On Saturday April 27th, the Children’s Media Association presented “The Do’s and Don’t’s of Pitching with Linda Simensky” whose career has spanned three major networks, beginning with Nickelodeon where she launched NickToons, then Cartoon Network where she oversaw “Powerpuff Girls”, “Dexter’s Laboratory”, and a myriad of other shows. As current Vice President of Children’s Programming at PBS, she has developed new takes on classics such as “The Cat In the Hat Knows A Lot About That” and “Curious George”, as well as original shows like “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” This two-hour workshop, hosted at Sesame Workshop, was broken down into an overview of pitching and development: cultivating an idea, constructing a pitch, courting a network, and provided insight into the daily routines and decisions of development executives. After a Q&A, the event was preceded by a dozen one-on-one meetings, determined via lottery for CMA members, in which Linda personally critiqued pitches.
This past year I’ve encountered more than a dozen people who desire to pitch; this was a perfect refresher course for those who have already attempted, and an even better introductory for the fresh batch of starry eyed first timers. What was not covered: negotiations, contracts, legalities, or how to run a production, those are a “different discussion entirely.”
According to Linda, a network executive’s mantra is “today might be the day to find THE NEXT SHOW.” She went on to describe the process, which is comparable to book editing. First, cultivate your idea, “take out a book and write and write and write. People tend to be more creative with a pen and paper.” After you’ve written a lot, pick the one thing that sums up your idea succinctly. This is the basis for your first pitch bible; the “book report on your idea”. The ingredients are your one-liner, characters, setting, story ideas, curriculum (if necessary), team description, and cleverly designed artwork.
She elaborated on each part of the pitch bible. The one-liner is what “TV Guide” would say about your show. “A show should be easy to explain. If your description starts with ‘it’s hard to explain but…’ that’s an indicator that you need to think more about your concept.”
Characters were the subject of lengthy discussion; they are the element that carries a show. Networks are in search of “aspirational characters,” so ask yourself “what are my characters’ motivations and goals?” They have to “be real, not perfect, awesome, etc.”; a good character has at least one flaw. “Complex characters in simple situations” seems to be the rule of the day. Characters should be illustrated in more than one pose; its typical to get a pitch bible with a character in a repeated signature pose. A character portrayed in different moods and situations is a mark of a well thought out concept.
Next were story ideas, the lab experiment to determine if your characters are strong enough, followed by curriculum. For story development she urged people to study classic literature, instead of mimicking an existing show, which she likened to “copying a copy of a copy”. If you have an education-based show, curriculum and plot go hand in hand. Grant-funded shows must meet Department of Education Core Curriculum guidelines; it’s best to involve a professional who knows how to write within those parameters, usually an educator or an early childhood development expert. In the narrative, present your subject in a way that excites children. Avoid the pitfall of creating a whole show concept and attempting to shove curriculum into it after the fact. It’s much better to choose a subject and base characters and stories around aspects of that subject.
The last part of the construction is information about the creative team. Who are the people behind this idea, and what do they contribute to it? A team should address different strengths, particularly story, design, and experience. “Experience is a big thing, if you want to make a show, you [or prominent members of your team] should work on someone else’s show. Linda reflected anecdotally about advising recent Cal Arts grads who pitch to go work for 5 years and then come back.
The pitch should contain excellent artwork. It’s extremely important to know what you can do well, and find other people to do the things you can’t. She used the phrase “only rappers rap,” which is an inside reference to when her staff reviews ideas for which people attempt to do things they obviously don’t know how to do. Here she stated, “If you’re not an artist, do NOT draw. There is a reason people go to art school. Especially if you’re pitching an animated show, characters need to be designed in a way that is efficient to animate.” This advice seems more for the writers and educators in attendance, but it still applies for animators. Engage someone whose expertise is writing to review your content. Likewise, have a designer assist in laying out the book, choosing an appropriate type face, etc. Save yourself to create the art, characters, story illustrations or for whatever it is that you’re best suited.
The physical bible should be about 5 to 6 pages with only as much writing as necessary. Less is more, although everything should be well thought out; it needs to be easy to digest. There is no need to bind your preliminary book, they usually are torn apart and put in a copy machine. If a network is ready to move forward, they will ask for a nicely bound, more detailed presentation bible. Linda cautioned about materials like sample videos or web elements. A short well executed sample works in your favor, but in many cases, a poorly executed, partially realized sample sinks a pitch. A web preview is not as likely to get reviewed because in many cases, execs review hard copy pitches in places where computers are not a viable option, like while traveling for instance.
Linda then introduced Jennifer Oxley, who demonstrated how “Peg + Cat” was a successful pitch, and treated us to a glimpse of its pages. It contained many different drawings of the characters, both in isolated poses and in story illustrations. Written in Peg’s point of view, it cleverly describes the show and exemplifies the character’s personality. After the demonstration, Linda went on to say, “network execs always love the rare moments where they can feel that the cover [of the book] sells the show. The pitch bible for “Peg + Cat” felt like I was holding a children’s book.”
We moved on to the network courtship part of the program. The old adage “Know thy network,” comes to mind. How do you know what a network is looking for? Watch it and take notes on the programming. Call and ask what they are accepting, what age ranges they are developing for. Networks are looking for material that best fits their identity; it is in both their interest and yours to preemptively eliminate irrelevant material. Then consider what kids age “x” think about, what do they like? How does the idea fit that mold? What can be amended? She then points out that interpersonal relationships are so important. A network executive is vouching for you (the quality of the work, the integrity of the idea, and the guarantee of completion) to their bosses. Part of breaking the code is to meet people, even if they are not the VP. “Don’t get caught up in someone’s rank. Deep relationships might not seem meaningful, even in the first decade.” Build these relationships “as if you are planting a tree.” Linda mentioned that Jennifer Oxely interned for her in the early 90’s. You deal frequently with a VP’s staff. If you have a good connection with these people, they are more likely to champion your cause (provided that your cause is appropriate). How do you meet a network people? Ask colleagues, get a referral, email cordially. Join professional organizations. Attend conferences, summits, festivals.
Then Linda revealed “the secrets of pitching”. Pitching is a job interview; you are interested in working for this network creating their next show. The more you know about a network’s accomplishments and philosophy, the better you can prepare your show idea. You want to be able to say, “I know your network, I’ve watched things on your network” and demonstrate that you are a good fit.
Practice your pitch. It’s important to talk about your idea conversationally and with confidence. Be relaxed; “if you’re nervous, we’re nervous.” Don’t confuse confidence with arrogance, or calmness with bashfulness. Summon the appropriate level of enthusiasm. Creators need to love their idea so that everyone else can love it too.
Linda also compared a pitch to a date. “The power is not all in the hand of the executive; rather it comes from the union of the executive and the creative.” The network executive has goals: find talent, find great projects, build the brand. You are trying to start a relationship by fulfilling these goals and saying the right things. “Be kind. Have nice things to say about the network, but don’t lie; people can tell.”
Don’t say anything to a network exec that you wouldn’t say on a date. That includes mentioning the competition, or implying that you have other [better] options (after you’ve moved beyond the initial pitch, if a legitimate offer comes from a competitor, then bring it up). You do not want to say, “You guys suck, you need help, and I’ve got the answer.” Bringing about an existential crisis for the executive NEVER works.
After the date you are wondering what happens next. Know that the odds are against you; just about everyone is going to turn down your pitch, so be prepared to handle rejection. Linda can tell if she likes the pitch from the one-liner, title, and artwork most of the time. “I say no a lot.” Despite the probability of a no, Linda still encourages passion and optimism. She mentioned heartily that randomness plays a big role in a pitch moving forward; what funding is available, who’s giving the ultimate green light, what is in demand. So, how do you deal with “no?” Ask for feedback, take the critique, and keep trying. Some execs will not say no immediately. In that case they are thinking about if and how the idea can work. If the idea isn’t right they may still want to cultivate a relationship for future projects.
Why doesn’t the network executive get back to you? Most of the time they want to, but the nature of this job is that pitch materials pile up. Volumes of submissions come everyday. Each needs individual assessment. The hope is to find the “next” show; therefore, no stone is left unturned. Additionally, execs are frequently pulled into meetings, time away from this ongoing task. This is why it’s crucial to make your pitch relevant and unique. This is also why good relationships matter, not only with the exec but with the people who work with them.
No exec is going to steal your idea. There are enough good ideas out there to legitimately develop. Unfortunately, sometimes many people pitch similar ideas. It takes long to reach the status of a development person; a poor judgment like stealing an idea would mar their reputation and irrevocably destroy their career. However, she cautioned, that network executives “can’t vouch for production companies. Anyone with a business card can claim to be a production company,” so be careful who you share your pitch with if they are not from a network.
If the glorious day comes that you get a pilot, she emphatically suggested, “Hire the best possible people you can afford!” It circles back to playing up strengths, leveraging experience, and building a team that will push and motivate you to maintain enthusiasm throughout the process.
She closed with a brief list of what PBS is interested in at the moment; narrative plot driven shows that will inspire kids ages 3-5 to be enthusiastic about learning, excited about life in general. Child-like archetypal characters that learn through exploring and discovering things on their own as opposed to adult characters teaching them. On a side note, no health or nutrition-themed shows.
Linda’s suggested reading list is “Animation Development: From Pitch to Production” by David B. Levy and “Creating Animated Cartoons with Character” by Joe Murray.