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10 Survival Tips for 2014

Since I've been living off my preschool shows for 25 years now without the help of co-production treaties, subsidies or prescription drugs, I do know a few things about survival so, this week, as my New Year's gift to the kids' indie community--or what's left of it--I have listed my 10 Survival Tips for 2014 in the hopes that these will help you keep your lights on and your chin up until 2015.
January 7, 2014

I’m a big fan of the Nat Geo series Doomsday Preppers.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s about overweight, middle-aged Americans who believe that the world as we know it will soon come to a cataclysmic end.  (And if you work in the kids’ media industry, you may be inclined to agree with them.)  “Preppers,” as they are called by their well-armed kin folk, turn their homes into bunkers because they are convinced that a solar flare, a nuclear accident, or the swine flu will very soon turn brother against brother.  So, to give themselves an edge over their brother, they fill their basements with guns, ammunition and SpaghettiO’s.

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I enjoy watching this show because it makes me feel, by comparison, quite sane and physically fit.  However, I am far too busy prepping for Kidscreen to give two sh*ts about prepping for Armageddon.  If the end does arrive, I just hope it happens after our Kidscreen party or we’ll have cleaned the studio and made a vat of rum punch for nothing.

Since I’ve been living off my preschool shows for 25 years now without the help of co-production treaties, subsidies or prescription drugs, I do know a few things about survival so, this week, as my New Year’s gift to the kids’ indie community–or what’s left of it–I have listed my 10 Survival Tips for 2014 in the hopes that these will help you keep your lights on and your chin up until 2015.

1)  It’s The Work, Stupid.  There are a lot of folks who believe the kids’ industry is just a weird, incestuous popularity contest that revolves around attending private events held by a few elites at the markets.  And it is.  However, what you should know is that, with a few notable exceptions, these elites do not necessarily buy shows just from the people they go drinking with.  The ones that do typically end up with mediocre shows and they pay for it with their ratings.  Like any commissioner, kids’ TV buyers need to pick quality shows or their channels will suffer.  So, rather than worrying about whose list you are on this year, worry about making the best shows you can.  It may take a while, but the cream does still rise to the top.

2)  Never Negotiate On Your Own Behalf.  A lot of creative people I know seem to take great pride in negotiating their own deals even though they attended art school and the closest they ever got to practicing law was getting a divorce.  If you have a bona fide offer, hire a bona fide  entertainment lawyer who specializes in the kids’ industry to negotiate your deal.  Otherwise, you’re just a big dope.

3)  Show Up.  As Woody Allen famously said, “80% of success is just showing up.”  It’s true.  Go to Kidscreen.  Go to Prix Jeunesse.  Go to MIPCOM.  You may think it costs a lot of money to attend these events but, trust me, it’s a lot cheaper than having nobody know that your company exists.

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4)  Don’t Be A Big Pain In The Ass.  Though it took me about a decade to learn this one, there’s great value in not being difficult to make a deal with or, for that matter, to work with.  Also, I can say from personal experience that it’s not particularly helpful to storm off like a big baby when someone doesn’t love your property as much as you do.  Try your best to play well with others.

5)  Do Your Own Thing.  I’m still amazed by how many people think they will strike it rich by trying to replicate an idea that worked well for someone else in the past.  Trust me, it’s a giant waste of time, it’s very boring and P.S. every hit from the past 20 years has broken every “rule.”  Your odds are much better with IP that is totally original.

6)  Have A Short Memory.  There is so much heartbreak in our industry:  Shows that never get made, toys that don’t sell, financing that never comes through.  If you haven’t been kicked in the teeth yet, it just means that you haven’t been in the business long enough.  It’s very easy to get pissed off at somebody (or everybody) for real or perceived injustices.  Don’t.  Just shake it off and get back in the game.  Life is far too short to hold onto the disappointments and mourning a loss takes just as much energy as cultivating a brand new property.

7)  Don’t Bet The Farm On A Show.  Why did the indie cross the road in 2014?  To take money out of the bank so they could deficit finance their own kids’ show.  Why did the indie cross the road in 2015?  They didn’t because they went out of business.  Most preschool shows lose money and almost all of the indies that tanked in the past ten years did so because they over-invested in their own properties.  Don’t be a fool.  If you’re going to bet, bet with someone else’s money and make sure that someone is not your mother.

8)  Work Begets Work.  In 2008, we decided that Little Airplane was missing out on new preschool television opportunities in Asia.  So, we started taking on a variety of very small jobs in the region, jobs that we would have passed on had they come from a North American or European client.  Last year, 50% of Little Airplane’s revenue came from Asia and we believe this year it will be as high as 65%.  My point is that, when building new business, don’t just look at the profits from any individual job.  Rather, look at how the opportunity might build new relationships.

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9)  Watch Your Overhead.  If you are running an indie anywhere in the world, it’s a good idea to be cheap.  You don’t need to order everyone sushi for lunch and you don’t need to buy a Jeff Koons to put above your edit station.  If and when you have a nest egg, save it for a rainy day because, when you’re an indie, it rains like hell.

10)  Learn From Your Mistakes.  I f*ck up a lot.  With my clients, with my staff, with Kidscreen Magazine.  But I do think about my mistakes and, whenever I can, I try to apologize and do better the next time around.  Running an indie is very hard, creatively and financially.  Be kind to yourself when you screw up but always try to learn from your mistakes.  As the Persians say, “Only God is perfect.”

So, there you have it, my 10 Survival Tips for 2014.  Ignore them at your own risk.  Assuming the world doesn’t end before February, I will see many of you at Kidscreen.  Until then, I wish you a happy and prosperous New Year!

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