Joe Strike chats with a few top execs to collect the stories of their "worst pitch ever."
Did you hear the one about the animation producer who showed up at a pitch meeting drunk and proceeded to fall asleep in the middle of his spiel? Or the extremely nervous producer who asked the development exec to pitch the show for him? Or the fellow who threatened to sic Sumner Redstone on the Nickelodeon bigwig who turned him down?
The animation industrys development people have heard them all. In fact, all of the above and then some actually happened to them, and with a little prompting theyll be glad to share the war stories of their pitched battles with you.
Its great to have a passionate vision for your show, but in more than one instance at least for Linda Simensky, PBS Kids senior director of programming that passion crossed the line into outrage. Each of my jobs has had one of these, she recounts. They get frustrated Im not seeing the brilliance of their project and they start to yell.
Rarely do you tell them their projects no good. Instead you say its not working for me, and lay out the reasons. Most people are okay with that, but every now and then someone will go just nuts youre crazy, youre absolutely wrong. There was one time I told a producer his project wasnt quite right for us. He started trashing all our programs, explaining how hed save us but all our other stuff was just complete crap sure, that completely makes me want to work with you.
The first one I remember was when I was at Nick. When I passed on his show he turned around on his way out and told me Ill be calling Sumner Redstones daughter so you will be doing this project. I said okay great, bye.
One pitch I got was from an incredibly passionate person. I hadnt even passed on it yet, but by the end I was being yelled at this project couldve saved the world! I started getting nervous at that point. The takeaway is you dont want to work with that person, even if the next thing they walk in with is brilliant.
Disney TV Animation vp Mike Moon looks back at a few pitches that ended with a beat of silence and then an apology from the artist. What did he apologize for? What he just put me through. A pitch that ends with an apology is probably not too good. I had one recently from a fellow who was so nervous he just handed me the proposal can you just read this? I was expected to pitch the show to myself, which was kind of unusual.
Prior to Disney I worked on Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends at Cartoon Network. After the show had been on the air, someone came & pitched me A Home for Abandoned & Forgotten Imaginary Friends, which is pretty amazing. When I mentioned the comparisons, it was oh yeah they were very aware there were some similarities there. That was a little awkward.
One time I had a couple of superhero shows pitched. When I asked what their superpowers are I was told it didnt really matter, which I thought was interesting for a superhero. Weve had other pitches that include what do you want us to make this? or end with hilarity ensues, neither of which are good signs. Its really important that people know their show. Everyones time is so valuable these days, when you walk into one of these meetings, knowing what youre pitching is crucial.
While Nickelodeons development vp Eric Coleman recalls pitches for singing toothbrushes, a family of math symbols and a sloth that never, ever moves Ive blocked out the rest, hed rather offer advice to producers currently putting their projects together:
Make an impression, break through the clutter. Come in with a show concept with a unique voice, a compelling visual style, a truly original premise, break-out characters, etc.;
It's important to convey your idea as a series, not just a one-off pilot idea. How can the characters and themes sustain for 60 episodes? If the show is supposed to be funny, you need to demonstrate that, not just promise it. And since this is animation, great artwork always helps.
Don't pitch 10 shows, don't pitch shows that are inappropriate for that network, don't talk about the Consumer Products potential instead of the characters, don't pitch knock-offs of other shows on the network, and don't pitch shows about singing toothbrushes.
The person who came to visit Ramsey Naito, Cartoon Networks vp of long-form programming may win the Worst Pitch Ever prize. Its an encounter that took place before she joined CN and one shed rather not describe in detail. Lets just say its not a good idea to come in drunk, half asleep and smelly, and then fall asleep during the pitch before youve hardly said a word. Thats not a good idea.
Like Coleman at Nickelodeon, Naito prefers to look at character-driven projects, not just a one-liner description with no one for our audience to identify with its 28 Days Later with ducks. We want to know who these characters are, where they come from. At Cartoon Network, we are character driven. Our characters pop, our audience wants to come back and see them. Referencing other films or TV shows isnt a 100% no-no, however: if you have a tonal vision for the project that informs the execution, you could say it feels like Edward Scissorhands, or its going to have this kind of production value'.
She also cautions show creators not to act out their pitches its not an improv show. Walt Disney may have been able to perform Snow White in its entirety before a single frame was animated, but there arent that many Walts around these days and besides, he owned the company.
Naito warns that coming in with poster board-sized character and concept sketches can be a double-edged sword. They can be good, but they can prohibit you from talking freely about a project. Make sure what youre leaving behind can be perceived in a free way that it can be open to interpretation and wont lock you into a rigid view of the project.
Finally, Naito encourages producers to get to know the person theyre pitching to, so when you do drop off material, its not a formal interaction and you already have an idea what they want. Most of all, he adds make sure youre really positive, you really feel good and confident about it. Dont leave something behind thats half baked.
Simensky agrees that its a good idea to be familiar with the network youre targeting. When I was at Cartoon Network I would have people come in and say I love Blues Clues. Well, thats nice, but thats on Nick Jr. Oh, sorry. Things like that never go over well. The bottom line is you have to act like youre auditioning for a job with the person you're meeting. If it goes well youve essentially just gotten a three year job and some money.
Simensky also has advice for the person sitting behind the desk: the development exec on the lookout for the next Fosters or SpongeBob. You have to go into every pitch optimistic maybe this is the one. Its your job to make the person pitching comfortable, just like its their job to make you feel comfortable.
In a way its like speed dating. If you really like them, youre likely to give them feedback thats helpful, especially if you see some talent there thats going to work for you. Maybe the next time theyll come up with something awesome.
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.