Pitching at Cartoon Forum
The third of a 5-part series where I take you behind the scenes of the most fulfilling experience of my writing life: developing a kids’ animated TV series.
In this instalment, I’ll tell you all about preparing for and pitching at Cartoon Forum – one of the biggest cartoon networking events in the world.
(If you missed them, here are Parts One and Two in this series of articles.)
After briefly celebrating the success of securing development funding, we set to work with the next step of our plan – preparing for Cartoon Forum in Toulouse. We had less than a year to get ready. It was going to be intense. Adding to the pressure, I still had a full-time day job!
My first priority was to write a mini-pilot script, which would then be animated. This would showcase our series during our on-stage presentation. But first, we had to nail the details of our show, as well as figure out its style and design.
Working with a Script Editor
We brought in Mellie Buse to be our script editor. I had written many scripts before this one and was comfortable receiving feedback, but I’d never worked with a script editor before. Mellie joined our team with great enthusiasm, bringing tons of creative ideas to the table. It was a privilege to have someone so qualified on board but… I couldn’t help but feel vulnerable.
I’d been in sole charge of the writing up until this point. It was my baby. I felt protective and scared, worried that if I used her ideas the script would no longer be mine. But as I came to discover, animation is a hugely collaborative medium; it makes sense to be open to all good ideas, no matter where they come from.
Mellie had experience of writing and producing her own kids’ series, so she brought a wealth of knowledge to every meeting we had. She asked us hard questions, and forced us to make creative decisions that we’d be holding back on. She made us realise that we still had a lot of work to do.
A preschool series needs to be clear and simple at its heart. You need to be able to pitch it easily, but also, more importantly, young audiences need to be able to get their heads around it from the get-go. Otherwise, they won’t keep tuning in.
Mellie brought up a couple of big issues that had a dramatic impact on our series’ development.
Firstly, she felt we were limiting our story possibilities by focusing on just two characters (the happy horse and the grumpy chicken). She believed our stories would get repetitive – and she encouraged us to expand our cast and use them all more.
So, this is what we ended up doing. Instead of it being primarily about Hetty and Jules (as they were called then), our series became about an ensemble cast of 6 animal characters. Each episode would feature a happiness stumbling block, and our main character, Hetty the happy horse, would help to resolve it.
The next big issue that Mellie raised was the age of our characters. In truth, we’d never really pinpointed their ages. To us, they were just a group of animals – probably grown-ups, but we didn’t know more than that. Did it matter? Mellie pointed out the importance of specificity when developing a show.
Stories become clearer and stronger the more specific you are. What’s more, broadcasters want to know everything, including how old your characters are. And of course, you obviously have to know the characters’ ages when it comes to casting them. So we needed a definitive answer on this.
Mellie urged us to make at least one character a child. Children identify better with child characters, she explained. This became the start of a huge debate.
For some reason, Katerina, the director, and I didn’t see our characters as kids and felt reluctant to make them kids, just because Mellie said so. We’d both watched and enjoyed kids’ cartoons featuring adult characters when we were kids. But Mellie said times had changed.
Time was running out and we had to make a decision. So, after much discussion, a fair few arguments and quite a lot of stress, we agreed to make our main character a child. (Later down the line, half our cast would become children and it was no longer an issue!)
Back to writing
Now that the characters’ ages were agreed upon, I worked on the script. I already had a 7-minute version of our pilot, but for the purposes of Cartoon Forum, it needed to be around 4 minutes long. Turning a 7-minute story into a 4-minute story was not an easy task. There was so much to get across in so few pages. But with Mellie’s help, I got it done.
Almost immediately, Katerina began the lengthy animation process. Step one was casting the characters and recording the script (a tremendously fun thing to witness). This happened in early 2016.
Alongside the animation process, we also had to create a 20-minute presentation that Inesa (producer), Katerina and I would deliver together on stage at Cartoon Forum, to a large audience of animation broadcasters, distributors and producers. This was still 8 months away, but I had a mortal fear of public speaking, so I was already dreading it!
Pitching on stage
I didn’t realise when I started out that writers don’t just sit in a lonely garret all day long. Part of the job is talking in a room – to producers and executives, to other writers, to groups of readers and viewers about your work – and even pitching on stage to an audience, as we were going to have to do very soon. And if you can’t or won’t do that, you’re missing out on some amazing opportunities.
Up until this point in my life I had artfully avoided just about anything that involved speaking in public. Without really realising it, I was holding back my writing career. But I didn’t know what to do about it.
After a lot of gentle encouragement from my husband, I looked into Toastmasters and discovered it was a fantastic public speaking organisation where you get to practise speaking on stage in a low-pressure environment. I signed up and started going every fortnight.
It was the best decision I ever made. Of course, it was hard at first, but it got easier with time and was surprisingly fun too. I made friends, but most importantly, I learnt to speak in public without having a nervous breakdown. Incredible!
A Balancing Act
Meanwhile, I continued my schedule of writing around my day job, during my lunch breaks and at 4.30pm, as soon as I finished work. My weekends also became busy with meetings with the team, usually via Skype.
As a team, we had so many decisions to make. For example, what to call our series as well as what to call our main character. The domain name ‘happy horse’ wasn’t available, so we’d never be able to have a website with that name. Secondly, Inesa had come across another kids’ series featuring a character called Hetty, so she strongly believed that we should change the name. But what to?
I really wanted the word ‘happy’ in our title. The Science of Happiness was the theme of our show – and I wanted this hinted at even in the title. I also loved the alliteration of ‘Happy Horse’. I wondered if we could use another girl’s name beginning with an ‘H’. We went through them all, but nothing seemed quite right until a casual brainstorming session with my husband led me to ‘Hopscotch’ and then to ‘Happy Go Hopscotch’. Aha! I had it!
Hopscotch would be our main character’s name. It immediately sounded right. It was distinctive, it made her stand out. And the domain name ‘Happy Go Hopscotch’ was available. Result! Now that we had a series title we were happy with, we could hire someone to design a logo.
No Rest for the Wicked
As for me, my new focus was to write the ‘bible’, something that would summarise and ‘sell’ our show as best we could. It needed to be a lot more polished than our previous slightly amateurish bible that was printed out on A4 paper. This one would be beautifully designed, filled with pictures and professionally printed to look like a super cute A5 size booklet. Something we hoped broadcasters would be pleased to take home and keep. I beavered away on the text.
Inesa, meanwhile, attended more networking events, seeking out industry folk to tell about our series. And then she came up with a new idea.
In order to be fully prepared for our pitch at Cartoon Forum, we needed to practise – and not just in private. She decided we should pitch at two additional children’s media conferences. She applied and we got accepted, which meant even more work on our plates! But it was worth it.
Our First Pitch
The first event was the Malmo Financing Forum for Kids’ Content in Sweden, which took place in March 2016. This would be our first time on stage, presenting our show to the industry.
We prepared a 5-minute presentation, explaining our concept, sharing images and revealing a tiny bit of animation, which was all we had at that point. We stepped on stage, hearts pounding, but thanks to my Toastmasters training, I knew I could do it. And it went well. Really well in fact. The audience was engaged, and we came back off stage at the end, to great applause. People congratulated us in the bar afterwards – I felt like a celebrity!
After lunch, we had a series of short meetings with broadcasters, distributors and animation executives. Everyone we spoke to seemed to love our idea and wanted us to keep in touch! It was such a great feeling. We were on the right track.
Next, we pitched at the Visegrad Animation Forum in the Czech Republic, in May 2016. This time we were on stage for 10 minutes – so we had to create an even longer presentation. Again, the experience was fun and exciting, and we got a good audience response.
The Final Push
Back home, we had 3 months until Cartoon Forum. We had to finalise our animated pilot and expand our pitch. It needed to be 20 minutes long and top-notch. We’d be competing with hugely successful animation professionals from around the world, mostly with far more of a track record than us.
Apart from the pressure to get it right, something else was on my mind. My boss at my day job had told me I couldn’t take the time off work to attend. I felt sick to my stomach. We’d been planning to attend for the past 9 months. The whole team needed to be there to pitch. What was I going to do?
I considered quitting my job, but I needed it to pay the bills. You don’t earn very much from a series that’s in development. I also considered getting a new job, but there was no guarantee that they would give me the time off either.
I put my head down, worked on the presentation, did my job, and tried not to think about it. Then, at the last minute, my boss reconsidered. I could take 2 days off (instead of the original 4 or 5 that I’d asked for). Phew! I could go.
Cartoon Forum Here We Come!
The 3 of us rehearsed. We coordinated outfits, got business cards, created badges, postcards and some hand-made giveaway gifts, and printed our beautiful bibles. And we went along with our 4-minute animated pilot episode and an eye-catching PowerPoint presentation.
I flew out to Toulouse the night before the event started. Our presentation was on Day 2, which meant we had a full day to get the lie of the land. We walked into the venue at breakfast time to be faced with so many people – literally hundreds. Everyone seemed to know each other, and they all seemed more experienced than us.
I’m a classic introvert, so it was pretty overwhelming. I just wanted to hide in a quiet corner! Luckily Inesa was in her element, working the room, and catching up with acquaintances. She did a good job of introducing us to people and making us feel at ease. Also, it wasn’t her first time here. She’d come to observe in 2015, which meant she knew what to expect.
We spent the day getting a feel for things – watching other people’s presentations, assessing the competition and doing a bit of networking. In the evening, we went out for a lovely French meal. Then we went to bed to rest.
But it was hard to rest. We’d been talking about Cartoon Forum as if it was the holy grail. This was the one place we hoped to pitch since we started this crazy journey. Now that we were here, the pressure was on to be great. I felt stressed, not to mention exhausted after months of hard work.
The Big Day
I woke up on the day of our presentation with a migraine! But there was nothing I could do except suck it up! We took our time to get ready, dressing carefully, doing our hair and make-up, practising our presentation, and trying to stay calm. Then we headed over to the venue. People immediately noticed and admired our large yellow Hopscotch badges. That was a good start to the day.
In the breakfast room, everyone’s trailers were broadcast on a large screen – ours alongside the likes of Disney, Nickelodeon and Cbeebies – exciting times!
Then it was time for the presentation. We walked into a large room and set ourselves up behind a long table at the front, waiting for our audience to arrive. At Cartoon Forum, there are always 3 presentations happening simultaneously, so the question was, would anyone turn up for ours?
They did! And it went well! We did a good job presenting, the images and animation looked great and we felt proud of ourselves… And yet somehow it was anticlimactic. There were no organised follow-up meetings like there were at the other cartoon events we’d attended. That’s not the way Cartoon Forum works. The audience is encouraged to write down feedback on a form, but many just race off to watch their next presentation.
At the end of the day, I flew back to London and returned to my day job, while Inesa and Katerina stayed on for more networking. A day later, they too went home. Now all we had to do was wait…
Coming up in Part Four
No news and then some good news.
Getting a picture book deal and adapting my book for the screen.