Sponge Bob Makes it Up as He Goes Along
by Mel Gilden
In the early 1980s I was fired from my latest day job, editing automobile books for amateur mechanics. Hoping that disaster was, as the Chinese saying goes, an opportunity in disguise, I decided to call in a few favors.
Many of my friends were making "big" money writing cartoons for TV. I contacted some of them, wangled a few introductions, and hooked up with Filmation where I wrote a couple of scripts for HeMan and the Masters of the Universe. Back in those days a person could trip over his or her own literary feet and get a job writing one of the seemingly hundreds of animated shows on the air.
Writing the HeMan script was the beginning of a short but happy career. Short because soon the world turned cold and those of us who had danced in the sunshine found it difficult to survive through the animation winter that continues to this day.
Most shows these days are written by staff. And most of that staff is well under thirty. And if they have any writing experience at all, it is in writing live-action sitcoms. Those who control the money feel that no one but the young can write hip stuff like Futurama, The New Batman, or King of the Hill.
Many shows that are not entirely written by staff are produced in Canada, or at least by Canadian companies – for instance, the entire 1999 CBS Saturday morn schedule is produced by Nelvana (the Hanna-Barbera of the frozen north). The Canadian government feels that the United States has had much too much influence on Canadian arts. For this reason – and for others, for all I know – the Canadian government gives tax breaks to Canadian productions that have enough Canadian Content. Productions get points for employing Canadian producers, directors, writers, and so on. This means that where an American writer might get work, he or she cannot because the production company will not get the big tax break.
Even so, employment is still possible. A young person with a good spec script of a hot show might be able to get a job. Producers are looking for fresh faces and new approaches. Experience seems to have very little currency at all.
Being familiar with the script form is a good idea. An animation script looks a lot like a live-action script but styles vary. If you have no access to scripts of any kind, they can be purchased at many bookstores in Hollywood and through specialty mail order houses. If you get work the show's story editor will likely give you a sample script.
At this time there is no Writer's Market-type publication for animation writers. As is usually the case in the arts, knowing an inside man (or woman) at the Skunkworks is helpful. Such an insider can tell you which companies are still in business; who, if anybody, is looking for writers; and which shows are being produced with foreign money. There is not much (read not any) call for original material. You will write for the shows the big boys have in production or you won't write animation at all.
(This is not entirely true. I believe that Ren and Stimpy came from the outside. There may be others. But chances of seeing your shiny new characters on TV are vanishingly slim. To sustain any hope of succeeding you will need a spectacular presentation, a lot of time, and a strong stomach.)
Lacking a friend on the inside, you might contact the Animation Writer's Caucus, an industry ally of the Writer's Guild of America. (WGA Department of Industry Alliances / 7000 W. 3rd Street / Los Angeles CA 90048. 323 782 4511. firstname.lastname@example.org) While not set up specifically to find writers work, the AWC may be able to give you clues where to search. They also publish a yearly member directory. Maybe you can make a friend if you don't already have one.
Money for writing animated scripts is good – better than working for a living – though payment is generally at least an order of magnitude lower than what you might get for the average live-action show. The AWC is working hard to get animation writers residuals, just like the big kids get for writing live-action. They have made some progress, but residuals for animation is still the exception rather than the rule.
The audience for TV animation is vast and varies from show to show. Generally, the earlier in the day a show is on, the younger the perceived audience. Shows like Pinky and the Brain have fans from pre-teens to adults. Shows like Care Bears, My Little Pony, and Rainbow Brite, are pretty much limited to the pre-school set. Shows like the Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Futurama, are thought to attract a hip young-adult audience with a lot of discretionary income.
The short answer to the question, "Why even try to get into animation writing?" is that it can be a very good gig. The money is acceptable, the work is not taxing, and you can make some good friends.