By Roger S. H. Schulman
You love Hollywood movies. More than that, you love animated movies. You love watching them, and you’d really love to write them. So to leap from desire to reality, you consider writing an animated feature spec.
Makes sense. In a medium that’s all about mass entertainment, you know that nothing appeals to a broader audience, works on more levels, is more pleasing and entertaining to the eye and ear than a superbly-made animated film. Few things hold up as well under repeated watching, or offer characters so “gettable” and sympathetic that you can immediately imagine them in another story. From The Little Mermaid to Up, from Happy Feet to Toy Story, what other type of movie garners such critical praise and prints so much money?
What’s more, such a spec would serve as a showcase for your talents and skills for any genre of movie. After all, if you can pull off a compelling, funny, touching, mesmerizing, fantastic animated movie, what can’t you do? Your animated spec will show how well you can handle character, create magical moments, construct epic fantasy, display visual as well as verbal panache. A solid animated spec will be your omnipotent calling card.
So logically the shrewd move is to fire up your tablet or notebook — or grab your yellow pad and #2 Ticonderoga — and start outlining your animated feature spec, right?
The reasoning seems solid. But like a movie set, a quick stroll inside reveals it’s mostly facade. There’s a secret about animated movies that trumps all the valid arguments for writing an animated spec. Despite the gigantic box office; no matter how much a given animated film can be Oscar flypaper; animated movies are the redheaded stepchild of the show business.
You see, animated movies, like Trix, are for kids. Oh, maybe not just for kids: there are plenty of grown-ups who pay to see or buy animated movies, just as there are plenty of adults who munch those multicolored spheroids. But to torture the simile, you’ll rarely find a box of Trix in a household where there are no kids. And you won’t find DVDs of Despicable Me 2 in many bachelor cribs. In short, animated movies start with children and build their audiences from there. At least, that’s the prejudice under which executives and agents labor. It’s a peculiarly American bias — French or Japanese teens and adults think nothing of taking themselves to an animated film — but here, it’s entrenched.
So when you hand your animation spec to Tip A. Kill the movie producer, Tip’s subconscious immediately morphs the word “animation” into “cartoon” and he thinks, “Oh, she writes for kids. Meh.” You as an author are immediately relegated to a fragment of the moviegoing audience much smaller than your abilities. I’ve written many animated features, some of them never produced. Would I ever hand one to a live-action producer as a sample of my work? Not if I had any other choice.
Well, you may think, at least my animation spec will be welcomed by my future brethren: The producers of Hollywood’s animated features.
Animation studios do not read animation specs. If they do, they do not like them. Think about it: you’re handing the experts your version of what they do all day, every day. In the lingo of animation, your flaws are going to “stretch,” while your virtues will “squash.” It’s like one magician trying to impress another with a trick: it hardly ever succeeds. Besides, not to get too bleak, but animation studios are usually closed to outsiders. “We develop internally,” they say, referring to a process much like an ulcer’s. If they do reach outside the cabal, it’s to a corner of the creative universe that never sees them coming.
Example: Some years back, executives at Pixar emerged from a movie theater particularly impressed with the quality of the screenwriting. Had the writer penned an animated epic? A superhero blockbuster? Perhaps a cutting edge example of anime? No, it was Michael Arndt and he had written the low budget, ensemble indie Little Miss Sunshine, a Oscar-winning screenplay about as far away from animation as you can get. But they loved the storytelling, hired Mr. Arndt, and eventually Toy Story 3 was born. And Brave.
It’s not easy to decide what to write on spec when you’re desperate to author an animated feature. But there’s one thing you probably shouldn’t spec: an animated feature.
Roger S. H. Schulman is the recipient of an Academy Award nomination and British Academy Award for "Shrek." He wrote “Balto” for Executive Producer Steven Spielberg, and sequels of Disney classics such as “Jungle Book,” “Bambi” and “Mulan.” A former journalist, Schulman enjoys writing for both children and adults, and swings between projects of fantasy and those based on real-life people and pursuits.
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