Report- Animation Assemble: Talent and Toons
- Animation remains the cornerstone of kids’ commissioning and, if anything, growing in importance.
- Commissioners are looking for local stories that represent children’s lives but have global appeal.
- Diversity off-screen is a priority and projects should address new talent development, especially of writers/showrunners/directors who are women or from underrepresented backgrounds.
- Producers/creators are encouraged to come forward with strong, character-driven ideas that the commissioner can help shape into a fully developed show.
Beth Parker introduced the panellists and the theme of the session: working together to create quality content for kids. She began by asking the contributors to explain why animation is important to their company.
- ViacomCBS: Animation is a cornerstone for Nickelodeon worldwide. Their animated shows present the world from a kid’s point of view (even if the character isn’t a child, e.g., Spongebob). Chris Rose sees animation as a unifying medium, exemplified by new show ‘The Twisted Timeline of Sammy & Raj’ which is a co-pro with India.
- Netflix: 60% of members watch kids/family content, so animation is key, both in terms of series and long-form. Animation is seen as a global art form that travels well, and Netflix now has production hubs in Brazil, Japan, UK and N. America.
- ITV: Animation is the backbone of the kids’ schedule. The current focus is on acquiring homegrown animated projects (e.g., ‘Lloyd of the Flies’ by Aardman) to serve UK kids. YACF has enabled the channel to re-enter the preschool market. The 12-month strategy has focused on co-pro, pre-buys, and starting production earlier.
- WarnerMedia: There has been a lot of change in the past 12 months, including a new focus on preschool and girls’ content, family and long-form shows. The move into Europe for HBO Max is driving some changes.
- Three Stones Media: The focus during the pandemic has been survival. The company has had to move away from developing original IP to seeking work for hire. Covid killed a few late-stage development projects, and he felt that the marketplace was getting tougher.
Beth then asked about the animation industry’s receptivity to new stories and how important diversity has become in the last year.
- Three Stones Media: Greg is committed to developing diverse talent but pointed out the time it takes to nurture new voices (could be 4-5 years). Supporting new talent has been disrupted by the fractured timeline during the pandemic.
- ViacomCBS: Chris stated that inclusivity is critical (later referring to a policy of ‘no diversity, no commission’). The company ensures that new talent is partnered with more experienced creatives. The producers of ‘Sammy & Raj’ were required to create a diverse writers room. Viacom also uses animated shorts to try out new talent. He is always developing the talent database, so animators/writers/producers should reach out to Chris to be added to the list.
- Netflix: Diversity is central. Dominique learned a lot from the Netflix show ‘Mama K’s Team 4’, which was made in 3 countries, created by a Zambian journalist who was passionate about representing girls on screen. The writers room was comprised of African women of similar backgrounds. Finding this talent took time, but Netflix is keen to reproduce that experience around the world. Dominique believes audiences now expect full diversity.
- ITV: Darren noted that the conversation had been going on for many years but the UK is still a long way from realising full diversity. He objected to thinking of inclusion as a ‘trend’, stating that it should simply be central to all projects. ITV works with producers to improve off-screen diversity, especially within crews and writers rooms, where it’s important to ensure cultural sensitivity. He is willing to spend time finding the right talent and projects rather than rushing for the sake of inclusivity. Darren praised Jon Mason and the Secret Story Draw for uncovering new voices from BAME communities and called for continued support for the project. YACF has also been crucial in this regard.
- WarnerMedia: The company is reviving a shorts programme to help find new, diverse talent. The successful U.S. project for original content ‘Cartoon Cartoons’ will be introduced in Europe soon. Sarah is trying to meet as many new people as possible and follow every lead, and she is focused on finding new writers and showrunners from diverse backgrounds.
All of the panellists agreed that the pandemic has, in fact, made expanding networks easier because many more people can be met through the computer. Everyone hoped for a hybrid future that incorporates the advantages of the new Zoom culture, as well as the opportunity to meet new people at markets and other events.
Greg queried whether indie producers in the UK are benefiting from greater online accessibility of commissioners and called for more support for grassroots producers, who are being overshadowed by the ‘premier league’ of producers and suffering from a lack of development funding. The other contributors heard this concern but felt they were all working closely with the ‘little guys’ too.
Finally, Beth turned to the question of the future. What did the contributors foresee?
- Netflix: Dominique felt that all kids in all territories care about seeing themselves represented on screen. Therefore, the future is in the specificity of storytelling: local stories that can travel the world. She would also like to see a future with more women creators and directors, which can only be achieved if commissioners, animation schools and producers work together.
- WarnerMedia: Sarah too wanted to see more women in future and agreed that supporting the grassroots sector more consistently is important. Going forward, Sarah sees closer ties with smaller production companies and universities to achieve this.
- ViacomCBS: Chris is excited to work with peers on protecting kids’ content in the UK. He wants to see more disability-themed work in future, but is pleased to now see so much representation of LGBTQ characters in kids’ shows. ViacomCBS has been working with the Media Trust to improve diversity and inclusion. The ‘See Yourself on Screen’ project, and a work experience programme for 14-16s are helping new voices come through. He wants to see greater patience in developing IP, giving new shows time to grow and using established brands to support new ones.
Greg stated the reliance of indie producers on commissioners. He believes that commissioners understand the drive to produce quirky, challenging content but was concerned that the ‘business heads’ were not as keen. All the commissioners disagreed: support for new voices and great content is fully supported at the corporate level, as demonstrated by funding and expansion in production (e.g., launch of Hanna Barbera studios and HBO Max in Europe).
Points raised in the Q&A:
- Talent support
All the commissioners stated their commitment to developing new talent with mentoring, time and money. Both Netflix and WarnerMedia encouraged producers to address new talent in their content pitches. Chris said he talks to agents about new talent and is seeking it independently at markets and events. It was agreed that more shows are needed to ensure talent has a route to the top (not a one-off opportunity).
- How to pitch
All the commissioners had an open-door policy for new ideas. They all recommend making contact either by email, LinkedIn, or the advertised submissions process with short pitches (half to full page only). Netflix will accept pitches over Zoom and is looking for big characters in character-driven content that knows its audience (why is the show important and to whom?). ViacomCBS and WarnerMedia stressed that it is important to work with producers on ideas, so they are not interested in seeing scripts, bibles or animation samples. Less is more!
Freelance Animation Consultant and Executive Producer
Director, Original Animation
Three Stones Media
CEO & Producer
Head of Content
Acquisitions Manager: Films & Kids
Nickelodeon International & VIS Kids
VP Production and Development
Neon Soul Media
Children's Media Consultant