The Magic Number?

David Wood speaks to several leading production groups about crafting the ideal development slate.

Is there such a thing as the perfect development slate? In terms of size, it seems it depends on who you talk to.

The bigger players in kids’ production tend to have, not surprisingly, larger numbers of projects in development. Nicolas Atlan, the president of animation at Gaumont, has between eight and ten at any one time, while British kids’ entertainment company CAKE aims for eight to 12 projects. At Paris-based Cyber Group Studios, Olivier Lelardoux, senior VP of the studio and executive producer, has 15 projects at different stages, whereas Stephanie Betts, VP of development and production at DHX Media, insists that “there is no magic number.”

For other players, including Claus Tømming, the managing partner of INK Global, the whole idea of a development slate seems wrong. “We think of ourselves as a development boutique rather than a factory, we don’t think in terms of a ‘slate,’ but the maximum is five projects—all at different stages of development. We focus on very few projects rather than invest in a voluminous catalog in the hope that something will stick if we cater to every demographic, genre and platform imaginable.”

Eye Present CEO Genevieve Dexter is another advocate of the boutique approach. Her IP and production outfit only takes on one new project a year and currently has three projects at different stages of development. Dexter says that focusing on a few properties at a time is the main thing for Eye Present, which produces animation such as Messy Goes to Okido for CBeebies in the U.K. and is touting its newest project, Flix, at MIPTV.

There are lots of reasons for focusing on just a limited number of projects during development, Dexter explains. First, it keeps the show’s creators on your side; they can easily feel neglected and become understandably frus­trated if there are too many other competing ideas being worked on. Also, too big a development slate can result in a scattergun approach. “You can end up just throwing things at the wall to see if they stick,” says Dexter.

Getting lots of different shows commissioned by different broadcasters can create financial headaches, she adds. “Ultimately, it will make it much harder for you to find finance as each broadcaster will only be putting in a small percentage of the production budget.”

Big or small, everyone agrees that the ideal development slate needs to be diverse and balanced.

DHX’s Betts says that the company’s strategy is to create a diverse slate across multiple genres and age groups. “At a very base level, we break down our slate into four quadrants—preschool, animated comedies, animated action and live action. Our internal breakdown is much more specific but at its most basic, those are the areas we’re focused on developing, so we have a well-rounded slate.”

At CAKE, the VP of creative, Emily Whinnett, says that the overall aim is to craft a slate that offers a variety of animation and production styles targeting preschool, pre-cool (slightly older) and tween demographics, as well as maintaining a cross section of genres—comedy, action, adventure and drama.

For many players, a big consideration in the development process is having enough new ideas sufficiently prepped for potential commissioners at key markets such as MIPTV, on the basis that it’s the fresh projects that always attract the most attention. “We ensure we have enough on the development slate so that we’re ready to present new ideas at major markets and different times throughout the year,” says Betts.

Balance is the key at Gaumont, which makes shows such as Belle and Sebastian and Furry Wheels. “That means not too many preschool shows with music, not too many comedies,” Atlan reports. “Sometimes we say no to projects that we know are strong simply because of the importance of creating that balance.”

Eye Present’s Dexter also recommends the careful structuring of development slates to avoid pitching projects that might potentially compete with one another.

Messy Goes to Okido is preschool, Xephos & Honeydew (about to start production) is kids/family and our next project Flix—a classic publishing property for 6- to 8-year-olds, about a dog who lives in a cat town and based on the books by writer Tomi Ungerer—is about to go into development. They are all positioned so they don’t clash.”

DHX’s Betts agrees, noting, “Josh Scherba, executive VP of distribution and content, and I work closely to ensure we never end up pitching five action series in the same quarter. We avoid putting ourselves in a position where we’re competing against our own slate.”

For ideas to make it into development in the first place, they must have key attributes, with character and originality coming top of the list.

INK’s Tømming reports, “We need engaging stories, strong characters, originality, and a purpose beyond being yet another show. In combination, these qualities provide for starting a lasting franchise.”

Lelardoux lists originality of concept, an innovative approach, creativity and a main character or characters with emotional strength as the basis of what Cyber Group looks for in a potentially successful development project.

But there are other questions that need answering too, adds CAKE’s Whinnett. “Who is the target audience? Boy or girls, or is it gender neutral? Are there any interested buyers and what is their level of interest? As an international company, we ensure the show has the potential to appeal to global audiences.”

Lelardoux adds a few other considerations. “We also assess the project’s international potential, as well as evaluate the best technical approach for the animation and any necessary changes in the case of adaptations. Finally, the budget. If all these points are greenlit, development can start.”

Time spent in development can vary markedly, says Gaumont’s Atlan. “With animation you know you will live with a project for a long time from development to finance. We take our time when developing the story, but sometimes development can go fast when artists come to us with projects that are well developed—then the time to market can be rapid.”

How shows are developed depends largely on what they are being developed for, says CAKE’s Whinnett. “Some shows are purposefully developed to a tight broadcast brief, while others are created with the intention of presenting them to a wider selection of international buyers.”

How CAKE pitches also varies from project to project, she adds. “Some buyers prefer a pitch to be fully developed with materials to include a pitch bible, sample scripts to help give a sense of pace and tone and a test animation/animatic. Other buyers prefer to come on board when a concept is nothing more than a simple treatment, and we shape the show together.”

“If we’re feeling really great about how a project is coming together (it could simply be designs and a bible), we may go out and do a topline pitch to key clients to get some initial feedback before we progress with scripts, a trailer, an animatic and/or a full pilot,” reports DHX’s Betts. “Sometimes we’ll decide an idea needs a full package to properly present, so we take it on a case-by-case basis.”

If you are developing with a specific broadcast platform in mind, pitch it as early as you can, recommends Cristiana Buzzelli, the senior VP of licensing and acquisitions at Italian animation studio Rainbow. “When we have a concept with storytelling and design, by pitching it we can hear feedback, and progress step by step,” says Buzzelli.

“We value the input of broadcast platforms in development,” adds INK’s Tømming. “The more actionable notes we get, the better. Often authors get concerned about too many cooks, and we do protect the original vision, as its uniqueness was what made us pitch it to the world in the first place. However, outside opinion is healthy stimulation, and stewing in our own juices for too long is sometimes counterproductive.”

Appointing a creative champion to steer the whole development process can be a sensible step, advises DHX’s Betts. “There can certainly be lots of voices around the table to help shape a show, but I think there needs to be someone or a team at the center to ensure it all lines up from day one of development to production, execution and the toys that hopefully appear on the shelf.”

At Cyber Group, Lelardoux says the focus is increasingly on finding writers with movie story­boarding backgrounds. He adds, “We try to produce global content, so it makes sense to have a global creative team. That’s why, although we are a French company, we are working with American writers and storyboarders on shows such as Disney’s Gigantosaurus.”

Alongside shows earmarked for active development, there are always others that end up on the backburner. “We actively follow some ideas,” says CAKE’s Whinnett. “They may have struck a creative chord with the team but are shows that, for the moment, don’t allow us the opportunity to invest either from a time or financial perspective. We offer our topline thoughts, but don’t come on board in an official capacity.”

Setting aside projects that have clear potential but are not ready for active promotion can sometimes be useful, says Eye Present’s Dexter. “In development, you can get very bogged down because you are so close to a project you can’t see it as clearly as the outside world. But when you reexamine something that you have parked for a while, in hindsight you can see it with fresh eyes—and suddenly realize what it is that’s not working about it.”

Development can be a ruthless business, reveals Dexter—you have to be unsentimental about axing characters that are not working for one reason or another.

It’s all about nailing down who your key characters are, and how they react to those around them, early on in the development process, insists Dexter.

“Beware of designing character by committee,” she warns. “Flix, for example, is basically writer Tomi Ungerer; he is multinational, with no boundaries of spirit or ambition, and is a prankster but not naughty or evil. He sees the world with a slightly wider lens because of Ungerer’s dual nationality.”

CAKE’s Whinnett says answering a hit list of questions helps in the process of character development. “Who are our heroes and why do we care about them? What makes our characters unique? What are their strengths and weaknesses, their passions, vulnerabilities and flaws? What makes the show appealing and relatable to the target demo? What are the emotional drivers throughout the series and what are the relationship dynamics between the characters?”

The danger is that, in comedy in particular, it’s quite common to sit on the fence in terms of key character development, says Dexter. “The key characters can become a bit of a straight man—while the subsidiary characters develop a rich life of their own because nobody is scared of deciding who they are,” she argues. “Key characters can end up relatively ‘vanilla,’ which can be a problem because you need stories that are driven by decisions taken by the key character rather than by stuff simply happening to them—stories driven by the key character is something that broadcasters are very hot on!”