very good. Shows have been optioned, but they didn't make it onto the air for 'other' reasons.

You have to remember that when you're pitching a show, the broadcaster has at least 100 other things going on that you don't know about: Do they have a similar show already in development? Does your idea fit within their branding? Is it too expensive to produce? Are you an experienced 'producer', or will they have to baby-sit you? Are you a prima-donna? Where will the show fit into the broadcast schedule? Have you given any thought to multi-platform material? Will it be a good lead-in to another show? etc. etc. etc...

It's not simply about the nice words on the page, the pretty picture and the little video you made. There is a lot going on.

Mark Mayerson said...

Steve, in most forms of entertainment, if a creator has done something that's financially successful, he or she is courted by the business people who hope to get a piece of the next success. Mike Judge goes from Beavis and Butthead to King of the Hill. Matt Groening goes from The Simpsons to Futurama. Gendy Tartakovsky goes from Dexter's Laboratory to Samurai Jack. I'm not aware of any animated show creator in Canada who has launched a second series, and that's why I say that creators are not taken seriously. Somehow, the powers-that-be don't associate profits with the people who bring them ideas.

Mark Mayerson said...

In other words, Steve, YTV should have said, "We made money on Freaky Stories, let's see what Steve wants to do next." Rather than wait for your next pitch, they should have picked up the phone and called you. I suspect that an American company would have done just that, but I'm not aware of any Canadian companies that have.

Steve Schnier said...

Hi Mark,
You've made a very valid point. They SHOULD have done that. ON THE OTHER HAND, I should have been pro-active - courting them (or Teletoon) and trying to sell my next show. Speaking honestly, I missed a golden opportunity while Freaky was in production - I sat on my butt, figuring that they'd recognize my genius.

Actually, people did come to me on several occasions with 'feelers' and I let those precious opportunities slip by. It was a lesson that I learned too late - but it is a lesson learned.

It's not a one way street - the suits aren't 100% wrong and the creatives aren't 100% right. Mistakes happen. We have to analyze our errors and try to learn from them.

Steve Schnier said...

Actually, I wasn't just 'goofing off' while Freaky was in production - I had developed and was trying to sell an animated feature film. Instead of moving to a new area and starting from square one, I should have solidified my position in the TV community.

Mark Mayerson said...

It's impossible to know how things would have turned out, Steve, but the fact that I can't think of any Canadian animation creator who's gotten a second show off the ground says to me that the fault is not yours. It's the way the business here is structured and the low status of creators.

Steve Schnier said...

Hi Mark,
You may be right. Who's to say? All we can do is keep on trying.

I find it hard to believe that in the remaining 25 to 30 years of my career - I'll never get another show launched. That to me, is inconceivable.

NARTHAX said...

The "low status of creators" is not limited to Canada. American creators of animated television product aren't valued in the way they briefly were in the early to mid nineties. A few lucky souls from that first crop managed to get a solid foothold and live to create again but the door has slammed shut on anyone trying to follow in their direct path. This is partly due to industry fortunes changing radically, an economic situation that is presently killing the business. Warners let go another 300 employees this year, NBC/Universal 700 recently and Disney about 600 not long ago. The studios blame digital competition and so far they have no real answer. Slapping their archival product onto cel phones ain't gonna cut it long term and they know it.

On the positive side, with all the animated filmmaking software available now, animators have a technical freedom they've never enjoyed in history. Wide distribution of their work with a decent compensation/royalty structure for the creators remain the biggest hurdles, as they always have. Of course, Hollywood doesn't want to see that because the studios would then be removed from the creative equation. You Tube won't make anyone rich, but it offers a glint of hope that could, once any given work hooks an audience, lead to much bigger things.

Chickens and Beandip said...

do you have to pitch through a studio? OR did you guys just send your ideas to teletoon or YTV?

Mark Mayerson said...

In the case of Monster By Mistake, Kim Davidson, the producer, took our trailer to NATPE, a TV market, and looked for interested partners. We hooked up with Cambium (now CCI Entertainment) who sold the TV special to YTV.

If we had approached a broadcaster directly and sold the show, I don't doubt that they would have forced us to team up with a company that had a track record with them. While they might like the idea for a show, they need the comfort of dealing with a company that's proven able to stick with a budget and schedule.

Even after the special aired, it took 2 years for YTV to okay the series. My feeling these days is that the hurdles are too high and anyone with an idea is better off figuring out a way to get it to an audience on the cheap and then keep building the property any way they can. If the property clicks with audiences, people with money will come sniffing around. If it doesn't click, you've got some real experience under your belt, rather than waiting years for broadcasters to make up their minds.