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Nick Toons Into Next-Gen Talent

Where will the next “SpongeBob” creator come from?

If Nickelodeon has its way, he or she will be a homegrown artist. That’s because the cabler thinks it has found an edge in the race for animation talent in the booming toon business, launching internal mentorship programs to nurture talent — and hopefully keep it inhouse.

For Russell Hicks, Nickelodeon’s president of content development and production, the programs are a way of paying it forward. A former children’s book illustrator and animator, Hicks had a family connection to Disney animator Ward Kimball — an industry legend who was instrumental in Hicks’ own career path. “I had a mentor. I had education. I had somebody who helped me navigate a very complicated world,” he says. “[I wanted to find] the way that we could nurture and help artists like I got helped.”

To assist others along that path, Hicks oversees a group dubbed the Artists Collective, which connects experienced creatives with young hopefuls. It includes animators, writers and producers under contract with Nickelodeon. They’re asked to provide feedback and support to projects in various stages of development — but to do so from an artist’s perspective, without executive interference.

“We’ve found in animation that artist-to-artist communication and mentorship goes a long way,” notes Jenna Boyd, senior VP of animation development.

The Collective will play a key role in the next round of Nick’s Animated Shorts Program, an annual competition designed to blow the traditional development process wide open. Amateurs and pros are invited to pitch a concept and storyboards for a short to be produced by Nickelodeon. More than 1,000 pitches are heard; about 20 ideas are expected to move forward.

The submission period for 2015 begins Feb. 2 and runs through March 27. Shorts must be original, humor-based and character-driven, though all animation styles are encouraged from 2D, digital 2D, stop motion, CG or mixed media. Full guidelines are available at www.nickshortspitches.com.

The shorts serve as de facto pilot presentations for Nick, and can potentially lead to series pickups, like the upcoming “The Loud House” from writer Chris Savino (“My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic”). Skein, pictured above and scheduled to premiere in 2016, follows 11-year-old Lincoln as he gives an inside look at what it takes to survive in the bedlam of a large family, especially as the only boy with 10 sisters.

Savino was under contract at Nick, and became the Collective’s first member. While he was able to get “Loud House” on a fast track to series through the Shorts Program, he simultaneously helped newcomers hone their own ideas.

Among them is Brian Morante, a former caricaturist for Sea World, who landed a gig as a Nick storyboard artist and worked on the series “Monsters vs. Aliens” and “The Penguins of Madagascar.” Morante’s pitch, “Earmouse and Bottle,” which Variety is premiering exclusively, was a selection from the 2013 Shorts Program. He developed both the short and a full pilot with mentorship from Savino and fellow Collective member Scott Kreamer.

“[Morante] had a very hard project to sell,” Boyd says. “It’s hard to sell something that’s totally strange. The Shorts Program allowed him to show the execution. Through his board you got his voice. Now we’re making Brian’s pilot.”

Other select animated shorts can be found on the Short Toons section of Nick.com and the Nick App.

Another program designed to help Nick locate up-and-coming talent is the annual Writers Fellowship, which gives aspiring writers hands-on experience working on the cabler’s current live-action and animated series, writing spec scripts and pitching ideas to execs. This year’s participants are Lauren Ciaravalli, Nora Sullivan, Alan J. Van Dyke and the first ever international participant, Rob Frimston.

Alumni Jonathan Butler and Gabriel Garza became writing partners after meeting in the program and created Nick’s live-action comedy series “Bella and the Bulldogs,” set to premiere in January.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship we’re building between seasoned professionals and the young,” Hicks says. “They both benefit and inspire each other. We’re trying to build a culture that’s unlike anywhere else in the world right now.”

Adds Boyd: “If we’re going find the next ‘SpongeBob,’ we need to find the next Steve Hillenburg (who created the hugely successful toon), and that person needs to be working at Nickelodeon now. We’re always thinking about how we’re going to nurture that next generation of creators.”

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