Buyer’s Corner-Donna Friedman Meir, Buyer and SellerFor National Geographic–and the World and All That’s in It

If you want to sell kids’ animation to the National Geographic Channel, you may be barking up the wrong tree. The channel, as Donna Friedman Meir explains, focuses on the 18-49 audience. The National Geographic Society, however, with its powerful outlet the National Geographic Kids Magazine, is very focused on kids and families. That’s why, in February 2003, Friedman Meir was appointed president of kids‚ programming and production for National Geographic Television & Film. As you will learn from this interview, that means that Friedman Meir enjoys the unique privilege of promoting aspects of the revered Society to other outlets. In other words, if you have kids content that fits the Society’s unique message, don’t approach the channel. Approach Friedman Meir.

Prior to joining National Geographic, Friedman Meir served as exec VP at the Kids’ WB! During her four-year tenure, she acquired, developed, greenlit and supervised such hit series as Jackie Chan Adventures, X-Men: Evolution and What’s New Scooby Doo? Friedman Meir’s career in children’s TV began at Nickelodeon where she held various key positions in marketing, consumer products and new media. She co-authored the in-house handbook, How to Nickelodeon, which helped further establish the cabler’s brand identity and philosophy. She also served as VP, marketing and as associate creative director for Nickelodeon Latin America. A magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University, Freidman Meir is a John Harvard scholar and a Ford Foundation Grant recipient and serves on the board of the American Center for Children and Media.

Rita Street: Donna, are you a buyer or a seller?

Donna Friedman Meir: As part of National Geographic Television and Film, which is the studio side of the National Geographic Society, I’m basically an independent production entity. So, I’m both a buyer and a seller, but not an end user. I’m open to pitches in terms of development, and we are absolutely looking for ideas, but we’re not the National Geographic Channel. We invest in development to sell product back to other kids’ networks. Also, most of our shows will not appear on the National Geographic Channel, which is really focused on the 18-49 audience. There is not a kids’ block for the Channel.

The big idea here is that we’re trying to take all the amazing assets and resources of National Geographic and wrap them into new entertainment packages. And it’s interesting because we’re part not-for-profit with a focus on exploration and part world-class media company. Up until the last few years, the Society’s focus was putting forth its mission, "Excite people to explore their world." And the primary means for doing that was through magazines and documentaries. Now National Geographic wants to connect with a broader audience and go where they are–to all the entertainment media where the broader audience spends its time.

RS: As a longtime subscriber, I’m very familiar with the type of content that appears in National Geographic Magazine. However, a lot of times the stories aren’t obviously about geography. How do you describe the Society’s mission and, in turn, your mission as part of its production entity?

DFM: A cool tidbit is that Alexander Graham Bell was the second president of the National Geographic Society. He defined "geography" as the world and all that’s in it and that’s the mandate that we’ve taken. So, we can do a show about almost anything, from a world as tiny as a backyard to a world as big as the universe and the stars and everything in between. We just have to make sure that the content is grounded in substance, but that the substance is never overt to kids. If Lizzy McGuire was, for example, everything she is in the show but also had a passion for rocks, that would be our approach. We’re always looking for great character-driven stories, but with that secret sauce that grounds the story in our mission.

RS: What projects do you have in the works?

DFM: Our first project is from Guy Vasilovich and Peter Burns. It’s about Iggy Arbuckle: He’s a pig, a scout and a nature freak. He lives in this amazing world called the Kookamunga, which is the ultimate nature park with rainforests that abut glaciers. All the stories start out small, but become big adventure romps. We’re in the process of putting this one together but it received really strong interest at MIP-TV from the networks, so we’re hoping for a fall 2005 launch. We have another project we haven’t announced with Mitchell Kriegman, creator of Bear in the Big Blue House that will be mixed media. Plus a whole lot more in the works.

RS: What do you look for in a pitch?

DFM: We’re flexible in terms of the amount of material that needs to be submitted. Sometimes a verbal pitch is fine, but I usually like to see something in writing. I’ve been wowed before by a great verbal pitch that is funny and charismatic but ultimately doesn’t translate to the page. It doesn’t have to be a 15-page bible. What I really look for is somebody with a strong point of view about what the show is and who the main characters are. Humor is also so critical in terms of what makes a show connect with kids.

RS: How do you decide which pitches to purchase?

DFM: There are two key questions I ask myself on every pitch. The first is, "Does this idea fulfill our mission? Will it excite kids to explore their world?" Remember, I’m not looking for shows that you automatically think of in association with National Geographic. Part of the reason I want to be surprised by a pitch is so that I can get that same reaction when I walk in the door at a network. Fairly Oddparents, as wonderful as it is, would not make sense for us, but you could do a weird, wacky show about aliens and ground it in wormholes, and that would work for us. The second question I ask is, "Who is going to buy this show?" We’re open to series, feature and direct-to-DVD development, but I have to have a customer for the product. Does this show meet the needs of Nick or a direct-to-DVD distributor? Also, will a mom want to buy this movie ticket for her kids or will her kids pester her to buy the DVD? If it’s something brilliant that answers these questions, then I will consider developing the product.

RS: So what happens once you sign a deal to produce a concept?

DFM: We typically spend three to six months on development, working with the creative talent to produce a bible or pitch pages, presentation and maybe some short animation. It depends. One project I’m working on, based on a book, seemed more like a "show, don’t tell" project. So we went direct to storyboard for an 11-minute story and we’re about to go out pitching that. For another live-action project we cut tape for a visual representation of what the show could be. Then we pitch domestically and abroad and look for co-production partners, typically in Canada, Europe and Australia, but are open to unique partnerships around the world.

RS: If our readers want to pitch to you how should they proceed?

DFM: Tara Sorensen, our VP of development, will take most first pitches. Pitches should be sent through your agent or lawyer to 9100 Wilshire, Suite. 401 E., Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Also, if they want to send just a quick paragraph to Tara or myself, just saying "Hey, I wanted to see if this sounded interesting before sending it in," then they can e-mail Tara or myself at [email protected] or [email protected] But please try not to overwhelm us…