Last Updated: 28 September 2017
By Ali Ismail
If you've worked behind the monitor doing movie VFX or creating game assets for a long time, like many; you might have the dream of one day telling your own story or developing your own characters.
What is known as an IP (Intellectual property) is a broad term related to all creations of the mind, when it comes to entertainment though, you can think of an IP as a story with characters, a video game, a comic book, a cartoon, etc.. basically anything that is original and you came up with it.
Making your own IP is really very tempting, not only is the process extremely creative, fun and rewarding, but if by a stroke of luck you managed to create something popular; the financial incentive will be well worth it. Of course, actually managing the copyrights, licensing* and "milking" of your creations is a totally different thing.
Now just for the record, I haven't yet actually created any IP or sold any animated series, but I worked for places like Lucasfilm where I was dumbfounded about the profit figures for licensing in an annual meeting, I also worked with smaller cartoon producers, have read a few books on the subject, done some research and asked around. This is something I am curious about and would like to share my findings and resources.
Just to make it very clear as I have received many E-mails so far: I do not buy IPs and I do not sponsor or animations. Please do not send me E-mails asking me to fund your project. Thank you.
What is a Pitch
A pitch in business is some sort of a proposal for a client to accept investing in.
For an animated series, this means preparing some material to explain what your show is about, and present it to an executive working for something like Cartoon Network on the hope that he/she likes the idea and would want to go ahead with it.
To make it short, from what I learned, pitching is not that easy! a friend of mine who already has very good relations and access to executives; would be very hesitant to go down the route of pitching because even if someone accepts your idea for a show, it could still mean losing ownership of your creations and your story might be changed beyond recognition.
Basically, no one is going to give you money for nothing! and there are lots of people trying to give out ideas.
From my own research, I also found that pitching is really almost a job on it's own. Finding contacts, reaching out to them, understanding the market, going to exhibits and film festivals, and having the social skills needed to "hustle" and persevere, coming up with many ideas, developing the characters through and presenting them as best as possible and most importantly accepting many rejections is a lot of work.
If you would like to learn more about this, I would like to recommend: Animation Development, From Pitch to Production by David B.Levy and Animation writing and Development by Jean Ann Wright. In addition to the conversations I had with people in the field; most of what is written here is taken one way or another from these books and resources.
Both of the above books go well beyond, pitching and marketing and are good reads, and you will invariably learn things like pitch bibles, log lines, etc..
This video on how to create a pitch bible by Heather Kenyon and How to Pitch a Cartoon by Erica Hughes are both quite useful, and you might find this one on winning animation pitches and this Quora answer good reads.
What I Learned about pitching:
1- It's a lot easier to strike a deal if you know someone from the inside. It's more about who you know.
2- If you are a popular and famous creator or if you created an IP, short film, novel, comic, game, etc.. that have a large following it will be more likely to convince someone to buy your idea. Similarly if you are established in someway (an experienced 3D animator, storyboard artist, etc..) you will have some leverage and will be taken more seriously. Executives are quite conscious of your background. The character of the person they are going to be working with actually matters.
3- You can meet and find executives more readily in film markets like MIPCOM, MIPTV and MIPJunior and you can also look them up in linkedin, blogs, forums and specialized directories (Hollywood executives directory, AWN, IMDB). Executives can be found!
4- The more material you have; the more leverage and rights you can negotiate, you will be very lucky to land a deal with a simple 2 page pitch to say the least and you should expect to give away most of your rights, on the other hand if you sell a finished cartoon; you can negotiate a much better deal or keep your rights (yes, a finished cartoon defeats the purpose of a pitch but just to show the contrast)
5- A pitch consists of a log line, a two page, a bible and extras. it's basically just presenting your idea to a potential buyer. Don't go overboard unless you are sure of your product and know what you are doing. Short films and other promotional material can be good for marketing though. Just have a plan in sight.
6- Partnership with anyone? make sure all the details are settled and maybe get a lawyer on every stage.
Selling a Cartoon
When pitching you are trying to convince an executive to invest money in your idea which is an extremely difficult thing to do. They have a huge number of people trying to give them ideas, they are really not short of them no matter how special you think your story is. Implementation and production cost is what matters.
Having a completed series on the other hand is a different matter, if you go to MIPCOM for example you will find potential buyers. But the important thing to consider here is will you be able to sell it a profit? Those "buyers" have specific needs, you certainly need to be aware of age groups, demographics, languages, how long an episode needs to be, commercial breaks, etc.. to make something that will be able to sell.
Networks are usually trying to fill in a "slot". they have specific formulas and requirements, for example, they might want a children's cartoon targeted at ages between 2-6 with Bob the Builder style, because there has been quite some years without something similar. Or maybe they want the episodes to have a certain length or number.
It might be that one thing is on demand and another style or age group is over saturated, also each network has a different style. All I can say is, the business side is very different from simply doing something creative.
You most certainly don't want to be investing a huge sum of money and not being able to have a return on it. I assume that anyone going for a complete series production will have done all the research possible, met with potential buyers, reviewed competing shows and tested the concept of the show to test the waters before taking the risk.
Personally, I wouldn't prefer to pitch, maybe I would go to an exhibition and see what the atmosphere there is like and make some connections, but I wouldn't count on striking a deal.
Fortunately though, technology might help us bypass the pitching process altogether and reach the audience directly, it is so much work to pitch that I'd rather promote my ideas on my own and find alternative revenues or ways to fund my productions rather than dedicate the effort and resources needed to pitch.
I solidly agree with Mayerson views, and I picked for you some of his blogs over here:
Things are changing so much, you can now make you own simple show, live on advertising, or directly sell your merchandise.
It doesn't even have to be an animated series, you can consider web comics or novels.
These two threads on CG Society forum are good discussions:
If you had read The Long Tail by Chris Andreson or Tribes by Seth Godin and plan to promote your own creations; you know that you could possibly fill in any niche and not have to submit to any business or network pre-subscribed formulas.
Before learning about pitching and selling an animated series, I was really in the dark about all these subjects and thought it would be hard to dig for this sort of information.
Then I learned more about it and started asking people who are in the business and been to film markets; I got excited, maybe too excited and started learning all I can about this, thinking I could make a deal and create a series in no time. Now after learning more, I somewhat understand what it takes to pitch, what are the pros and cons. And what alternatives you have.
I know that I am not probably the most qualified person to talk about this subject. But just like yourself, I was curious about this subject, learned about it, then eventually decided to continue in the line of work I am in, and try to make it more successful to have enough revenue to fund experimentations into IPs, short films or simple video games rather than pitch. I wrote this article to share whatever little I know.
I highly recommend visiting film markets like MIPCOM or film festivals and mingling with the crowd to learn more. Human interaction is always the best way to learn.
*Licensing in entertainment is the act of allowing other people to sell merchandise based on your IP for a fee. For example if you want to sell light sabers with Obi Wan Kenobi and a Star Wars logo on the cover, you need to ask Lucasfilm for a license first and hope it's not already taken exclusively by someone else.
You can do your own research and see that the revenue; companies like Disney/Pixar make every year from the sale of toys and merchandise far outweigh all of their box office profits!