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Interview: director/author David B. Levy

September 17th, 2009

Dave Levy
David B. Levy with cartoon luminaries at the ASIFA-East/Frederator screening, 2007

I wrote a little bit about Dave Levy’s new book, Animation Development: From Pitch to Production the other day and thought it might be good to hear a little directly from the author.

Your first book, Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive, was so much richer than most “how to” industry books, incorporating the universal lessons you’ve observed from two lifetimes (yours and your Dad’s) in the animation industry. Was it harder to apply those same learnings to development?

DL: I think in many ways this new book was easier to write because of its focus to one specific area of animation. Easier to write, but somehow it took longer to write. Since I only had one subject to cover, I had to make sure no stone was left unturned. My only compass was to bust all the myths that cloud up the reality of pitching and development, which keep people from achieving their dream. I think it really helps that I have gone through the process myself as well having interviewed the major players from both sides of the table.

Both books use the same conversational approach loaded with real anecdotes from the field. I once bought a book on the business of animation that didn’t mention the name of a single film, show, or creator. As you can imagine, it was a very dull read. I prefer to give the reader actual examples––showing success stories as well as cautionary tales.

Is there a ‘Top 3′ list of do’s and don’ts?

DL: How about a ‘Top 4′ of each?


• develop relationships with other artists and writers as well as with development executives. It’s a people business, and in the end…networks buy creators not ideas. Attend animation festivals and events in addition to maintaining your online presence on facebook, personal websites, etc.

• work on other creators’ shows first. A would-be creator needs real working experience in the industry to learn the ins-and-outs of how an animated TV series is made from the ground up. A network will need proof that you know how to produce your vision into the final product.

• engage in other creative outside-of-work pursuits besides creating pitches. Make films, comic books, paintings, photography, etc… This is important because an artist/writer also needs to develop his or her voice outside of the commercial arena.

• learn from your mistakes. What didn’t work about that last pitch meeting or project? Every attempt has something to teach you if you get in the habit of introspection. We can’t as easily change what is wrong with animation development today, but we can certainly train ourselves to be more effective at presenting ourselves and our projects.


• have a sense of entitlement. Just because you have put together a pitch doesn’t mean it’s the right fit at that exact moment in time, with the right executive at the right network. Treat each pitch and encounter as another step in the journey. Stephen Hillenburg has said that all he was trying to do with his first pitch meeting at Nickelodeon was to interest them in a second meeting.

• hold unrealistic expectations no matter what you hear. A promise, a word, or a handshake is not a written contract. Your project is not in development until the network is willing to write you a check.

• put all your eggs in one basket. No one opportunity is THE opportunity. No pitch meeting is the one that will make or break your success. Develop your talents over the long term and treat pitching as one branch of that adventure. With that attitude, you might even enjoy the ride.

• pitch for the sake of pitching. The goal to have an animated series is a very specific one that requires an unusual set of skills. As Amid Amidi said at my book event on September 15, “Ask yourself, ‘Why am I pitching? Why do I want my own series?’

What’s with development executives? Why won’t they say ‘yes’ to some good shows for once?

DL: There are examples of executives that said ‘yes’ to some good shows. But, it would be a mistake to assume that every executive has the right agenda or even the good sense to spot good when it’s under his or her nose. I think that more executives should understand what truly makes a good show. You can’t create the next SpongeBob-sized hit by making of list of what ingredients made up SpongeBob and then imitating as many of those as possible. SpongeBob wasn’t born that way. It was the brainchild of Stephen Hillenburg who was swimming (pun intended) in surf culture and had a background in marine biology. And, he channeled those interests through his unique point of view. The point is that Hillenburg’s show came from his heart and that passion connected with audiences in a major way. That’s the lesson for executives, not what surface details can be spotted and copied in that show.

There are so many talented artists in the world. What makes the difference between one who doesn’t get a series and one who does?

DL: There are lots of talented artists out there, but very few seem to be suited to creating, selling, and producing an animated series, let alone a hit animated series. But that doesn’t mean to say that more people can’t develop their skills to that end. After all, was Matt Groening ready to create “The Simpsons” at the start of his career? And, sometimes through collaboration artists and writers can create something greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Happily, all shows (hits or not) depend on the fine work of animation artists, writers, musicians, actors, etc… so even without a show to their own name, they are an important part of what might have made someone else’s show shine. And, real industry experience is one of the most important prerequisites to serious pitching in the first place.

The artist that breaks through to having his or her own series will likely meet three requirements: a unique point of view, a facility with and interest in characters and their interactions with each other and their world, and will be good salesperson, knowing how to present a project (to demonstrate execution) even in the early stage of a pitch bible.

Is getting a show on the air as treacherous as it seems?

DL: Creators (me included) make it much harder on ourselves. We are the ones who need to set our own expectations to a reasonable level. Case in point: I was recently the supervising animator on a prime time pilot created by an established creator for a major network. Since then, the network gave him an air date for his series, paired him with an experienced producer, and ordered several scripts. When I tried to congratulate the creator, he cautiously responded, “Yeah, well…we’ll see.”

I was very impressed with his answer because it shows his understanding of what development really is. Nothing is a sure thing until it is. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dare to dream…but, it does mean that you should manage your expectations and not take each thing you hear as something that is set in stone.

Why can’t I own my own show?

DL: There are people that do make shows where they retain ownership. Larry Schwarz of Animation Collective is a good example of a creator raising funds through private investors and then using the networks as a means of distribution. But, this model comes with its own risks. I don’t think an individual can match the promotional power of a Viacom or a Turner, so I think the desire to own your own show may actually cost you the very success you’re after.

A cautionary tale happened not so long ago when another New York studio used private investors to fund their series. Despite the fact that a network agreed to air the show, the investors pulled out before the first episode even left the assembly line and the series was left dead in its tracks.

Yes, most networks will expect creators to sign away their ownership rights, but, it’s not as black and white as that. Creators are paid a purchase price when their project goes to series. Additionally, there are weekly salaries for their services on a series, back-end participation, episode bonuses, and other perks. I would rather see my show get made and seen by a broad audience, then own it outright and have it sitting in a drawer somewhere.

What’s the one thing most people get wrong about animation development?

DL: I think so much of the anger and frustration is simply unnecessary. Some creators are seething with anger out a belief that someone is blocking their path. In truth, no development executive has that power, unless you give it to them. A creator’s obligation is to develop his or her own talent to the point where the executives come looking for them. Dan Yaccarino (the creator of Nick Jr.’s “Oswald,”) is one such example. Nick Jr didn’t pick up his first pitches so he turned them into children’s books which became so popular that Nick Jr subsequently green lit his series.

Amid Amidi, of Cartoon Brew, and I sparred over this point at my book launch panel. He explained that lots of L.A. industry creators complain to him that their pilots didn’t go forward to series, which made them fed up with pitching and development and realize that they should try to apply their creativity to comics or children’s books instead. In reality, these creators are in a very enviable position. They are professionals being paid to work in the art form they love. And, they got a couple of pilots made! So what if the pilots proved to be dead ends? I don’t see this as proof of why one should never pitch.

On the other end of the spectrum, Carl W. Adams (co-creator of [adult swim]’s “Assy McGee“) believes that no pitch meeting is ever a waste of time because each meeting helps form a relationship and can lead to making even more contacts. If that’s the case (and I do believe it is), then it’s certainly not been a waste of time for the above creators to have made a few pilots. How many of us would like to fail on that level? It is on the shoulders of these creators to capitalize on their pilots and consolidate that talent/effort/experience to an even bigger success. It’s their job to do so, not the executive who didn’t green light their pilot to series.

While its fun to speculate, complain, and point out the many obvious things wrong with the development process, you have to wonder (after a while) where that will get you. A wiser move would be to keep investing in your own talents. That has a way of taking you places. And this is a theme that comes up again and again in my new book.

Thanks Dave.

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[…] Kelly Neall, and the team behind the screens for organizing another fine festival. Also, thanks to Dave Levy who invited me to sit on a development panel along with Linda Simensky, Fran Krause, and Heather […]

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