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Pitching Animation: Rules of the Game from the Pros That Play It

Mike Young Prods. knows the pitching rules, which show in the success of its shows like Pet Aliens.

Pitching television animation, like any game, has its rules. Some are hard and fast and others are house or table rules. You know those rules that are specific to a region, country or culture. And the game has its players and pros. Animation World Magazine asked the pros about pitching.

First The Basic Rules

Pitching professionals know that there are some basic rules. Tatiana Kober, founder of Bejuba! Entertainment, and Rick Mischel, ceo of Mainframe Entertainment, Inc., provided the basics:

Know your property inside and out. Thoroughly know the characters and the premise.

Know your buyers and what they are looking for. Dont pitch the wrong show to the wrong broadcaster.

Communicate concisely.

Be passionate. Show your passion to get the buyer enthused about the property.

This list of hard and fast rules was echoed over and over again by development professionals at networks, creators/producers and distributors, worldwide.

Pitching is a personality thing, said Kober, whose firm is dedicated to wrangling financing and distribution for small- to medium-sized producers, Pitching is about relationships.

Regis Brown, evp of Taffy Entertainment, the distribution arm of Mike Young Productions, takes his relationships seriously. He believes that you need three to four face-to-face meetings with a buyer before you can sell a show. Brown meets important broadcasters at MIPCOM, MIP-TV, KidScreen Summit and NATPE. Then he follows up with at least four trips a year to the major broadcasting markets in the world to meet again in person with the buyers. Brown is using this successful sales approach to get their shows, like their new Pet Aliens, sold worldwide.

Heather Kenyon, director of development of original programming, hears hundreds of pitches at Cartoon Network. The character is the most important thing. In your first meeting you need to tell me who the characters are, what the story is about -- the nuts and bolts of the show, says the development exec. Be clear and concise about what your idea is and have a lot of enthusiasm for it. Thats whats going to sell your show, she said.

Dont walk in and say `we can make it any way you want, advises Stephanie Graziano, ceo of Graz Entertainment, a development company. Accept `no and dont compromise. Dont pitch projects that are not right for the broadcaster, she said. Graziano tells of a concept she has been working on for two years. She knows is it not what any broadcaster is looking for right now, but has complete confidence it will be right for some network in the future.

Raquel Benitez, ceo/president of the Canadas Comet Entertainment agrees, Be receptive, accept critiques, study the studio or people you are going to meet with an understanding of their needs and their working philosophy.

Knowing the basic rules of the pitch will get you far. Knowing the rules of each territory will make you a better player.

Tutenstein is not just fun, but educational as well. © PorchLight Ent.

Table Rules

With any game, rules change from table to table, from country to country. The experienced teams and pros that play these games know the intricacies of the pitch by country and by market. There are great differences in how animation is sold in USA vs. Europe, Canada, U.K. and the rest of the world.

In Europe no one buys shows based on curriculum, said Neil Court, exec producer in the London office of DECODE Entertainment. Americans make the mistake of pitching the curriculum for a preschool show in Europe, he continued. Chuck it in the bin. What gets a show sold in the U.S. will keep it unsold in Europe.

The consensus is that Europe wants to entertain their children because according to Brown, Europeans say their children watch less television. The U.S. wants, and is mandated, to educate with television programming, including animation. There are varying degrees of educational curriculum requirements depending on the broadcaster, notes Mike Young, ceo of Mike Young Productions. Young, whose career started in the U.K., is now in the U.S. His production company produces the award-winning Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks airing on PBS.

Fred Schaefer, svp/producer of Animation for PorchLight Entertainment says, Certainly a `pitch can be adjusted to suit a specific network and thats fine, within limits. He says that potential educational aspects of a show can be stress, but he does not recommend making drastic changes to try to make a project sound like it fits. It will be obvious to the buyer.

PorchLight has been successful in placing shows like its current hit, Tutenstein, which is both educational and entertainment. Tutenstein was developed as a comedy-action-adventure series with the primary goal to entertain kids. It just so happens that the concept has a natural educational layer: the backdrop is a huge museum and, of course, Tuts own ancient Egyptian heritage. All of this information was seamlessly woven into our development of the show, so it didnt feel like an educational show. Therefore we could pitch it either as a straightforward comedy-action-adventure show, or we could stress both the action and the educational benefits. The latter greatly appealed to Discovery Kids, who eventually picked up the show.

Benitez says, In the U.S. and Canada you can pitch with just some storylines and characters, as the broadcasters will give input into the rest of the process. In Europe they can be more demanding asking for scripts, episode synopsis, and in many occasions, a teaser of three to five minutes to see the animation style and content.

There are also differences in style in how producers pitch in the U.S. vs. those in Europe. Benitez feels the U.S. producer is more aggressive in the pitch. Kenyon feels European producers present a much slicker presentation with scripts, marketing plans and episode synopsis.

Kober, who has pitched loads of shows while with the former Egmont in the U.K.and Europe, is now pitching mostly in the U.S. She said she feels the U.S. is far more business-like in pitches, especially when including co-production deals. She is pitching the show The Andrenalini Brothers in the U.S. since its debut in Europe. She is finding broadcasters in America like to take properties and test them in focus groups early in development for the decision making process, while European broadcasters will jump on board early.

U.S. broadcasters want to have creative control of a property, whereas the European broadcasters are less involved and only give a light touch with their comments, according to Court.

Mainframe is helping Spin Entertainments Beat Freaks reach the world. Image courtesy of Mainframe Ent.

Dealing

Like any game there is the deal. Animation pitching today is about the deal. The professionals know how to play this game well.

For Cartoon Network and other U.S. networks, Kenyon says she doesnt need to hear about the deal during a pitch because she is only interested in the property and its creator. Graziano, a veteran backs up that notion, You never have to lead off with your co-production strategy when pitching in the U.S.

Producers today are looking at properties that are comfortable primarily in the global market, but will still play locally.

Companies, such as Canadian Mainframe, have territory-specific partners to help globalize shows. Mainframe is distributing Beat Freaks, a show developed by Spin Entertainment along with Canadas TELETOON. According to Mischel, Spin and Mainframe brought in U.K.s Cosgrove Hall to help develop the story for Europe. We decided not to have Beat Freaks as a show just born in Canada and for North America, said Mischel.

Breaking the rules, DECODEs action-adventure show Save-Ums was developed and produced for Channel 5 in the U.K. With its pre-school audience and basic storyline that supports curriculum, Save-Ums was also picked up by Discovery Channel in the U.S.

A game technique that cannot be overlooked is the financial aspects of a project. Co-productions are the buoy that is helping independent animation stay afloat.

If you are dependent on US sales alone then it wont go anywhere, says Young. Mike Young Prods. Pet Aliens show was conceived and developed in the U.S. It first co-production partner and pre-sale was with Frances TF1. The other co-production partners on the show are Telegael and Crest Animation. Brown is selling the show internationally, and has also sold it to Cartoon Network for worldwide distribution, including airings in the U.S.

Court says funding is an important factor in selling a show. This has become a rule for all independent animation producers who are looking to get their shows sold, not necessarily to U.S. networks, as the primary target. Court says producers are considered successful by broadcasters when a show is funded through pre-sales in several territories and several networks. According to Court, in order to get financing there is sometimes a need for up to nine pre-sales to broadcasters in world markets for a series.

Court has a new view of the creative process of animation. The true creative side of the business, these days, is the business, said Court. DECODEs financial pros put in staggering amount of hours in the financial packages, far more hours than the creative team puts in the show development, according to Court.

The old adage is true, even in animation pitching: It is not how much you win or lose it is how you play the game. At least it is when getting your ideas sold.

Jan Nagel, the entertainment marketing diva, is a consultant involved in the business of animation and visual effects since 1991. She represents creative producers and productions companies worldwide, including j9 Productions and AGOGO Corp. Hong Kong, as well as being a frequent guest lecturer on the subject of the business of animation. She is also a founding member and current president of Women in Animation International.

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Jan Nagel, Entertainment Marketing Diva
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