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 -
Pitching a show is a whole world away from creating one and, like anything else, the real way to get good at it is practice. Experience. Learning from your own mistakes and watching the pitches of others to see where they went right or wrong. This is one of the reasons I love the Cartoon Forum, an event where I have pitched unsuccessfully (and learned from failure) and then more successfully (and learned from success). At some point I will post my own thoughts on pitching but here is the most important thing to realise about any pitch, any sale:
People have to want to buy what you are selling.
There are great salespeople and terrible salespeople but even the great salespeople need something worth selling and they need to sell it to the right people. You might blow someone away with a flashy presentation and smooth words but a couple of weeks later that person has to convince their superiors and it is just them and your show document.
That show eventually has to sell itself. Which means that, before you pitch, you need to know that your show will be able to continue where you left off. You need to be sure that the show basics – the concept, stories and characters themselves – will provide the answer to any questions your buyer might have. By the way, that also extends to your audience and the early adopters (usually the parents – be good to them by making something great for their kids).
You may love your characters and stories but this is the point where you have to look beyond all that. You have to see your show as a package and you have to know that package very well.
Take your show and consider these questions -
Who exactly is your show aimed at?
What is different, unique, about this show?
What does it offer children beyond entertainment?*
What does it offer to specific broadcasters?
What is the format (episode length etc.)?
Why that format?
Can it sustain more than ten episodes?
Have you got more story ideas?
Does it look great?
Is it producible?**
Is all of this obvious in just one short document?
Is it obvious in just one single line?
* Truth is, entertainment should be a given. That’s not a unique selling point.
** No point in having a great show that can’t be produced or funded.
You need to have the answers to those questions and you need to commit to them. They can’t be pasted on to your show afterwards ‘ people will see through that. The answers to those questions need to be part of the core of your show. Yes, you can change your mind on some of them later and a particular broadcaster may request a change but you need to be strong with those answers right at the start so it is clear that your show’s foundations are solid. If I made one mistake on some of my early show pitches, it was hoping others would sort out my show’s weaknesses. Don’t do that. A broadcaster/producer/whoever may help take your show from great to magical but they won’t want to start anywhere below great.
And no matter what, the show has to be a good fit for them.
Even if they love your show, they will need to match the answers to those questions to their own internal brief, their channel’s mission or aims. And they will eventually need to do it without you, without your passion to carry it through.
So before you pitch, know your show. Know what it is and why. And make sure your show demonstrates that.