How To Pitch An Animated TV Series
BY MICHAEL VOGEL
Long before I was an animation executive, I was just an animation dork with a ton of ideas and a vague idea of the types of shows I would like to create one day. Like most people who make their way out to the West Coast, I started putting the ideas together and planning my eventual takeover of the whole animation industry. Recently, I went back through some boxes and found some of my old pitches… and was truly horrified. NOT because the concepts were silly, NOT because the art was bad and NOT because nobody in a million years would ever go for a project like the ones in the box marked “Ideas.”
No, I was horrified because I clearly had NO IDEA what I was doing or how to put together a solid pitch.
After sitting on the other side of the desk for a few years and hearing A LOT of pitches, I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out what makes a solid pitch and what makes a pitch… well, NOT so solid. Now let’s be clear here: I’m not talking about what makes a great idea. We could all argue for hours about character, story structure and what we classify as “good,” (I spent a few hours recently arguing with a friend about why Goonies is a modern day classic – how is that even a debate?!!?) But outside of the subjective world of taste, there are certain things that you can do to hone your pitching skills so that, regardless of the perceived “quality of your concept,” you have done everything in your power to make your pitch show off all the best aspects of your idea while making YOU look like a total animation badass who is on top of his or her game.
So without further ado, here we go. A list of concrete things you should definitely be aware of when prepping an animated pitch:
CHARACTER! CHARACTER! CHARACTER!
This is probably the single BIGGEST thing that everyone claims to “get” but very rarely gets expressed when pitching. The focal point of your entire pitch should be built around your main character. Who he or she is, how do they see the world, what do they want/need. There seems to be a tendency, ESPECIALLY in the no boundaries world of animation, to lay out the entire universe right off the bat. But the truth is, that it doesn’t matter how many galactic armies there are, or what the history of the royal family is, or how the zombies managed to become the dominant species on the planet if there isn’t a main character to latch on to first. Start your pitch with the character, introduce them, talk about the way they see the world, and let the world naturally be explained from there.
One of the questions I regularly field is “Do I need to have artwork?” The simple answer is this: if the artwork is world-class, then go for it, if not, PLEASE don’t. The bottom line is that a great story is a great story. You don’t NEED artwork to sell it. But if you happen to be a great character designer, or know a great artist then it’s definitely going to help you. Conversely, artwork that doesn’t look professional, or artwork that isn’t exactly what you want the show to look like, can actually hurt a great pitch. Here’s a way to test your artwork – looking at potential designs, can you see those, exactly as they are, on television? If so, they’re probably good enough. If not, I would consider losing them. What IS a good idea is to be able to articulate how you see the show. Is it traditional animation? CG? Flash? What shows out there have a look and style that fit what you are envisioning? If you, as the creator, can articulate the art of your show, that’s the thing that will really help you.
KNOW WHAT YOU WANT
It’s usually a good sign when an executive asks how you see your role on the show. It means they like the idea enough to start entertaining the possibility of working with you and want to get a sense of what they’re in for. The worst thing you can say is that you want to “do a little of everything.” That job doesn’t exist. So know your strengths, and know how you fit into the production hierarchy. Are you an artist? Do you want to design the characters? Are you a writer? Do you want to story edit? Or are you just an idea factory? Maybe you’re a producer who wants to be teamed with a kick ass writer and a director? Do the homework, know the positions that fit your personal skill set and be ready to say exactly where you see yourself on the show.
LENGTH OF THE PITCH/WHAT TO COVER
I had a teacher in middle school who, whenever asked how long a paper should be, would respond, “As long as a dress. It just needs to cover all the important parts.” That pretty much sums it up. There is no standard rule for what you need to cover, and depending on how big your idea is, there may be lots of stuff to discuss. But I would work hard on honing your pitch and knowing exactly what needs to be told and when. Practice it. Pitch it to your friends. Get their thoughts. It can be painful or feel weird, but it works. You don’t want to be stumbling over stuff and then bust out with the dreaded “Oh! One thing I forgot to say earlier was…”
You are the storyteller and the executives are your captive audience. You want to make sure that your performance is a winner. As I said before, you want to start with the main character, but then it’s up to you. Does that lead into the other characters and then a description of the world? Or do you go into the world and meet the rest of your cast along the way? Is there a pilot or premise story that needs to be covered? Or is it a new and random adventure each week? Regardless, the thing you want to end with is…
Every TV executive wants a show that is going to run 100 episodes or more, so it’s up to you to explain what the characters are gonna do each week. I personally recommend having two fairly fleshed out stories. With this plan – we get to see all of the main characters in action and how they react to certain situations. In the end, the executive across the table will get a general sense of the world. But make sure you pick story ideas that really underscore everything you just said about your characters. If the main character wants to be famous, then that’s what he or she should be trying to do.
That said, I’d also come equipped with maybe six back-up stories – episodes that aren’t as fleshed out but illustrate all of the different ideas the show can explore. These shouldn’t be more than a few sentences and each should give just a taste of what can happen.
BE AN EXPERT
I have a friend who is a successful working actress. But there was a time when should couldn’t book a single job. Then she started watching all the shows she wanted to be on and studied how the characters were dressed. She started wearing similar outfits to auditions and BAM – she’s all over TV. Same goes for animation. If you are pitching the NEXT big animated show you had better know what the CURRENT big animated shows are. Know what is working and what isn’t, but more importantly know what you like and what you don’t and be ready to talk about it. You would be amazed at how an intelligent and informed discussion about the current state of animation can wow an audience into thinking you are the next big thing in the biz.
CONFIDENCE IS KEY
This may sound like the cheesy, rah-rah “you can do it” part, but it is actually one of the most essential parts of your pitch – if you walk into an office looking like you don’t absolutely know that you belong there, you’ve already started to lose the room. If you are giving off the vibe that you are wasting everyone’s time and that you aren’t sure if your idea is any good, every other person in the room is going to pick up on that. However, if you walk in knowing that you LOVE your idea, regardless of what anyone else thinks, people will be more than willing to listen. Here are the two big secrets to remember: A) Every executive WANTS every pitch to rock and we WANT to be amazed, and B) none of us have any special ability that makes us any more of an expert on story than you. So if someone doesn’t like your idea – so what. If you love it, then sell the hell out of it and find someone who agrees!
Michael Vogel is currently the Director of Animated Programming for Sony Pictures Television, but has been a geek all of his life. He grew up watching cartoons and reading comic books and just never really stopped. Now he gets to do it for a living and couldn’t be happier.