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Big Ideas: Behind the Scenes of Studio Development

In their quest for the next big idea, feature film studios are open to simple, elegant pitches with a strong core concept. Karen Raugust reports.

Surf's Up began with a simple idea -- what if penguins invented surfing? © Sony Pictures Ent.

Surf's Up began with a simple idea -- what if penguins invented surfing? © Sony Pictures Ent.

While the writers strike has put a temporary damper on animated feature development, studios are positioned to resume their quest for narrative gold as soon as the issues are resolved and Hollywood gets back to work.

To generate ideas that are ripe for development, each studio has its own process. Some rely mostly on established relationships, while others are more willing to hear outside pitches from newcomers (through their agents or attorneys). Since a studio typically releases just one or two animated films per year, the competition to fill those slots is intense. Still, the studios are always on the lookout for great concepts, no matter where they originate.

"We look for ideas anywhere and everywhere," says Nate Hopper, SVP, Sony Pictures Animation. He says that some come from preexisting materials and some from traditional pitches, some are internally generated and others come from outside. "We will go after an idea even if it's a kernel of an idea."

Surf's Up is an example of an internally developed project. Sony executives were throwing around an idea: "What if penguins invented surfing?" Producer Chris Jenkins came up with the concept of the mockumentary format and took the lead on the project, putting together a small development team and signing the director early. Things took off from there. In contrast, Open Season was brought to Sony by Steve Moore and John Carls. It evolved over time but always stayed true to the basic story relayed in the initial pitch.

Chris Meledandri developed many of Blue Sky's projects, including Horton Hears a Who, based on the famed Dr. Seuss book. © 20th Century Fox.

Chris Meledandri developed many of Blue Sky's projects, including Horton Hears a Who, based on the famed Dr. Seuss book. © 20th Century Fox.

Another Sony film, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which is in production for a 2009 release, came from a children's book. Hopper points out that the original book has a big idea, a developed world and great visuals, but it has no real characters. The task, then, was to create the main personalities and a reason people should care about them. "It took a long time to figure out who the characters are and how this world becomes a movie," Hopper explains.

At Twentieth Century Fox Animation, "we want to make sure we don't leave any stone unturned," reports President Vanessa Morrison. Concepts can be generated in-house by the talent at Fox's New York-based animation house, Blue Sky Studios, or by the company's development executives in California, as well as from external submissions such as pitches or screenplays.

Ideas also may be based on preexisting properties such as graphic novels, books (e.g. Horton Hears a Who, set for a 2008 release) or classic properties (this year's Alvin and the Chipmunks, which was developed jointly with Fox 2000). "You have these great stories and characters that people know and remember, combined with the artistry of Blue Sky putting its unique spin on it," Morrison says.

Sequels can be another lucrative area of development. "It's using development to come up with ideas that continue to build on the imaginative stories created earlier," she says, noting that Fox is currently working on Ice Age 3. "We don't make sequels just to make sequels, ever. But people want to see another Ice Age, if you can take it to another level."

An Evolving Process

The processes a studio uses to generate ideas and develop films tends to change over time. This evolution is attributable to various factors; some newer companies simply require new processes as they grow and mature, while others are part of mergers or strategic alliances that result in significant changes to their business models.

Igor started out as a treatment. © 2004 Exodus Film Fund I Llc. All rights reserved.

Igor started out as a treatment. © 2004 Exodus Film Fund I Llc. All rights reserved.

"At first, our process was about finding properties wherever we could," says John Eraklis, founder and CEO of Exodus Film Group. "As a smaller, newer studio, we weren't the first stopping place for big ideas." Over time, however, the studio has begun to focus more on internal development. Of the dozen or so projects it has in development now, Eraklis estimates that 90% were generated in-house.

The first project Exodus developed internally was Navy Seals, a "tongue-in-cheek, modern-day Stripes," featuring seals, that came about after Eraklis had been reading about marine mammals in the military. Exodus brought it to The Weinstein Co. (TWC), which got excited about it too, so the process began and Navy Seals became the first feature under a long-term deal between Exodus and TWC to jointly develop, produce and finance a slate of CG-animated projects, including features.

Igor, which is set for distribution by TWC in 2008, was in development prior to the deal. It was presented to Exodus as a treatment, and the studio liked it enough to take the risk of developing a script.

Reliance on Alliances

Some of the major studios form alliances with producers or smaller animation houses, which become their primary source for animated features. NBC/Universal signed a deal with Chris Meledandri, the former president of Twentieth Century Fox Animation, who produced, executive produced or shepherded Ice Age, Robots, Ice Age: The Meltdown, Horton Hears a Who and The Simpsons Movie at that studio.

Starting in April 2007, Meledandri and Universal began a five-year production agreement that Universal says is the first step in creating a separately financed production company to distribute family films. Universal expects Meledandri to be its primary source of animated and family features. Currently, the studio is in production on The Tale of Despereaux, which is based on a children's book by Kate DiCamillo. Mike Johnson is the director, Gary Ross and Allison Thomas's Larger Than Life Productions is producing and Framestore CFC is completing the animation.

Even when alliances are not formalized, relationships are important in the development process. TWC relies on several companies in addition to Exodus for ideas. "Our relationships with producers, talent and animation studios has allowed us access to some very unique and exciting material," says Eric Robinson, SVP of production for TWC. The studio has films in the works based both on original ideas (Escape from Planet Earth, Igor and Navy Seals) -- often purchased as pitches from the filmmakers -- and on preexisting materials (The Cricket in Times Square).

Nate Hopper, SVP, Sony Pictures Animation, recommends concise ideas when pitching to studio execs.

Nate Hopper, SVP, Sony Pictures Animation, recommends concise ideas when pitching to studio execs.

Seeking Good Stories

Studios are looking for different things when they hear pitches: a great concept, a good story, a sensibility that fits with their brand, themes that appeal to a wide audience.

"We're all about the story and script at TWC," says Robinson, who looks for "a unique and untapped story" during pitches. "If the story works, we'll make the film work. If I hear a pitch and it suffers from inherent story issues, we will stay away. But if there's a great concept and the story plays out well, we'll get behind it and develop the best script we can before ever going to storyboards."

"We're looking for a big, clear idea that's simple and easily 'getable,'" says Sony's Hopper. "Once we have that, we can put our sensibility on it." He adds that a big consideration is finding something that will stand out from the crowd. "We want things that are original, fresh, distinct."

At Exodus, the company doesn't have a "sensibility" per se. "It's been really important for Exodus to treat animation as a medium instead of a genre," Eraklis says. "We look for different genres within that medium. We also look for a message. If you're going to influence a wide audience, you might as well have something important to say.

"I know it sounds a bit ethereal, but you know it when you hear it," he continues. "It all comes down to a good story. Images can always be developed, but the core idea has to be right."

Morrison of Fox points out that development executives don't look for just one element, but are hoping for a combination of characteristics. "There has to be a strong core idea that promises some degree of entertainment value, a big idea that can become an event for an audience," she says. "It has to be an idea that's powerful enough to attract both adults and kids. We want it to have four-quadrant appeal [appealing to young and old, male and female]. And it has to have something special, original or different, [not only in] in the core DNA of the idea, but also in the execution of it. Does the idea lend itself to an execution that's going to feel special or original?"

Standing Out

Studio development teams often hear several pitches a week, but produce just one or two films a year. So it's important to be able to stand out from the competition and make an impression during the pitch. The specific materials and format used for the pitch -- leave-behinds, scripts, visuals, etc. -- are not as important as the ability to convey the basic concept.

Hopper recommends getting the idea across concisely. "Don't bury the lead," he says. "Find a way to communicate the idea right away and as efficiently as possible." He notes that a pitch takes place in just 10 to 15 minutes; those pitching can undo all the good they've done early in the session by overstaying their welcome.

Like other executives, Eraklis stresses that the most essential aspect is the core idea, which, if it's a good one, can easily be summed up in a paragraph. He adds that many artists come in with boards and pretty pictures, but the story's not there. Noting that Igor is starting to look beautiful visually as it moves through the production process, Eraklis points out that it initially took the form of a short treatment. "It was three pieces of paper," he says. Morrison believes the best, most elegant pitches are the simplest, focusing on just two elements. "We really want to know, what is the big idea at the heart of it, and who are the characters that we'll be experiencing the story through," she says. "And be passionate about your idea."

Exodus prefers to work with the creator of the intellectual property, rather than with producers who have acquired ideas from an IP owner. "We like to do deals with writers directly," he explains. "We're often pitched by producers, but they want to produce with our money. We want to work with the creators of the IP."

Despite the extreme competition involved in pitching a property and the low chance for success given the miniscule number of movies produced compared to the number of pitches heard, Hopper encourages people to pitch. "You never know where the next great idea will come from," he says. "You can't close any doors. We're always open to hearing new ideas. We will take chances, but it's really important that we all really believe in it."

Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).