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November 2014
Issue: October 1, 2009

EDUCATION: NETWORKING IN ANIMATION

By: Evelyn Gabai
When I started my career as an animation writer in 1983, it was a very different time. Studios were smaller, more accessible places, often run by people who themselves had advanced through the ranks as artists and directors.
That same year, at the age of 23, I literally got my foot through the door of Hanna-Barbera by…well, literally getting my foot through the door. I waltzed into the studio with a spec script in hand and asked the receptionist (Hanna-Barbera’s only gatekeeper) if I could meet somebody who was in charge. She smiled…and actually introduced me to one of the facility’s top development executives. Who then introduced me to a story editor. Who then let me pitch and taught me how to write my first show.
I like to think that talent gave me longevity in this business, but let’s face it, this kind of break would almost never happen in today’s corporate world. When I was asked to write this article, I really had to sit down and think: If I were starting out and trying to sell a show or land my first job in the animation industry, how would I go about it now?
The good news is, the more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same. Knowing how to professionally conduct yourself and take advantage of an opportunity (no matter how slim), plus genuine talent and passion for your craft, can still be your ticket in. You just have to understand how to use the skills I just mentioned to your advantage — an art in itself that is as important as whatever schooling you will receive.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Most studios have established cultures that are as unique as their names. That old cliché about the entertainment business still holds true — it really is all about relationships. So, and I cannot stress this enough: study as much about the studio of your choice and the people who work there as you can, before you start looking for work there. And then network, network, network!
What do I mean by “network?” Establish relationships, and then be able to deliver. If you have trouble dealing with people, you will need to find a way to perfect your skills. Maybe a public-speaking or acting class for the shy, shrink visits for those with issues (de rigueur for creative types), and Suck-Up 101 (usually acquired by taking a politically successful pal out to lunch and begging for pointers) for the stunted in this area. Networking will have that much of an impact on your career.
Throughout my career I was friendly to everyone I met, not just those who I thought could do something for me. You never know who can help you, or when. I’ve seen PAs rise to own their own studios, so never overlook or backstab anyone.

TO-DO LIST

I also developed a willingness to learn. Mentors are everything in this business, and I was lucky to have my share, not only in what they did for me, but even more so for how generous they were with their time and talent. Don’t overlook the old guy in the room. Just because he (or she) isn’t your age doesn’t mean the person is out of touch. In fact, many older employees have “been there, done that” so much, they no longer feel the threat of competition. And, they are often very gracious about introducing you around.
Always act like a confident “already-working” professional when presenting yourself. This is key, because the opportunity to network may crop up anywhere, at any time. I’ve literally seen some people network at funerals — and pull it off! If you meet a potential connection at a social occasion, never press yourself on them for work. Mention what you do, and then let them lead the conversation. You’d be surprised at how much people are attracted to a mystery. If you make an effort to have a truly sincere conversation, it may not lead to immediate employment, but you are still sure to impress and get a second chance later. You will also be surprised by what you can learn and file away for later use.
Follow up on every lead, no matter how remote it seems. I’ve gotten work from a man I met in line at a bank, a phone call to a new studio after reading an article about them in an obscure magazine, and yet another successful lead after spending time with the wife of a head honcho at a party, rather than trying to suck up to her husband.
Pitching at a network or studio? Most people are not allowed to take a development meeting without representation (for legal reasons), but there is a way around that, too. Ask if you can submit, through your entertainment attorney, and then hire one.
Going to industry film fests, conventions, conferences, lectures and classes are classic ways to network. Watching credits or getting a producer’s name from the trades and making a phone call, will at least get you a conversation with the person’s assistant. Try to get to know him or her (something few people bother to do), and you’ll have a great “in.”
If you do get an opening to pitch and your idea is well received, let the person in charge know you are willing to take his or her suggestions and make changes. Execs often want a person they can work with and mentor, more so than the concept itself.

Evelyn Gabai is an Emmy-winning animation writer who has 100 produced TV episodes and three features to her credit.