I think it might be pitchforks and torches time when it comes to gender in toys. My main reason for this is: it affects so much more than just toys. It spills over into so much more. How many of us were surprised when it came out that the reason focus was taken away from women villains in Iron Man 3 was down to a perception that women don’t shift toys? After #WheresRey and Black Widow and so much more, this is just a common story now. It’s barely a story.
I know how it happens from first hand experience. I have had that discussion with distributors, with producers. Of course most will tell you it’s not down to them. I have to wonder if toy companies and toy stores even know how much they are blamed for every bad gender decision in kids’ media? People in media, people like us, will eventually remove themselves from the decision and it comes down to: “hey, you know how the toy companies are!” Oh those silly toy companies.
Not only will they get the blame but, importantly, they will be shown to be right. They will demonstrate that gendered products sell more. Of course, there is confirmation bias in here and they have created an environment in which this can be shown to be true. After putting boys on all the Lego boxes for years and realising they have a problem, nobody should be surprised that Lego Friends sold well. It just patches a problem they created themselves. This isn’t just Lego of course – they just provide an example most people know. It runs through the whole toy chain right down to people working in toy shops. Yep, lady who shouted after my girls “but that’s the boy’s aisle!”, I’m talking about you.
It is a toy culture the industry created. And so it desperately tries to sustain it, knowing nothing else. Having made the ‘rules’, the huge hits that have to cross gender in order to become such big hits (such as Dora and Peppa) are branded exceptions so these big sellers won’t shake insiders’ confidence in that culture. And you know, the people working in these companies are all real people too. They aren’t just the cartoon villain scapegoat at the end of this media chain. They’re looking at their figures from their gendered strategies and afraid of messing with that in case their jobs end up on the line. I feel bad for anyone in that position, just as I feel bad for people in media who genuinely want better gender representation but they know that they have to stick with certain strategies because that has been shown to work, at least in the conditions that we have all built. We’re all just people here.
And I guess that’s what it really comes down to. Us as people.
So here is a question for you, no matter what end of the industry you are in: do you personally believe that placing clear gender limits on children is beneficial to kids and society in general?
Not your company, not your financial bottom line. You. A single individual.
If you answer yes, if you think that what we should play, who we should be and how we should think of ourselves and others should be limited by notions of gender, I can do nothing else but hope that someone will shine a light on the wider gender problem, the pressures and limits on girls and boys, the toxic environment illustrated by comments on Ghostbusters trailers or the Rogue One IMDB board, and hope that you will one day change your mind.
But if you answer no, if you believe that, actually, it would be better for everyone if we shouldn’t impose limits on children and people based on gender, then let’s all acknowledge that and pull together on the same team. From here on the inside. Let’s call out the bullshit where we see it. Let’s push media that is gender inclusive. Let’s create characters that don’t all conform to basic stereotypes. And let’s fight for them when we’re told “hey, you know how the toy companies are!” so that we don’t pass on the wider problems to the next generation. So we give our girls and boys every chance to be strong, happy and to do what they want to do, and can all do.
Where cultures have been created, cultures can be changed. Just because you think it works one way doesn’t mean it won’t work in different, better ways. Anyone in this generation should be well used to that with the amount of change we have seen in our lifetime. We don’t need to fear that change. We just need to make it happen.
It is the Space Year 2030AD. The world has entered a darker age. Once-specialist 3D riggers and effects artists now litter our cities in little more than derelict shanty towns, their place taken by automated software. Children’s media is produced by just two warring multi-national cybernetic toy conglomerates, having bought out or destroyed every independent creator of children’s media. The network once known as YouTube hosts nothing but children’s infomercials. The Great Adult Colouring Book Crash killed off publishing for good. The few remaining apps, now sentient, search through back alleys and dumpsters for coins, gems and smurfberries.
Bob the Builder is getting relaunched. Again.
Some say the world never truly recovered from the incident in 2019AD when over 7 million children disappeared into a Minecraft server and were never seen again. I think many of us thought it never would.
But there is hope. There is a new generation of children born amidst the chaos. And a secret underground swell, once little more than whispers and rumour, is taking hold. These are the new children’s media creators. Inspired by the renegade spirit of the early YouTubers and with legends of the rough and ready puppets and animation of the first days of children’s media, these new creators put everything on the line to bring fun to kids. They gather in secret locations, broadcasting shows made with little more than scraps and enthusiasm. Shows with energy and fun not seen in a decade. The conglomerates try their hardest but they can’t put them down – these kids have nothing to sell and nothing to lose.
And the closest thing they have to a skill is the drive to make kids and themselves laugh and smile. To brighten up a day with a story or a joke. In 2030AD, the dawn of a new age, this is the only skill that counts.
In spite of the title above, I often find myself advising people to stop reading books or blogs about writing. Why? I find a lot of people do it instead of actually writing. I know I did, for a LONG time. It just becomes another form of procrastination – one we can fool ourselves with, remaining convinced that we are learning so much and our writing will be all the better for it.
That only works if you actually write. So the rest of this post assumes you are writing. If you’re not, start.
If you are, then your writing will benefit massively from reading about the theory. Story structure, movie structure, character. Read McKee’s Story, Snyder’s Save The Cat and anything that covers the basics of story theory. Knowing structure and the whys behind it will give you a fantastic set of tools with which to craft your story. It becomes especially valuable when pulling the ideas together and really shaping it into something you can present to others. It gives you an important checklist to test elements of your story once you’re close to being finished.
But I find that learning the basics once just isn’t enough.
Firstly, you can forget the details. You can forget the reasons behind things and certain parts can lose importance. As with just about any other part of the process of creating media, I love reminders. Going back to basics every now and again always helps me.
But more than that, I find keeping this information fresh can hugely motivate and inspire while I work. A sentence in a book might spark a scene idea. A page might use a movie reference as an example and I suddenly realise there is already a parallel in my story and I can use it in a much better way. Reading a page here and there can help keep focus and clarity while crafting a story.
And it isn’t just the basics. Glancing over at my shelf, I see a book called Between The Lines (about the subtle elements in storytelling). Your Screenplay Sucks – a very handy book on ways your script might not be as good as it can be and how to fix it. Directing Actors, The Writer’s Portable Therapist, Creating Unforgettable Characters and more. Each one offers insights into different areas and it all helps.
I haven’t read them all from start to finish. Often, I just pick them up and browse sections. Before I know it, my brain is finding ways to apply what I’m reading to my characters and off I go again, writing. It keeps me moving and, importantly, keeps those core storytelling goals in mind at all times.
So write. And read. And write and read some more, until you have created something wonderful.
Last week, I was speaking on a panel about pitching at the Cartoon Forum. I have pitched there six times over the years, starting with some pretty awful presentations but getting better each time, to a point where I have been told (modestly blushing here) that I have given some of the best presentations of the forum.
For those of you unfamiliar with how it works, the Cartoon Forum is a place to showcase new projects in search of broadcasters or distribution. In the morning and afternoon, short trailers for each project are shown and interested parties can choose which projects to see. There are usually three projects pitching in every slot, so this is competitive and your trailer counts.
Once you’ve got them in the room, you have their attention and it is up to you. We covered quite a lot in our panel talk and we could have kept going for hours so there is too much to go through in one post but here are a few core pieces of advice:
Learn from the pitches of others
Practice only makes perfect if you actually learn something in the process. You have to constantly re-evaluate your own presentation. It can be hard to get any kind of objectivity about our own pitches so my advice is to watch others pitch. Make a note of what engages you, of what keeps you interested and what bores you. When do start looking at your watch? When does your mind drift to thoughts of cake? Whatever they are doing at that moment, make a note not to do it in your own presentations.
I had a pretty shocking eureka moment watching one pitch that bored me to tears. The big shame about the pitch? It was a lovely project. But they made it really hard to like. And it hit me that, much of what they were doing, I was also doing. My pitches changed forever that day. And I learned many positive ways to present from watching Robin Lyons present, who is always entertaining.
Last time I was at the Forum, a local company of some good industry friends gave an excellent pitch. They told me afterwards that, when crafting their presentation, they asked themselves how I would pitch it. Learn from others, both the good and the bad.
Know your material
You have to know every beat of your presentation. It’s not like learning a poem where you know just the words. You have to know every point, every piece of information and why that information is there. You have to learn it and then go far beyond that, to the point where your presentation is part of you. Why? So that you can deliver it naturally, so that it fits perfectly within time, so that you cover everything you need to cover, so that it doesn’t sound like you’re reading a script. And most of all, so that you can deal with interruptions. There is always a chance that something will disrupt your presentation. You have to be able to get right back into it. Don’t go shuffling through notes or running to your laptop. If you truly know your material, you’ll flow right back into your presentation.
Engage with your audience
The default setup in the Cartoon Forum is a desk you can put your laptop on and hide from your audience. Perfect for introvert creators. Terrible for actually interesting your audience.
Find a way to connect with your audience. As obvious as this sounds, they are real people. They are there to find out about your project. They want to be there. So talk with them. Not just at them. And certainly not at your laptop screen or back wall. Look them in the eye and see them as the individual people they are. Smile. And start a conversation.
People love to feel a part of the show. That should be true for the show you’re pitching and also your presentations. Bring them in, let them feel a part of it.
Lastly for now (I could go on for days):
Have a great show
You could give a knockout pitch. You could be the best sales person on the planet. You could start a bidding war there and then, having all broadcasters want your show.
Then they have to go home, back to the office. Your pitch fades away and what’s left is your actual show. And they invariably have to pitch it internally to their own teams. And maybe it doesn’t sound quite as good coming from them? And actually they have a whole bunch of questions that your documents don’t seem to have covered. Maybe this show isn’t quite as well thought out as it seemed?
A great pitch is important. Crucial, actually. But your show needs to be solid. It needs to be interesting. It needs to be well developed. Because at some point in the process, it’s going to have to sell itself.