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.
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.
Every single time I work on a project, I have one goal in mind: this will be the best thing I’ve ever made. This is true whether it is the start of a whole new concept or just one more episode of a continuing series.
Does it always turn out to be the best thing I’ve actually ever made? Not always. But having that as the goal always pushes me to make something better, try something different and give the audience something a little bit special. It prevents me from being overwhelmed by deadlines and letting something go that just isn’t ready yet.
This goal is its own quality control.
And really, why would you possibly want to do anything less?
So whatever you’re doing, whether you’re mid-production or coming up with something new, set a high goal. Make it the best thing you’ve ever made. Simply keeping that as your core goal will vastly increase the chances that it is.
90% of getting by in this business is doing the work – sitting down and writing that script or making that short or whatever it is you need to actually make stuff happen. The other 90% is selling your work or yourself. The remaining 12.5% is a basic grasp of mathematics.
I remember being told decades ago that there is no point in creating something and having it sit in your desk drawer. I listened to that. And I created stuff. I put in that first 90%. Then I chucked it into my desk drawer and wondered why nobody ever came calling.
So I spent many important years putting in the work and getting better at what I do, trying to improve in different areas. Actually being okay with telling people about my work was a very slow process. Learning to pitch was hellish… until it eventually became fun. And it would be many more years before I would overcome the even greater challenge: pitching not just my work, but myself.
Even now, I love to let my work speak for itself. But the reason for that is down to me having a hard time saying to someone: I am really great at what I do and you need to know that. I don’t know if that’s me as a person or a cultural thing but it’s a hard thing to do and I realise that there were times in my career that I could have let people know about skills I had… but I didn’t.
On the few occasions I did, good things happened. And so I’m a bit better about that now.
But I still know people who do the work and leave it sitting in their desk drawer (or computer folder) where it will do no good. You have to let people know what you can do. You have to tell them about your work. And yourself. And you have to keep doing it. That’s the second 90%. And in the end, it counts for more than the first 90%. So it’s more like 97%.
Actually, let’s just forget the percentages. Just go out there and tell people about your work and what you can do.
Here we go. The definitive rules to children’s content:
1 – Characters must be aspirational. Make them older and cooler.
2 – Girls will watch shows for boys but boys won’t watch shows for girls.
3 – Think second screen. For some reason.
4 – Your animal character must know a martial art of some sort… urrrggh…
Sorry, I can’t go on. My fingers won’t let me type any more. Really, I’m just going to give you one piece of advice here: if someone insists there are rules to successful content, run far away. There is a huge amount to learn and research, studies you should look for, people you should follow for information (David Kleeman, for example), many guidelines, important case studies and stories that will greatly inform your decisions (and your decisions should be informed). But rules? No.
This is not an exact science. Or at least, it is such a complex and ever-changing science that we will never fully understand it. It is certainly not a box-ticking exercise. Use the knowledge and stories and experience you can gather, carefully consider your options and go with what feels right for your project, your audience and you.
I was at a roller disco a few weeks ago (I’m the roller disco king). It was my daughter’s birthday party and I thought the idea of roller skating was a little bit crazy because of the varying abilities of the kids and the potential for accidents. Nevertheless, the kids got on great. Even those who were skating for the first time just went for it.
Sure, they fell over a lot but they got up and kept going. And one kid who fell over a lot soon started to get the hang of it and the speed of progress was pretty astounding.
I was skating around and I saw him skating with all the other kids and he was doing brilliantly. It was like he had done this many times before. He looked smooth and confident. I gave him a big wave and said “Well done!”
And he fell on his backside.
I broke his flow. I was just trying to be encouraging but I interrupted him while he was making real progress. He had focus, he had momentum and I pulled that away from him. I guess at least I was being encouraging so he got up and set off again with a smile. I wonder how much worse it would have been had I shouted something like, “Bring your feet together! Go faster! Not that way, this way!”
So today’s thought is very simple: when someone is doing something good, let them do it. Don’t interrupt them. Don’t become an obstacle. Just allow it to happen.
You’re pitching your idea, it is special to you and, wow, it’s a pretty strong idea. Amazing that nobody has thought of it already yet. So what happens if someone you pitch it to rips it off?
In reality, I think that probably never happens. For a start, the chances of nobody having thought of a similar idea to yours are negligible. Ideas are just ideas. We have them all the time and we have similar ideas all the time. It is common that many similar projects can be in development completely independently of each other. I have seen this happen many times. There was the witch year at the Cartoon Forum. And the vampire year. They didn’t rip each other off. It just happened.
More importantly, if someone loves your idea and they hadn’t already thought of it, it makes much more sense for them to just deal with you to take it further. You’re a step ahead. You’ve done the groundwork. And really, you’re probably cheaper than their own team.
I think the question you should be asking yourself is not what happens if your idea gets ripped-off but how can I be essential to realising this idea in the absolute best way possible?
That’s really what counts. An idea is just a start. It’s important but not really anything on its own. What is important is how that is developed and explored and made real. If someone could easily rip off your idea and do it better than you, that’s the problem. You need to be the one who can do it best. You need to be the one everyone wants to develop this idea with.
At times in our work life, we will have a realisation that can improve what we’re doing. We find a new focus or a new aim. It can be large overall goal or a realisation that we should be changing direction. Or it can be small thing that will make a project better, something you’re now going to look out for as the project develops.
Any realisation about a way to improve something is a positive.
But they rarely stick. Why? Because we already have our daily systems and habits. Real life throws stuff at us constantly. Remembering to check for that new thing is next to impossible. It shifts to the back of the mind and then it’s gone until insomnia decides you should remember about it in the middle of the night when you can do nothing but feel bad that you let things slip.
The flaw here is relying on your mind to hold it front and centre the entire time. Your mind is busy enough as it is. So make those reminders external. If you have something new to add as part of your routine, add it to your to-do lists. Every to-do list so you can’t forget or ignore it. Write it on post-its and stick them where you can’t miss them. Make sure those reminders are where you actually need them.
Only by having constant reminders and nudges will you really integrate new changes or a new focus into your day. Without them, the second you get busy you will shift back to the old habits all too quickly.
Trends, eh? They’re important. If your animated TV show hits right at the beginning of a trend, pop the champagne. If it’s running counter to the trends, it could be a great project but the timing could kill it and never give it a chance. So how do you target the trends when creating your show?
My answer: you don’t.
It takes so long to develop a concept from scratch that, if it can already be identified as a trend, you missed it. Just develop the concepts that you think are awesome, that your audience respond to, that inspire you and others around you. Forget the trends.
Now when your concept is developed and you’re pitching and certainly when it is in production and you’re selling, that’s a different story. At that point you can look at the trends and see where it fits. Use it as a story.
But really, let your project just be the best at what it is.
When we start on a new project or a new job, our thoughts often go like this: OMG what am I supposed to do now?! How do I muddle my way through this one and not get fired?! When we reach a certain level, I think we become a bit more sure of ourselves and what we can offer.
If you find yourself in the former situation, there is an easy way to help that. If you are in the latter, it is something that becomes even more important because it is when we get complacent that the real problems can start and soon we find we’re not doing as great a job as we thought we would. So what to do? It’s simple: ask.
Ask how your client would like a job done. Ask how you could be most helpful to your peers or collaborators. Ask and you’ll get the answers you need to do a better job.
Take script editing as an example. I have found over the years that there are many different types of script editors, all offering completely different things and all with the same title. Some take a big picture view looking at theme and form and they ask the big questions. Others don’t want to mess with a writer’s story but will help them tell it better by getting into the details and working on a line by line process. Some are just looking for the red flags and are like a quality control process. All of these have value and they will help different types of writers in different ways. But they won’t all help all the writers all the time.
So if I’m script editing, it makes sense for me to ask: what will be the most helpful to you? What are expecting out of this process? We will often find that the job needs more than we’re told (because what people want and what they need are not always the same thing) but it gives us a fantastic place to start the process.
When in doubt, ask. When not in doubt, ask anyway.