When I was in my twenties and worked at Sesame Street I used to get a winter break between the writing seasons that lasted about three months. I would use part of this time to write my own stuff and for the rest of it I would travel.
Every summer, I’d go to the St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village and sit in the travel section and read all the Lonely Planet books. I would pick my destination in the fall and then, in December, I’d get my backpack out of the closet and go. Australia. Micronesia. The Galapagos Islands. Malaysia. Bali. The further away the better.
Sometimes I’d go alone and sometimes I’d go with friends but I’d always keep my plans loose and I would always stay at youth hostels. Why? The people were friendlier and more interesting in the hostels than in the hotels. There were scruffy German hippies hauling their babies around the world, Israeli musicians blowing off steam before joining the army and Dutch art school instructors heading off to Australia to pick fruit so they could afford to fly home.
There was always an unspoken agreement among the backpackers that the destinations weren’t as important as the traveling itself and that half the fun of any trip was hanging out with people you met along the way.
Lately I’ve begun to feel the same way about my fellow indie producers as I felt about the backpackers. Though indies don’t fly business class and our amenities are few, there’s a real spirit of cooperation and friendship between us that’s been buoying me up these days. More than ever I find that I’m in almost daily contact with other preschool creators and producers from England, Brazil, Australia, Korea, Norway, Canada, France, Ireland, Singapore, Scotland and others.
We talk to each other. We advise each other. We’re Facebook friends. We find opportunities to collaborate and share information about new platforms, funding, technology, great designers and emerging markets. We may all be operating on small budgets but there’s a feeling that we’re at the very front of this large ship called children’s media and that we’ll likely be the very first ones to spot land.
Conversely, I have found that many of the larger indies (and some of the broadcasters) have taken on a fortress mentality lately. You can feel it as soon as you sign in with the security guards in the lobbies of their buildings. And then, when you go upstairs, everyone seems to be watching everyone but nobody seems to be talking to anyone. And once you’re alone with whomever you’re meeting with, they will invariably confess to you just how dysfunctional their organization has become and how difficult it is for anyone to make even the simplest creative decision.
The reality these days is that the larger companies have become too top heavy to make the kind of swift and brave creative decisions that would help them succeed in this rapidly changing and very competitive marketplace. And, to make matters worse, many are getting crushed by the weight of their overheads and having to lay off some great people.
This is why I feel very hopeful for small independent production companies. We are still the ones who can operate (and sometimes even dance) on a shoestring. We are still the ones willing to take the creative risks.
Now, there’s no doubt that being really big is very helpful when you’re trying to get a show out across the planet to as many families as possible. And I believe the big networks fully deserve to reap the benefits of the extraordinary platforms that they have built over the past few decades. But when it comes to creating or producing a preschool show, the broadcasters will always need the slightly renegade, backpacker attitude that indies provide.
For many things, smaller is simply better. So if you’re an individual or a small indie out there looking for a ray of hope in this earthquake zone called the children’s media industry, then here it is: By being small, you can be more nimble, more resourceful and better equipped to create new IP than the big boys and big girls sipping espresso up in business class. You have the advantage of being small.