If you've seen Robert Altman's The Player, you know that the term 'pitch' refers to writers and directors trying to sell high-concept TV shows and movie ideas, often based on the flimsiest of pretexts, such as "Die Hard on a bus." (This actually turned out to be Speed.) Update: Pitch is now the name of an up-and-coming New York production company that defies easy
The partners -- Steven Katz, Chris Gilligan and Russ Dube -- have extensive backgrounds in animation (cel, stop motion and CGI), live action directing and digital special effects. They've worked in TV commercials, TV shows and films. Pitch continues the trend of West Coast 'work for hire' companies (Pixar, PDI, DreamQuest, Colossal, Will Vinton Studios, Foundation Imaging) branching out from providing production and post services to owning and producing content.
Pitch wants to upset the standard models of production and distribution. "We love all forms of media -- TV commercials, films, cartoon shows," says Gilligan. "We're about storytelling. The idea is king." As far as spots go, Pitch has produced some for Nature Made vitamins, Charmin and 3M. Commercials were a natural entry point for the company, since all three partners have extensive ad backgrounds.
Gilligan started out in 1987 at Broadcast Arts in New York as a modelmaker, and rapidly became such a stop-motion star that he was recruited for Henry Selick's James and the Giant Peach. Katz, who looks and talks like a college professor, fits the part; he has written screenplays, directed live-action shorts and films, and writes articles about digital production. His book, Shot by Shot, is a classic text in film production courses, and has sold more than 100,000 copies. He directed CGI spots and ran the digital animation division at Curious Pictures, New York. Russ Dubé has been a producer for years, and saw how frustrated Katz and Gilligan could become while working for other people.
The three opened Pitch on a shoestring at the beginning of 1998. Just to show what they could do, and how fast the rules are changing, the company produced a beautiful 1:55 film, Protest, in which African elephants leap to their deaths from New York landmarks in an act of civil disobedience. When shown the stunning short, especially in high-definition TV (at 1,920 lines), audiences are shocked to learn that the elephants are not real, but CGI. Just as amazingly rendered are the buildings and streets. Even the sky is 3-D animation. (Except for some actors composited inside the animation, the short was produced entirely in 3-D Studio Max.) With its slow, rhythmic action, moving camera, and emotional score (the aria from La Wally), the film is haunting -- an elegy for the death of nature.
"The whole thing started as an accident," Katz explains. "I was drawing an elephant in a storyboard for another project, and my mind just went off on a tangent."
Pitch wants to pursue those tangents as vigorously as possible. The partners are betting that today's Internet is like broadcast TV in the early 1950s -- technically crude, but with vast potential. What Katz values most is that the Internet can be a complete business loop. "We're creating some animated characters," he says. "We can produce animated stories for them on our Web site. We can get feedback on the animation style, storylines, voices. We can take characters that have created a buzz and sell them to the broadcast or cable networks."
That could redefine the animation business. Right now, when a company like Pitch sells a cartoon show to, say, Fox, that network acquires all the rights. If the show is a hit, the creators receive nothing from the windfall -- the nightmare endured by pioneers like Mike Judge and John Kricfalusi. Under Pitch's scenario, Viacom and Fox and the Cartoon Network would pay more, and sign over more of the revenues for Web-tested characters or shows. "That's the way TV networks and movie studios treat authors of novels," Katz says, clearly preferring that business model.
To this end, Pitch TV, which went online last month -- see pitchtv.com as well as pitchinc.com -- will contain a wide array of content. First will be a digital film festival of live action and animated shorts, screened live at a New York nightclub and archived on the Web site. Next will be a filmmaker's resource center, with links to manufacturers of production and post equipment. Attached to this will be an online magazine devoted to the latest developments in filmmaking, animation and special effects. But that's only the beginning. Katz is talking to well-known children's illustrators about producing animated children's books and graphic novels. Pitch is negotiating with film festivals to broadcast and archive short and feature films. "There's no telling where it will go," Katz says. "On the Internet, six months is a lifetime, so it will be changing constantly. It almost makes describing it impossible." As Chris Gilligan describes it, "We're building our own toy box, and inviting everyone to come and play with us."
One irony is that, in the current economic paradigm, the money for animated content still flows one way -- from TV networks and movie studios; Pitch will use the Web (new paradigm) to squeeze better deals out of the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon (old paradigm). The company already has many projects in development. Yee Hah And Doo Dah is a 7-minute cel-animated pilot for the Cartoon Network, which Gilligan says will be Warner Bros.-like, gag-oriented humor, but with many unique elements. For Nickelodeon's international channel, Planet Orange, Pitch is creating another cel-animated show, called Jerk Chicken and FOOW (Fish Out Of Water). Gilligan emphasizes that technology is always a secondary concern. "It's not how we do it, it's the way we do it. It's the writing, the animation style, the attention to detail."
Pitch's clients agree. Eric Knudsen, an art director at D'Arcy/New York, hired Pitch to create a :30 for Charmin. "Everyone has the technology now -- it's a level playing field,' Knudsen says. "What Chris does is great character design; he has a sensitivity for creating likable characters; he has innovative ideas. I've always believed that a small group of people with a clear vision could do a better creative job than a large corporation."
"It's funny," says Steve Katz. "There's so much talent out there, but, over and over again, you see projects or ideas that never make it off the ground. The Cartoon Network has dozens of great ideas lying around, but the people who brought them in can't turn those ideas into real, live, viable TV shows. They get stuck. They don't know how to find the missing pieces."
The three partners -- and, increasingly, their roster of clients -- believe this