Search form

Development Execs: Who They Are and How They Got There

Joe Strike looks into the anatomy of a development exec who are they and how did they get there?

Cartoon Network’s Michael Ouweleen began with a Birdman. © Cartoon Network.

In development is an entertainment industry term that, if a writer or producer is lucky comes right before in production (and hopefully not in turnaround). Its the job of the development executive to shepherd a project from its first greenlight to its slot on air. As the middleman (or woman) between the creator and the network s/he is in the tricky position of balancing the needs and wants of parties who may have different, if not opposing ideas of what a show should be.

Its not a job for the faint of heart. In fact, its one requiring people skills that would put a U.N. diplomat to shame. Where does this rare breed of executive come from? When it comes to TV animation, how do they learn the skills necessary to deliver the goods i.e., a hit show?

The answer to the first question is, youd be surprised. Cartoon Networks Michael Ouweleen started out in the advertising game. A series of commercials with British animation great Paul Vester led him to collaborate with Vester on a proposed series. My first experience with development was on the receiving end, Ouweleen recalls. We produced a pilot for Linda Simensky at Nickelodeon. It wasnt picked up, nor should it have been. It wasnt Lindas or Eric Colemans [Nickelodeons head of development] or anybodys fault. It was a cautionary tale about development.

Ouweleen joined Cartoon Networks on-air promotion department in 1996, back when Mike Lazzo and Simensky were handling development. While I was running on-air I dreamed up a couple of show ideas for the network. Then Adult Swim came along and I got to do a show myself, which Im still doing, writing and producing Harvey Birdman I learned a little more about development that way too. About a year ago Ouweleen already the networks creative director was put in charge of its development efforts as well and now oversees staffs in both Atlanta and at the Cartoon Network studio in Burbank.

We don't want people who want to be in development for other networks. They should want to just develop animation, and, more specifically, just Cartoon Network animation; it doesnt serve us well if they want to be in NBC development. On flip side, we cant just hire fanboys either somebody who knows everything about animation and thinks that makes them a good development person. They have to understand when a character or a story is sitting in front of them and when its not.

Nick Weidenfeld, Adult Swims manager of program development, never expected to find himself shepherding cartoon series to air. I was doing an article for Esquire about Adult Swim, it was going to be the first in-depth story about the Channel. The story never got published, but Mike [Lazzo] took me out to lunch and offered me a job.

In Weidenfelds case, his reputation as the editor of the alternative magazine While You Were Sleeping had preceded him to Atlanta. Mike had never heard of it its a young, niche sort of satirical magazine. All the Adult Swim staff, especially the art director and the head of programming, one of the Space Ghost writers had seen it, which really shocked me. Mike said I don't leave my house much, but if all my people like your magazine, there must be something there. That was definitely an edge I didn't think anyone read my magazine.

Peter Gal, Nickelodeons director of development, and David Wiebe, director of programming at Kids WB! share honors for the strangest animation development career path. I was actually a criminal defense lawyer, recalls Gal. I worked as an L.A. County public defender. I loved it but I wanted to do something creative. Back in college I wrote and performed in sketch comedy troupe I founded. I loved being part of the creative community and decided I wanted to do something in entertainment, so I took job as assistant to Richard Ross at the Disney Channel.

Wiebe also served in the public sector the military-industrial complex, to be exact. I came from working for a Department of Defense contractor in Washington. My job was turning government manuals into accessible web pages. Ive always been an entertainment junkie I went to every movie on opening weekend and watched way too much TV for my parents liking, including animation. At the time my wife and I had no kids, no mortgage. If we ever were going to make a really crazy decision like moving across the country and starting a career I had no experience in, now was the time to do it.

Kids WB!’s David Wiebe started out as an assistant.

Wiebe arrived in Hollywood in 1998, and after a year and a half of short-term jobs trying to find out what I really wanted to do, landed an assistants position at Nickelodeon. When I first got hired I was told we need you to be an assistant for at least 1_ years, I wanted to get the job so I said yes Ill do that. They said no you wont, in six months youll want a promotion in about three months I wanted a promotion.

Gal credits Ross with being a phenomenal mentor who showed him the ropes at Disney and promoted him into his first development position. I just found myself more and more drawn to animation development, he said, explaining his career path. It was at a time when Disney TV Animation was starting to produce more a lot more content for Disney Channel. Because I knew the channel so well, they bought me in as their manager of creative affairs to develop projects and oversee production of pilots. I was there until this incredible opportunity came along at Nickelodeon.

Peter had a strong eye for the kind of material we're interested in, and he was eloquent in his opinions on what makes something good, said Coleman, Nickelodeons vp of animation development and production, in explaining his reasons for stealing Gal from Disney and making him his director of development. Its an important quality in a development executive to be able to put your finger on elements that will give a project strong potential. He also had a good reputation in general from other people who worked with him. We had a couple of good meetings, and that was actually more important than any specific shows he'd worked on.

Learning how to be a development executive is another story. I wasnt even an animation fan, Adult Swims Weidenfeld confesses. Michael Ouweleen said youll figure it out when you get down here Itll be like editing a magazine, which is what Im good at and like to do.

Its very much a Ted Turner thing: heres a rope, go hang yourself, he continues. I had this job and no real guidance. I thought Id respond to pitches like when youre editor and people send you stories. What most of our creators respond to, and what I think I'm good at comes from having editing experience and working with writers. I was a writer and editor, thats what I care about. When it comes to the visual stuff, I care about timing comedy is all about timing.

Ouweleens recommends that the aspiring development exec watch animation, read scripts and write up his or her thoughts about the material, all practice for the craft of giving notes to the shows creators. When Khaki Jones [CNs vp of original series] reads my Harvey Birdman scripts she hardly gave any notes, but the ones she did were such a help.

The development person is like a really good editor that helps a writer, he added, echoing Weidenfeld. It doesn't mean the editor is cutting or changing things. The editor is asking questions did you intend for this or that? The way to get good and have a shot at getting into development is to look at things and comment on whats good and whats weak. The goal is to always improve things by your having read it.

Meredith Metz, Disney TV Animations svp of creative affairs, offers time-honored advice start at the bottom and work your way up. Any entry level position in the field you aspire to is the best way to get in the door. You learn via osmosis, by nuance, by being around. You see artwork people are excited about, you hear about writers or have access to internal scripts that you wouldnt have if you were on the outside, material you may not necessarily be responsible for, but youre reading it to have an opinion and engage in that division, I think its very helpful.

Even if youre a secretary, a runner, a p.a. or somebody in S&P [standards and practices] that foot in door in the area you want to work in is crucial. Ultimately and hopefully cream rises to the top as people see youre very passionate about the kids business and you have a gut instinct that works for the company. Metz is speaking from firsthand knowledge the two executive directors of creative affairs under her (one of whom started in S&P) rose through the ranks to their current positions.

Colemans advice to the aspiring exec is similar: hone your skills and get your foot in the door: Its not enough to be a fan or enthusiastic about animation you have to demonstrate what you can contribute, whether its story skills or a strong eye for design.

How do you do it? Work on a production in any capacity you can. I started as an assistant, almost everybody I know started as an assistant, either in development or on the current series side.

Nickelodeon’s Eric Coleman stresses “good relationships” with the creative community of animation artists, writers and agents as a key to success.

I read everything that crossed my bosses desks, recalls Wiebe. I didnt once speak up until a year into it when one of my bosses finally asked, David what do you think about this? In my former life Id been managing a group of 20 people. Now here I was making copies and running around while all my contemporaries at work were eight years younger than I was. I kept mouth shut and did my work and it was noticed, recognized.

Every single starting position in this business I know of, theres a reason why you need to do it for 1 1/2 or 2 years. It feels like youre just doing mundane work and mundane work is a part of it, but if you keep eyes open, read and watch everything you can, you will learn so much.

When talking about his decision to hire Gal from Disney, Coleman mentions Gals good relationships with the creative community of animation artists, writers and agents. The ability to cultivate an ongoing relationship based on mutual trust and respect is crucial. When I give notes or feedback, Coleman explains, the shows creators understand its because I really care about their show, and working these things out so it can be as strong as possible. It's not about telling them what they need to do. They also know our history together I fought for their show, I fought on their behalf to get it picked up by the network.

Coleman cites his relationship with Bryan Konietzko, one of Invader Zim s creators, Bryan told me he was working on own project. I took him out to lunch and described the types of things we're looking for and general ideas on how to develop for us. I sort of posed some of the things that might be challenges to him for example, how to develop a show thats full of action but not violence. He was then able to combine all those ingredients in an original and dynamic way together with wonderful art direction and come up with a fantastic pitch.

Konietzkos pitch for Avatar: The Last Airbender, was perfect for Nick because he listened to what we were looking for. He and [co-creator] Michael Dimartino came up with the idea of 'bending' fire and water to create action without too much violence. Coleman describes his collaboration with Konietzko and Dimartino as "a very dynamic process, one that continues even after the show premieres. Theyve been wonderful to work with. I keep posing them little challenges and they come back with better answers than I ever anticipated.

Its not two different teams working for different goals, says Kids WB!s Wiebe. Were all working together to see create the most successful show we can. We spend so much time in focus groups at the network and we definitely have an idea what our audience wants. Were trying to work with artists and creators to show them the kinds of things our audience is looking for and kind of directing [the creators] towards that.

Similarly, Disney TV Animations Metz sees the development executives role as a tour guide for talent, to help shape their show so it can work on Disney Channel. We have internal expertise; we know what our buyer is looking for. Were the one supplier to the channel, so we know what brand equities are important to them.

At Cartoon Network, Ouweleen describes the process as a sensibility understanding how to work with creators, let them be creators and not over-develop their projects. Youre there to help bring out best in peoples' work, not manhandle or nitpick it. You have to have the creators respect so your point of view is taken into consideration.

A mutually respectful and flexible relationship helps avoid, or at least defuse moments when fundamental disagreements arise over creative direction. More often than not our opinion is that its the creators show well give them the rope basically, says Ouweleen, echoing Nick Weidenfelds philosophy at Adult Swim. If we give them the benefit of the doubt and it turns out not to be the best thing for show, well bring it up again & have more serious talks about it later on.

Its on a case-by-case basis. Certain creators have more weight than others based on their track record and how long they've been doing it. So long as they listen we'll let them have the call, it's their show.

Weidenfeld describes the process more succinctly. If you disagree with me youve got to fight me, but Ill let you do it. Like the others, he sees a personal relationship with the creators as key to their shows success. Theres nobody I work with that I dont like. Ive become friends and deeply respect them as people.

Scouting upcoming creative talent and building a relationship with them early on is an important development skill in its own right. Ouweleen points to Heather Kenyon, formerly AWNs editor and now a key development executive at Cartoon Networks Burbank studio. Heather knows everybody in the industry. She wouldn't know Paul McCartney on the street but shell recognize a great background artist. She follows everyones career.

Meredith Metz believes that the main part of keeping talented people at a studio is to truly make they feel valued.

The competition [for creative talent] is pretty intense right now. It's a small group the artists everyone is working with is a limited set. If youre an animator, youre going from Nickelodeon to Disney to us very easily. The marketplace for ideas is being generated by a limited set of people. In an effort to expand that set, Ouweleen admits, were looking to creators outside animation, people with a point of view, but not necessarily from Cal Arts.

We have a set way of working. When you go to atypical or first-time creators theres a lot of upside and a bit more work. Its more challenging but its a way to add a new voice to Cartoon Network.

As befits Adult Swims niche audience, Weidenfeld is searching a different talent pool. Most of my a job is being a headhunter finding people I want to work with that are making or have made shows I like and saying, do you want to do something? It's how most of our shows get made.

Its a small group of funny people. It's like a family a lot of these guys know each other. They've worked on Conan together, Mr. Show together, they've gone through Kimmel. You've got all these writers who are moving in a certain circle. You've just got to tap into that and figure out who you want to work with.

Weidenfeld also reads unsolicited pitches and receives between five and 10 a week, a number that will likely grow after this article is published. What I like to think is a lot of these people who I send notes back to will like the fact a network has responded personally to them and told them to keep honing their skill and keep writing. It might help make their project eventually become a show I like or at least not depress them as much as some kind of shitty one line that says, this isn't for us.

A development exec with winning a track record is fair game for other networks hoping the execs mojo will work magic for them as well. According Ouweleen, "theres definitely a lot of churn at the moment, while Weidenfeld acknowledges, anyone with Adult Swim on their résumé is on a lot of peoples radar. In this environment, convincing a valuable member of the team not to jump ship can take a bit of work.

Weve managed to hold on to people we believe in and people who add value to the process, says Disneys Metz. Like any job you have to offer a tangible horizon for them that they feel valued, compensated for their work, feel theyre making a difference in a project. I think thats what keeps creative talent at a studio. We had a couple of people at different ranks depart. One moved to London for a job that was a location driver.

Wiebe also believes in retaining and rewarding talented staffers, but acknowledges we have decisions that are high above us in terms of head count. I would never hold it against them for doing whats best for their career. The two companies Ive left to pursue other opportunities the same thing was happening there, they couldnt promote at the time. I always left with great relationships. Its such a small community here and the animation side is even smaller. You cannot afford to make any enemies or burn any bridges in your relationships here.

Gals driver for leaving Disney in favor of Nickelodeon was the prospect of taking a major career step up to director of development. I was the manager of creative affairs at Disney. There were a number of development execs it was a much larger team. The opportunity at Nick was to be the principal animation development person and play a larger role in determining what shows get made, how theyre made and what talent we work with. It was a big step up in terms of responsibility and the scope of what I do. Finally, Nickelodeon has traditionally done fully animated pilots; at Disney most pilots were animatics or Leica reels. I was excited by the opportunity to work on a smaller slate of projects and put more time, energy and focus into each one.

Getting promoted and moving up is based on showing your superiors you already understand the next level, Wiebe cautions. No one wants to promote you to a position where you have to learn everything after youre there. They want someone who is ready to go. To get promoted you not only have to do your current job as well as possible, but be prepared as well as possible for the next one.

Gal concludes a note both idealistic and pragmatic. I think the only way to do development is to give people room to pursue projects theyre passionate about. Some will turn out great, some will not. Thats part of development too in order to have projects that are home runs out of the ballpark, you have to have some that fail.

Joe Strike lives in New York City and writes for and about animation; hes this close to finishing his childrens novel.

Tags