An Approach to Independent 3D Animation Production
Bachelor of Arts in Design (with 1st Class Honours)
Part 1 - Theoretical Research
Chapter 5 - Selling a Film or Animation Concept
5.1 Introduction - Options for an Animator with a Finished Concept
Once an animator or film-maker has a concept for a film or series built up to a fair degree, there are several options and pathways the animator could take, that would allow that concept to be evolved into a physical reality. This chapter, directly related to the last, will investigate matters such as the importance of the acquisition of a producer in a production, and ways how one could to advertise, sell and fund a concept discussing pre-sale, commissioning and investment of projects. It will also identify potential buyers of a concept and describe how one would go about pitching a concept to potentially interested parties.
5.2 The Flyer and Pitch Document
A construction of a flyer and/or pitch document is an important part of advertising and pitching a film or series concept to a party. A flyer and/or pitch document may be given to a producer to capture their interest in a production, and it could be used as a tool in the acquisition of funding money. It could also be used in the promotion and selling of a concept to a final buyer, by way of passing it on to people at conferences, as Thompson (2002) mentions.
Alan Thompson (2002) states that a 'pitch document' is a glossy brochure that can be used to explain the idea of a project, target audience, the aims of a project in a direct manner, and can include visuals of the film or concept.
Lowndes (1995, pp. 66-78) outlines step-by-step how to construct such a concept document one would use to pitch to interested parties. This would include such information as the outline of the idea, background, definition of the format, synopsis, character lists, sample of the script/storyline, marketing potential, timeslot and writer's CV's (Curriculum Vitae).
An example of the contents of a pitch document can be seen in Alan Thompson's pitch document for his aforementioned series Wild Room. It includes an introduction, that overviews the genre, subject matter and style. It also includes a description of episode treatments, storyboards of two of the episodes and personal CV's.
Alan Thompson's Wild Room flyer on the other hand, acts as a single page high concept that accounts the premise of the series in a short and sharp manner, with visual imagery of the series. The flyer should be able to promote and pitch the concept and be able to captivate the people and capture their interest in a very short period of time. See Appendix 3: The Kitchen Wastes: A Case Study on the Creation of an Independent Animated Short Film - Wild Room flyer (case study Appendix 02), and Wild Room Pitch Document (case study Appendix 03), to view an example of a flyer and pitch document respectively.
5.3 The Pilot
When asking Alan Thompson in an interview what exactly a pilot episode is for, he answered a pilot is created initially and is used to promote and sell the concept, be it a series or singular film, to a party, in a similar manner to a flyer or pitch document. Just like a flyer or pitch document, it can be used to lure a producer's interest in a project, to lure the funding body in order to acquire funding money, and to sell a concept to a potential final buyer. The advertising of the concept through the pilot could be done through exposure of the pilot and at a film festival and/or distribution of the pilot at a conference.
Alan gave an example that if one was to sell a concept of a 3-5 minute episode series to a TV network or distributor, a fully completed 3-5 minute pilot episode could be used to get the party on board and interested in the concept. For a 30-minute short film he stated, a small segment of that film, may be used as a teaser to sell the concept to a potential final buyer. Alan Thompson also stated that that the pilot is also used to show a party that you are capable of carrying out the job.
Another important point is that the visual style of the production can also be represented and displayed through the pilot. In relation to this, Lubin (2003) states that in some cases the creation and presentation of a pilot episode is not applicable, many projects being bought simply on the synopsis and high concept alone. This point of the written being more important than the visual in these circumstances will be elaborated upon in the next section.
5.4 Story not Visual
The above comment made by Lubin (2003), directly relates to the point made by Alan Thompson in section; 4.3.6 Compromises and Changes, about the film people one would be dealing with in the pitching process are not visual people. 'They come from a writers background at best', a written script and the story they read, is more useful and important to them than a storyboard or visual representation.
Lubin (2003) strongly agrees on the importance of story in the pitching, funding acquisition and selling process, stating that 'funding people generally only look at the story'. Though the pilot is probably useful he states that is it not 'as important as the synopsis, and the documentation' of the actual concept. He states that if the concept has a good enough story and creates enough interest, the funding body or purchaser of the concept would give you money to create the pilot.
5.5 Displaying and Advertising the Film
Once the animator has reasonably developed the concept, maybe with a pitch document and pilot, the next stage would be to display, advertise and pitch the project concept to various parties. At first the film-maker may need to contact and engage a producer, especially if the project is aiming for distribution deals and needs large financial support for production. Film agencies such as ScreenWest and AFC will be able to give advice to film-makers in respect to this, offering names and lists of producers one can contact. There are also specialist agencies such as the Screen Producers of Australia Association that would be able to be of use to a film-maker in search of a producer. The following section highlights the importance of a producer.
5.6 A Producer's Role
Parer (1995, p. 2) suggests that producers 'may just be the least understood figures in the film industry'. Both Thompson (2002) and Lubin (2003) make the point that the acquisition a producer is very important in film and animation production for a variety of reasons. Parer (1995, p. 2) states that producers fulfil various roles and hold various responsibilities, the elements of their work explained in the following passage:
Some producers are money finders, who arrange the financial backing for the film and take some kind of billing and fee for their efforts. Others are packagers. They buy a concept, do a deal with a distributor and move on to the next problem, be it finding the star or obtaining the right to use an important location crucial to the project. In return, they receive money and a credit. And then there is the case of the person brought into the project solely to keep the pre-production and production wheels running smoothly (Parer 1995, p. 2).
Parer (1995, p. 2) further states that the producer is 'the person whose job it is to get the picture made', is 'in control of the budget and financing', and 'is ultimately responsible for the delivery of the film in the agreed style and the specified length'. 'Producing is the business of film-making' (Parer 1995, p. 4).
ScreenWest (2002b, [Online]) states that 'producing is a specialised field'. Both Thompson (2002) and Lubin (2003) states that one cannot be formally trained or educated to be a producer. Thompson stated that producers learn their skills and become educated on the job, for instance through being a production assistant or a writer etc.
Both Thompson (2002) and Lubin (2003) point out that the producers are responsible for over seeing and facilitating the project, Lubin (2003) stating that 'producers are very important in animation because they're the ones that bring it all together', making it happen for the production team. Thompson (2002), also suggests having a producer on board is also very important factor in the selling of a series to a final buyer, be it a television network or distributor, and acquisition of funding and financial support for the creation of that series.
The producer can assist in areas such as this due to the fact that the producer has the contacts to sell the product at either trade meetings or film conferences etc, as Thompson mentions. Alan Thompson in fact has met, worked with, taken advice from, and had his animation projects with a number of producers over the years, varying from very good to very bad, some of whom have actually taken his concepts to various film festivals and conferences around the world.
On the subject of producers and distribution, Lubin (2003) states that he believes that without a producer, it's almost impossible to structure a deal for a production based in Australia. He states that a funding body would not touch a production unless the final distribution of that production is already organised. 'If it's a commercial project, funding bodies won't touch it, unless you've already got a producer that can give you distribution deals all lined up'. 'You have to have it lined up where your distribution is in place before the funding companies will come to the party' (Lubin 2003), the producer being the person that is responsible for the negotiation of the distribution deal. In respect to this, Lubin (2003) also believes that the reason why producers are successful in the deal making, is the trust and belief the distributor has in that the producer that he can 'pull it off', finishing and delivering a production after their investment has been put into it.
5.7 Selling Outlets
If the film-maker and the concept is successful in acquiring the interest of a producer, the next stage the producer would need to undertake would be to sell and pitch that concept to various parties. This would be in order to seek a deal that would both sell the concept to a final buyer and acquire financial support and funding for the production of the project, culminating in the completion of the production, and once finished, a screening, display and distribution of it.
As Lubin (2003) stated in section; 5.6 A Producer's Role, the funding bodies would not support and finance a production, unless a final distribution deal is sorted out with a final buyer. The way a producer and film-maker would go about acquiring this deal is through displaying and advertising a pilot episode or animated work at film festivals, to which forums are attached where concepts and works are bought and sold by different parties. Other special outlets devoted to buying and selling concepts, films, series and commercial productions are forums such as trade meetings, and conferences. Reiterating Thompson's statement in the section; 5.6 A Producer's Role, a producer can assist in these areas as they have the means, contacts, experience and skill to sell the product at forums such as this.
An example of one of these specialist forums is the MIPCOM conference, which is held annually in Cannes in France prior to the big film festival. This is a forum where producers, agents, investors, TV network representatives and distributors from all over the world gather in order to buy and sell works. Alan Thompson has in fact sent producers with his concepts to various film festivals and conferences around the world, as previously mentioned. In the case of the previously mentioned Wild Room series, Alan Thompson gave a flyer to a producer friend who was travelling over attend the MIPCOM conference, in an attempt to advertise his concept to potentially interested parties.
An example of a forum of this type in Australia is SPA. Alan Thompson mentions it too is held once a year before the AFI awards, the same activities being undertaken by producers and agents selling concepts, and representatives of commercial television stations buying programming for that year. Not only do these forums cater for different geographic regions they cater for various styles and disciplines of film work. An example of such a forum entirely devoted to animated film is Cartoon Forum Varese, situated in Varese, Italy 17th-20th September 2003. The forum's documentation describes its purpose, giving an understanding of these types of forums in general:
Every year over 260 potential investors attend the Cartoon Forum. This includes over 100 broadcasters and 160 investors/video editors. They have the advantage of getting a sneak preview of the latest animation projects for television from 23 different countries.
The Cartoon Forum is neither a fair nor a festival, but rather a co-production forum, where European producers can negotiate financing for new projects. The Forum combines trailer presentations, working sessions and business meetings with opportunities for socialising and sightseeing (Cartoon Forum Varese 2003).
5.8 The Actual Pitch
In a telephone conversation with former Perth producer Pat Evans on 28 March 2003, she stated that once a project concept is reasonably developed one can pitch it themselves to a party, though it's necessary to be a good speaker and have good negotiation skills. Alan Thompson also mentions that the pitching of project has a lot to do with negotiation. Once a producer is on board on a project they can facilitate and carry this out this for a film-maker as that is their speciality.
Vladimir (2003) states that 'pitching is a fine art'. He states that it requires a film-maker to showcase their idea in an appealing way that explains the program, why the program is interesting and special, explains who would want to see the program. The idea and concept of the project has to be presented clearly and directly, Alan Thompson suggesting that one of the most important things is clearly stating who the target audience of the project is. Revisiting the fact as touched upon in section; 5.4 Story Not Visual, of the of significance story, Kelly (1998, p. 11) mentions that the story premise is very important in relation to the pitching of a project concept. Kelly (1998, p. 11) suggests that 'if you need to convince investors, producers, talent, or distributors. The premise is your one-line pitch - the hook to interest your audience and get them to listen to the rest of your presentation'.
In relation to this, both former Perth producer Pat Evans and animator Alan Thompson state that the success of the pitch depends on what the concept is, and whom you pitch it to. Just like funding agencies as touched upon in the section; 4.2.2 Types of Film Funding offered by Funding Bodies, the final buyers, be it television networks or distributors will favour various types of programming over others. For instance Pat Evans states that the Australian commercial broadcast channels, such a channel 7 or channel 10, would be more interested in obtaining entertainment-based programming, and a network such as SBS, or an educational distributor, would be more likely to favour a concept that includes cultural heritage content. An overview of potential final buyers will be touched upon in the following section.
If one was to carry pitching a project or concept at a conference, such as the ones described in the previous section, Thompson states that the one who is pitching, only has about 5 minutes to verbally sell an idea to a potentially interested party. He mentions that due to the limited time and the fact that many people are selling their ideas and passing on their tapes and documentation, one has to make an impression.
One scenario Alan Thompson mentioned that illustrates the above fact is a chance meeting he had with Warner Brothers executives about a concept he was working on. Also pitching to these same executives were the big names of animation in Perth such as Barron Films and Media World. Alan Thompson stated that he rehearsed his pitch to death pretty much, making the point that having a planned pitch ready, knowing what you are going to say, is crucial.
5.9 Potential Final Buyers
There are several types of potential final buyers a film-maker and producer might pitch a project concept to, in order to acquire a distribution deal and funding for the production. This could be done possibly through a forum like the type described in the section; 5.7 Selling Outlets. These include international and national Television Networks, Film Companies, Film Houses, Distributors, Funding Bodies, Government Sources, Investors, and Other Interested Parties that would be relevant in the distribution and financing of a production, some of which Parer (1995, p. 124) mentions. Each of these parties would have priority programming in mind and will favour various types of concepts over others, as mentioned in the previous section.
Thompson (2002) states that in Australia a film-maker could sell an idea, either to one of the commercial television networks, or a non-commercial network. It would be difficult he says however to sell an idea to some of the commercial television networks due to the fact that their programming is largely based on deals they already have with large media production companies.
Parer (1995, p. 246) suggests that once you are at the stage ready to do so, 'you should involve the distributor or broadcaster in marketing your film as early as possible'. The reason for the need to speak 'to a distributor or sales agent early on', is due to the fact that that 'most investment packages require a pre-sale or minimum distribution guarantee to reassure investors of the financial liability of the project'. This corroborates the point made by Lubin (2003) in the section; 5.6 A Producer's Role, about the funding bodies only supporting and assisting a production once the distribution is lined up.
See Appendix 2: Paradigm Shift in the Animation Process - Changes in the Post-Production Stages and Funding, to read about information relating to this matter, and the possible options open in the future to an animator when selling their work.
5.10 Offers Open to a Film-maker
If a film-maker and producer find success in pitching the concept there are several deals the buying party may offer. These include a pre-sale, commissioning and investments.
A pre-sale, similar in nature to commissioning, is an agreement between the creators of a film production and a final buyer. It occurs when the final buyer, for example a television network, distributor, or other interested party, will purchase an idea of a film or television series before it has been created, with the rights to screen and/or distribute it. The money from that sale will go into the creation and completion of the particular film production. Thompson states that one can have an many pre-sales as you want, though you can't sell a series or film to more that one television network in a single country. An example of a commissioning unit is SBS Independent, which 'commissions feature films, drama series, animation, single documentaries, and documentary series' (SBS Independent 2002, [Online]). The following is further information concerning SBS Independent's commissioning practices:
SBS Independent's financial involvement is through pre-sale offers (a licence fee); occasionally equity participation is also available for some projects. The pre-sale normally entitles SBS to broadcast the program, or film, 3 times over 5 years series' (SBS Independent 2002, [Online]).
Another way an interested party may offer assistance in financing a production of a film is through investment. This is where investors, shareholders, funding bodies or corporate identities, identifying the potential of a film production, be it a feature film or series, will allocate a certain amount of money towards its development and completion. The investor's money will eventually be paid back though the money generated by the final sale profit of the film production to a final buyer.
With the distribution of the production sorted out, and the financial support assumed, the film-maker would be able to complete the production whatever it may be, culminating in the distribution and screening of that work to the audience, maybe even resulting in a profit for the creators.
5.11 Case Study: The Selling and Financing of an Animated Series
To gain a better understanding of the process of selling a concept in order to gain financial support and distribution of the production, it is useful to perform a case study on how other film-makers and producers have undergone seeking financial support and distribution of their productions.
This section briefly details the processes undertaken in the acquisition of a distribution deal and financial support by the single project company Gripping Film and Graphics for their production Bobtales, which is a 2D animated children's series on Aboriginal Dreamtime stories. The information gathered was from an interview with the now retired producer of the series Pat Evans, Alan Thompson the chief animator, and an interview with a Domain Expert who was also involved in the series. The information also comes from personal knowledge, as I conducted credited work as a trainee animator on one of the episodes Meeak Mia (The Moon's Cave) [Plate 2].
5.11.1 The Bobtales Series Idea
The Bobtales series idea was developed by Todd Williams, as a Masters of Arts (Design) project at Curtin University in 1993/94. It was based on earlier work from a regular segment in a video magazine named Blue Tongue, which was produced by Todd Williams while working as a graphic designer at The Aboriginal Education Resource Unit (AERU), located in West Perth. The concept first arose out of discussions between, Todd Williams and a Curtin University academic staff member who provided consultancy services on low-cost digital video animation techniques for AERU. The series concept involved the animation of school children's drawings, which were visual interpretations of Aboriginal Dreamtime stories of their respective Western Australian communities.
5.11.2 Financing of the Bobtales Series
In pursuing the development of the Bobtales series as director, Todd Williams teamed up with experienced producer Pat Evans, who was successful in securing pre-sale and financing of the project, making use of some of the existing Blue Tongue material in the pitching process.
Pat Evans states that once the concept was planned the first step undertaken was to present the idea to ScreenWest and apply for Screen Development funding. Once a proposal was ready, they then went to raise more funds. The film agencies and funding bodies who financially supported the production of the Bobtales series were SBS Independent, The Australian Film Commission (AFC), and ScreenWest, who together granted $280,000. Although this may seem a lot of money, principal animator Alan Thompson states that the amount of financing of the series was quite low. This is due to the fact that the running time of animation produced for the series was the equivalent of the length of a feature length film, Thompson stating feature length films usually receive up to one or two million dollars.
5.11.3 Research and Series Production
Todd Williams researched the stories by visiting a number of, in many cases remote communities, talking with the community elders who were custodians of the Dreamtime stories related to their localities. Subsequently an elder would be invited to the local community school to verbally tell the Dreamtime stories to a class of children who would illustrate the story. Todd Williams collected both the children's drawings and recordings of the stories for subsequent studio-based animation production. The imagery was then digitised, and animated using an Amiga computer running Deluxe Paint IV software, according to storyboards created by Todd Williams. Once in production, the series provided an important opportunity for Aboriginal students and other trainees, such as myself, to gain skills, invaluable production experience, and film credits.
Pat Evans states that as the series dealt with Aboriginal Dreamtime stories, it was imperative to get the Aboriginal communities involved in the development and production of the project. This was also a very important factor in receiving permission to use the stories, as the Aboriginal communities were the owners of them. The principal animator of the series Alan Thompson asserted that due to the culturally sensitive nature of some of the stories, some could not be used in the series. Evans stated that without the Aboriginal community being on side, use of the stories without prior permission and consent may have resulted in significant legal difficulties.
5.11.4 The Completion of the Bobtales Series
With the financial support acquired from film agencies and funding bodies, the production, completion and subsequent distribution of the Bobtales series was able to take place by 1997.
Pat Evans states that the theme of a series such as Bobtales, with the mixture of both education and entertainment, is an effective way to inform and entertain people about cultural heritage matters. She also stated that the series being presented in the medium of animation was a suitable interface for children.
Pat Evans believes that the Bobtales series was a success, the distribution deals allowing the series to be sent to film festivals, and screened on television nationally and internationally. The Bobtales series had three runs on SBS television, and now can be seen on Access 31.
Internationally the series had screenings on television as far away as Taiwan and Norway. The series was also circulated to primary schools, as part of the sale and distribution deal was that the series was in conjunction with the promise of sale to Primary schools for educational use. The Bobtales series is a valuable cultural record, which relied on close community and industry collaboration for its success.
There are several options and pathways an animator or film-maker with a concept for a film or series could take, that would allow that concept to be evolved into a physical reality. It does not follow one particular pathway, rather working on many overlapping levels, layers and orders.
Through investigation, one can say that the selling of a film or animation concept in order to acquire a distribution deal and financial support for the production of a project requires the understanding of many different factors. These include an understanding of tools that can help advertise a concept, such as pitch documents and pilots, the role professionals with specialist skills such as producers, and the act of pitching itself. Understanding is also required about selling outlets such as film festivals and conferences, the parties one would pitch a concept to, and deals they offer.
The complexity and amount of information there is needed to gather and experience first-hand to completely understand the financing and selling and of a film or concept, is summed up by the answer to a question asked Alan Thompson. When asked how long would it take to properly understand all of this information, Alan Thompson answered; 'It's taken me ten years, and I'm still learning...' (Thompson 2003).
This chapter along with Chapter 4: Funding a Film or Animation Project, directly relates to the practical component of the Honours project worked on, as described in part 2 of the dissertation; The Self-Reflective Case Study. This is due to the fact that the 3D animated pilot and series concept has the possibly of being pitched and sold in real life to an interested party in the future.