Thomas Heath
Thomas Heath
Columnist

Value Added: Washington establishment scion aims to conquer TV with cartoons

Carin Baer/FOX - Nick Weidenfeld, right, chats with cast member Megan Mullally.

Nick Weidenfeld is as Washington establishment as they come. His grandfather was Republican kingmaker Maxwell Rabb, confidant to Eisenhower and Reagan and ambassador to Italy. Mom is Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld, former press secretary to Betty Ford and author of “First Lady’s Lady.” Dad is Edward L. Weidenfeld, a respected Washington lawyer specializing in estates and trusts.

Nick grew up in Georgetown and attended Georgetown Day School. He became a William Faulkner freak at Columbia University and interned at the Pentagon. He met Monica Lewinsky at a barbecue. He knew Linda Tripp.

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Bound for a political life, right?

Nope.

He makes cartoons.

He may even be the boy genius of cartoons, having served as head of development for Adult Swim, which is Cartoon Network’s late-night block of irreverent programming.

Now he presides over a 120-person Los Angeles animation studio that Fox built just for him.

His mission: to wrest the coveted 18-to-34-year-old-male-spendthrift demographic from DVDs, YouTube, the Internet and NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” — the altar at which comedy lovers worship.

He is building an “animation block” of Saturday-night television and Internet programming that he has dubbed “ADHD,” for “Animation Domination High-Def.” ADHD will debut this summer with its own edgy content.

“I’m trying to create an hour-long experience that is fun and feels new on television,” said the 33-year-old hip-hop lover.

He is also trying to reinvent how cable TV shows, and cartoons in particular, are made, putting all the pieces under one roof and one authority. He has formed his own production company, Friends Night, that will share in the profits of each of the cartoon shows it produces for Fox.

“If we bring this all into one place from development to animation, everyone can be in one place and talk things out,” said the young mogul. “Then you have a dialectic between the shows.”

To learn how to be a business bigwig, he devoured biographies on business titans such as Steve Jobs. He toured and read up on the history of Pixar, the breakthrough animation studio that Jobs seeded. He read business books such as “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail” by Clayton M. Christensen.

“These guys had these ideas and figured out that the old systems don’t work anymore,” Weidenfeld said.

With virtually no business experience, this liberal arts major has been making up his career every step of the way since college. His life, so far, is a series of self-created opportunities.

“The nice thing about my story is about the connections I made, but not family connections,” he said. “I broke into this business myself through friends.”

Starting back at age 16 at Georgetown Day, he has had an obsession with rap music and culture that led him to a series of low-paid gigs filming or writing up interviews for offbeat media vehicles, with names such as 88 Hip Hop, Pseudo.com and While You Were Sleeping.

He bounced among Washington, Boston, New York and Florida. In the Sunshine State, his grandmother threw him out of her assisted-living apartment while he was crashing between writing assignments that included music reviews for Seventeen and Teen Vogue.

It sounds like a parallel universe to me, but he’s the one who is becoming the next Jeffrey Katzenberg or George Lucas, not me.

He repeatedly attributed his climb to moguldom at such a young age to “being open.”

What’s that mean?

“It’s just being open. If I had said I want to be a TV executive, I don’t think this would happen,” said Weidenfeld, who thought his destiny would be editing a magazine. “To be open to know what you are good at, and know what value you bring to something, you find a way to fit it into whatever job it is. I’m good at making connections or putting an organization or putting pieces together. I’m a good global thinker.”

Weidenfeld found his way into cartoons after he talked Esquire magazine into letting him do a deep-dive into Adult Swim, then a little-known package of Cartoon Network programming that was beating Jimmy Kimmel in the late-night ratings.

He quickly bonded with Mike Lazzo, the head of the Cartoon Network in Atlanta, who happened to be a fellow fan of Faulkner.

Before he knew it, Lazzo asked him, “ ‘What are you going to do after this story?’ ” Weidenfeld recalled. “I said hopefully write more and do some editing. He said, ‘How about coming down here to work?’ ”

Weidenfeld spent seven years at Adult Swim, where he expanded the block of programming with such shows as the Peabody Award-winning “The Boondocks” and Emmy Award-winning “Childrens Hospital.”

“You wake up one day and you are head of development at the number one ad-supported network on cable TV,” he said.

About a year ago, Kevin Reilly, Fox broadcast network entertainment chairman, asked if he would be interested in making cartoons for the News Corp. company, potentially leading to a prime-time pipeline.

“The first thing I said to Fox is I don’t want to just make shows. I want to build a business for you that takes advantage of the best parts of animation. I said this isn’t about just making shows, but making an alternative model for making cable TV shows.”

He told them the technology is far enough along that someone could make animation in-house, make lots of shows and amortize the costs. “They said, ‘Okay, here you go.’ ”

He formed his studio. He hired a production chief to handle all the logistics and day-to-day management. He hired a creative director who knew animation, aesthetics, logos and design. They found an old, two-story 1920s-era building on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and moved in last year.

“I have upside, I’m getting paid to make cartoons, and it’s awesome,” Weidenfeld said.

Now they have 120 employees and are ready to debut their ADHD cartoons on July 27 at 11 p.m. on Fox. One of the first shows is called “Axe Cop,” based on a Web comic written by a 5-year-old (he is 8 now).

Can’t wait to watch.

 
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