Saturday, October 10, 2009

Animation Development

Animation Development From Pitch to Production by David Levy is a very good book about a very bad process.

What's good about it is that Levy does not minimize the difficulties of pitching and maneuvering a creation through the broadcast bureaucracy. He interviews creators and development executives about the various stages of the process and he is as quick to point out mistakes made by creators as those made by broadcasters. Levy has pitched his own material for over ten years and he is not shy about relating his own experiences, including those with unhappy endings or those where he later recognized he was at fault.

If you are interested in selling a show to television, this book is the best preparation in print that I'm aware of. If you've just toyed with the idea, this book will let you know what you're up against and perhaps persuade you that there are better ways to spend your time.

The development process is a badly flawed process on multiple fronts. One of the ironies is that development executives are paid salaries where the people who create ideas to pitch to them create these works for free. Should an idea be accepted for development, the amount of money a creator can expect to see to develop a script or bible will be minimal and the process will take a long time, meaning that creators can't afford to devote their full time or attention to the idea in question.

Development executives seem to know everything a successful show needs except how to create one in the first place. They are also unwilling to devote time to determining if an idea is worthy or not, so creators are forced to start off with the barest descriptions of a show. Should a creator put effort into a more detailed proposal, the odds are that the executives won't bother to read it and may also consider the creator someone who isn't willing to collaborate. On the one hand, executives want creators with a vision; on the other hand, they want creators who will be happy to take direction. In effect, creators are asked to suck and blow at the same time and the proportion varies depending on the executive, the broadcaster and the day of the week.

These executives are powerless to actually put anything into production, so their notes are questionable to begin with. Should they like something, they have to sell it to their superiors and there is no guarantee that the development people share the taste or prejudices of their bosses.

If a creator is lucky enough to move to a pilot or a series, the creator has to hire a lawyer to negotiate the right to continue on the production and for a share of profits or royalties. It's a certainty that the creator will have to give up ownership of the property in order for it to go forward.

The system is set up so that major corporations have a creator work for peanuts until such time that they think that there's money to be made, then they take ownership of the property and allow the creator to continue contributing for as long as it is convenient. The corporations would no doubt point to all the money they spend on development, but the majority of that money is spent on their own employees, not the creators who bring them the material they need to survive. The entire process is so drawn-out and stacked against creators that it's a measure of creators' optimism and commitment to their ideas that anyone bothers to pitch in the first place.

Anyone who watches television knows that the results are nothing special. The majority of shows fail, even with all the work that goes into their creation. Except for pilots, usually made on a shoestring, the development process completely divorces the idea from the execution, which can often be crippled by budget, deadline or choice of subcontractors, something the creator will not have final control over.

Levy is the eternal optimist; someone who feels that his career has been enriched by pitching and development. It has led him to some successes and to some employment opportunities on projects he didn't create, so who is to say that he is wrong? My own feeling is that any creator committed to an idea would be better off figuring out a way to develop it without interference, even if that means the idea isn't realized as animation. From my perspective, as someone who managed to get a show on the air, the compromises are too high a price to pay.

In any event, I do wish that I had the chance to read Levy's book before my series was sold and went to air. There is valuable information here about what to expect and I recommend this book for that reason. I hope that one day the book will be a historical curiosity about a process that didn't survive the changing media landscape.

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