Thoughts on selling an IP to a big network

I’ve been giving a fair amount of thought as to the ins and outs of pitching to a big network, like Disney and Nickelodeon. These are some of those thoughts:

Is it worth it? I guess so. But – it has it’s caveats.

If your IP gets selected, it’s great – it’s a pat on the back, and acknowledgement that ‘you did a good thing and someone will put money behind it. So, in the beginning stages, everything’s rosy – we’re all buddies, life is good, the horizon is endless and the future is built on dreams – ‘maybe my idea will be the next big thing and I’ll be living in a mansion in LA and my show will be on repeat on channel x’ mired with the small thought at the back of my mind ‘but maybe it won’t though.’ Anyways, contracts and signed, deposits are paid – ‘hey, I have some bucks! This is just the beginning.’ Work commences and onwards we go with developing the show or making the pilot.

With a big-gish project like this, support is thrown in every which way – mistake. If like me, you’re used to working alone, more people means you’ll now have even more gatekeepers to go through, more explaining to do, and your once great idea (which actually probably is great) is now being questioned from every angle by many people, each with their own ideas, and it slowly dawns on you that it’s going to take a lot of explaining to make this thing make sense. The worst is someone who feels it’s their job to change things. That person is costing money, slowing things down and detracting for everyone. (That said, I’ve worked with some great people who got the gist from the start and produced great work – much of the success of a job like this is about finding these people).

So, now your idea is exploded in a million little pieces, and you have to get it to make sense to people who are being paid, and you’re being paid. It can very easily become about the paying job now, and it’s easy to lose focus on the idea. What’s essentially happened is company x is paying your bills for a couple months which allows you to work on this great project you’ve created. However, when money’s involved, it seems as though people like to get their pound of flesh – in fact, with almost every network / studio, it seems like they want to own 100% of your idea.

Repeat: they will own 100% of your idea.

What you’re selling is *everything*. So, mid-way, you start thinking ‘hang on. They’re going to own everything, and they may not even use it? What’s the incentive now?’ You realise the amount of money that once sounded AWESOME, is running out, the process is taking longer than you anticipated, it’s more expensive, you’re working for far less over an extended period of time, the bright sheen of ‘being selected to work with a company that had a halo for you as a child’ is wearing off, you’re exhausted, and it’s become another service job. The difference to any other service job though is you may have been working on this idea for a long time already, you’re emotionally invested in it, and there seems to be a lot at stake.

I’ve never had a baby, but the thought dawns on you – I’m working so hard to make this baby, and they’re going to take my baby and may not even rear it into an adult, because then you realise – company x is signing up so many willing creators so often to hand over their baby’s, they don’t have time to attend to each one. And then the thought is ‘why am I giving them my best stuff?’

Anyways, being a professional, I do my best to deliver what I say I’m going to deliver, make it the best I can, and remember once again – don’t prostitute my best stuff again. Ever. Rather find a way to self-finance and just do it myself, on my own terms, answering to no-one, this makes it much easier to keep the focus on the idea. The world has changed – we don’t need network x or y. If an idea is good enough, an audience will find their way to see it through the Internet. Network x or y, or studio x or y is not my friend. It is a business that wants to make as much returns as possible no matter how shrouded in goodwill it is – I also want to make money, and don’t want to wake up 10 years later realising I’d have much better spent my time building my own brand instead of giving my best years away for a deal whose outcome is probably more uncertain than if I just did things myself.

I’ve had this conversation with a couple other creators and we are alarmed that we’re being asked to sign away 100% of the IP, and even more ridiculous is that we’re willingly agreeing to it. What’s happening is network x, y, z is signing up whoever, for not that much money, in a kind of ‘spread-bet’ strategy ‘in case’ someone has the ‘next big thing’. It’s not much outlay for them, but if something *did* work, they’d own 100% of it.

I’m already jaded after doing two of these projects. The ‘next big thing’ doesn’t really just happen like that – I believe Spongebob wasn’t received well at all when it first started airing, but after listening to the creator plea that they give it a chance, people warmed up to it after some time.

I know my 2 shows – ‘Moosebox’ with Nickelodeon and ‘Dogshow with Cat’ with Disney are excellent shows and absolutely will be the ‘next big thing’ if we just made them, didn’t overcomplicate matters, and put it out there. However, if they’re going to be tossed on top of a pile of other pilots, or put on the back-burner, not only is it frustrating for me as I’ve signed away all my rights to it and essentially need to consciously uncouple from these projects I’ve poured myself into, it feels like I’ve lost the months and years I spent on them.

Glad for the experience, definitely wiser for it. Would I pitch to a big network again? Nah. I don’t see the point anymore. It’s a bit like gambling, and if you ‘win’, you’ve actually lost in a way. The series that are being green-lit are from industry vets, and for my 2-cents aren’t really offering anything noteworthy, so while I can see myself as part of Africa’s animation story, and in many ways it’s great that these 1st world countries’ networks are giving a helping hand to Africa, it feels like charity somehow and I’m not sure how seriously we can take each other in such a situation. I also somehow feel embarrassed when I tell people “I’ve sold a show to Disney.”

I also feel I need to be able to be critical, because if I can’t, it’s something I’d rather not be part of. Yes, Disney laid it on for us in LA and yes Triggerfish gave us a great time during StoryLab, but I do realise what Disney and Nickelodeon is good at is putting stars in hungry young artist’s eyes, and if you’re not careful, you’ll sign away your best work for a pittance while they promise you the world.

The next illusion I need to dismantle is ‘I need to go to LA to crack the big time.’ I’m still trying to figure out if this is the case and if I should actively be pursuing this, or whether it’ll also be a case of ‘oh no I should have just stayed in South Africa if only I realised it was my difference that made me special now I’m just another LA douche.’

If I had a project picked up again, I’d do so on terms where I could work by myself, probably take myself away to Prince Albert for a month, and just try figure out what I have to say, what personal message I have to communicate, and offer something non-derivative. If the network / studio didn’t like what I had to offer, I’d like to good sense to take the deposit, miss out on the rest and walk away. Otherwise, it’s a compromise here, and compromise there, and *boom* – a year’s gone by, you’ve paid your bills and you could have used that time to work on your own projects and probably paid yourself better by taking on freelance jobs.

One way or another, been knocking some ideas about in my head for Bru & Boegie, have given myself one whole glorious month to focus on them – and luckily I’m able to make a short movie myself from start to finish – being able to produce a whole short is something I realised is fairly unique after having spent time around the industry for a while.

Artists have a long history of biting the hand that feeds them. I used to think ‘silly artists’ but I’m starting to see how it must be so. The money system is broken, the artist isn’t so much biting the benefactor’s hand, but the system’s hand. The ‘needing money to survive and being dictated to.’ A world without art is pointless. It’s important to me that I love the work I do, and need to realise that as soon as that changes, I’m doing myself and my client a disservice by continuing. My work is amazing when I’m doing what I love, and the onus is on me to tell my client when I’m being asked to deliver something that doesn’t agree with me. With limited time available on this Earth (as far as I know), I’d be much better spending it on stuff that I love, and not to keep learning the lesson ‘wow I don’t want to do that again.’

If you’d like to work for Disney / Nickelodeon, please be aware you’re making content for a particular audience, and there are a lot (A LOT) of restrictions on what you can and can’t do. If you’re an artist, before signing that deal, consider other avenues which may give you greater freedom of expression. TV is an outdated medium that’s slowly fading away. If you’re already familiar with what restrictions are in place and feel like you can work within these parameters to voice whatever idea you have, go at it. Please understand, when company x says they’re looking for ‘strong voices’, understand what they really mean is they’re looking for ‘compliant voices’ – you’re likely to be challenged every time you use your strong voice, and if you feel like you’re offering something new, it’s worth asking yourself whether you’d like to be fighting every step of the way. If you go into it realising you’re going to be compromising a lot, it’s likely to be a much more pleasant ride for both you and company x,y,z. Does democracy produce great work? I don’t think so. In fact I’d say it never does.

I remember reading a quote from one of the creatives who was responsible for Spongebob during its nascent stages: “Everything you see up on screen is a compromise.”

2 Responses to Thoughts on selling an IP to a big network

  1. susan scott January 17, 2017 at 9:40 am #

    excellent article – shared across media

  2. Thea January 23, 2017 at 6:24 am #

    Yoh, Mike. I couldn’t have said it better myself. This is EXACTLY how I feel about ALL of it. It’s better in the end to do it yourself.