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What Makes An Animated Pitch Hit?

Janet Hetherington investigates the stories behind several successful pitches, including an animated owl, an obsessed scout, a mad scientist and some talented talking dogs.

The humor of The Owl helped sell the series. © TV-Loonland AG.

When it comes to making a successful pitch, everyone wants to know "the secret." Is it skill, timing, or luck -- or a combination of all three -- that can lead to turning concept into reality?

For Olivier Dumont, coo of TV-Loonland AG, whose company is co-producing Alexandre So's original CG cartoon, The Owl, content is king.

"TV-Loonland decided to co-produce The Owl first and foremost because it was the funniest show we had seen in a long time," Dumont says. "It was so clever, well-crafted and simple, that it was a must-have for us the minute we saw it."

Aptly named, The Owl is about a little pink owl faced with the daily challenge of trying to survive in a forest filled with sadistic animals (and an evil apple).

"The Owl was pitched to TV-Loonland at the Annecy Animation Festival in June 2006 by the producers, Josselin Charrier and Antoine Rodelet, who run the production company Studio Hari," Dumont says. "Their specialty is animation for commercials, but they decided to develop a series of shorts with creator/director Alexandre So."

Having the content well in hand, Studio Hari used their skill to spotlight the concept. "They produced three one-minute episodes of the series in order to show precisely what they wanted to do with the series," notes Dumont. "That's the beauty of shorts in a way, since you can produce a 'full' pilot to show your creative vision for a limited cost if you compare it with a 22-minute series."

The Owl Takes Flight

The Owl offered universal appeal as well. "The creator and director Alexandre So comes from the videogame industry, and, therefore, CGI was an obvious choice for him to tell the misadventures of his little pink Owl," Dumont says. "The series does not contain dialogue, and relies solely on visual humor, which makes it universal and very international."

Talented star power, such as SNL's Amy Poehler, sells shows sometimes, as is the case with Mighty B. © Nickelodeon.

For The Owl, the timing was also right to capitalize on new platforms like web and mobile delivery. "It is true that broadcasters are increasingly looking for short formats which can work both on and off air for them," Dumont says. "They can post them on their website and offer them to their viewers for download. The Owl is also hugely attractive for mobile platforms, because it's so funny of course, but also because of its ideal length, and the fact that it contains no dialogue which makes it simpler to use it across multiple territories for pan-regional mobile platforms."

For many in the animation industry, the pitch for The Owl seemed to hit one out of the ballpark at an unusually rapid pace. "Studio Hari and TV-Loonland officially announced that the series was going in production at MIPCOM this October, as the show had secured its financing right before the market with the financial involvement of FRANCE 3 in addition to TV-Loonland and Studio Hari," Dumont says.

"Closing the financing and thus entering pre-production are the criteria which target the communication on the fact that a series is becoming a full reality as opposed to a project in development," advises Dumont.

All 52 episodes of The Owl will be delivered throughout the first half of 2007. As for other markets in addition to France 3, Dumont says, "We are looking to announce deals in the first quarter of 2007." TV-Loonland reports that The Owl received strong reception in Cannes and big interest from major pay-TV and terrestrial broadcasters alike.

In addition, Dumont reveals, "TV-Loonland has eight new shows in development, two of which should be ready to pitch at Kidscreen Summit in February."

A Mighty Pitch

In 2008, Saturday Night Live star Amy Poehler will join SpongeBob SquarePants, The Fairly OddParents, Jimmy Neutron and the rest of Nickelodeon's animated family in her own show, Mighty B - an animated series that Poehler created and will voice. In this case, the successful pitch resulted from presenting a "complete package."

"Co-Creators Erik Wiese and Cynthia True have worked at Nickelodeon for years," explains Eric Coleman, Nickelodeon's vice president/executive producer, animation development and production. "Erik was an artist on SpongeBob from the beginning and Cynthia was a writer on The Fairly OddParents. Cynthia is close friends with Amy, so when the three creative minds developed their show together, they already had a relationship with Nickelodeon."

"As for the pitch itself, it was strong from the start," Coleman says. "These creators had it all covered -- beautiful designs, funny characters and storylines, and a hilarious voice for the show's star. The complete package!"

Mighty B features Amy Poehler as the voice of Bessie Higgenbottom, the world's most ambitious and lovably unhinged 10-year-old "Honeybee" scout. As a member of the Honeybees, Bessie wears her uniform every single day, leads her troop with zeal and has earned more Bee Badges than any Honeybee in history. However, a number of badges still elude her, and Bessie will not stop until she has every last one.

"We spend a lot of time up front developing the characters and the world so the series can sustain for several seasons," Coleman says. "Typically, the creators develop a show bible and then a pilot script. We loved everything about the project and picked up the pilot. The pilot was well received by kids and network executives alike, so now we're in series production on the first 20 episodes."

Mighty B is going against the CG grain and will feature distinctive 2D animation. "Erik Wiese comes from a 2D background, having worked on many fine shows for Nick, Cartoon Network and Spumco," Coleman says. "He has a great 2D aesthetic which was wonderfully complemented by his team of artists, including the Emmy Award-winning art director Seonna Hong."

Many of Nick's characters have successfully translated into toys, T-shirts, lunchboxes and more -- but those spin-offs were not key factors in this pitch. "Merchandising is not what we focus on in the pitch," Coleman says. "We're interested in break-out characters that you want to spend time with, that will connect with our audience. And if we can do that successfully, a demand for the merchandising usually follows."

Exodus was looking for something fresh and found it in Chris McKenna's script for Igor. © Exodus Film Group.

Pitching the Catcher

The idyllic goal of many an animator is the ability to pursue a dream project. However, all such dreams require funding, and Exodus Film Group opted for independent financing so that it could make the animated films that it wanted to make. In 2004, Exodus launched a $50 million private equity film fund to raise capital from private investors.

The CG-animated films covered by the fund are Igor (being distributed in North America by The Weinstein Co.), The Hero of Color City (distributed domestically by Magnolia Pictures) and Amarillo Armadillo. Exodus is also in preproduction on Paul Bunyan and Babe.

"There were a number of factors that contributed to our focus on animated features," says John D. Eraklis, president/ceo, Exodus Film Group. Animated features, once made, tend to have "legs" -- or lasting appeal -- and while Paul Bunyan and Babe was originally conceived as a live-action and CGI mix, Eraklis advises, "We have since decided that Paul Bunyan and Babe would also be better suited as an all-animated film."

Despite its predisposition to animated filmmaking, a pitching process still comes into play with Exodus' films. "We are very open to pitches however having relatively moderate budgets means that we must choose films that will work within in our financial parameters," comments Eraklis. He also concedes that for his company, consideration of related merchandising -- videogames, toys, and aftermarket venues like DVDs -- can help to deliver a winning pitch. "Related merchandise is a very important component in evaluating a project," Eraklis says. "We look for properties that have the potential of being successful in all ancillary markets."

In the case of Igor, Eraklis says that Exodus was looking for something fresh. "We chose it because it was the most original concept that we had come across in years and Chris McKenna is a brilliant writer," Eraklis says. (McKenna's credits include American Dad.)

Igor is described as an irreverent comedy giving a new twist to the classic mad scientist/monster genre. The film tells the story of a mad scientist's hunchbacked lab assistant who has big dreams of becoming a mad scientist in his own right -- and winning the coveted first place award at the annual Evil Science Fair. The film is to feature the voices of Christian Slater (Igor), Jay Leno (Brian the Brain), Steve Buscemi (Scamper) and John Cleese (Dr. Glickenstein). While originally envisioned as a short film and then a feature, Eraklis says, "We are no longer planning to release a short prior to the feature."

The originator of the project is not the only one pitching Exodus Film Group. "There are a number of criteria we use to choose animation houses," Eraklis says. "All of the houses that we have looked at bid on the films, and we often visit them personally to determine if they will be a good match for project. We will be announcing our CG animation partner for Igor in the new year."

Visual effects now expand the shows that can sell for kid's television such as Hollywood Star Dogs. © Saban Ent. Group.

A Hollywood Star Pitch

Sam Ewing, consultant with Cartoon Consultants Group, is also looking forward to the new year, when he will be touching base with the contacts he made while pitching Saban Ent. Group's (SEG) new project, Hollywood Star Dogs. "We've talked to the broadcasters and had a solid response," Ewing says. "It's the kind of show that strikes a chord with kids all around the world. We want to finalize things in the new year so we can get to production for delivery at the end of the year."

Ewing says, in concise pitching style, that "Hollywood Star Dogs recreates classic children's stories with talking dogs." While the show features live-action animals, the dogs' muzzle movements are computer-generated. "Each dog is a star and will take on a different role in each story being told," Ewing explains. "There's no cats, no horses -- just dogs, and they play all the roles."

Hollywood Star Dogs is the brainchild of Holly Goldberg Sloan (screenwriter, director and producer, who has worked on such films as Angels in the Outfield and Made in America), who first wrote and produced a movie using dogs as actors to tell the classic tale of Heidi. SEG partnered with Goldberg Sloan on the new Hollywood Star Dogs series, which was unveiled at MIPCOM in Cannes in the form of 26 half-hour television episodes.

Ewing, a pitching veteran who has both given and received pitches, says that he got involved with Hollywood Star Dogs when Saban Capital Group chief creative officer, Joel Andryc, approached him to help with the project. In October, Haim Saban and SEG announced the launch of a new venture dedicated to incubating, developing and marketing high-quality family entertainment properties. Hollywood Star Dogs is the initial offering of the new "virtual studio" that will focus on identifying and creating unique, original intellectual properties and brands.

"I saw the show and right away I knew it was a 'channel stopper'," Ewing recalls.

Ewing says that when preparing for any pitch, preparation is key. "You have to find out how this is going to fit into the broadcaster's schedule," he says. "Broadcasters are always looking for projects, and you have to show them how this is going to help them out."

Olivier Dumont, coo of TV-Loonland AG, still finds markets the best place to launch a show and garner attention.

While financing is an important consideration, Ewing says that when pitching a project like Hollywood Star Dogs, the focus should be concept, concept, concept. "What I pitch is the idea," Ewing says. "I pitch what's compelling about the show."

For Ewing, a successful pitch should take no longer than 10 minutes. "The goal is to get them intrigued," he says, adding, "You don't want to waste time and you want to be welcomed back next time." And while Ewing is also consulting for other clients in Australia and Japan, he is pumped on Hollywood Star Dogs.

Of Pitching and Promotion

Talking up a show doesn't end with the pitch. "Markets, such as MIP-TV, Kidscreen Summit or MIPCOM, are usually the best places to communicate massively on the launch of a new series," says TV-Loonland's Dumont. "Press releases are important of course, but direct communication to buyers is the most efficient way."

"The sales team at TV-Loonland has contacts with all major broadcasters, and markets are therefore the perfect opportunity to communicate directly to all key individuals in a short period of time," Dumont notes. "Regarding the launch of The Owl, we also organized a special cocktail party on the TV-Loonland stand at this year's MIPCOM to create some PR around the event."

Nickelodeon's Coleman comments, "We're proud of our development pipeline and we tend to work with a variety of top talent -- great artists, female creators, diverse voices, etc. -- so whenever there's good news, we like to share it."

Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada, with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat. Heidi.