Last week during our panel discussion at the Little Airplane Academy, Fred Seibert, who runs Frederator, said something that I can’t get off my mind: “I don’t like getting or giving notes because when you start messing around with a creator’s work, it’s very hard to tell how even the smallest change will impact the DNA of their creation.” Although I think Fred is right, he made me realize that, when it comes to notes, I was beaten into submission early in my career and I’m now like those frat boys in Animal House who get spanked with a big paddle and then say, politely, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”
Since there were broadcasters on the same panel (and I’ve also been trained to suck up to all broadcasters), I jumped in (I was moderating) and pressed Fred on whether there might be “good notes” that actually improve a project in one way or another. Fred just looked at me, obviously disappointed, and said, “no,” as if I were suggesting that genetically engineered hamburgers might taste just as good as the hamburgers culled from good old fashioned cows.
Life has a way of connecting otherwise unconnected events and, so, today I found myself in a meeting with a client who had a note on one of our new character designs. Just yesterday, she and a roomful of other execs from two continents had approved this design but, today, she was having second thoughts. She said, and I quote, “It needs…something.” That was her entire note. Perhaps it’s because Fred’s deep sonorous voice was still ringing in my ears, but I lost it. I know I shouldn’t have, but I did.
Fortunately for me, the broadcaster, who was also in the room, shared my affection for the existing character design and the errant note was dismissed. But this meeting got me thinking about Fred and notes and when it’s best to accommodate a note that seriously impacts your creation. Is it when someone else is paying your bills? That can’t be right, because there’s a reason they chose to hire you and not some other schmuck with a roomful of computers. Is it when someone else has more years of experience? As we all know, with the industry changing as fast as it is, years of experience can be as much a liability as an asset. Is it when you actually agree with the note? Yes, it is.
So, here is my response to you, Fred, a full week after you furrowed your famous eyebrows in my direction. Notes can be a good thing for a show creator when the show creator agrees that the notes will make a better show. I must tell you that I have had such notes in my career from a handful of gifted network executives. Granted, most of them are now unemployed, a not unsurprising reward for being gifted in our industry, but others are still toiling away at the various channels and some even make shows I like to watch.
But, Fred, I must say I’m grateful that there are people like you and J.J. Johnson and Joanna Werner and Mellie Buse and Brown Johnson and Cate McQuillen (who, famously, turned down a big DVD deal because she wouldn’t allow them to use plastic packaging) and a handful of others who put their own principles above everything else. For me, I’m not quite so strong, and I’ve learned to make endless creative concessions over the years in order to survive. But I do hope, one day, to be more like you, my friends, my heroes.