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PERSPECTIVE

Development hell

By Jocelyn Stevenson 16-12-2014

Disclaimer: The following scenario was fabricated for this article. Any similarity to actual writers or any idea that’s out there is purely coincidental.

Picture the scene: two writers who were both shy when they were young want to tell shy children what they did to overcome it, and decide a television series might be a good way to share their experiences.

So they formulate an idea about a shy boy who’s recruited by the Association of Timid Animals to be their human representative. Knowing that nothing is ‘just TV’ anymore, their proposal includes a digital component so shy children can exchange information online. They also want to involve kids and their stories in the making of the series.

The creators now need help developing it. The word ‘development’ to them is the process of exploring how best to manifest their vision. But what they discover is that most people use the same word to mean shaping the idea in order to get it funded and produced.

Our two creators will consequently accumulate a plethora of people – producers and development executives connected to potential distributors, broadcasters and investors – who will tell them exactly what to do.

This group, which rarely meets in the same room, as they are in different time zones, is ultimately only as helpful as its least imaginative member. Which is a problem if that member happens to represent the biggest financial investment or is the most influential broadcaster (often not the same thing).

The development process then becomes simply box-ticking. The first box is Target Audience. The creators think that’s six- to 10-year-olds, but they are told that nobody’s creating anything for that age group anymore because those kids all watch content for older kids, so could they age it up? Or make it more preschool?

The fact that the creators’ expertise lies in shyness in 6-10s is irrelevant. If they decide to age it up, they’re told to make the show edgier and funnier, and also could they create a part for a celebrity voice artist? If they make it more preschool, what’s the play pattern?

Every time a new suggestion comes in, the creators go back and re-work their concept. After all, they want to get it made and have been told this is the way to do it. By now, they’ve been asked to produce a bible including at least six story premises, a sample script, some designs and maybe even some test animation. So each time they revise, it’s a big job. And so far, they’re doing it all on spec.

After about 18 months of to-ing and fro-ing during which they’ve obligingly made it more educational, then less educational, aged it up, aged it down, changed the main character to a girl because there are too many boy properties out there, a senior exec then poses the question: “Does it have to be about shyness? Shyness isn’t very… dramatic. I don’t think this is a very good idea.”

The alternative outcome would be getting a green light. This would mean making 52×11’ episodes on a tight deadline for a very limited budget. Yay! We’re getting it made! But is it really cause for celebration? The series isn’t developed yet. Everyone seems to think that a green light means that it is. But it’s not. And if you start production when a series isn’t developed, you enter a world of pain.

Wouldn’t it be more efficient – and creatively satisfying – to help creators develop their ideas with people who understand the development process? Yes, this process is collaborative and demanding, and not everybody knows a good idea when they see it. It’s a talent, and has nothing to do with a job title.

But surely it’s ultimately less risky to allow creators to be responsive to the commercial demands rather than reactive; to work with their characters, figure out who they are, how they look, how they move; to explore their world. If development is done properly, then the series will have a foundation from which it can evolve. Box-ticking can be part of development, of course, but if we just keep using all the same building blocks, how can we make anything truly new?

today's correspondent

Jocelyn Stevenson Founder
Jocelyn-StevensonPERSP

How Can I Help Consultancy's founder Jocelyn has over 40 years’ experience in children's media as a writer, creator, producer and executive producer, with credits including Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, Charlie Chalk, The Magic Schoolbus, Bob the Builder, Pingu and Moshi Monsters: The Movie.

Having held top roles at firms such as Hit Entertainment, The Jim Henson Company and, most recently, Moshi Monsters creator Mind Candy, she has now set up her own UK-based consultancy.

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