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.
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.
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.
The biggest mistake I think anyone can make in a pitch bible is a wall of text. People won’t read it. It takes up too much time. Unless your text is pure gold, it’s like wading through a swamp. And if it is pure gold, will people have the time to find that out?
More often than not, very busy people are scanning through pitch bibles. So you need to get to the point and keep it lean.
And yet, if you strip it down to the bare minimum, you always run the risk that someone will flick through it and think, this feels a little thin. Is it underdeveloped? Not a fully-realised concept?
So how do you keep it lean and to the point while making clear that your concept has depth, storytelling potential and a fun character dynamic? Active images. Try to get every picture telling a story. If it is simply a single character illustration, tell us who they are in their pose and expression. If it is a setup made to look like a still from an episode (I would always recommend this), make sure it feels mid-story, mid-action. That way it gets people thinking about how the characters got there or what will happen next. An image alone can get the message across that there are stories to be told.
Even if you are showing off a particular aspect, try to tell a story. Showing off your fancy backgrounds? Maybe show a character playing in your fancy backgrounds. Keep it active. Inspire the imagination so that, even if someone doesn’t read one word in your bible, they have a good idea what it is about. And hopefully, they’ll be making up their own stories as they look at your pictures.
When I pick up my Creating A Show posts, I’ll be getting into pitching. Pitching is a crucial stage and rarely easy but there is some fun to be had with it too. For introverts, though, pitching can sometimes seem terrifying, daunting or just something we’d really rather not do. As someone who has been labelled a ‘high-functioning introvert’ in the past, I might gather some thoughts and do a Pitching For Introverts post someday but, right now, I wanted to just point out one advantage many introverts have while pitching. There are generalisations here and everyone is different but many introverts should recognise what I’m describing below. It can give you an edge in a pitch scenario.
Here it is: introverts are rarely surprised.
Many of us spend a huge amount of time in our own heads. We play things out over and over, especially when we know a stressful scenario is coming our way. Now preparation is key to pitching or indeed anything else so I would always advise as much preparation as possible for anyone but often we introverts take that much further, whether we like it or not. We play out a gatekeeper asking us the roughest, toughest questions. We see them poking holes in our concepts. We watch as they pick up our show bible, find that one gaping flaw and then fling it into the bin. And we do this while getting dressed, while eating breakfast and at 4 in the morning when we should be asleep. Over and over again. We can be our own worst enemy when it comes to confidence but not when it comes to exploring potential outcomes.
So by the time we walk into that meeting, there is very little chance that something will happen that we haven’t already played out a hundred times. And usually it goes much, much better.
This is a good thing. We can identify problems before they happen. If we need to make a change, we can. If we know something might be a tricky issue but there is a good reason why certain decisions were made, we have those responses prepared. Things get easier and better the more times we do them. And for many of us, the first time we pitch a project to someone isn’t really the first time we’ve pitched it because we have driven ourselves demented with the conversation for weeks in advance. So we go in better.
I’m not saying extroverts don’t do this too. We’re all different but I know some extroverts seem to play things out live and in the moment more than the introverts. But whatever kind of person we are, I think the main thing is to be prepared. Whether by structured preparation time or the repetive mental run throughs (preferably both), play it out all kinds of different ways. Try not to be taken by surprise. Be open. But not surprised. And that’s where we can have an advantage.
Last week we brought Millie and Mr Fluff to the Cartoon Forum. I have mentioned Millie in my last two posts but I don’t feel I have really told you a huge amount about it, partly because I like this blog to be informative rather than just a platform to promote my projects. But Millie is really important for me and I think it deserves a bit of space here.
So why is it so important? Well, Millie is not the first project of mine to make it out into the world since my big move last year (that would be DINO DOG) and it is not the only Mooshku project in development. But it is my first new TV project. Even bigger than that, it is the first Mooshku project to be revealed to more than just a handful of people. That’s a big deal to us at Mooshku. Mooshku’s first stamp on the world of good children’s entertainment is Millie. It is the first project that can now make it to what would be a Mooshku showreel. That’s important, right? It’s the beginning of a new life chapter that could turn out to be a very big chapter.
Here’s the show concept…
Millie is playful child (just like your child) who runs a zoo (okay, not exactly like your child). Her one aim: make sure everyone has a great time at the zoo. So when an animal is sick or needs the morning off to pick up their dry cleaning or is missing for any reason, Millie calls her very good friend Mr Fluffington-Strypes to stand in for the missing animal. Fluffington-Strypes (Mr Fluff to his friends) is an actor, a gentleman and a rather large cuddly tiger. He dresses up and assumes the role of any animal at the zoo.
Anything but the monkeys, who are noisy, playful and terribly messy and far beneath a professional such as Mr Fluff. More often than not, it doesn’t quite go according to plan and so Millie has a day of fun trying to make it all work out and children have lots of laughs along the way.
Millie and Mr Fluff is a short, snappy preschool comedy show. Comedy is one of those things talked about a lot and there are certainly a few great preschool shows that are genuinely funny for young kids (Peppa, Gigglebiz, Ben and Holly, Pingu going back a bit). But there aren’t all that many. So we worked really hard to get the Millie comedy right for preschoolers in the scripts, the voices, the design, animation, music and sound. And it works. It’s funny. That kids also find out about animal traits along the way is a happy bonus feature.
After LONG development, testing and tweaking, Millie and Mr Fluff has really come together to become something special. And we finally revealed the show to the world (well, to Europe) at the Cartoon Forum.
The pitch went like this: adrenalin kicked in, I started talking about the show, showed a lot of clips and I could see some people smiling which was nice and then it was suddenly over and people were saying lovely things and writing even more lovely things on little purple cards. The show went down great with a lot of people. They got it. In comments, the strength of the core concept was something people could see. They loved the comedy, the look, the music and a few mentioned in particular how well we knew the characters and how that came across.
One aspect that intrigued people: all of the art assets were created on iPads.
All the interest and positive comments were great to hear given the amount of work we did in development – it paid off.
Huge sigh and a sense of satisfaction… before realising that this is just one stage in the process and we now have a lot of following-up to do. And so it’s off to MipJunior with Millie next. A step in a longer journey but a very important one to me and we came away with the results we wanted. And on top of that, we really enjoyed the Forum and got to hang out with old friends and new friends and that was lovely.
So would you like to see some of Millie? Sure you would! Here is the extended megamix of our trailer with little glimpses of Millie stories and scenes. You can watch it in higher quality by clicking the little Vimeo logo on the clip. Here’s Millie and Mr Fluff:
We have all been told something we’re doing won’t work. For example, years ago we were told by a good broadcaster that Fluffy Gardens wouldn’t work. Broadcasters wouldn’t buy it, kids wouldn’t watch it.
Fluffy Gardens sold. Kids loved it.
Being turned down and told that concepts won’t work is an industry cliché. Every success, small or huge, comes with story after story of people rejecting the idea or saying it will never work.
So when it is your concept they’re saying this about, what do you do?
Well, firstly listen to any criticism. Really think about it and its relevance to your project. If amending something could improve your project and make it a better version of what it is, then do that. Don’t do it because you’re expecting anyone to change their mind. That’s the wrong reason and almost never happens. Don’t do it because they know more than you. Do it if you truly believe your project will be improved. Always strive to make your project better.
Evaluate your pitch and materials. Are you showing your project in the best possible way? If not, learn from that and improve your presentation.
Then accept that the project is not right for that person. That doesn’t mean there’s something fundamentally wrong with your project and it certainly doesn’t mean there is something wrong with that person. We all have different experiences and that person may have tried something similar in the past and it may not have worked for them. Or there may be other quite good reasons why they don’t want what you’re selling and they aren’t going to go into those reasons with you. All it means is that the project is not right for them.
Move on. Quickly. And look for someone who it is right for.
Don’t ever let the negativity drag you down. Don’t completely shut it out either, because you might pick up something useful from the criticism. But don’t let it beat you. Don’t let it stop you. Keep going. Make it better, pitch it better and get it in front of the people who will love it.
Eventually, you’ll be telling your very own story about those people who told you it would never work.
It is said so often that confidence can make all the difference when trying to make things happen. We need to be sure of our idea and our ability to carry it through. We need to impress and motivate others with our own confidence. We need confidence to pitch and present our work. We need to write, direct and create with confidence and not bend too easily to the whims of others. Indeed, this is all something that I would preach right here on this site. We need a strength and a conviction in what we are doing in order to do it successfully.
Confidence. It is so important.
But for me, confidence is not something to be willed into being. Not something to be adopted on its own, like a new persona. Not something to be drilled in through affirmations. I suspect that is the path to arrogance, stubbornness and possibly delusion, all easily torn down.
Real confidence, in my experience, is the outcome of science.
It comes from learning, research, testing, proving and disproving. And many, many trials. Real confidence comes not when we just blindly convince ourselves that our work is great, but when we have actually put in the work to make it great. It comes when we have done our homework and know our subject matter inside and out. It comes when we have tested that work, tried different options and, like any good scientist, been open to the very real possibility that we’re going about things the wrong way.
Confidence is earned through that science. It can be a lengthy process and often it should be but, eventually, you will have worked through the possibilities, put your work to the test and you will have ended up with something you truly believe in. You will have work you can present really well because you know it stands up to scrutiny and you have already pitched it in your head a thousand times. And you will never be blind-sided or left stumbling because you have put more work into finding the cracks in your project than even your harshest critic. You can stand over your work because it is actually really great work.
That’s real confidence. And once you have got it, it doesn’t get shaken easily. It’s a powerful force and it is how you make great things happen.
I was speaking to a group of animation students a couple of weeks back, taking them through my career and how I got to do what I do. Moving from career leap to career leap, everything sounds pretty impressive, even to me and I lived it. But the truth is that I am only ever telling half the story. Actually, much less than half.
Because for every success there are several failures. Sometimes many failures. I don’t usually get to cover those in a short talk but they are important to acknowledge, hence this post.
I talk about my first job being an animation position on TVC’s Willows In Winter. But in reality, it’s the first job that means something in my career. My real first job was picking tomatoes, a job I was fired from. I tend to talk about Fluffy Gardens as my first self-created show. It is actually the first self-created show that I managed to get off the ground. It is not the first show I pitched. I move on to my next show, Planet Cosmo, pretty quickly and, in doing so, neglect to mention the few show concepts that came in between those two shows. And there are so many more little disappointments, unsuccessful pitches and out and out failures throughout my career.
‘Failure’ sounds like a very dramatic word, steeped in negativity. Failure can bring fear, sadness and, sometimes, can kill our motivation. Why try if it’s only going to end badly? But that is the exact opposite of what failure should do for us. We all need to be okay with failure. In fact, failure is really important. Here are some things to keep in mind about failure:
1 - Failure shows we have taken a risk. No advancements, career leaps or worthwhile successes will come without risk. It just doesn’t happen. If there is no risk of failure, we’re not really doing anything and certainly not trying anything new. So failure shows us we’re pushing ourselves. That’s a good thing. Push further.
2 - When creating, it is all part of a process. Ideas must be tried and tested, and then the results evaluated. We use that information to make the next creation better, more relevant. And nothing is ever wasted. Ideas from that project that didn’t make it will resurface in another project, often in a better form.
3 - In the end, the failures don’t count. This is so important to remind ourselves of because one of the things we all have to move past is our fear of failure. Failures can teach us but they don’t count in any negative way. The successes are what people will remember. When I talk about my career, I can talk for an hour and I’m still covering the successes. I don’t need to talk about the failures because people don’t care. Do you remember Steve Jobs for the failed Mac Cube or the success of the iPod? Which counts? All it takes is a single success to wipe away all failed ventures. Failures don’t count. So don’t fear them.
Not everything you do in your creative career is going to work out. It certainly won’t work out first time. If you’re really striving for better, for something important, failure is more than likely something you will face many times. Be okay with that. Embrace it.
Early development on Planet Cosmo was quite intense and, before long, I had a very clear idea about most of the core elements in the show. I had a massive amount of research, an episode structure in place, a whole bunch of stories and I knew my characters and how they worked together.
When I got to that stage, I could have put it all together to make a book about Planet Cosmo that would rival a meaty Stephen King novel, only with a better ending.
But I figured, nobody will read all that.
Most people just want an introduction, the basics. Truth be told, for all the effort that went into the writing, I’d say many buyers had decided whether they were going to take Fluffy Gardens or not based on one look at the show design. I knew the same would be true to some extent for Planet Cosmo. I felt pretty good about the show though because, unlike Fluffy Gardens and a bunch of shows out there, Planet Cosmo had an easy pitch ‘ it brings astronomy to children. That’s it. You either want that or you don’t.
So I created a little three-page introduction in lieu of my Stephen King novel. The core pitch and plenty of pictures. I knew people would at least read that.
My first meeting…
“Hmmm… it looks a little thin.”
Are you serious? Thin?!
The following weekend, I pulled all my notes together and put it all down in a document. Well, almost all of it (I like to hold the odd surprise back so I have something exciting to reveal later). While my document didn’t quite rival The Tommyknockers, it was still a meaty 50+ pages and a script on top.
I gave it to my producer. He flicked through it and said -