I’m no expert about the television development process. If someone knows better let me know. From what I understand it goes something like this;
The traditional way to make a show is to pitch to a distributor. If it goes well you’ll start developing your show. You’ll spend a long time working with the distributors, and other funders working and developing the idea. You’ll spend years in development. It’s not uncommon to hear 5, 6, 7 years in development. There’s a lot of competition if your idea doesn’t fit what they’re looking for then the project might get cancelled.
The reason the system works like that is because broadcasting used to be scarce. It used to be hard to distribute a show across a country. They also needed shows that appealed to the largest possible audience. The broadcasters developed systems and bureaucracy to do just that. The film and television business doesn’t take creative risks easily. They carefully develop shows to work for the bottom line.
The thing is, television networks aren’t the only way to get your show in front of people.
Develop your show in public
Here’s another way. Take your story, make a version of your story that you can produce quickly and cheaply on your own. Release it online, and keep on showing up. Make things consistently. There’s no secret to building an audience (I’ve checked), just make good stuff, consistently. Then bit by bit you’ll build an audience. You’ll know when something is working because people will share it. People will talk about it and it will spread. If you don’t get the reaction, go back and make something better. It will take a long time. If you keep at it for 3 – 4 years you’ll probably have something. That might sound a long time, but look at the alternative. You could spend 7 years developing a show that doesn’t get made. The concept can get diluted, you could work with the wrong people. Without it ever getting the chance to find that audience. Going indie isn’t any easier, it’s just hard in its own way. What you get is control, what you get is to make decisions on your own terms, and maintain what’s important to you.
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I was reading an article from Michael Geist, it shows some data about the Canadian film and television business. The private broadcasters collectively contributed 11% to all English language television. I don’t fully understand the ins and outs of the film and television business. If there’s anyone who knows more I’d love to learn more but that 11% made me realize that the business is more risk averse than I thought.
Making new shows is more than risky. Risk is something you know in business, it has a value you can account for. If you have an investment it can be high risk, or low risk. A broadcaster might have a combination of different shows. Broadcasters have some shows are stable, not huge, but they get will consistent numbers and be successful. Then you have the new show, your risky show, that can either be a flop, or a hit. If you have a mix of these different types of shows it hopefully balances itself out. The shows that are consistent and the shows that become hits, offset the shows that bomb. The safe route is to not make too many bombs.
In the Canadian industry this means most of the shows end up being somewhere in the middle. They end up safe. It goes so far that the broadcasters often won’t fund the entire show. The production studio often has to make up the cost of production from many different funding sources.
Taking on risk isn’t just up to the broadcasters and studios, it’s up to us. If we settle and decide to create safe content then we aren’t contributing fully. There’s a world of opportunity out there. A problem we face today is the television business hasn’t adapted much with the invention of the internet. Even though the internet changed everything about media distribution forever. I’ve been talking about how animation tends to be high risk. Why not look at areas that are low risk? If you have a project or story you want to share, putting it out online as a podcast, a comic, or short is incredibly low risk. It’ll cost you almost nothing, while giving you the chance to connect with an audience. If you make something then send it out to 10 friends and they pass it along you get to make more of it. While the rewards might be lower it is still possible to build a business and make a living. The other benefit of proving your idea in a cheaper medium is that you now have de-risked the project for those risk-averse broadcasters. If you’re making something important that’s already connecting with an audience they’ll likely be dying to work with you. Then it will be you who has the choice.
I’ve talked a lot about going out and getting feedback. What does it feel like to get it, and what are you supposed to do with it.
The truth is that feedback stings at first. You can feel full of righteous indignation for a bad comment or a dumb note. You can feel demoralized and uninspired by harsh feedback. In order to make things you need to test it. Traditionally, this is done internally. Your supervisors or colleagues will critique, approve, or give notes. Now, the audience and the world will often give plenty of unsolicited feedback as well.
Feedback Leads to Learning
To create the best stuff we need very short feedback loops. No one really knows what works, and what won’t. The mantra of the internet age is the business that can learn the fastest wins. They do this by a cycle of testing>learning>improving. Without critical feedback we can’t learn, without feedback we can’t improve.
Knowing what to Change
Knowing that feedback is the key to improving doesn’t help how feedback feels. Feedback still hurts. The better you know your own project will help decide what can change and what won’t. Isaiah and I had a hard decision to make. We had been working on a comic for two years. A mentor had advised us to test shorter projects. Our early readers were confused. Then we got the note that we could be alienating the audience we wanted to serve. Without much hesitation we regrouped and started again. We knew the project we wanted to make. It made no sense to continue a project that didn’t fit our values.
How to process feedback:
When I get note I sometimes need to take a walk outside to get it out of my blood. I sometimes stew in bad notes and frustration. It rarely helps. When I finally come around and do the work, make the change, it turns out better than I thought. Every note is chance to make the work better. It is often the things we overcome that are the most worth while. On our last comic project Isaiah and I tried something different. We both took equal share of drawing. We’d work on pages simultaneously. It was tricky for him, learning my style. So I would give a lot of notes and redraws. In one of our talks he mentioned how disheartening getting a page full of redraws could be. He tried so hard, but still it wasn’t quite there. I was a little upset at this, as it was never my intention to break him down. Then Isaiah said something fascinating. He said that when looking back those pages that he had to fix, it was worth it in the end. Slogging through it didn’t seem so bad after the fact and he was proud of what he did. It’s the bumps in the road. The missteps and failures are what teach us most. The sting of feedback is small compared to the satisfaction of overcoming it in the end.
That said, Isaiah and I will be releasing a short comic next Friday. It’s called Small Havens. We all know someone who is great but doesn’t believe it. Our story is about that. For the next year we will be working on very short comics. Each with a different story. We welcome your response and feedback.
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