It’s a tough business. New kid properties are born every day, and every day a few die. Potential co-pro partners, kidnets and licensing execs have had their share of hits and misses and bring a discerning eye to new ideas.
To nail down the criteria they use to assess emerging properties, KidScreen is bringing the pitch process out in the open. The Australian Children’s Television Foundation screwed up its courage and agreed to subject its newest original project, Legacy of the Silver Shadow, to comments from potential partners, distributors, networks and licensing gurus for the first time in our pages.
The pitch, reprinted below, was sent to leaders in the business, many of whom are speaking at KidScreen’s two-day ‘OnScreen for kids and teens’ conference starting March 1. They responded with both measured enthusiasm and constructive criticism, revealing what is currently deemed desirable in a new property.
Respondents were chosen by KidScreen editorial, and neither respondents nor project creators had access to the pitch critiques before publication.
Imagine you’re exploring a derelict factory, out in the crumbling industrial suburbs of your city. You hear a creak, the floor lurches beneath you-and suddenly you’re falling into a yawning abyss! Panic, a flash of pain, then blackness crashes in on you. Lights out.
You come to, bruised and shaken…. In the Batcave.
Except it’s not the Batcave. Everyone knows Batman’s just a story. All superheroes are. Except this place is real. And it’s obviously been abandoned for many years. Dusty, choked with cobwebs. A relic of a forgotten time.
It is the secret headquarters of a superhero you’ve never heard of. A forgotten crusader who waged a solitary war against crime and wrongdoing in the city 40 years ago.
The Silver Shadow.
A rusty switch juts from a panel. You throw it. Distant generators whir. Lights blaze throughout the cavern, revealing an awesome crime-fighting arsenal, untouched for decades.
A screen flickers to life. You watch lines of static coalesce into a grainy computerized image. A face. Electric eyes open. Then it speaks.
‘Ohh-oh. . . I must be dead.’
This is a recording of the Silver Shadow’s mind. An artificial intelligence the hero constructed to live on in case he ever lost his fight against evil. A gatekeeper to the Silver Shadow’s lair.
The digitized image fixes you with a grave stare. Your discovery carries with it a formidable responsibility. The original Silver Shadow is dead and now you may be society’s only hope. Will you take up his quest?
A thousand thoughts race through your mind. You’re just a normal kid. Not a superhero. What about the danger? What about the risks? What if someone sees you in that dopey uniform? It’s just too… weird.
But the flickering electronic ghost needs an answer. Will you take up the Legacy of the Silver Shadow?
Legacy of the Silver Shadow is the story of four ordinary kids and a dead superhero fighting for modern values in the post-modern world.
Legacy of the Silver Shadow is an adventure series.
From the moment Josh, Gretel, Campbell and Alex fall into the Shadow’s Lair, everything in their lives becomes heightened. Their everyday teenage dilemmas and aspirations are turned upside down as they are suddenly thrown into a supercharged world where their every deed and decision has people’s lives hanging in the balance.
The core of the series is watching this group of ordinary kids faced with an extraordinary situation and discovering what it would actually be like to be a superhero in the year 2002.
Much of the humor and satire of the series springs from this. The kids are constantly finding their idealistic campaign against crime thwarted by the details of their ordinary lives. After all, it’s hard to tackle robbers and bomb scares when you’ve got a math exam the next morning and you still haven’t found anyone to take to the school dance.
A key factor of this series is that it is about action rather than violence. Weaponry is used, property is destroyed in spectacular fashion, but as a general rule, the children tend to outwit the criminals rather than overpower them. Quite often these sequences will have a comic element, with the action being played out in a larger-than-life, tongue-in-cheek manner.
Despite the clearly satirical overtones and straight-faced comedy of many of the stories, there are moments of real threat and danger. These moments are essential to underline the series’ theme, and the violence is never gratuitous. In all cases, it is presented in such a context as to emphasize the gravity of the kids’ ethical dilemmas and to make an anti-violence statement.
The overall aim and appeal of Legacy of the Silver Shadow lies in giving the audience characters they can relate to in situations that will excite their imaginations, and in so doing, creating a new mythology for today’s more sophisticated and culturally savvy kids.
Legacy of the Silver Shadow is a study in contrasts: Old vs. new, the extraordinary vs. the everyday, light vs. dark, good vs. evil, `50s conservatism vs. new millennium street smarts.
The style of the series will reflect these contrasts.
Legacy of the Silver Shadow will have two distinctive cinematic styles to highlight the double lives the children are living. In the Shadow’s Lair and out on missions, the visual style will be slightly larger than life, with dramatic lighting, energetic editing and expressive angles, often drawing on comic book composition.
Conversely, scenes of the kids’ school and home life will be more naturalistic and familiar, less oblique.
Visually, the Shadow’s Lair will echo the style of `50s comic books: Cavernous, gloomy, slightly Gothic, a huge arc light intermittently flashing out bolts of blue light in the background, and the room dominated by a gargantuan vacuum tube computer in which the digital construct of the Shadow lives.
The Exo-Skeleton, the Cloak of Invisibility, the Shadow Mobile and the other key pieces of the Shadow’s crime-fighting hardware will feature heavily in the series. The gear will all have a distinctive `50s look-lots of gunmetal gray, rounded edges, heightened design-awesome, yet somehow decrepit.
With this blend of design and shooting style, Legacy of the Silver Shadow will have a unique and atmospheric look that will complement and enhance its unique and satirical themes.
An original concept by:
Patricia Edgar, producer
Chris Anastassiades, writer
Ray Boseley, writer
Australian Children’s Television Foundation
© Australian Children’s Television Foundation, Chris Anastassiades and Ray Boseley
The Response: Producers and Distributors
Alice Cahn, group president of film, television and video at international not-for-profit production company Children’s Television Workshop in New York, New York:
The television division of Children’s Television Workshop develops and produces educational projects that children choose to watch and grown-ups choose to trust. You could deduce that Silver Shadow meets our mandate. It uses ‘superhero-dom’ as a vehicle for potentially meaningful lessons about trust, friendship, right vs. wrong, and critical thinking/decision-making skills.
So, would I invest in Legacy of the Silver Shadow? No. At least not in the proposal’s present form and not as a stand-alone TV show.
When you take the next steps and begin probing, the proposal has, as writer Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, ‘no there there.’ It uses conventional characters, linear storytelling and the current nostalgia for the not-so-dearly departed `50s. Lastly, Silver Shadow yet again pits tweens against pretend evils hoping the inevitably younger viewing audience will make the leap from watching problems solved in the Super World to solving problems in their own world. That’s fine. But it’s not unique and, as currently constructed, may not appeal to all that many kids.
That said, I want in. Because there is a key part of the proposal that does intrigue me: The goal of creating a new mythology for a new generation. I love that idea, and so do kids. That’s what Pokémon’s all about; it’s this generation’s gods and monsters. I’d keep that one thought and start again; that development would be worth an investment.
Charles Falzon, CEO at international production and distribution company Catalyst Entertainment in Toronto, Canada:
At Catalyst, we balance our assessment of a project by evaluating its creative strengths and its financial viability.
In terms of creative, Legacy of the Silver Shadow is a good, sound concept. The combination of nostalgia-flavored action/adventure with kid empowerment is appealing, and the set-up leaves plenty of room for the series to go 65 episodes. This pitch leaves me wanting to see more of the creative: Do the treatment, bible and scripts fulfill the promise evidenced here?
In terms of Silver Shadow’s finance ability, we break down our analysis in four ways.
First, because this is likely a co-production and we’d want to access Canadian funds, we’d need to determine the distinctly Canadian elements, characters or hooks. If there aren’t any, we’d need to change the concept slightly to include them or determine what benefits we would qualify for.
Second, we would need to evaluate Silver Shadow in terms of the U.S. marketplace. It is important to attach a comfort package for the U.S., including talent and content that has a proven track record in that market. Therefore, it would be important to know what level of talent is attached.
Third, we would evaluate Silver Shadow in terms of the international marketplace. I think this is a very strong property for this market. I can see it being presold to a few key territories.
Our fourth way of analyzing a project’s financial prospects is to look at the off-screen or licensing potential. Live action is always more difficult than animation. To have some chance in this area, we would need to brand the Shadow and the gadgets that come with his world.
Andrew Macbean, CEO at international distributor ITEL and production company Cosgrove Hall Films in London, England:
1. Is the Silver Shadow Batman? Won’t there be rights problems?
2. Kids and criminals? I would need to read story lines and scripts to assure myself how this would work. Does a child take on the character of the Silver Shadow (Batman)? What are the other kids doing?
3. Vehicles/weapons? Kids driving around and blowing up buildings?
4. Superhero in 2002? By the time the show gets into the market, 2002 will be in the past.
Action: Read scripts and story lines and clarify who the Silver Shadow is.
John Hardman, director of development at U.S. broadcaster Kids’ WB! in Burbank, California:
At Kids’ WB!, our target audience is kids ages six to 11. Currently, we have a predominantly boy audience, but we want to expand our content to attract as many girls as possible. The majority of our development is for animated series, but we are also developing a few, select live-action projects. We are interested in projects with strong, iconic characters that will come to live in the public’s consciousness like our most famous characters, such as Bugs Bunny and Batman.
The characters, stories and visual styles should stem from the current interests of our audience and anticipate the trends of tomorrow. Kids are true multimedia multitaskers, and programming should reflect their reality. In so doing, we hope to attract kids to our programming by holding up a mirror to their lives and showing them that they themselves can be the heroes of the future.
With that in mind, Legacy of the Silver Shadow has some strong appeal. There is a solid kid’s point of view. The heroes are living out the greatest wish fulfillment fantasy imaginable-as ‘ordinary kids in extraordinary situations.’ The humor indicated is promising, although satire does not typically play well to kids. The reality of the threat and danger is essential to any strong series as well.
The balance of action over violence is an intelligent development strategy. Currently, the visual style relies heavily on `50s icons. If we were to develop this series, we would probably steer the producers away from this conceit and encourage them to create a fresh look that may someday become a classic itself. Overall, this is a strong concept and a promising project.
Dolores Morris, VP of U.S. multiplex channel HBO Family in New York, New York:
HBO Family fare has to be honest, brainy and outrageous. All the programming has to have a degree of difference that makes it something you could only find on HBO. We love experimental production mediums like 3-D/2-D animation combos and programs with promotable ‘star’ participation. We also look to partner with award-winning producers, directors and writers from outside the traditional children’s arena.
We are very aware that our afternoon audience of eight- to 12-year-old ‘pre-tweeners’ is surfing the net and not always channelsurfing after school. Thus, programming during that time has to be compatible with our Web site, HBO4Kids.com. We are interested in concepts that are either made by our audience, such as 30 by 30: Kid Flicks, a series of movies made by kids, or reflect our audience in reality programming, such as Booth in the Back, a current issues series, or Freshmen, a documentary series.
I have to admit the writing in this pitch is good. It grabbed me almost immediately. But-and there is usually a ‘but’ isn’t there?-the Silver Shadow isn’t a concept for HBO Family. We look for concepts you wouldn’t find anywhere else. As soon as I read four kids and dead superhero, I thought Disney or Fox-it even felt a little like Ghostwriter without the literacy comparative.
We want our pre-teen programming to feature real kids. Silver Shadow’s idealistic mandate to use weaponry, but not violence is a noble effort, but it’s lost on an audience that watches Buffy the Vampire Slayer and buys tickets to Scream 3. The pitch feels dated. The slightly Gothic, Batman-esque style and `50s feel may look different to our audience for a few episodes-but we have to remember the later Batman films didn’t fare too well. Silver Shadow may have some appeal as a telefilm with promotable stars in cameo appearances but it’s formulaic ‘four teens go on an adventure’ has been seen too many times by American audiences. Unless this has some popular book series or comic series connection, it would be a tough sell to the American market, and an impossible sell to HBO Family.
Peter Moss, former head of programming and production at youth cable network YTV in Toronto, Canada, now president of Cinar Entertainment in Montreal, Canada:
This is an interesting concept. It has good possibilities for action and character development and it feels like it could sustain interest over many episodes. The basic premise of ‘kid superheroes’ is sound. The mix of visual styles is promising, but dangerous-delivering on the promise is hard. This is also true of the tone. Mixing humor and action is a desirable but delicate blend. Many series try for this, not many succeed. One challenge will be establishing the range of adventure we can expect to see. Are the villains really dangerous? Are the kids really superheroes? Are we in a make-believe world, or are we in the world of math tests? Does a make-believe world include math tests? How far can the action/adventure aspect be pushed when we are dealing with kid performers?
YTV is sufficiently interested in the premise so that we would want to see the first script when it became available.
Jacqueline Cantore, director of programming at Fox Kids Latin America and Canal Fox in Los Angeles, California:
Fox Kids Latin America has just launched a new cutting-edge on-air look, as part of a global package, which reflects the core of our brand: To be the coolest channel for kids in Latin America. This energy and excitement flows among all our shows. We look for a special Fox Kids’ twist in everything we acquire or produce.
Therefore, with Legacy of the Silver Shadow, I focused on the dynamic aspects of the project. Is it edgy? Is it futuristic? These are the elements that will attract the Fox Kids Latin America viewer. I thought the hero figure in a postmodern world worked well. Heroes are classic icons, and kids are drawn to them. Conversely, when the story focuses on everyday life, it loses the magic that is so integral to the fantasy story.
Everyday life in Australia is not the same as in Argentina or Colombia. In the story, there are two distinctive worlds where action happens, presenting a stylistic dichotomy that is not entirely effective.
Today there are no more clear divisions, the computer screen allows kids to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. Show creators should focus much more on a rapid flow of information than on quick cut editing. Why aren’t the cybernetic-wireless-digital elements of today’s kids more apparent in the lives of these characters? Where’s the interactivity? The cyberfocus of today’s kids is apparent in Argentina as much as in Australia. A superhero series works when place and time are abstract, where kids create their own environment.
A live-action series today is much more successful when it conveys a simple and traditional style of terror story telling, like Goosebumps. I find this much more effective than a project that mixes modern and historical elements. Legacy of the Silver Shadow seeks to be a compelling adventure series, but Fox kids are running much faster.
Kenn Viselman, president and CEO, and Robert Kanner, head of acquisitions and development, at production, distribution and licensing firm The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company in New York, New York:
I think that the pitch is written very professionally and with great heart. It answers a lot of questions and helps to draw in the reader. However, I think it will be very difficult to execute these ideas.
The concept’s viability in the merchandising arena:
I think this is not likely to be a big hit in today’s highly technological world. With all of the high-tech choices available to today’s wannabe young crime-fighters, why would they want to play with toys that are obsolete and primitive by today’s standards? Technology from 1999 is already out of date, so certainly anything based 50 years ago would have to be old and boring to a child. Not only do I think this pitch ignores the impact of technology on young children, it also overlooks the impact of violence in our society.
Violence today is grossly different from years gone by-the weaponry (which I am totally opposed to in the first place) is not going to engage children today. We do not think that children are interested in a satire of days gone by. The pitch really falls apart in its ambiguous statements about violence and how it will be used and represented in this series.
It is noble to emphasis the negative sides to violence, however this is not the story with which to do it.
Will the show be a success either
domestically or internationally?
Without being too negative, I hope that it is not. There are better stories to be told to our young children than this one. The concept of young crime-fighters based in 2002 righting wrong is somewhat appealing. Why can’t they use computers, for example, to fight crime instead of weapons? I also think that the idea of our youth being faced with huge life or death situations is probably not as interesting as them responding to their own self-discovery. Children today are less likely to care about the entire world and more likely to focus on their world instead.
Two suggestions to improve this story: Change the demo by having a bumbling adult fall into the lair. Or have children from today’s world fall into a hole that takes them back in time.
Woody Browne, founder and CEO of licensing and marketing consulting firm Building Q in Voorhees, New Jersey:
We are a marketing company, and as such, we focus on the marketable elements. Is this a paradigm breaker? Are there toys readily seen? Is it different? What is going on in the category, and can this concept break out? We also look at the partners on-board, either owners or licensees, as well as where the series will run.
The good news is that although I can’t tell much about the marketing elements from this pitch, creatively it is interesting to me as a former boy, and I would like to see the show.
Action/fantasy/comedy blends have worked before with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but the difference here is that Josh, Alex, Campbell and Gretel are all regular kids. Turtles and Power Rangers have ‘figural’ personas that create toy collectability and graphic interest for other product. I am sure the Silver Shadow will be cool, but he needs to emerge as a Batman-like hero, because history has proven that figures of regular kids don’t sell.
Our clients look to us to uncover the equity. The problem with pitching concepts for licensing is that there is no real equity-a manufacturer is just buying a pretty picture. There are too many excellent concepts out there looking for a home: Toy concepts that might make a great show, shows that might make great toys, and things we would never have suspected would capture a kid’s imagination. (Can you say Beanie Babies?)
Where does the equity come from? Well, first and foremost, the early equity comes from the producer’s track record, the broadcast partner’s commitment, and those early visionaries who buy into the concept and begin to commit their company resources.
The licensing industry has turned itself inside out. Now companies make bets on concepts like Legacy of the Silver Shadow well before any real kids get a chance to vote with the remote. Competition has forced licensees to make decisions earlier than is rational, and many get burned. The hope is that at the end of the day your portfolio is in the black.
Would I recommend that my clients jump up and acquire this license? No. But not ‘no, never,’ merely ‘no for now.’ We would track its progress through the development cycle and when the time was right, we would look at each client’s needs, strategic position, and how this property fits in. . . then make recommendations.