Ever wonder what a day in the life of a development exec is like? This excerpt from pitch veteran David Levy’s new book, Animation Development: From Pitch to Production, provides the low-down.
Linda Simensky and I recently enjoyed a nice lunch during which she told me that she wished more development executives realized that the creators hold the real power, despite the God-like role that the development executive seems to play in the pitching process. In truth, the development executive needs the creator, her idea, and her unique vision to execute the project to a successful finish. At the risk of coming across as overly diplomatic, I suggest that the real power lies not exclusively with the creator or the development executive or network. The real power is in the combination of the two and how the winning relationship can develop and distribute something successful that brings mutual creative satisfaction as well as financial success.
Network development executives are people, too
If I was a Jane Goodall type assigned to live amongst the development executives, I’d probably find them to be very interesting creatures. No, they don’t eat their young or fling feces if cornered, but they do wear many hats: They are gatekeepers, communicators of the network development mandate, talent scouts, visionaries and cheerleaders. Most important, the network development executive is your potential partner. Should your wacky idea about mushrooms from outer space sell, they’re the ones who will guide you to the finish line. The good news is that as a creator, they need you as much as you need them. They can’t create a series without you. At this point you may be asking where this unique species, the development executive, originates from.
Linda Simensky answers, ‘You’ll find that every development executive has a different background, although most are probably interested in creative areas or studied liberal arts in college. Most do not have backgrounds in animation but have a genuine interest in storytelling or humor or other creative areas. Most network development executives start out in entry-level jobs at the network and work their way over.’
Alice Cahn, VP of social responsibility at Cartoon Network, feels that there are some common experiences a development executive must have: ‘These include, but are certainly not limited to, working with or otherwise acquiring in-depth knowledge of the target audience for whom you are developing projects; appreciating the properties of the media for which you are developing; and understanding the larger environment within which your project will exist. These sets of experiences could come from having spent time working in media, in education, in business, in the arts world, at home raising kids, or some combination.’
Eric Coleman, SVP of development at Walt Disney Television, knows executives who were previously teachers, writers, lawyers or wandering backpackers (that was him). ‘It’s hard to break in, but once you get your foot in the door you need to develop a number of qualities: a good eye for talent, an ability to inspire, nurture and collaborate with this talent, and a passion for both the creative content and its intended audience. Developing a project takes years so you really have to enjoy the process itself, not just the part where the series gets on air and it’s a big hit. Especially since they’re not all big hits.’
The juggling game
What does a development executive do outside of the pitch room? No, this is not the setup to a dirty joke. You should be ashamed of yourself for even thinking that. Contrary to popular misconceptions, development executives don’t spend their days trying to find creative ways to avoid getting back to you with an answer on your pitch. In fact, taking and responding to pitches is only a small part of a development executive’s day-to-day job. This is no different at PBS, where Linda Simensky says there is no member of the kids programming department who handles only development. She continues, ‘We oversee all of kids programming, so we handle program strategy and scheduling, development, and current series. In addition, we work closely with other departments, so we are involved with interactive, marketing and branding, business affairs, and several aspects of management at different levels. We speak at and arrange a number of meetings each year with the PBS stations, as well.’
Responsibilities to current series are often a natural outgrowth to a development executive’s role on the development of that series, and sometimes allow the executive to continue as the executive in charge of production. Teletoon’s manager of original production, Athena Georgaklis, oversees four or five series at once. She also has a number of shows in development and manages the production slate to make sure everything comes in on time. Georgaklis says, ‘Because we’re a network we work with a whole bunch of different departments, such as marketing, and make sure that the flow of info goes from our office in Montreal to the director in Toronto and to everyone else. We work on a lot of material here that will not be seen by anyone else for 18 months, so it’s really important that we’re communicating what we’re doing to the rest of the team and to the rest of the network so that they can get behind what’s coming.’
While at Cartoon Network, development executive Heather Kenyon found that a huge aspect of her job was to find talent. She says, ‘You can’t wait for the perfect pitch to walk through the door. We meet with agents but also attend film festivals, screenings, art gallery openings, check out what is new at comic book stores, read graphic novels, speak at events and schools, watch graduation and short films, read blogs, watch YouTube, and visit random websites. This is a facet of development and it is never finished. There is always another rock to turn over to try and find that next big thing.’
Nickelodeon’s president of animation, Brown Johnson, explains that managing difficult creators is also a development executive’s responsibility. Johnson explains, ‘I find there is a little ‘crazy’ in all creative people. Mostly good crazy. Sometimes creators take a lot of handling because some of them think they can do everything on a show (write, direct and produce), but I have never met one person who could do all of that effectively. Development executives need to build strong teams around creators to ensure a series is on time, on budget and creatively successful.’
Development executive etiquette and the common mistakes of taking pitches
In my first book’s chapter on pitching and development, I was able to exorcise the trauma of my encounter with a worst-case scenario development executive. My story documented the rise and fall of a development deal in which a network tried to engage my services to revive and redevelop a classic cartoon property. In short, this opportunity imploded when it became clear that the executive’s style of management was adversarial. Instead of protecting me and preserving my trust, he used our every encounter to browbeat me and remind me that I was, in his words, ‘below the radar,’ which was his way of saying, ‘Just sign the damn contract.’ Over the course of an unhappy year spent negotiating and renegotiating this deal, my enthusiasm waned and my desire to do the project could not compete with my urge to flee and wash my hands of the whole mess.
This sad affair didn’t sour me on development or development executives. Instead, I learned the important lesson that development executives are half of the development relationship, and if that relationship is unhealthy, the project will suffer or, as in my case, never get off the ground. I’m not the only one to learn from this experience. Years later, an industry insider confessed that they heard the executive express deep regret over his behavior during his time at the network, blaming it on the influence of a bad mentor. More development executives would be wise to treat everyone (‘below the radar’ or not) with professional respect and common courtesy. Not all of these eager, young, would-be creators are going to disappear. Some of them might go on to create the next Dora the Explorer or South Park, or at the very least, write a tell-all book about their experiences. Maybe the next Mommie Dearest will be about an animation development executive.
I think the worst thing a development executive can do is to give a creator reason to not trust them. On two occasions, different development executives have told me that my project was going forward and then reneged their word. I’m not suggesting they were lying when they first told me the good news, but they may have spoken prematurely before the answer was truly locked in place. Another time, a development manager withheld important creative information through the development of a project. At each stage, this individual played games like asking for opinions from the creative team after they had already put into motion a different plan, which they would reveal afterwards. Animation development is a collaborative art and it is a real shame for either a development executive or a creator to behave in a way that is counter-productive to a project’s success. Some see a creator’s stories of bad experiences dealing with executives as proof of a flawed development system. But bad development executives don’t represent an entire group of people, or the development system everywhere.
Linda Simensky generously offers a list of the common mistakes development executives may make while taking a pitch:
• Not being honest. It is hard to say no, but I think most people would rather have an honest answer than think the pitch was great and then get rejected.
• Acting too self-important. Someday, you might be on the other side of the desk, pitching to this person.
• Being curt. Sometimes, the pitch you are looking at isn’t one you fall in love with, but perhaps this creator will be back with something better next time. Offer feedback and/or encouragement, rather than just some terse comments.
The truth behind network mandates
Ask a development executive to tell you what they are looking for and they’ll likely refer you to their network’s current development mandate. On paper, the mandate is a neat and tidy, creative call to arms, clearly asking for shows that skew toward boy or girl, older or younger, action or comedy, etc. Such statements are usually a result of committees in conference rooms and are based on marketing reports that chart fads and trends while trying to predict what might be popular two years from now. Development mandates are far from an exact science. Whatever is greenlit for production today may not appear on air for another two years. Athena Georgaklis explains, ‘Since our next shows won’t hit the air for at least another year and a half, we’re always thinking ahead: ‘What will be the next trend?’ We might be more girl skewed one year and then we could decide, ‘Okay, that really didn’t work.’ So, we’ll add some more boy stuff into the mix or skew older perhaps.’
Newer platforms, such as broadband internet channels, are changing the equation and drastically cutting down the time it might take from greenlight to broadcast. Will this result in shows more correctly gauged to match to a current audiences’ tastes? Time has yet to tell. Keeping up with trends is not necessarily any easier than predicting how trends will change years from now, nor will it guarantee a good show. Remember, if analyzing marketing reports led to hit shows, wouldn’t all shows be successful? Wouldn’t the networks be batting a thousand?
Creators would be wise to use the network creative mandates and development memos as a way of figuring out what the buyers are looking for. Maybe your idea fits within this box and maybe it doesn’t, or maybe it will next year. In short, don’t worry too much about it. Athena Georgaklis explains, ‘It’s not black and white. At the end of the day, we’re all still trying to figure it out. It would help both the executives and the creators to know, ‘This is the exact direction we’re taking right now, excluding everything else.’ But the problem is everyone is afraid that they’ll miss the next big idea.’ Linda Simensky adds, ‘I always get the sense that creators and producers feel that we are holding information back – that we know the answers or we know exactly what we are looking for and we’re just not sharing it.’ Development executive Peter Gal, speaking on a development panel at the Platform International Animation Festival, confessed that he tried to seriously follow the network’s annual development mandate, but found that interesting pitches always came from outside those parameters, pushing the network in unexpected directions.
Another use of development mandates might be to provide a ready and convenient excuse to reject unsuitable pitches, sometimes coming from untested or unknown talent. However, the development mandate is helpful to newcomer creators in that it allows them (at least superficially) a peek inside the network’s thought process and business plan – for whatever that’s worth.
The effects of fads and trends
Pitch even once and you are likely to encounter the very real consequence of current fads and trends or the predicted fads and trends of the near future. While all shows are products of their day and age, hit shows that are able to stand the test of time will not be based on hot new trends, fads or technology. While they may include some of those elements, they will not be the element. However small a role they should play, there’s no denying that fads and trends weigh into the development process. Fads and trends might be derived from a new pop band, fashion, technology such as iPods, or even from other animated shows that rival networks may try to match in tone, style or subject.
Brown Johnson states that today’s audience, no matter how old, has a huge appetite for new. Her answer at Nickelodeon is to try to channel what is new into something that is unique, playful and authentic while showing respect for the audience. Similarly, Linda Simensky says, ‘As far as trends go, PBS Kids has always been more interested in creating trends than following them.’
Compelling characters are the essential ingredient in any project. A creator would be wise to keep the emphasis on character rather than pander to the shifting wind of fads and trends. Heather Kenyon says, ‘Yes, we would keep tabs on how kids are feeling and thinking to make sure that our programming responded to their needs, but we didn’t pay too much attention to what [was] selling at the mall. By the time a new show hits the air, Crocs will be a distant memory. Remember? They are those shoes… plastic… bright colors… they slip on…’
Other development models
There are other development models out there that may vary from network to network or change from year to year. For a brief period in the 1990s, Nickelodeon had a creative lab department whose only function was to develop and produce unique short-form animation and live action that could be aired as interstitials (shorts airing among or between regular length series) while at the same time providing a means to discover and develop new talent. If you hear of something similar currently going on, run – don’t walk. These windows of opportunity don’t stay open very long.
Nick Jr. is known throughout the industry for its own unique approach to development, mostly doing paper development based on specific assignments. ‘One year it might be a math show, or music another year. We reach out to familiar creators or production companies or two new creators whose work has inspired us,’ says Brown Johnson.
In fact, Nick Jr. has two versions of creative assignments: short-form and long-form. The most recent short-form assignments were for projects featuring a strong father-figure theme. A two-page sheet outlined the creative parameters, submission format and deadline. This is a fairly open call that includes a pretty broad base of creators, many of which might be first-timers. Nick Jr. doesn’t pay for the initial pitch proposals, but if chosen, the creator will get to make a short or interstitial. Hence the term short-form development. These interstitials air in between series programs and may serve as an unconventional series pilot. Brown Johnson points out, ‘Both Wonder Pets! and Ni Hao, Kai-lan were shorts before going to series.’
Nick Jr.’s long-form development begins each year with a specific mandate as well, as Brown Johnson explained above. The difference here is that Nick Jr. often acts as matchmaker, pairing experienced writers with seasoned animation directors for instance. Each pair works on its pitch under paid contract. Once all teams submit their proposals, Nick Jr. chooses which may go to pilot, often choosing more than one project to move forward. Down the road, the completed pilots vie against one another for a series pick-up.
In a perfect world
After all is said and done, can we conclude that the process by which networks take pitches and develop shows is fatally flawed? The answer largely depends who you ask, although it may surprise you that none of the executives interviewed for this book had any trouble naming the frustrating flaws in development for both executives and creators alike. Remember, much like an animator is hired to animate to set of specific instructions, so is a development executive hired to work within a network’s guidelines and to find and help develop shows that suit its creative mandate and business model. Development executives are not hired to be activists and turn a whole system on its ear.
Animation artists and writers certainly have their opinions on what is wrong in the world of development, and have had no trouble expressing themselves on message boards and personal blogs. It might surprise some animation artists to learn that development executives are aware of the frustrations and complaints. All the development executives I’ve interviewed wished they could give answers on pitches sooner as well as speed up the deal negotiation on projects they choose to develop.
I understand all the criticisms and agree with many of them, but I choose to not focus on any of it. As creators, we should expect that there will always be problems or flaws in the development system much as there will always be good and bad development executives. Our concerns are only to create with sincerity and sell our projects as smartly as possible, while filtering out all the factors out of our control.
David B. Levy is the author of Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive (Allworth Press, 2006), which was the first career guide for animation artists working in North America. His latest title Animation Development: From Pitch to Production is being published this month in the US by Allworth. Levy has been an animation director for six series to date, including Blue’s Clues, Pinky Dinky Doo and The Electric Company. He teaches animation at Parsons School of Design, The School of Visual Arts, and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and regularly lectures at Pratt Institute and the Rhode Island School of Design. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.