For those not familiar with Cyanide and Happiness, it’s a webcomic that often focus on black comedy and sardonic humour with a distinct hint of questionable morals. The series is a collaborative effort and has become one of the most successful webcomics since its launch in 2004. As with many creative properties of this nature, a move beyond the static world of comics and into the dynamic world of animation is a natural one that has been on the cards for some time. The difference is how the creators approached it and what they learned from the process.
The Traditional Route
Initially, the creators (Kris Wilson, Rob DenBleyker, Matt Melvin and Dave McElfatrick) ventured down the traditional avenue for developing an animated project: they talked to some TV networks. This tried and trusted method has been used by countless people since creator driven shows came back into vogue just over 20 years ago. As a result, this seemed like a sensible option. As Rob outlays:
…it feels kinda natural for us to get back into animation, because we all started out as amateur animators when we were kids. Because of that, over the years we’ve built up a wealth of ideas that don’t really work as comics; they need to be animated.
However, what the group discovered as they jumped through the many negotiation hoops was that the way networks operate and how the web operates are entirely different. As Kris explains:
We walked away from the first two due to rights and creative control issues.
As you may be aware, when a network acquires the show, they assume control over it. The vast majority of the time, they will hire the creator to ensure that his or her vision makes it to the screen. This arrangement benefits both parties and almost always passes without incident. However, anyone who is familiar with the saga of Ren & Stimpy and John Kricfalusi will know that creators are merely an employee on their own show and can be removed by the network for almost any reason.
The C&H guys weren’t too comfortable with this. They inhabit a realm (the internet) where the creators have complete and total control over what they create (although not necessarily how it received or distributed.) Not liking the idea of losing control, they have started to look at alternatives to this traditional route.
The Alternative Route
As with many similar projects over the last year or so, haute couture site Kickstarter is mentioned as the likely platform from which they will launch the alternative series. Although that aspect is an indicator, it is what they hope to actually produce:
We’ll be using Kickstarter to raise money for production. We firmly believe the entertainment industry is changing, and the Internet will eventually become the only way people watch shows.
This route will involve raising funds, deciding on what exactly to produce (length, no. of episodes, etc.) no details of which are available yet. Nonetheless the move represents only the latest in a wave of properties that have become popular on the internet and have shown a reluctance to relinquish some of the freedoms that the platform offers.
Why Their Decision is Significant
While it is tempting to brush off the C&H decision as merely the latest in a long line of internet phenomenons whose creators are unwilling to bend to the demands of traditional business models, that isn’t the case. The decision to go the alternative route was not rushed by any stretch of the imagination. Rob:
The four of us traveled to LA twice, and spent many more days in phone calls with over a dozen networks. A few of the discussions got pretty involved, lasting months and even years.
…we’ve been negotiating a Cyanide and Happiness TV show with a cable network for a while now. What you guys may not know is that this is actually the latest of three TV show talks we’ve been in. We walked away from the first two due to rights and creative control issues. We thought that we could settle those issues in the third deal, but things didn’t quite work out as we hoped.
Today, we are letting you all know that we’ve officially walked away from this TV deal as well, for similar reasons as the first two.
Oftentimes web success stories receive a bit of a drubbing for their propensity to misunderstand traditional models, but not the C&H guys. To their credit, they understand where the networks are coming from:
Every single one of these deals, after much back and forth, eventually came down to the same basic problem: Television networks don’t want to take much risk when it comes to new shows. Nor should they have to. It’s entirely their investment; we’re just the writers. This manifests itself in a lot of scary ways when you read a typical TV contract. Stuff like giving up the rights to existing characters in order to feature them in the show, no final say on what gets removed or changed, even potentially being fired as writers from our own show. Not to mention the fact that good shows get cancelled all the time.
What is interesting though, and something that they picked up on while undertaking the entire adventure, is that they realised that what the networks were attempting to produce and what the C&H guys felt they needed to produce were too entirely different things:
As Rob notes, TV networks undertake a significant amount of risk when it comes to a TV show. They must invest a lot of time, money and resources and the payoff will not become known until vast amounts of all three have been spent. In a capitalistic society, risks like those are generally undertaken with the acknowledgement that whatever rewards (or pitfalls) that are to be had belong to the person or entity undertaking the risk.
That’s a fair arrangement that has underpinned the nature of business in free economies since day dot. The C&H guys simply discovered the entertainment version and what it entails, read: giving up the rights to your creation.
What makes their decision significant is that they also realised that they don’t need a traditional network to get an animated Cyanide and Happiness series off the ground (Kris):
We’re starting to realize that TV as an industry just isn’t compatible with what we want to do with our animation: deliver it conveniently to a global audience, something we’ve been doing all along with our comics these past eight years. That’s just the nature of television versus the Internet, I suppose.
Why You Should Pay Attention
The developments that are about to happen would be significant anyway, but you should pay particular attention to them for the following reasons:
This WILL Set the Pattern For Future Projects
Plenty of people have run successful [animated] Kickstarter projects. Plenty of people have created successful animated web series. However, we are about to see how someone can successfully leverage a successful existing property into a Kickstarter project into a web series.
What the C&H decision will do is cement the pattern for creators wishing to create their own animated series. Plenty of animators are trying their hand but few consider the following:
- the need to be a goal-oriented creator
- the need for a fanbase to build with
- the knowledge that a demand for an animated series exists
- the huge amounts of energy needed to create a series
With a successful campaign and series, expect many to mimic Cyanide and Happiness. My money is on creators needing to (not having to, needing to) develop a fanbase prior to attempting an animated series. Even those that have pulled off an entirely new series, such as Cartoon Hangover’s Bravest Warriors have not been shy about leveraging any connection to an existing, successful property and its fanbase (in this case, Pen Ward and Adventure Time.)
Networks have been clever at leveraging fanbases to drive ratings and merchandise sales but when it comes down to it, few actually respect them. Consider delays in getting DVD boxsets out, issuing takedowns to fan creations and actively blocking access to online streaming. Yup, networks love fans, but only for their money.
In contrast, the Cyanide and Happiness guys practically love their fans. As Kris explains:
We firmly believe the entertainment industry is changing, and the Internet will eventually become the only way people watch shows. Especially the people that make up our awesome fanbase. The Internet is already the largest network, available when you think about it. Why go anywhere else?…..The prospect of doing an uncensored, unaltered Cyanide and Happiness Show and giving it directly to the fans is an incredible opportunity. We’re really excited to see how far we can take things.
Look at that! They actually considered their fans in their decisions. They anticipated that if all their fans are already on the internet, why go to TV just because?
That represents the other facet to the emerging internet generation: the desire not to alienate the very fans that support them. Take heed, because fandoms created on the internet have been known to desert their favourite things when they feel they are being unnecessarily trodden upon. Digg is (and should be) the poster child for this.
Lastly there is the audience itself. It’s widely acknowledged that they are moving not so much online as they are acquiring content from the internet. The television set remains the dominant screen when it comes to consumer’s entertainment source but how the content gets to that screen is changing.
Services like Netflix, Amazon, Boxee and others are shifting audiences away from a schedule-based viewing regime to an on-demand one that conforms to consumer’s unique schedules. A Cyanide and Happiness show broadcast on a cable network may have had the potential to reach millions, but if the show’s fans mainly congregate online whenever they choose, it is quite unlikely that they will switch to tuning in at a particular time.
The decision to remain online serves the needs of the C&H audience and won’t hinder the show’s ability to reach new fans either, seeing as the people most likely to start watching are already online. Sooner or later, those new viewers that reside on the fringes will be brought into the fold.
What this proves is that it is foolish to chase after an audience you only think you need. This consideration of the audience beyond the fanbase will dictate how and where new web series’ emerge and proliferate. This is the biggest one to keep and eye on because it is, as of 2013, the only one that does not have a recognised strategy behind it.