I don’t know Linda Simensky very well at all but I really want to be her best friend. CMA had the privilege of spending an entire morning with Linda to talk about the ins and outs of pitching and before I get bogged down in details and pitching advice, I just want to say how warm and friendly Linda was during her talk. She was open and honest (I’m paraphrasing: Everyone is going to say no. Accept that. Let your passion get you through it.) while still managing to give everyone in the room hope that their bright spark of an idea could one day really shine (Development is the most optimistic job in the business, “Today might be the day where I find a great show”). It was a wonderful morning and Linda even stayed late to hear some one on one pitches. I’ll do my best to sum up what was said but if you ever get a chance to see Linda speak – take it. It was well worth waking up early on a Saturday morning. And with DVR, you won’t even miss your favorite cartoons.
Linda says the development process begins at age 3 when you start to learn what you like and what you don’t like. Things to think about when developing your show: What delights you, who are characters you want to live with and be with. Write and write and write your idea and then pick out the one line that describes the show. What would it say in TV guide to make people watch? That’s the key to your pitch and then you elaborate from there. Pitches generally include that one great line, then a paragraph to elaborate, character descriptions, quirks of the world, story ideas, curriculum and some info about your creative team. Some things to keep in mind: characters should be real. Not perfect, perfect = dull. Your characters should be aspirational and interesting. Can you tell interesting stories with these characters because of who they are? The pitch should be fun to read!
Linda walked us through a case study of a successful pitch by introducing my very good friend and coworker Jennifer Oxley, co-creator (along with another VGF and coworker Billy Aronson) of the upcoming PBS series Peg + Cat. Linda was drawn to Jen and Billy’s pitch because it read like a children’s book, lots of pictures. The Request For Proposals was to create a math show and they created a show that looked like math complete with graph paper backgrounds. They had the bible written in Peg’s voice in hopes that the bible itself would feel as though you were reading a script and it worked.
So you’ve created your pitch materials and now what? Linda emphasized doing research on the network you’re pitching to. KNOW WHO YOU’RE PITCHING TO. That’s right people, I went there, all caps. Know the age range of the kids your show is for, what do kids that age like? Your pitch should be appealing. Even if it doesn’t have designs it should have a compelling title, idea and you should be compelling in the meeting. Sure, you can send in pitches but it’s always good to make a connection. Linda said it’s like planting trees – a long term thing. Try to network and meet folks as much as you can at industry events (Shameless plug for CMA!). If you pitch in person, practice your pitch. Don’t just read your pitch – that’s boring, talk about it passionately. A pitch is like a job interview, they want to like you as well as your idea.
Linda then shared some intangible secrets of development.
Ability: Know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. Find people who are good at the things you’re not.
Experience: It’s more difficult to work with folks with less experience. Who would you rather have operate on you? A surgical vet (as in veteran not veterinarian that would be bad) or a kid right out of med school?
Capture Your Unique Sensibility: What makes you creative? Go for it in the pitch, make your pitch uniquely your own.
Knowledge: Know your topic, your characters, the network and the audience.
Inside the Life of a Development Exec: Linda says pitching for an exec is like going on a date with someone. For you, the pitcher, it may feel more like someone poking at your baby. Execs are wondering if they can get you to the point that your show is right for what they’re looking for or should they say, “I had a lovely evening” and move on. Yes, that’s right, like a date, you’re at the mercy of lots of subjective opinions. Network execs are always behind. Things pile up and then they go to meetings, they never get caught up. Be patient if they haven’t called you back. If you haven’t heard back you can email them and say, “hey, I would love to hear any thoughts you have.” Do not nag them. If you sent materials via email it’s okay to resend if the person is out of the office. If someone does call you back, you can pitch to them. You don’t have to pitch to the VP, don’t get caught up with people’s titles. To continue the dating analogy, don’t mention that you’re talking to other networks about the show. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say on a date.
And lastly, Linda recommended a few books: Dave Levy’s Animation Development from Pitch to Production and Joe Murray’s Creating Animated Cartoons with Character.
I’m sure there’s lots I missed, everything Linda says is valuable information and I’m just not that fast of a note taker. Again, if you get a chance to hear Linda talk – take it.
Main Takeaway: There were too many to pick just one but I like that the art of pitching comes down to what I think should be a basic tenant of being a human being: Be nice. Do not tell the network that they suck and that you are the one to fix their air. As Linda said, “You don’t want your development exec to have an existential crisis in the room.” Try not to be nervous, be cordial and confident but not arrogant. Be nice, not only because it’s how you should act in a pitch, it’s how you should act in life.
Personal Takeaway: Linda said there’s going to be lots of rejection, let your optimism and your passion get you through it. This makes me sleep better at night. I am nothing if not optimistic and passionate.
Inappropriate Takeaway: While you should treat pitching like dating I imagine you should not compliment your development exec on how beautiful their eyes are and you should not try to plow them with liquor to get to yes.