Will FOX Succeed In the Online Arena With Animation?

Via: Wikipedia
Via: Wikipedia

It’s no secret that FOX has long been the dominant player of all the mainstream networks when it comes to animation but with audiences slipping away to the internet, what are they to do? Well, the apparent answer is to open up a new studio and attempt to compete with the likes of Frederator’s Cartoon Hangover.

The Gist of It

The Animation Guild is reporting that the new studio is currently in full swing and has about a hundred people working there at the moment. As part of the previously-announced extension of the Animation Domination block of shows into Saturday nights, the network also took the extra step of setting up a dedicated production house. (Non-union of course, hence TAG’s gripe.)

The studio is producing not only the content for the programming block (as in, Axe Cop and High School USA!) but is also busy cranking out animated GIFs such as the wonderful specimen you see below.

Via ADHD
Via ADHD

Where Things Get Interesting

Although this could be just another run-of-the-mill story about a new development in animation, where it takes an interesting turn is not where you would expect. Namely, FOX purposely kept production close to home:

Fast reaction time is another key to the ADHD approach. Instead of farming out animation work to Asian firms, with a lag time of at least six weeks, the team in Hollywood can shoot out topical spoofs to stay in the social conversation.

Fox’s toons prepare episodes well over a year in advance, said Reilly. “With ADHD, I can say something today and we can have something tomorrow.”

It’s nice in a way to see FOX accepting the need for speed in the online youth media market, and addressing it by employing talent close to home. It marks a potential bright spot in the otherwise gloomy animation industry that has had too many stories of layoffs over the past few months. Although pay is obviously not the highest, there is still potential for that to change if demand heats up thanks to a success or two.

That said, in contrast, Cartoon Hangover, instead of maintaining a studio for quick stuff, instead hires freelancers. Granted it isn’t as steady as regular employment, but if FOX did the same, they could pay animators more since the overhead of a studio wouldn’t exist.

The other interesting thing is how FOX sees the money streams:

Reilly declined to discuss specifically what kind of coin Fox is pumping into ADHD, saying that it’s not insignificant. The project will run at a “very mild deficit” for about three years before it gains ad traction, he said.

What I would like to know is why it will run a deficit for all those years. Online content has proven to be profitable already; surely it shouldn’t take an established player like FOX three whole years to make money. Of course, I’m also curious why ads are being given such weight; again, there are plenty of other revenue sources available that could suffice.

Lastly…

Before we reach the thrilling conclusion to this post; it really says something about animation as a form of entertainment that FOX sees it as the least risky way to get a foot in the door of online streaming. Can it really be that the ease of creating [quality] animation combined with its popularity among the key 18-34 demographic? It would certainly appear that way:

That noted, Reilly is convinced the model is an efficient way to develop quality content, and he’s eyeing other genres Fox might choose to replicate ADHD. “The cost structure of this stuff by its nature is different from TV,” he said. “The digital world continues to explode. It’s fun. And it has promise.”

Let’s see how this pans out. If it works, expect others to follow.

PS. Notice how FOX is about a year behind online-native efforts? Yeah, me too.

 

Blue Sky And Peanuts: It’s Not the End of the World

Via: Peanutsblog

The news broke earlier on today that FOX subsidiary Blue Sky is tackling Charles Schultz’s classic Peanuts strip in an all-new feature film. The alarm hence raised, many proclaimed the end of a classic property, the smearing of Schultz’s memory and the surety with which the eventual film will suck. The A.V. Club weighed in by pointing out the hilarity of the press release in declaring a feature film possible at this point in time thanks to the current state of technology.

But enough about the armchair commentators, what does the deal really signify?

For starters, Schultz’s estate is not short of cash. Peanuts characters (particularly Snoopy) continue to abound in merchandise and the various books continue to sell. The seasonal specials are a staple of American television and air religiously on an annual basis.

The few features that were made by Bill Melendez back in the day are less well known today (although they’re still readily accessible in my mind, as my 4th of July post exemplifies) so what it comes down to is the Schultz estate’s desire to implant the Peanuts legacy into a new generation of youngsters for whom the beloved characters do no not hold the same level of nostalgia that they do for older folks.

Now the estate has some control over the look and nature of any theatrical project but their choice of Blue Sky is an interesting one. The details remain secret, but FOX may have been willing to pay the highest royalties or percentage of profits. On the other hand, now that FOX has a distribution deal with DreamWorks, it has to find a suitable use for Blue Sky outside of the Ice Age franchise.

I am skeptical that we will see a 3-D CGI version of the Peanuts characters. By all accounts we should have seen them already seeing as plenty of other classic characters have already undergone the transformation (Rocky & Bullwinkle and Scooby Doo spring to mind). Might Blue Sky surprise us with a CGI-assisted 2-D version? Disney’s Paperman short suggests that the technology exists in some form.

So let’s not count the chickens before their hatched. The film is not due for a couple of years yet so we’ll just have to hold our breath until the first glimpses emerge. What is known though, is that the Schultz estate has a proven track record of asserting the necessary control over Peanuts-related projects to ensure they maintain a suitably high standard.

Now, for your viewing pleasure, check out the groovy title sequence from the 1972 feature, Snoopy Come Home:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BiFHWn-uwE

 

Long Term Implications Of The Dreamworks and FOX Deal

So by now you’ve surely read the news that DreamWorks has agreed to a deal with FOX to distribute their theatrical releases for the next 5 years. While that that creates a lot of relief it’s also worth pointing out that the deal is only for 5 years, which as I can safely tell you, isn’t a lot of time at all. So if we think long-term, what will it mean for DreamWorks and what will happen once those 5 years are up? Here’s a few thoughts.

Even 1% Will Benefit DreamWorks

Although Jeffrey Katzenberg didn’t get a cut in the fee he pays to FOX, he did get a concession in the online/streaming department. This concession of 1% will pay dividends over the coming years as more and more content moves online. The studio already has a deal with Netflix and you can expect similar moves onto other platforms to follow suit. Getting a discount will give them the extra space they need to eek out that competitive advantage over Disney and others.

The Terms Aren’t Ideal, But They May Not Matter In 2017

The terms are far from ideal in overall terms, but in reality, DW is simply playing for time. Come 2017 the theatrical distribution landscape will be markedly different; mainly thanks to the likes of Sony passing out free digital projectors to cinemas. With that in mind you can anticipate that the costs and risks associated with distribution will be different too, and it may come to pass that DW can self-distribute or at least be in a good position to bargain hard with FOX if the deal works well in their favour until then.

Blue Sky Stands To Benefit Too

There’s been some hubbub about the future of Blue Sky in all of this, but to be honest, they can stand to benefit too. They are wholly owned by FOX so there’s no way they’ll be allowed to wither while an independent party makes off with the big bucks. If anything, it should get renewed interest from FOX and perhaps a bit more leeway to produce riskier movies instead of the latest Ice Age installment. Hopefully, FOX will see that calculated risks often pay off nicely, just as they’ve done for DW. It may just take the odd situation of FOX people actually handling them to realise this.

All-in-all, it’s exciting times ahead for everyone, including Disney.

 

Seth MacFarlane: Integrity Lost?

Seth MacFarlane is a talented chap. That is a fact that is very hard to deny. From his roots working on Cartoon Network shows to his meteoric rise to superstardom, he’s worked hard at what he’s done and he at least deserves credit for what he’s achieved thus far.

Having said that, a recent post over on ToonBarn espouses how he’s lost his integrity as of late by way of debasing the original nature of his shows and by making much more overt his political and philosophical leanings in his shows. While the nature of his leanings isn’t necessarily in question in the ToonBarn post, the fact that MacFarlane is doing it to existing, beloved shows is.

That’s a tough claim to make, especially in light of the fact that they are his shows and he is free to take them in any direction he wishes. However, it does speak volumes about how he is allowed to run his shows.

Two examples can be used as a comparison. The first is The Simpsons and the second is Ren & Stimpy.

Looking at the first, it is tough to argue that Matt Groening has lost his integrity when it comes to the Simpsons. After all, he is still the nerdy underground comic artist he was then, the only difference is that he also created and is still involved with, two hit TV shows. All the same, it is impossible to win the argument that says the Simpsons as it currently stands is the same as it was in the mid-90s. Can Groening be blamed for this? Hardly, he was only a small piece in the larger puzzle that is the Simpsons organization.

How about Ren & Stimpy creator John K.? He stuck to his artistic guns and was eventually fired by Nickelodeon because of it. His integrity wasn’t in question then; a position that hasn’t changed since.

So where does that leave MacFarlane? He is undoubtedly the same person now as he was when Family Guy was first broadcast so it’s hard to say whether that is the case. His shows are all the same basic structure (family-based with two characters who shouldn’t talk but do anyway) and have stayed surprisingly close to their original premise compared to other hit shows.

Nope, MacFarlane as a person still has his integrity intact. What’s changed is the network he deals with, FOX.

Although it was well established when Family Guy was conceived, the FOX network was still only about 10 years old at the time and still a relative upstart compared to the same network of today. The spirit of underdog was still prevalent when Family Guy and cousin Futurama were ordered but the business conservationism that defined the other three networks was slowly creeping in, thus even though the shows were new and edgy, they didn’t really push that many boundaries.

Fast forward to today, and Family Guy has gone through a re-incarnation after fans rightfully demanded that it be brought back. The difference this time is that it’s now been on the air for over 10 years, a time frame that puts it in very rarefied company indeed, and will need to be replaced someday soon.

The only problem is that networks hate having to replace moneymaking shows because it means rolling the dice and potentially losing a lot of dough. Cue the cheaper solution of letting shows run as necessary but by giving the creators significant leeway to experiment. Thus we have Family Guy descend to a lower levels of audience intelligence in the never-ending pursuit of eyeballs.

FOX could step in at any time and stop the rot, but they haven’t, and it is on this fact that they are the ones who can be said to have lost their integrity. MacFarlane was always going to make the show that he saw fit and how Family Guy has progressed is simply evidence of that. In stark contrast, Nickelodeon saw falling standards and they did not hesitate to act. As a result both John K. and the show suffered in the short term but have ultimately gained in the long term as the high standards have stood the test of time

Epic: A New Low In Celebrity Voice Casting

It’s a topic I’ve covered in the past, and one that continually grinds my gears in more ways than one. However none more so than the recent announcement of the cast for the upcoming FOX animated film, Epic. When I saw it, my heart almost sank.

Who picks these people? That’s what I want to know. Beyonce? OK, sure, she has some sort of vocal talent, for which there had better be some good songs coming out of this film. Pitbull on the other hand; how does he fit into the mix? I once read a tweet that described him as the guy who shows up in the middle of songs and starts rapping gibberish. How about Johnny Knoxville? The guy’s a decent actor for sure, but what about his voice? Can you picture anyone else shouting “I’m Johnny Knoxville and welcome to Jackass”? I can think of at least 5 personal friends that will give him a good run for the money. Throw in Colin Farrell, the guy from the Hunger Games and Steven Tyler among others and you have a very weird cast altogether.

Is this something that studios are losing sight of? Yes, a star can help sell a film, but it won’t make the film. Think of Delgo, it was a film that had an admittedly admirable B-list celebrity voice cast, but it was a terrible film that failed. Celebrities far from made that film into a success.

So why keep doing it? If Eddie Murphy costs $10 million, that’s $10 million that can’t be spent on (a lot of) animation. In addition, you have to earn double that at the box office to turn a profit. What studio wouldn’t want to get the same or similar film for a good deal less? Add in a couple of celebrities and we’re already talking double-digit percentages of the total cost. Will Eddie Murphy bring in $10 million more in box office gross? For something like a family film like Shrek, I would hope to doubt it, but then I do tend to overestimate the intelligence of people.

Another aspect of the practice is that celebrities are a brand onto themselves. By associating them with a film, a studio is essentially betting that their brand identity will be strong enough to boost sales. That may be OK if it were a company, but if you’re betting on a single person that could prove problematic, if say for example, that person ends up in rehab but you just cast them in a family film, and so forth.

Who si to blame? Studios are to be sure, but celebrities and their agents are the catalyst and someone in the casting department is getting hoodwinked.

I’m sure Epic will be an OK film, but with a cast like that, I can’t help but wonder whether the film will actually suffer instead of benefitting.

The Ritual Of Renewing TV Shows Is Obsolete

The Animation Guild blog has been reporting over the last few weeks and months as the various McFarlane shows on FOX waited for the venerable “renewal” notice. They finally came this past week with everyone returning in the autumn. The only thing that made me think about all of this is that the process for renewing a show is hopelessly obsolete.

Why do studios and networks wait for a certain date before “announcing” whether a show is coming back or not? Oh yes, they have to decide whether to continue a show or not, but there seems to be this almost perverted ritual where networks come forward to say what the story is. Of course good shows get renewed a the drop of a hat and bad shows get the axe immediately. However, it’s the shows on the bubble that get run through the wringer.

Having said all that, this process will soon disappear. Online viewing has much better metrics than traditional broadcast or cable metrics and once it is firmly established, it will be much easier to gauge audience sizes. Indeed, networks may find that just because a show gets low numbers on first broadcast, it may have substantial numbers viewing it after the fact. Why on earth FOX and the rest aren’t using Hulu to its full advantage for this kind of stuff is beyond me

If viewer numbers hold up fairly well in the off-season, then surely a show should continue, right?

To go a step further, why even have “seasons” at all? Sometime in the foreseeable future, that concept will also disappear. Hopefully then, orders will be continuous with no need to have crews get shuffled around to save costs.

All in the future though, unfortunately.

Five Reasons Why The End of The Simpsons Will Be The Deathknell For Animation on FOX

This is a repost from February 2011 that is even more relevant now as FOX continues to desperately searches for a successor to their cash cow. 

Via: Hulu

Over the last 20-odd years, The Simpsons has come to be the most successful TV show ever created. In an industry where plenty of shows don’t even make it to the end of their first season, and the numbers that make it beyond the single digits is extremely rare, the fact that one can make it into its third decade is exceedingly rare.

As a result, the longer the Simpsons remain on our TV screens, the more likely it’s ultimate demise will contribute to the collapse of the dominance of animation on FOX.

Below are the five reasons why this is so.

1. Brand Recognition:

Over the last 20 years, the Simpsons has become a brand in their own right. There are Simpsons toys, clothes, sweets, figurines, records, you name it, it has been Simpsonised at some point. What is sometimes overlooked is that it is the success of the TV show that has driven the demand for these products. Millions saw the show in TV and then bought the merchandise they saw in the shop.

Without the weekly reminder that market is sure to suffer a bit. Now keep in mind that I am referring to new episodes. Re-runs remind viewers of the show’s existence, but they tend not to remind them of good times, not encourage them to buy new products.

2. Brand loyalty

The Simpsons as a brand has phenomenal loyalty, so much so that it was able to transgress a brief period at the beginning where it reached proportions normally reserved for ‘fads’. Simpsons fans are famous for their devotion to their favourite show. Of course, it helped that the show was very well written, and more often than not outshone everything else being broadcast at the time.

Once the series ends, however, that loyalty will begin to (slowly) disappear. It will start off imperceptibly, but gradually, we’ll start to see less and less merchandise, more websites and fansites that are update less frequently. People will remain loyal and devoted, but the majority of fans will move on to other shows, or their tastes will change as they get older. Before you know it, all that will be left is a smattering of hardcore fans who hold on to the glory days and maintain that nothing will ever top their faith in a show from the 90s.

Convincing those many fans of the Simpsons that another show is of equal or better quality is a goal that is akin to convincing people that a tax raise really is a good thing. It can be done, but it’s an uphill struggle if ever there was one.Which leads us nicely into…..

3. Inability to replace it

FOX has known for quite a while that no show lives forever and eventually a replacement will have to be found. This is a perfectly reasonable assumption except for one thing: they haven’t found one yet.

It’s not for lack of trying though. Plenty of attempts have been made over the years to try and at least find something that can come close to attracting viewers of the Simpsons and slowly weaning them onto a different show. Pilots, season fillers, live-action, they’ve all been tried without success and still the problem remains.

Family Guy is perhaps the closest the network has come but since it returned from hiatus a few years ago, it is nowhere near what it used to be and currently attracts a far more narrow demographic than the Simpsons did at its height. The same goes for the other McFarlane children, they all share similar traits that prohibit them from ever reaching the largest audience possible.

4. It’s Still Good

Although I tend to agree with plenty of what the loyal Stonecutters over at the Dead Homer Society have to say, in the grand scheme of things, The Simpsons remains a very well written show. Especially in light of all the other “sitcoms” and “comedies” that the various networks put out during the week.

5. Changes in management structure

Last but most certainly not least, the Simpsons could never be repeated because FOX as a network has changed. When the Simpsons were first broadcast, the creators were given a wide berth when it came to content and biting the hand that feeds them. The simple reason for this was that the network needed ratings and ad revenue, and allowing the producers a bit of leeway went a long way in letting the show find it’s place in the TV world.

Since then, FOX has become successful, and much more mainstream as a result. I can’t foresee a show being given similar leeway (and a share of the merchandising) ever again. It just won’t happen. As a result, we’re unlikely to ever see a show like the Simpsons grace our screen again.

Conclusion

When the Simpsons eventually does get sent to the great big TV in the sky, it’s highly unlikely that a show such as Family Guy will manage to retain many of the Simpsons loyal fanbase and as a result, is more likely to falter when left to carry the network by itself. Once that happens, it seems probable that animation, as a driving force on the FOX network is doomed.

 

Why FOX Can’t Seem To Get Animation Right Again

FOX is well known for being the only consistent purveyor of animation on broadcast TV. Ever since 1989 when The Simpsons burst onto our screens, the network has been the only maintream network where animation has found success. The others do not lack for want of trying however, they’ve just never been able to crack the nut in the same way that FOX has.

It’s also well known that FOX has had problems over the years moving outside it’s traditional animation strongholds. Besides the Simpsons, the network has had only two other bona fide animated hits in King of the Hill and Family Guy. There were other shows, better shows, but none managed to last more than a few seasons (we’ll get to the McFarlane spin-offs in a minute).

Naturally, FOX hasn’t been resting on its laurels but has been actively searching for potential replacements for its incumbent shows. Its success in that regard has been lackluster to say the least. Family Guy is the only show to have come close to toppling the Simpson’s strangelhold on the network, and even then it was canned before it was brought back to life after a year and half.

Since then it has become a massive success, which has lead to the two spin-off shows in American Dad and The Cleveland Show. However, all three shows and the Simpsons are essentially the same formula in that they revolve around a family. Now that’s not to say its a bad thing, but it does tend to limit your audience if you do that. Besides, the McFarlane children exist only because of Seth’s midas touch and his accute wisdom to stay within his safety zone; unlike Matt Groening, who went beyond with Futurama and got burned because of it.

Secondly, FOX is broadcasting shows whose formulae are well out of date. The Simpsons is 20+ years old, Family Guy is almost a teenager. Yes, the shows have kept ‘up-to-date” but they are still rooted in those eras. Things just aren’t the same as they were back in the day. Styles and tastes have moved on. Admittedly FOX has attempted to catch up but its efforts with Futurama and Sit Down, Shut Up were pathetic to say the least.

Lastly, we need to ask ourselves if big-budget scripted animated shows of the caliber of the Simpsons and Family Guy are even worth creating any more? The historical context is that broadcast networks drew a much larger audience than cable. But everyone and their wife knows that broadcast ratings for even the highest shows are perilously close to those of cable. The fractitous nature of the viewing audience has resulted in a proliferation of networks that cater to more nuanced tastes. Thankfully some of those tastes have included animation.

So the question is not really why can’t FOX get another animated hit so much as should it even bother trying?

My position is that it should not, at least not on the scale that it currently produces. If animated shows are to survive in “broadcast” TV they need to be leaner and smarter and sadly FOX is searching for neither.

In Praise Of the Flaws of Hand-Drawn Animation

Over at the Dead Homer Society, they regularly run discussions of recent episodes. With the recent broadcasting of the 500 episode, the discussion included NoHomers.net contributor Zombies Rise from the Sea, who had this to say about the animation on the show and where it’s been going these last few years:

Hand drawn animation is like an art, to insist that people want cleaner HD animation is just shameful. It’s like we don’t appreciate flaws in work, we want everything to be robotic.

While this is aimed more at the Simpsons than anyone else, it is true. The fact that Flash and CGI animation can create much more “perfect” visuals does not result in a superior picture.

Viewers may notice the flaws in traditional, hand-drawn animation, but you would be hard-pressed to find someone who believes that such flaws ruined the viewing experience for them.

Why “Cancelling” A Show Is So Outdated In This Day and Age

Word came through the other day that FOX, after what surely must have been a long discussion (/sarcasm), had decided to swing the axe on Jonah Hill’s much vaunted animated show, Gregory Allen.

So this poses an interesting question, and it’s one that will surely have a different answer than if it had been asked the last time we had this kind of situation on FOX:

What does it even mean to “cancel” a TV show any more?

Seriously! So you “cancel” it from being broadcast on TV. Well, as my fiance would say, woop-di-freakin-do! TV (and I’m talking about traditional, OTA, satellite and cable scheduled programming here) is rapidly becoming a smaller and smaller part of the entertainment landscape anyway, why does it even matter?

FOX already hosts its shows in a couple of places online and its fair to say that a sizeable portion of their audience is watching them there rather than “tuning in” during the week.

With that in mind, would it not make more sense to simply release the episodes online instead? Just because you “cancel” the show, does that automatically preclude that you have to suddenly archive the remaining episodes never to be seen again?

No, of course not!

Why not instead just say that Allen Gregory has moved to being exclusively online? My train of thought is that at some point we’ll see a deeper connection between TV and the web. YouTube is currently pioneering the way with original series (shout out to the YouTube Next Lab) whose quality is rapidly approaching that of traditional TV and it’s only a matter of time before we see audience shifts to them. My point? If a show begins life online and become popular, it could easily be “transferred” to TV with a scheduled timeslot while remaining online, thereby capturing both audiences.

Shows could also go the other way. Say they start out on TV but don’t really find their audience, then they could move to the online world and carry on as before.

I will use any excuse to post Mo Willem's charcter designs for this show.

We’ve seen some rudimentary moves in this regard with the likes of Sit Down, Shut Up. Which, after getting canned, eventually returned as FOX burned off the episodes in the middle of the night. However, they also went up on Hulu, where it was possible for fans (such as myself) to finally see them. And apparently they’re now on Comedy Central (somewhere) too!

Just imagine what kind of online numbers they could have gotten if they had put them online straight away!

Animation is slightly trickier than live-action as they shows pretty much have to be produced before the season begins. That means that it really doesn’t make any sense to “cancel” an animated show and then pretend it doesn’t exist.

To be cliched and quote Bob Dylan: the times, they are a changin’.

FOX Goes 80s in Italy

Below is the latest ad for the FOX Retro block of programming in Italy. It’s a nice bit of animation that jumps on the rapidly-maturing bandwagon of 8-bit animation and music and has some fun with the characters too.

Be sure to check out the Vimeo page for all the credits.