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Being an International Head of Production Development: Interview with Leanne Passafonti

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Leanne Passafonti is a leading British development and production professional with 11+ years’ experience developing and producing original content for the children’s media space, much of which has received national and international recognition. She’s worked with and for some of the industry’s biggest players (Nickelodeon, DreamWorks Classics, Toonmax, CCTV, Red Kite Animation and more), on award winning and BAFTA nominated shows such as the acclaimed George of the Jungle, Emmy & GooRoo, Ella Bella Bingo, House of Anubis and Stitch Up Showdown.

We met each other a number of years ago at the annual Children’s Media Conference event in Sheffield, and since then, Leanne has judged international awards (IAA, BANFF, CCG) and been invited to speak and take part in co-production, focus on China and creative panels at various key industry events across the globe. Leanne has been interviewed by BBC radio on the topic of the animation industry and been invited to present for international producers and broadcasters, including in China by major networks Toonmax Media and CCTV.

I caught up with Leanne, who shared how her career developed as a Head of Production Development, how her work is truly international and advice for those looking to embark on a career in original content development.

Did you always know you wanted to work in animation?

I didn’t know that jobs like mine existed until I got my big break working for Nickelodeon. I grew up watching Nickelodeon shows like Rugrats and Hey Arnold so it was pretty special getting to work for the company whose shows were a big part of my childhood.

When I’d started at Nickelodeon, I quickly realized that I wanted to make a career for myself in the children’s media space and that I loved working in animation. I found that I had a strong affinity for sourcing, developing and producing animated shows.

What were some of the projects you worked on at Nickelodeon?

In my earlier years at Nickelodeon, our development slate was largely populated with short form animated series concepts. It was a fantastic way to work with a number of global producers and creatives, to see proof of concept quickly and to work on both dialogue and non-dialogue content as well as various styles of animation in 2D and 3D. I hit the ground running, working with the talented team at Blue Zoo Animation, to develop and produce the BAFTA nominated, 3D short form series ‘Stitch Up Showdown’ – a surreal series of gladiatorial contests between woolly sock puppets, each with their own unique strengths. The series aired on all global Nickelodeon channels. As well as its BAFTA short form nomination, the series won best Filminute in 2008 at the international one-minute film festival for the episode ‘Gym Jam’.

While at Nickelodeon, I worked on a number of other animated short form series, including the non-dialogue, 3D show, ‘Ooohhhasis’. I was also the Executive in Charge for several animated development projects from pitch to pilot, including Mike Geiger’s Leroy Dorsalfin.

On the live action side, I was the EIC leading the development of Nickelodeon’s first ever international made for TV movie project and was a development and production exec on the multiple BAFTA nominated, live action series, House of Anubis.

What was the most surprising thing you found yourself doing at Nickelodeon?

On non-dialogue series, Hiro, I utilized my knowledge of Italian to converse with the creator and producer (Alessandro Ferrari) in Italy to produce the shorts, relaying critical feedback and ideas to develop the show, ensuring the style and comedy were right for the Nick brand. This was an exciting challenge and put my language skills to the test. The series was visually and conceptually ground-breaking,  taking inspiration from computer games. The shorts aired on Nickelodeon channels globally and as part of the Shorts in a Bunch variety show on Nicktoons in the US.

What made you decide to take the leap onto the producer side of the business?

Working for a global TV network, in Nickelodeon, was an amazing experience. I gained a thorough understanding of the development and production process and was able to work on a variety of content from animation to live action, TV movies, preschool, 6-11 comedy and even serialized dramedy in House of Anubis.

I loved working on the creative aspects of devising, developing and producing shows and felt the best way to further hone those skills would be to work on the independent production side, where you are really ‘in the trenches’, working on the creative with writers and artists to deliver the network executives what they need. Red Kite offered me a role I was really excited about, as Head of Development for their original content. With a team of four talented development staff, I built up a new  slate and led all creative from pitch to pilot.

What were the major differences working for an indie versus a broadcaster?

There were many! I went from being a buyer taking creative pitches to a seller pitching ex-colleagues and other industry peers. I also needed to be resourceful to develop quality original shows on a smaller budget. At a network, you have the luxury of producers and creatives lining up to pitch their ideas to you. Whereas, on the producer side, you have to work hard to get  meetings with  commissioning executives and compete with the rest of the industry  for the few available slots on air.  I was proud to represent Red Kite and our exciting new slate of projects to international broadcasters. When you’re passionate about your content, others will see that and I really enjoyed pitching, which was a skill I had to develop quickly.

What were some of the notable shows you led through the development process at Red Kite?

I led the development of a new version of George of the Jungle with August Media and DreamWorks Classics, for Teletoon in Canada. It was a fun challenge to take an existing, evergreen property and to re-develop it for  a modern kid audience. We aged up the series from the 2007 version, making the comedy more sophisticated. Teletoon then greenlit the 52 x 11 show for production  and the series now airs in over 120 countries, receiving an Asian Television Award for Best in 2D Animation.  I also led the re-development of Norwegian property Ella Bella Bingo with August Media and Kool Produktion. The show was already airing on Norwegian broadcaster NRK but hadn’t sold internationally. I oversaw the re-development of the visuals, to create a new, more globally appealing style and of the concept to retain the heart and charm of the existing show, whilst ensuring the themes and stories would appeal to kids around the globe. NRK picked up the show for a new season and the series now airs in over 25 countries, distributed worldwide by Cake Entertainment.

Bradley & Bee was another preschool show I developed, featuring a brother and sister duo  as they go on adventures in a pop-up book world. The show has several international deals in place, including with Channel 5 in the UK, and is anticipated to go into production soon.

During my time as Head of Development at Red Kite, I worked on some exciting new content and learnt a lot about the independent side of the business, which put me in a good position for setting up Bright Box Creative.

How did you find the transition to running your own company, Bright Box Creative?

It wasn’t an easy process but it was incredibly rewarding. I drew from my pool of international contacts and let them know that I was running a creative business with a view to helping producers and broadcasters to develop and produce original content for children. I had two or three clients within a couple of weeks and though reputation and networking, I expanded to gain clients across five continents, working on original IP for the international market. Of course, a huge motivating factor is not only getting to work on exciting new content but also making sure you can pay yourself and any additional crew. .

Could you tell us about the projects you worked on at Bright Box, and how they were received internationally?

My most recent show, Emmy & GooRoo, was produced by Left Pocket and Tomavision and is a Chinese-Spanish production. I led the development of the series from initial creative bible through to story idea generation and scripts, enabling the show to get greenlit for series production. As Story Editor on the production of all 52 episodes, I oversaw the work of all writers in Spain and China and edited the scripts for broadcast. I also devised and wrote two of the episodes in this first season and wrote the theme tune lyrics for the show. Having been so integral to the creative vision, development and production of this series, it was a rewarding and valuable experience. It was critical to ensure the show would work well for the Chinese market online platform giant, Youku, as well as being able to travel internationally. The series  launched on Youku with great success, receiving over 10 million views in a single week and became the number 1 new series on the platform. Emmy & GooRoo was  picked up for worldwide distribution by Superights with several pending international deals.

Other successes in the Chinese market include my work with major broadcaster Toonmax Media, where I led the development of the projects Stone Bone Rocks and Nunu & Lulu, which received several honors in China.

For the largest broadcaster in China, CCTV, I co-created and led the development of an original concept based on past and present Chinese heroes to inspire a new generation of heroes. I also worked on the production of live action workshops with kids in two Chinese cities, which aired as part of an animated and live action series for CCTV, generating millions of views on China’s largest online platform, iQiyi.

Outside of China, I led many other shows into development, including running the development slate for Irish Distributor Monster Entertainment, getting the property Fuzzyworld into the prestigious Cartoon Forum event in Toulouse.

How did you develop experience and recognition in the Chinese market?

Ex-Nickelodeon China GM, Alex Chien, brought me on board to run workshops for producers and the executive team at broadcaster Toonmax Media in Shanghai. The focus of the workshops was to explain the typical Western development process and to assess and offer advice on their slate of projects. Due to the success of this visit, I was invited to lead the development of Stone Bone Rocks and Nunu and Lulu and asked to be on the jury for the major China International Comics and Games Expo (CCG) on several occasions to judge the animation category.

After this mutually positive experience, Alex attached me to the new series and first ever preschool version of the renowned Tales From Journey to The West. I led the English scripting for the award winning Chinese series which is now distributed worldwide by Bejuba!

I also worked on a new boys’ action series called ‘Beijing Opera Cats’, where again I led the English scripting of sample episodes for international distribution From there, I secured the work With CCTV.

Having already worked with Tomavision on other projects including their property ‘Nanooz’, and knowing I had experience working on Chinese content, Tomavision considered me well  placed to lead the development of Emmy and GooRoo for YouKu. .

So you write as well?

Absolutely!  I enjoy the writing process and have written and created original concepts from scratch, written bibles, scripts and other pitch materials for animated shows. But I think it’s equally important to not try to do everything oneself and to know when to utilize writer and artist talent to get the right voice and vision for the each project, directing and collaborating to allow the project to achieve its full potential and sale.

What do you think are some of the key attributes needed to be a successful development and production executive?

Understanding the right tone and sensibility needed for a show to get the appropriate writing voice and artist attached is key.

A thorough understanding of the international market place is vital if you’re on the producer side especially, because you need to know what each commissioner is looking forto focus your development efforts and get the commissions. Knowing the key industry players is the first step. Networking is an important part of being a development exec and the best way to do this is to attend key industry events like MIPCOM, Kidscreen, CMC and Annecy. Going to these events, you’ll meet with global commissioners, producers and talent to build on your existing network and you’ll also refine your pitching skills to sell your shows.

Understanding global trends is also important. Is there a toy that would make a great show, an app with potential to develop into a series or a web series with potential to expand to a longer format? Original ideas can come from individual creators, producers, classic properties being reimagined or other formats like comics, books and games. Keeping track of what kids are into and what is doing well in the market is important as it will allow you to spot potential gaps or areas where a specific type of content might be needed. It’s also important to remember that what works in one region, won’t necessarily work everywhere. Some ideas travel well, while others would present problems or considerations for international distribution if they’re very regional in concept, educational, have words on screen, set in a specific period of time or historical or have characters or themes that would jar culturally with a country’s values.

Creatively, in development collaboration is key. It’s important to get the best out of any talent you are working with and to offer solutions, not just point out potential problems. I love bouncing ideas off creators and having creative brainstorms where we all bring story ideas to the table for consideration.

What’s next for you?

Having moved to Los Angeles, I’m excited for the next phase in my career and have a couple of exciting job offers lined up where I will lead the development and production of a number of original animated and live action shows for the international market. Watch this space!

Finally, what advice would you have for someone looking to work as a producer or in development?

Be resilient! Network! Try to get an internship or if you are already in the industry but in a different role, offer to help out the development team, join meetings and offer creative ideas. Above all, be proactive, watch the industry trends and try to invest in your own development and attend local or international events where possible as you’ll have the opportunity to meet the key people in the industry and potentially find your next exciting role.

Leanne Passafonti is a leading development and production professional with 11+ years’ experience developing and producing internationally recognized original content for the children’s media space. She’s worked with and for some of the industry’s biggest players (Nickelodeon, DreamWorks Classics, Toonmax, CCTV, Red Kite), on award winning and BAFTA nominated shows such as the acclaimed George of the Jungle, Emmy & GooRoo, Ella Bella Bingo, House of Anubis and Stitch Up Showdown. Leanne has also judged international awards (IAA, BANFF, CCG) and been invited to speak and moderate on co-production, focus on China and creative panels at major industry events. Leanne is now based full-time in LA.

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