Simple is Good: Part Two

In the February/March issue, Josh introduced the seven shapes of preschool television, delving into The Dot (the idea) and The Triangle (show bible).
March 27, 2009

In the February/March issue, Josh introduced the seven shapes of preschool television, delving into The Dot (the idea) and The Triangle (show bible).

This month, he tackles The Line (the broadcaster), The Circle (finance) and The Square (production).

The Line
This chapter is about the broadcaster, which is represented by a line. Why a line? Because a broadcaster connects your show to your audience.

It’s true that you can connect your show to your audience via the internet or through selling DVDs but, for now, without a broadcaster you are unlikely to reach a large number of viewers. Most people want to reach as many viewers as possible.

The way to pitch an idea to a preschool network is to contact its development department. Typically, these departments are run by very smart and creative people who have great instincts and understand what types of new shows have the best chance on their networks. They are neither unapproachable nor are they unsympathetic to how hard it is to pitch.

People always ask me where to find such people. Development executives don’t hide. In fact, they want to be found. Their job is to hear ideas, so they need you as much as you need them. You can usually find out who works where by reading KidScreen magazine or other trade publications. Or just watch the credits of existing preschool shows. Usually the network people are listed at the end.

Each network has its own policies on how they like to receive pitches and this changes periodically so you will need to contact the development departments yourself and request this information. Some have an open-door policy and some like to be contacted by an agent or a lawyer. Many will ask you to sign some sort of submission release form. This is harmless and simply protects them in the event they have something else in the works that is similar to your idea. In my experience, the networks are not in the business of stealing ideas so don’t worry about this.

It is always a good idea to be very familiar with the network you are pitching to and the shows it currently has on air. Each preschool network has a different personality. Some are like cool babysitters and they pride themselves on their hip music and innovative design. Some are like teachers and they care mostly about educating their viewers. And some are like the lost & found; they will air whatever the other broadcasters have left behind.

Get to know each one well. Watch their shows. Read interviews with their executives. Know what’s on their websites. Information is free and easy.

Some people spend a lot of money to make a pilot of a preschool show and then they show it to a big production company or a broadcaster. In my opinion, this is an expensive and risky route to take. A good pilot for an 11-minute show can cost anywhere from US$50,000 to US$500,000. I know that I don’t have that kind of money and even if I did, I don’t think a pilot is a good investment. Why?

A fully produced pilot is something of a fait accompli. It does not give the development executives the opportunity to do what they do best: Help you develop the show for their particular network.

Because a show bible is ‘paper development,’ it is far easier to make revisions based on any comments or suggestions you might receive from a development executive. This makes it a better tool for engaging the interest of the company you are pitching it to.

If you feel that having some form of visuals beyond your bible images will help you make a point about how your characters look and move, then I would suggest you make a very short teaser or animation test of around 15 seconds. This will not be cheap (US$5,000 to US$100,000) and could hurt your cause if someone doesn’t like the clips you present.

I am not a lawyer so I can’t speak with authority about deal making. I will tell you that if someone expresses interest in your show, then you will need a good lawyer or business consultant to assist you with negotiating your deal. Do not use your cousin in Yonkers who practices real estate law.

A good lawyer is worth his or her weight in gold, which is just about what you will be paying them.

The Circle
I chose a circle to represent the area of finance because it looks like a pie, and you need to complete your pie in order to make your TV show. Some pies are very small, almost like tarts, and some pies are big and rather fancy, like a Boston cream pie.

In dollar amounts, a modest tart-like show will cost you between US$100,000 and US$200,000 per episode. A Boston cream pie will cost you between US$200,000 and US$400,000 per episode. In either case, an order of 52 episodes will cost you many millions of dollars.

How do you get that kind of pie? Good question.

Some companies are very rich and they can finance their own shows with their own money. This is called ‘deficit financing.’ Most mere mortals cannot deficit finance their shows so they look to others to pony up the money they need. These others might include toy companies, book publishers, private equity, distribution companies and networks.

There are a few basic types of deals you can expect if you are fortunate enough to have a broadcaster show real interest in a project you bring to them.

You do not need to start with the broadcaster, but I like this approach because the broadcaster and the deal you make will help you determine how much more money you need and where it makes sense to get it.

Acquisition Deal With this type of deal, you own your show and the broadcaster licenses it for a small fee. An acquisition deal allows you to keep most of your rights, but the networks rarely promote shows that are acquisitions, nor do they give them the best time slots. (Networks almost always favor shows that they own.) Plus you will need to find most of your money elsewhere. This could come in the form of pre-selling the show into other markets or selling off some your DVD, CD or toy rights.

Co-Production Deal With this deal you would share ownership and rights between multiple companies and broadcasters. Some companies involved in the co-production might contribute skills (such as animation) and others might contribute distribution. In most cases, they will all send you creative notes. This model has become very common and it makes a lot of sense financially. The problem is, simply, that too many cooks can spoil your soup.

All Rights Deal This is the preferred approach of the bigger entertainment companies. A big network will fund a show in exchange for the ownership of all the rights. The creator or owner of the show will get a piece of the show’s back-end (a percentage of the net profits after the network recoups its costs) and perhaps a job. The upside for you is that a network will put all of its considerable resources behind this show. The downside is that you will not own your own show and you may never see any back-end.

The Square
I chose a square to represent production because there are four key elements to any good production:
• Quality
• Time
• Money
• Talent

I used to be a street performer outside the Broadway theaters in New York. I had a short act in which I would juggle and eat fire. One day I was setting up my props and the comedian Dom DeLuise came out of a theatre and looked me over. He told me that my props looked good but that I needed to tuck in my shirt. ‘Everything matters,’ he shouted at me. ‘Everything!’ To me, that is what quality is: caring about every detail. Each joke in a script is important. So is every character design and every sound effect. Everything matters. Everything.

The key to maintaining quality is a great producer. A great producer knows how to create a supportive, structured and flexible environment so the senior creative people on a show can make their creative choices. These people might include the creator, creative director, the head writer or the director.

A good producer gets the show done on budget and on schedule and does not concern themselves with quality. A great producer gets it done on budget and on schedule and makes sure it is quality work.

A great producer is creative with their approach to time, money and talent. They move money around a budget the way a poet moves words around a page. So when something special is needed (like a new set, a celebrity or a last minute rewrite) they make it happen and they understand why it must happen.

Some producers understand the financial side of TV but not the creative side. I tend to hire producers who are good at both. These are very rare.

If you pitch a show and someone shows interest, the first thing you’ll be asked for is a budget for a specified number of episodes. Sometimes you will get to decide how many episodes and sometimes the broadcaster or production company will tell you how many they would like from you.

Unless you are a good producer, you should hire one to put a budget together for you. You will need to live with whatever budget you present, so it had better be a good one. Budgets are both an art and a science and they are particularly hard if your show mixes animation and live action as many shows do.

Sometimes people use their own production company to make their own shows. Other people hire someone else’s company to make their shows. This is sometimes called, ‘service work’ or ‘work for hire.’ Usually an experienced production company will want to participate in either the ownership or the back-end of a preschool series. It is important that you have a good attorney or a qualified business affairs consultant advise you on any such deals.

If you are hiring another company to make your show, find out what the company’s strengths and weaknesses are. Talk to its clients and key personnel. You may also want to give the company an animation test or have it shoot a teaser. Once production begins, the train leaves the station and it is almost impossible to get off until you are done. You need to make sure you’re getting on the right train.

Budgets go hand-in-hand with schedules. Typically your producer will generate a schedule along with a budget and both documents will be delivered to a network. The network will have a production manager check your budget and schedule and will often have questions for you or may even ask for changes.

Always make sure there is extra time and money built into the schedule and budget to sort out the problems that will come up in the first episodes. These might be problems related to the first script, the music, the eye-mechanism on a puppet or problems with a character rig in animation. You just never know what might come up and you will need time and money to get it all figured out.

An episode of a live-action preschool series can often be shot in a day. An episode of an animated series can take weeks or even months to complete. It is critical that a series not be allowed to fall behind schedule. In my company, we have a job called ‘Air Traffic Controller’ and that person’s sole responsibility is to make sure all meetings stay on schedule and that everyone who needs to be at a meeting is there and is on time. Why? If meetings get missed there is often a domino effect that impacts every other aspect of the production. The costs of these delays can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Time is money.

Always try to get the best people possible to work on your show. You may think that because you are working in preschool and the budgets are low, you’ll never get the best people to help you. Not true. Talk to them or their representatives. Let them know why your show is special. The best people are not motivated by money; they are motivated by being involved with interesting, high quality work. This is true for actors, writers, directors and everyone else that contributes to making a show.

Once you get these people, make sure they are giving you their best work. It does not help you to have Emmy winners if they do not show up for meetings.

Have a good lawyer draft all of your agreements with your staff members, collaborators and consultants. Do not begin work with anybody until a contract is in place. It is simply too risky and will leave you open to problems down the line.

Also, don’t hire people because they are your friends. Hire them because they are the best people you could find for that job. Period. This will be good for your show as well as your friendships.

Look for final installment of this series in KidScreen‘s May issue. Little Airplane Books is publishing ‘Simple is Good’ this summer.

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