Back to the lab

When the wacky creators of SpongeBob SquarePants first pitched the idea to Nickelodeon's brass more than 10 years ago, it's unlikely their opening salvo was 'So, what are you looking for?' But in the time that's passed, serving the commissioning net's commercial needs is increasingly top-of-mind for producers as they prepare to lob a new idea at a potential broadcaster.
October 1, 2008

When the wacky creators of SpongeBob SquarePants first pitched the idea to Nickelodeon’s brass more than 10 years ago, it’s unlikely their opening salvo was ‘So, what are you looking for?’ But in the time that’s passed, serving the commissioning net’s commercial needs is increasingly top-of-mind for producers as they prepare to lob a new idea at a potential broadcaster.

In recent years, the artist’s voice has arguably been supplanted by talk of monetization, the bottom line and global licensing opportunities. And perhaps that’s why three major international broadcasters are stepping back from the money talk to get a better view of the talent scene and launch in-house, artist-led hubs to craft short-form programming. Cartoon Network, Disney and Fox have all hatched internal think tanks in the last six months with the aim of keeping the execs out of the creative process and putting the artists back in charge.

It’s not a new idea; in fact, the tactic was employed quite successfully at the big studios by Frederator’s Fred Seibert when he was heading up Hanna Barbera back in 1994. Seibert launched the What A Cartoon! showcase that yielded Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls, and even now he contends that artist-led initiatives are a way to give special talent more opportunity and respect. While a sitcom writer, for example, can concentrate on making a great half-hour of programming and get holding deals, Seibert laments that animation creators are often restricted by the need to create licensing opps and make a hit. ‘It’s not only a shame because it treats writers in a second-class way, but it’s a missed business opportunity,’ he says.

Current models notwithstanding, treating creators well has the potential to churn out animated hits, of which the industry is sorely in need. In short, there hasn’t been another SpongeBob since…well, SpongeBob. And Seibert suspects the new animation hubs may help today’s crop of top broadcast managers end the drought.

Cartoon draws on history

Graduates from Seibert’s What A Cartoon! project include Craig McCracken, who developed The Powerpuff Girls from the experiment, and Rob Renzetti, Dexter’s Laboratory’s imagist. They are now acting as exec producer and supervising producer at Cartoon Network’s in-house animation hub Cartoonstitute that launched last April.

Chief content creator Rob Sorcher joined Car-

toon last January, and he’s the only real suit at a table occupied by artists deciding the future of the kid channel’s shorts development process. He affirms that CN needed to invest in hip comedy and broaden its scope on cartoon creation, and this initiative plays by its own rules – far away from the net’s more traditional development track. What makes Cartoonstitute particularly different is the environment in which projects are brainstormed.

McCracken and Renzetti are the program’s anchors and act as mentors to new artists – some of whom may not even have an idea completely fleshed out. Each artist accepted into the program gets seven minutes to work with, and can use those minutes in whichever way makes sense for their project, be it seven one-minute eps or two 3.5-minute segments. ‘They’re working it out in a medium and environment they’re comfortable in, and the distribution talk comes at the end,’ says Sorcher.

While the project is open to broadening Cartoon’s content into a variety of tones and styles, Sorcher says most shorts will lean toward male-targeted comedies for the nine to 15 crowd. He wouldn’t say how many series are expected to come out of the program, but he hopes to see at least a couple hatchlings move into development. ‘A short takes between 28 and 31 weeks to complete, so in 20 months we’ll have an enormous number of shorts to choose from,’ he says, anticipating CN will greenlight at least one 13 x half-hour series. ‘We will look back at this and say it was successful because we did this the right way, giving [artists] the time and the opportunity to make mistakes, and leaving those with a creative gut in charge,’ he says.

Sorcher has heard repeatedly from the first set of artists in the program that they’ve had to rethink the way they approach the creative process, in that they don’t have to think about the end product’s commercial value. ‘We’ve made it a policy that it can’t be invaded by traditional development processes, so it has its own set of rules,’ he explains.

Disney taps global talent pool

While Cartoon challenges its traditions, Disney is reaching out to its international creatives, particularly the team working with Disney Italy GM Giorgio Stock on shorts projects. On the live-action front, the House of Mouse tested a handful of concepts coming out of the Rome-based development hub a few years ago. The plan behind the strategy is simple: Scout Disney’s international creative talent and tap into its own resources to write, produce and film formidable shorts that encourage artists to think with an experimental mindset. The business deals are left to the execs to seal after development, leaving the artists free to explore their boundaries within Disney’s well-resourced arms.

The primary goal has been to create four new short-form series a year suitable for international formatting, drawing from two rounds of pitches each year. A secondary aim is to broaden Disney’s reach with local talent so that countries operating outside of production-heavy regions, such as France and the UK, will have a shot at international fame. ‘It’s been a great opportunity to connect more strongly with local audiences and formats, but also to develop talent locally,’ says Stock.

To that end, Disney has set up a global task force of execs to suss out talent and field pitches from their respective regions. So far, some of the series ideas are as short as two-line descriptions, while others are in the early scripting stage. A full 30 concepts will get dramatized from their pitches, of which between three and five will be developed – only a few will then be greenlit as series. Stock says he’s looking for concepts that speak to eight- to 14-year-olds and are on-brand, which is the most challenging part of the program coming from the business side. While the hub isn’t artist-led like CN’s, Disney does want its creatives to push boundaries without thinking about the financial outcome. ‘The most difficult element is looking at concepts that depart from the programming we typically have in our schedule – innovation is not only important, it’s key,’ he says.

The hub’s first format to make international headway is As the Bell Rings (Quelli del’Interavllo), which launched in Italy a little more than two years ago. The five-minuter is a fixed-camera series that chronicles the antics of students during recess and has been formatted in 11 countries, including the US, the UK, Spain, Germany, France and Australia, adding up to more than 1,000 episodes. The series was also a Disney first in Singapore as it debuted on that country’s mobile platform, StarHub, before hitting traditional TV sets. A mobile format has also been created for Italy’s Vodafone Disney channel.

The second live-action short series to hit international waters is Life Bites, a comedy sketch show with eps that run about a minute long and look at the everyday lives of a brother and sister. The series has been versioned for Spain, Italy, Germany, France and the UK. ‘We sourced the script across several markets to give the show more variety in terms of stories, and to add to its universality,’ says Stock. The creator of the original series participates in each formatted version’s pilot stage to ensure the casting stays true to the show’s concept.

Maintaining universality for these shorts, however, has proven difficult, even with the regional scriptwriters. Stock says that when the first episode for As the Bell Rings was produced in China, it didn’t accurately reflect the country. ‘It was an interesting experience because the Chinese team was faithful to the original show, but it was too faithful – we wanted to make sure the classroom looked like a Chinese classroom, not a Western one,’ he says.

Translating the script shouldn’t be an issue for another short series that debuted worldwide on Disney Channel at the beginning of last month. The live-action silent comedy Brian O’Brian stars Brian Stepanek, otherwise known as Janitor Arwin from The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. It’s not a format, and each episode is three to four minutes long, relying on physical humor to get the kids laughing. Stock says the lack of dialogue makes it an easier short to deliver internationally. ‘It is an economic advantage,’ he adds, donning his business cap for a moment.

Disney’s short-form hub has also just started dipping its toes into toons for the first time. The first two-minuter out of the gate is Flash-animated laugher Hero or Not (working title) from Studio Bozzetto in Italy, launching this Q4. ‘We always liked this animator, and we felt there was a way to use that talent in a Disney environment and see how a project could unravel,’ Stock says.

Inkubator attempts to formulate next Simpsons-sized hit

While all of the shorts produced out of Disney’s hub will only air on its networks, Twentieth Century Fox is opening the door to creating content for other networks through its just-launched Inkubator short-form lab. Fox’s focus is on creating the next big animated Sunday night program to follow in the footsteps of The Simpsons or Family Guy, but VP Jennifer Howell, head of the project and a former supervising producer for South Park, says her unit is open to anything, even kids programming. (The unit operates under Fox’s production arm.) Creating product for the mothership is a priority, but the Fox team has the ability to sell shorts that fall outside of the net’s remit to other platforms, including those emerging online.

Like CN and Disney, the creation of Inkubator was driven by the desire to let the artists be in charge and save them from having to wade through traditional TV notes. ‘There’s something about this idea,’ says Howell. ‘Someone can come in with something crazy, and creativity will be influencing the development, as opposed to having people who primarily pitch what they think they should guiding our decisions,’ she says. It’s not surprising that Howell relates this experience to that of South Park’s roots, where creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone animated a crude video Christmas card that sparkled with talent and potential, but would never have made it onto network TV in its raw state.

As for pitching, it’s pretty much an open-door policy at Inkubator. Howell has seen everyone from newbies who didn’t know what an agent did, to a 20-something American Dad storyboard artist and a blockbuster movie writer who harbored a secret desire to create animation. She says pitches that speak to the team’s gut feelings are chosen to be fleshed out, and then their creators are given some money to make six minutes of animation. ‘With a low risk for the network, you give them a smaller amount of money to make things with a low amount of interference,’ Howell explains. Two to four months later, creators come back to the table with three two-minute shorts. If a deal is struck, the creators have the option to work closely with the Inkubator staff or go off on their own to complete as much as they can in a three-month time frame.

Like Cartoonstitute, Inkubator doesn’t have a set goal regarding the number of shorts it expected to deliver within a specified period, and Howell couldn’t yet talk about greenlit projects. But the hubs’ existence may cause some to wonder whether or not indie prodcos now stand a chance of snagging the best talent when the lure of working directly with the broadcaster is being so readily dangled before them. Howell, for one, doesn’t see a problem. ‘The more outlets that are available, the more places artists can go to fulfill their vision,’ she reasons.

Indies still home to big ideas

It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by indie producers including Mike Young, head of L.A.-based Mike Young Productions, who says these hubs are good so long as the creators receive financial compensation. ‘It’s well-documented that some of the biggest hit shows of all time didn’t earn the creators enough to write home about, and it’s a system of fairness that’s sometimes lacking,’ he says.

Seibert seems to think these new ways to pitch broadcasters might raise the going rate for true talent, which he says could up his own costs. ‘But anything that puts creative people in the driver’s seat is fantastic for our industry,’ he notes.

Yet even with potentially higher talent fees, Young doesn’t believe these hubs will ring the death knell for indie-driven creative projects, mainly because of the structural differences between large and small companies. ‘The big studios redo Batman, Spider-Man or other great franchises, whereas it takes the indie sector to develop truly original off-the-wall ideas and bring them to fruition; there isn’t a huge team second-guessing it,’ he says.

Tom Lynch, creator of Class of 3000 for CN, thinks these hubs will succeed if the broadcasters are in it for the long haul. ‘I hope they’re consistent and they give it the three years in needs to really develop,’ he says, adding that he has knowledge of some initial projects underway at Cartoonstitute. ‘The idea of a successful artist advising the project and having him bring up new ideas, when you look at it in its most primal perspective, is brilliant.’ Lynch also believes the broadcasters wouldn’t be where they are today without taking chances on obscure product culled from the indie ranks.

‘I suppose if the networks can keep their hands off them and let them come up freely the way Fred did in the early ’90s, then that’s great,’ Young says. ‘But if they attempt to mould the projects to their vision, the new talent could end up in development hell.’

About The Author


Brand Menu