What Does The VCR Helping Anime Mean For Animation Today?

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Over on Jerry Beck’s Cartoon Research blog is a post by Fred Patten that discusses in much detail how the rise of the VCR actually helped anime and animation as a whole. The impetus comes from a talk by Walter Lantz:

“In 1975 animation was a dying art! All the theatrical animation studios were closed except Disney, and by 1975 even Disney was moribund. Animation for TV was all toy and cereal commercials, and was so bland that nobody but little children watched it. The very few festivals of animation were glorifications of the past, attended mostly by animation veterans and cinematic scholars, not the public. Then in 1975 the first home video cassette recorders came out. They took about a decade to become widespread, but suddenly the public was asking TV stations to show more classic cartoons so they could record them to watch whenever they wanted. Movie studios and whoever owned the rights to old cartoons found that there was big money in putting them out on video. The first video releases of old prints were later upgraded to remastered prints with original title cards. Today new animation features are being made because the studios know that they can make as much or more from video sales as from theatrical screenings. Animation that hasn’t been seen in decades is available again, and permanently for whenever anyone wants to see it, not just when its studio re-releases it theatrically or on TV. The animation industry was just short of dying when the first VCRs came out; now it’s bigger than ever!”

What kind of lessons can we glean from the above statement?

  1. Technology improved access to old animated content
  2. Consumers demanded said access to the content
  3. Once access was granted, money started to flow.

What kind of parallels can be drawn with the digital revolution of today?

One of the hot topics at the moment is access to older content and how simply throwing them up online isn’t seen as being a viable option for many studios. Classic Looney Tunes shorts and Disney feature films are tough to come by online (although some of the latter are on Netflix) and the quality of the public domain films available on YouTube is all over the place.

Yes, it is possible to see the animation that isn’t online, but that was the case back in the 1970s too. It’s that the ease of access hasn’t kept pace with technology. Whereas before you would have to obtain a copy of the actual film, today, you have to obtain a copy on DVD. While the latter is far cheaper and more convenient, it nonetheless must be done.

Time is the real factor here. Why expend time trying to find old animated content to watch when you can watch something that is instantly available? That is what we have in common with the scenario Lantz illustrates.

How What Worked Then Will Also Work Now

Funnily enough, the improved access that worked then will also work today. What the studios realised was the the [monetary] value wasn’t so much in the content itself as it was in how it was packaged and sold. Today, that is still the case but we have moved away from valuing the content itself to valuing what comes with it. Essentially, old content sold today must be in value-added form.

Here’s the transition:

  • VHS: Selling the content itself in a package that permits anytime viewing
  • DVD: Selling the content in a technology that permits the inclusion of content extraneous to the original film (commentaries, features, direct access, etc.)
  • Internet: _____?

Actually that last one isn’t as blank as you might think. Sure we are still using the content, but with the internet, we can access it anytime (and from anywhere), with any additional features/commentaries we desire. So what can possibly be used to entice people to pony up for it?

Well, the short answer is, you don’t. The structure of the internet means that it is better to give the content away for free. Sure you can use DRM to lock it down, but there have already been too many examples of either compatibility/access issues with DRM content. The worst of which comes when the DRM servers are deemed too expensive to keep running and are switched off leaving paying customers in the lurch.

That’s a scenario you want to avoid at all costs and the easiest way to do it is to keep access to the content free. But if you can’t charge for that, what can you charge for? Well, that’s the current challenge that’s facing many studios and networks.

One option is to rent it a la Netflix but you can’t rely on that as the “per view” rate is stupidly low and unlikely to ever bring in serious money. Nope, instead you have to use smarts and figure out what you have that is scarce.

In the case of older films, there isn’t really a lot of scare stuff out there, so what do you do? You make some of course! Merchandise is the first thing to come to mind and if it is done right, you can use the content itself as the engine for your merchandise empire.

Secondly, people like to have a sense of belonging. Disney’s D23 is proof of the kind of corporate fan club that is detestable but also successful. They charge a membership fee but in return deliver a lot of things that fans value. Things like a regular magazine, discounts on merchandise, and opportunities to attend exclusive events. All of these do cost money, but they drive repeat business and help drive the overall Disney brand.

What Old Cartoons Could Benefit?

Where is our Looney Tunes club? Why doesn’t Betty Boop have something to draw fans together besides being on clothing lines? Felix the Cat appears on fine art costing thousands of dollars but nothing that fans can share with each other?

These are all questions that could be answered through the steps discussed above. Keeping access to old animation and cartoons is the only way to ensure that they are still enjoyed. VHS may have brought animation back from the dead, but that doesn’t mean its soul won’t die instead.

What would you do to bring fans of old cartoons together? Let us know with a comment!

2 Comments on “What Does The VCR Helping Anime Mean For Animation Today?

  1. I’ve heard this before, but frankly I disagree. I don’t buy merchandise. I’d offer better quality video for purchase or rent. If you’re going to sell me merchandise it had better be something interesting. I wouldn’t want a poster, a figurine, an action figure, or tie-in merchandise like shoes or food. The only thing I can think of that I’d pay money for is AI characters that can act and respond to non-standard dialogue and move around on a virtual set. Or, in the case of an abstract film I’d buy a virtual image generator that allows you to explore visual patterns like the ones seen in the abstract film.

    • Hmmm, that’s an interesting idea. I remember it was (is?) possible to buy those “cartoon maker” programs that featured characters from the likes of The Simpsons or Spiderman. Something like that on a more professional level might be a possibility.

      Of course the items you list that you wouldn’t buy, plenty of other people would. The challenge there would be to find the right balance between catering to casual fans and those who desire premium stuff.

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