Rethinking development, so you don’t waste time

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Our tendency is to work on something until it’s perfect. Clean up the drawings, rewrite the drafts. Then release it when it’s “ready”. Making great work takes time and effort, and development has its place.

“The Internet and technology have changed everything about engaging with an audience – content development, content marketing, content distribution, and content monetization.  Hey, traditionalists! This means you need to re-think essentially everything about your media business.” – Peter Csathy, New Media Advisor and Chairman of CreaTV Media.

The media world is changing, and our approach has to change with it. This is one of the big reasons I started Indie Animated, technology has changed everything about development, yet most development in animation hasn’t changed. For a lot of shows the process is still years of development behind closed doors. If you’re lucky, you get greenlit and your show broadcasts to the audience. You hope you get a good time slot, and the marketing catches viewers’ attention. Hopefully the show finds it’s audience. This obviously works for a lot of people and I’m being a little unfair because I know the people who do this work, work very hard. This process works for people who can afford to take this long. This process doesn’t work well if you want to work on something that works early on.

In business there is a big trend in validating your ideas before committing to building the product or service. This is because it is painful to fail, no one wants to make a product nobody wants. Validating a business means doing tests to figure out who your customers are and selling them some version of the product early, maybe even before it’s made. This is the one of the real economic principles that makes Kickstarter work. If you can get a few thousand people to pitch in money to the production, you’ve de-risked going to market. The idea behind validating business idea is to not waste time creating things that don’t work.

Validating media will be different than a consumer product or a service business. We can still learn from the approach. We can still try to build an audience while developing the product. Or at least test our assumptions to make sure we’re on the right path.

Isaiah and I have been trying to figure out how to create projects that are short enough to test our ideas. It hasn’t been easy and we haven’t found quite the right thing. We still spend months developing stories and don’t know if they’re going to work. Often getting stuck in the planning waiting for the project to be ready to show. As Ryan Holiday, writer of The Perennial Seller, has said, “There’s no question planning is important, but it’s seductive to get lost in that planning.” Still, spending a few months on the side making a project is shorter than a year. Testing is a habit. We’re coming close to our second project of the year and it will be a chance to learn. Whether to persevere and continue with the idea we have, or pivot to a new plan, approach or idea. If we want to see development change, to see more diversity and new kinds of animated content we’re going to have to take the first steps. Create new ways of making animation and building audiences.

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The two fears of audiences

Artists and creators know that for their success they should build an audience. In order to make the art we want to we need to find the people who want it. I notice two fears that artists creators seem to have about building an audience.

The first fear of building an audience is the fear of no one showing up. Early on you have no audience.  No audience is born fully formed with teeth and full head of hair. This fear makes it easy for us to tinker and hide our work waiting for the audience to materialize. Audiences always start small. The way to start is to share with your network. Your friends and peers. If you make something good enough, something worth talking about, it will spread. It will grow beyond your network and you’ll begin to find your audience.

The second fear is the audience being out of your control. Artists become afraid of being part of something big. We become afraid of what angry fans will do or being targeted by them. This fear prevents us from creating the work that connects, because it is the fear of making something that matters to people. Unruly fans aren’t a new thing, it’s just catching up to us that now everything is “Beatlemania”. What’s changed is the access that people and fans now have to the creators. Social media has given us the access to disturb people.

I don’t have a really good answer for this, I think as a culture we are still figuring it out. One good answer is from Seth Godin. Seth writes a blog everyday including Sunday. His blog doesn’t have comments, his twitter just posts his blog posts. He made the conscious choice to mostly opt out of social media. It’s definitely easier for him as he’s been at this a long time. It also makes some sense of creating a little distance between oneself and one’s audience. There is choice in what level of access you give the audience. The reason I bring up an extreme like Seth Godin, is because it shows that there is a spectrum. You don’t have to share your life with an audience to be popular. It’s all a choice of what you want to offer. It’s also recognising that work changes when it passes from creator to viewer. Their reception is the final part of storytelling. How involved with that part is up to you. I was listening to a podcast with Brian Koppelman (co-creator of Billions) and Alton Brown (Good Eats, Iron Chef). They talked about how back in the day the only metric they cared about was if they got to make more of their shows. It might be a little distant, but in the end it focuses on what’s important and everyone wants, more of the thing you are creating.

That’s the goal we want to create things for people who have been waiting for this specific thing to be made. That’s the reason to try to bootstrap and create indie. Is that you want to find a specific audience who wants the story you have to tell. If you get it right, then what you make will get passed around, and you’ll get to do more. You’ll have doubts along the way. If you want to make something don’t let fear distract you. Making something surprisingly special for a group of people is a wonderful thing. The world would be less if you didn’t try.

Indie Animated is best enjoyed as an Email Newsletter. Released every Friday morning. Indie Animated inspires you into the weekend. Subscribe here.

Why you should develop your show in public


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.

Indie Animated is best enjoyed as an Email Newsletter. Released every Friday morning. Indie Animated inspires you into the weekend. Subscribe here.