Cartoon Gravity 14 - The game for 2023.

Getting into production is a bit like a poker game, if you torture the analogy enough.

So this is 2023...

The end of last year was a bit of a blur. We did three days recording on the new Aldrich Kemp series in the week before Christmas, then another day in between Christmas and New Year. We now have one character to record remotely, and another location day in January, and then we're into the edit.

Scheduling these things becomes more and more difficult as our main cast are becoming busy in the world of TV and film, and we have to work around existing bookings. But we got there, and the show is going to be very good, I think.

As the new year begins, I'm spending some time figuring out what I want to do, what I don't want to do, and where the priorities lie. At the top of the agenda is the next season of the Lovecraft Investigations, which I'm working on in earnest as of this week for a planned June recording. I also finished up a movie script on New Year's Eve, which I'd like to get into production in 2023.

There are a few projects hanging over from 2022, which have contractual obligations attached to them, so they need to go on the schedule.

And then there's the new stuff; our podcast series "Temporal" should see the light of day this year on a major platform and there is a TV deal tied in to that, so I will be re-opening the writers room to get the pilot of that show done. There should be a proper announcement about all that in the next few weeks.

Our company, Storypunk, is also working on a UK TV series, which I need to write the pilot for, and we're in discussions to take some big existing material into the audio space, alongside the podcasts we're already developing and trying to get into production.

On top of that, there is another movie script of mine that I'm setting up, a TV series that we're putting together in Europe, and several US TV projects that are in various stages of development.

It's a busy time, but it's important at this stage to take a step back, get the lie of the land and figure out what merits the most attention.

At the end of last year, I had a call with my reps and we were talking about the need to cut through the fog with various projects. In the TV and film worlds there is always a deafening amount of white noise - there are projects everywhere, execs and companies are always changing their minds about what they want, people switch jobs, projects get fast-tracked or abandoned without warning; it's very hard to get things noticed, let alone get them across the finish line.

One obvious way to cut through the noise is by attaching talent. If you have Brad Pitt attached to your show, people pay attention. But you can't get Brad Pitt. Or if you can, you can't afford him. And even getting to Brad Pitt means entering a cacophony of noise because everyone wants Brad Pitt.

But you do need A Brad Pitt, even if you can't get THE Brad Pitt. An actor that cuts through the noise can help to get your film or show made. Even though it is, occasionally, possible to get a green light without an actor like that, you're then releasing your project into another load of noise and your brilliant-but-unknown lead actor is unlikely to get the attention the project needs.

The market value of a project tends to be directly tied to the level of acting talent it can attract. So that is the game. Your brilliant script is just words on a page without the right star. It doesn't always have to be one of the four or five biggest names in the business, but it does need to be someone the studios and the audience are interested to see in the kind of role you want to cast them in.

It has taken me far too long to accept this, I've spent years (decades?) clinging to the idea that talent trumps fame. And in my heart I still believe that, but my head has now come to terms with the idea that I would rather get things made than have a brilliant project exist only in my head.

The more involved I become in production, the more it resembles a chess game (albeit a slightly shit one played by a lot of people who don't really understand chess). From the outside, this industry can look variously luck-based/nepotistic/random. And it is all of those things, but the art of getting something made lies not in it being good, but in the behind-the-scenes machinations and politicking and triangular diplomacy.

The path to a green light on a TV show is a war of attrition involving execs and producers and lawyers and agents and managers. Your show gets a green light not because everyone likes the script (that's a baseline, certainly, but it's not usually the deciding factor), but because the pressure, both overt and covert, brought to bear on the decision-making process makes that green light undeniable.

Every day on Twitter I see screenwriters whining that show X only got made because this writer was friends with that producer, or because the last piece of shit this hack wrote did well and so now they are blindly making another. This is exactly true. That is how it works. Did you not realise that is the game you chose to play?

If you have a brilliant script and you can't get anyone to read it, you are not even sitting at the table. If you think that the brilliance of your script is the only thing anyone should be taking into account then, while I am spiritually inclined to agree with you, I'm afraid you've missed the point. This is a money business. Art comes out of it sometimes, but it's an accidental by-product of the system, it's not what the machine is designed to make.

This is a game of poker (the chess analogy really didn't hold up). Your cards are made up of your script, your reputation, whether people even know who you are, the actors you have attracted, the production company that is bankrolling you etc etc...

Even if you do have good cards, you still have to play your hand better than everyone else and you don't get to change the rules and you don't get to whine because you have a hand full of pretty picture cards when someone else just laid down four aces.

Your cool idea is a given, your great script is a given, your commitment to that script is a given, your talent is a given. All they do is get you through the door of the casino. But if they're all you have, or all you're prepared to play with, then you're going to be sitting out the night at the slot machines, hoping against hope that you hit the jackpot, while the serious people are out back in the card room.

When an exec makes a decision to green-light a project, there are only two potential outcomes; the studio makes money or the studio loses money. If the studio makes money, the exec might get promoted. If it loses money, the exec's head is on the block. Saying yes has serious consequences.

Saying no, on the other hand, really doesn't; the exec is on a fat salary, they have not rocked the boat, they can cruise like this for a while.

Let's turn this torturous poker metaphor around: you're the dealer now, because the real poker players here are the execs. (and the word "exec" stands in for literally everyone on the decision-tree, from a development person at a production company, all the way up to the green-light committee at the network or studio - they're all playing poker). So this exec is going to take one look at the cards you dealt them and they are going to fold ninety-nine times in a hundred, because they are scared to go in unless they think the hand they're holding is a dead-cert. Sure, they might make up a good hand on the turns (maybe Brad Pitt will like the script, maybe it'll be a surprise hit) but why take the risk?

But the exec can't fold forever, because the blinds are going to wipe them out eventually (where the blinds are the fat salary they are being paid). They may have folded a bunch of perfectly good hands already, but they HAVE to play sometime. And so, if you can deal them a good hand, a REALLY good hand, then maybe, MAYBE, they might play it. And MAYBE they will win.

But they are not going all in with a pair of twos, however much you try to persuade them that this is the most beautifully designed pair of twos ever created.

(As a side note, I should mention that there are plenty of execs out there, you may know some, who will look at that pair of twos and go "This is the most beautifully drawn pair of cards I have ever seen in my life. I am passionate about these cards and I will play this hand because I respect your skills as a dealer, I love these cards you have given me, and maybe this will turn out to be the best hand at the table." We like those people, they make us feel good and validated and appreciated. But they are SHITTY poker players and they NEVER win.)

So, and I'm talking to myself here as much as to anyone else, a good script is not enough. It never was, it never will be. If you're a big name writer, your script just might do the trick on its own, but there are maybe ten writers that big and if you're one of them, I'm pretty sure you're not sitting by your infinity pool reading this newsletter. And you're certainly not writing it.

So you need actors that mean something, you need a hot director (no one cares if this is director is any good, by the way, they can't even tell, he or she just needs to have made some hit shows), you need a production company with a track record and then you need a whole bunch of greedy and ruthless people on your side who will help muscle this thing to the finish line.

That is the game. Anything else is chance; it's a fruit machine, a scratch-card, a hobby.

And so, in 2023, I think I'm going to stop moaning about it and start playing.

Fuck it. Send.