Hurry up and stop?

'I don't know why people didn't take hits out on me,' says Diana Manson, EVP of creative and development at Chorion's US subsidiary Chorion Silver Lining. She's referring to the fierce and protracted redevelopment that went into preschool series Max & Ruby, which finally bowed on Nick Jr. in 2002 after spending about seven years in the pipeline.
September 1, 2008

‘I don’t know why people didn’t take hits out on me,’ says Diana Manson, EVP of creative and development at Chorion’s US subsidiary Chorion Silver Lining. She’s referring to the fierce and protracted redevelopment that went into preschool series Max & Ruby, which finally bowed on Nick Jr. in 2002 after spending about seven years in the pipeline.

As Manson’s wry observation suggests, sometimes getting the greenlight from a commissioning broadcaster is the easy part. The next phase of development that occurs on the way into production can be like starting from scratch – the look and feel, central characters, everything to do with the series seemingly becomes up for debate. And more often than not, the series turns out looking quite a bit different than the one envisioned and pitched all those months – make that years – ago. It goes without saying that a killer IP is a prerequisite to surviving the process, but an open mind, patience, flexibility, great communication skills and some tenacity also go a long way towards making it out of contentious redevelopment terrain with a great product in hand.

Make a co-pro map at the outset

Manson’s company, known as Silver Lining at the time, acquired the rights to Rosemary Wells’s bestselling Max & Ruby books in the mid-1990s and was determined to keep the animated series true to its source material. She spent two years pitching different Max & Ruby ideas to Brown Johnson at Nickelodeon before finally getting the go-ahead, and Nelvana came on-board to produce the series for Nick Jr. Then the real work started. It took four more years for Nelvana, Silver Lining and Nick to settle on an animated look and a direction for the scripts, the bare necessities for pushing the show into production. Manson admits that since those days of being a headstrong newbie producer, her creative negotiations for more recent projects have become a lot smoother.

She quickly learned that knowing what the broadcaster needs and wants before pitching helps put a project on the right track at the outset. ‘Before you go into it, you’d better know as much as you

can about the broadcaster, how it works and what else it airs, and you’d better give its executives the respect they’re due,’ she says, adding that before starting internal development, she often has an international broadcast strategy mapped out.

And because kids shows so often require more than one commissioning broadcaster to get off the ground, finding the right combination of international channels that ideally have similar target demos and positioning is key. For example, Toronto-based Breakthrough Entertainment already had a broadcast presale to Canada’s Teletoon on its 2-D animated comedy Jimmy Two Shoes when it cast the net wider into international waters in 2005.

The series about an eternal optimist who lives in a place called Miseryville, but still manages to look on the bright side of life, initially drew interest from Kids’ WB! But a broadcast deal fell through there when a five-minute pilot performed badly with the net’s older-skewing audience. However, Breakthrough executive producer Ira Levy says his company noticed that Jetix Europe shared the same target demo as Teletoon, and anticipating that Jetix was moving towards adding more comedy to its portfolio, Breakthrough successfully redirected its pitch for Jimmy to the pan-regional net.

Jetix Europe’s SVP of programming, Marc Buhaj, says keeping the lines of communication open between broadcasters helps a lot, and Jetix and Teletoon shared creative notes on the series, something broadcasters and studios have historically shied away from. Being open about disagreements and bringing points to a head, he notes, is the only way to work things out and ensure that everyone is satisfied in the end.

‘Certainly we’ve got a different remit and our audiences are slightly different, but the vision is more compatible than other relationships,’ says Buhaj. ‘With a co-production, nothing is ever going to be perfect, but then neither is running your own studio where you have 100% control.’ He adds that although the broadcaster shelling out the most money often has the loudest voice, putting together a solid, working co-pro structure helps to keep things fair, especially one that includes tie-breaker rights if you can’t work something out.

Would that Ewan Burnett, MD at Melbourne, Australia’s Burberry Productions, had been able to create a master international broadcast plan for CGI series Animalia beforehand. It turned out that creating a series to satisfy the disparate interests of several broadcasters precipitated a nine-year incubation period on the project.

Burnett had picked up the rights to Grahame Base’s lavishly illustrated picture book Animalia in 1999. When Australian tax legislation he was counting on for financing changed significantly in 2002, work on the series came to a grinding halt just before it was about to really begin. It took three more years and some private investment to put a budget back together. At the same time, Burberry managed to presell the series to Network 10 (Australia), Nick Australia and the BBC. Soon after that, Burnett brought L.A.-based PorchLight Entertainment on-board as a co-production partner. PorchLight made yet another presale – this time to US pubcaster PBS.

At this point, Burnett was faced with too many task-masters. He had to satisfy the educational mandate of PBS and meet Australian content requirements, all the while balancing UK and North American storytelling and comic sensibilities. To address some of the issues, PorchLight hired Emmy Award-winning kids writer Tom Ruegger, whose previous credits included Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain. And the prodco’s president and CEO Bruce Johnson, a trained English teacher, infused the series with a language-based curriculum that played on the alphabet structure of the original books. But about four scripts into the series, things hit another snag when CBBC’s Michael Carrington, who acquired the series for the net, moved on to a role at CBeebies. A new team of creatives at CBBC inherited the project and, as Burnett says, suddenly the goal posts shifted.

Coping with creative differences

Johnson and Burnett headed to London for a creative summit with new CBBC commissioner Nikki Chaplin. PorchLight had worked hard on the educational components and created lots of situational comedy, but it was all for naught. Chaplin, it turns out, wanted a series infused with a sense of drama.

By the end of that summit, the trio managed to hammer out nine rules that every script had to follow. Additionally, they set a goal to develop a dramatic arc for the series as a whole, while still maintaining each ep as a stand-alone piece. The new rules, which included having a sense of magic in every episode and making the two lead characters the catalysts for solving episodic dilemmas, helped to regulate the story development process and get production on-track. ‘It was a little painful to admit that what we had done wasn’t quite right,’ says Johnson. ‘But, in the long run, it was a wonderful thing to do – out of that came a renewed energy and focus.’

Similarly, Manson says the relationship between Silver Lining, Nelvana and Nick on Max & Ruby was a bit of an uncomfortable three-legged stool. To keep creative differences from festering, she set up regular meetings in New York with Nick execs.

But having been so entrenched in Max and Ruby’s world after spending several years hatching a viable series concept, Manson came out swinging over issues pertaining to keeping the essence of the books alive. The main bone of contention revolved around the absence of parental figures. Nickelodeon execs, says Manson, were uncomfortable with siblings Max and Ruby inhabiting a world free of caregivers or authority figures. However, Wells’s stories often unfolded as secret conversations that take place just between kids when parents aren’t around.

‘We made the decision that we wanted to argue with Nick on that point,’ says Manson, but notes she had to be proactive and approach the net with a solution in-hand. ‘So the next question was ‘How do you make these kids safe in this world?”

Incorporating a narrative voice was kicked around, as was somehow having parents close by. In the end, the design of the show was tweaked to create a sweet toy-like environment that was safe to play in, and the wee rabbits’ grandma became the adult figure in the series. Also, Manson says that once her team had won the no-parents point, they were careful not to write scripts that put Max and Ruby in jeopardy.

With Jimmy, Breakthrough was lucky to have two eager co-pro partners in Teletoon and Jetix, but there were still a few kinks that both nets wanted ironed out. Teletoon was leaning towards a wackier, more comedic and surreal style, while Jetix was exploring ways to give the show legs and turn it into a sustainable, long-running series.

Buhaj says that after an initial pitch is accepted by Jetix Europe, all fledgling series go through a six- to 12-month process of development to further flesh out the core concept, characters, stories, backgrounds and style. Jimmy Two Shoes was no exception. ‘We’re always thinking the glass is half-empty when we’re looking at our shows, until we give birth to the final episode – we’re always looking for places where we can make improvements.’

The original concept for the show had Jimmy visiting a very literal interpretation of hell, and Jetix wanted to lighten the mood of the show. So the red background palette was opened up with a broader array of colors, and Jimmy was further refined into an unstoppable, thrill-seeking optimist who finds humor and fun in even the most miserable place on Earth. His relationship with his two best friends was also beefed up to create an ensemble cast feel. And Jetix updated Jimmy’s wardrobe, nixing the original bowtie and giving him a gap-toothed smile and sharper clothes to make a more iconic character.

At that point, says Levy, Breakthrough brought in a fresh crop of writers and a new story editor to craft scripts for the reworked show and construct the entire 52 episodes.

Be flexible, but stand strong

Dealing with notes on scripts and design with a modicum of responsibility is a task that should be shouldered by both broadcaster and producer. As Buhaj explains, it takes wherewithal and determination to deliver constructive criticism when it’s far easier just to say, ‘That’s not very funny.’ He adds, ‘We take our role of being a critical first audience very seriously, and when we’re delivering notes, we’ll have solutions attached and are open to back and forth.’

Breakthough’s Levy agrees that creating an instant hit is near impossible, which is why he’s able to take two-year development periods in stride; ideas need time to percolate, and series construction shouldn’t be rushed. ‘Once you go into production, the train has left the station, it’s roaring down the tracks and it’s hard to pull it back and change it if it’s not working,’ he says.

For Johnson, refocusing Animalia meant going back to the drawing board, but the series is now airing on the CBC, BBC1 and PBS. Ultimately, he feels he’s helped create something that will last, which outweighs any slings and arrows suffered along the way.

But surely there must be a point at which setbacks become unworkable and it’s time to admit defeat. ‘If you really believe in a project, that point is never,’ says Johnson. ‘Sometimes a creative property, like a good wine, has to find its right time.’ He also admits that it helps to feign deafness when someone utters the word no.

In fact, standing your ground to save the essence of a series often becomes necessary while slogging through redevelopment, even when deferring to a broadcaster’s goals seems the wiser route to take. Without Manson’s stubborn refusal to introduce parents to the world of Max & Ruby, for example, the series would have strayed from Rosemary Wells’s original concept and lost some of its kid appeal. Manson also held out for a known actor to voice the role of Ruby, which was a budget issue for Nelvana. In the end, Nick sided with her, and British actress Samantha Morton did the deed.

Though Manson advocates working towards compromise with broadcasters – who have final approval, after all – it’s necessary to maintain a flexible and stalwart stance at the same time. ‘I’ve seen producers who go into meetings and say, ‘I can change everything,” she observes. ‘Broadcasters laugh at people like that because they have no spines.’

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