Last night, I spoke at a graduate-level production class at The New School. I don’t usually do such things as I would rather spend my evenings throwing dirty tennis balls for my dog Buffy, but the teacher is an old friend so I agreed to spend an hour talking about the agony and the ecstasy of running an indie in New York (the city that never sleeps and never subsidizes animation.) There was a time when I was able to offer words of encouragement to the next generation of wide-eyed, hopeful indies but, these days, the best advice I can give to any American interested in the kids animation business would be to marry a Canadian, preferably one who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the people are nice and the labor tax credits are nicer.
At the end of the class, one rather forward young student asked me a question that gave me pause. He said, “What keeps you up at night?” “You mean in a good way or a bad way?” I asked. The other students laughed, as if this were a joke. “Both,” said the cheeky-little-producer-to-be. Below is an amalgam of what I actually said and what I wished I had said. (I’ve always been better at writing than speaking so I’m happy to get to rewrite my answer.)
“Let’s start with the bad way. The bulk of my time is spent trying to get other people–some of whom I barely know and whose languages I do not speak–to give me large amounts of money so that I can make the cute characters in my show bibles move. This is not easy. It requires an endless amount of pitching, persuading, and politicking, none of which I am particularly good at. And, if I am completely honest, I have absolutely no idea if the new show I am pitching will ever sell a single toy which, somewhere along the line, became part of my responsibility even though I don’t like toys and don’t play with them.”
“So, what keeps me up at night in a bad way is the stress of needing other people’s money to help me produce my shows. Since my shows are basically (and sadly) my kids, I am faced with the following unpleasant conundrum: If I raise the cash and get my new show made, then my children live. They talk, dance, laugh, sing and become besties with millions of preschoolers. But–and here’s the rub–if I fail to get my new show financed, then my children spend the rest of their lives entombed inside the fading pages of a show bible. They plead with me to animate them and beg me to hire actors so they can sing. When I try to explain to them that such things cost lots o’ money, they just start crying and they say hurtful things like, ‘Then why did you create us if you can’t make us move! You are a bad, bad creator! Why can’t we live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, so you could afford to animate us! Why can’t you be a smart businessman like Steven DeNure! We took a vote and you suck!’ And it goes on like this sometimes for years. That is what keeps me up at night. In a bad way.”
“And what keeps you up in a good way?” the student asks, cautiously. “Well, that’s easy,” I say. “I like to make things. Puppet shows and animated shows and books and songs. I like to write self-serving blogs about my dog. I like to make potatoes dance and guinea pigs sing. I like to get e-mails with deal memos attached. I like waiting for a new press release to hit. I like pitching to Slovenia. I like hearing that one of our Little Airplane Academy graduates sold their first show. I like my little studio and my dedicated team who help me here. I like going to China and eating dumplings from the source. I like seeing what everyone else is making. I like reading Kidscreen. I like hearing my shows dubbed into Finnish. I like back-end checks, real and imagined. I like writing pilots. I like directing kids in the audio booth. I like Prix Jeunesse. I like being a part of an industry that, despite its many shortcomings, still makes a big contribution to the lives of the youngest and most vulnerable people on the planet. I like my job.”