This time last year, I speculated that the ‘You’ part of ‘YouTube’ was about to become as irrelevant as the ‘Music’ part of ‘MTV’. As it turns out, that speculation has turned out to be correct. Unfortunately, the future looks even more gloomy for independent creators for an even more troubling reason.
Erin Esurance was a mascot created to sell that most exotic of products: car insurance. She was a radical step away from the more traditional mascots and was given suitably contemporary marketing to appeal to buyers. Unfortunately she performed a little too well, and was pulled for a rather embarrassing reason.
The production of animated TV programs has never been greater. All three kids channels have full slates, numerous cable networks have their own shows, and FOX continues its long tradition of animated programming on Sunday nights. It’s a good time to be an optimist, yet it’s never been more important to be pessimistic about this sector of the business, because it’s about to go barrelling over a cliff.
That’s heresy I hear you say; of course the internet has brought about exciting animation! Ah, yes, that is true. YouTube has single-handedly brought about some of the most adventurous, entertaining and stimulating animation ever seen. Yet why does such animation remain confined to the internet, why have we yet to see the influence of the internet break through to TVs and films in the way it has leached into other areas of entertainment like news and documentaries?
The answer in effect, is quite simple: none of the internet stuff has made much money. Now before you jump the gun here, I’ll make some clarifications later on. Just stay with me for now.
Yes, internet animation has been the talk of the town for a while now, and is by far the best place to discover and watch exciting, stimulating animation. Prior to this, you had to visit a film festival or hope you were close to one. Nowadays, anyone with a connection can view and absorb all the animation they can muster.
Yet animation on TV and film remains, uh, boring for the most part. Even series like Adventure Time, Gravity Falls and the coming series Stephen Universe and Wander Over Yonder all lie well within the established boundaries for animated TV. If you want to get argumentative, you could say that animated TV has not moved on since John K’s Ren & Stimpy. Feature films have been moribund for decades, and the current crop have only gotten more homogeneous in the last few years.
Money is yet again the root cause of all of this. While internet animation is as wild and impulsive as it is, the vast majority of the stuff on there does not make much if anything. As such, that’s where a lot of its influence remains also. Traditional studios making either series or films, like to make animation they know is going to be popular but also profitable.
While the likes of Frederator are going full bore with their webseries, no financial information is available. (Although they did just move into a bigger office, so presumably they’re doing OK.) That said, Cartoon Hangover shows plenty of influence from the reverse direction; their shows are heavily reminiscent of what you’d expect to find on TV.
In conjunction with the profitability, there is also the age difference. Many internet animators are young, hungry and independent. Only a very select few are in any kind of position at a regular studio to command either a crew or output. The end result is that the top brass at many a studio remain traditionally minded and mostly familiar with the kind of content they are familiar with, i.e. not anything on the internet.
The Internet’s ‘Issues’ With Traditional Business Models
Lastly, besides the money and the talent, there are plenty of legacy issues like rights, licensing, standards and practices and so forth. All these combine to muzzle many of the wilder ideas put forth by animators and crews. The internet has no such barriers and what flows forth is almost exactly what the creators want. With that in mind it is often tough if not impossible to get even the tamer stuff past and as a result, it is safer to simply ignore it.
To clarify what was said earlier, yes, sometimes internet animation can make it through to TV. Annoying Orange is perhaps the most obvious among others. However, it did not influence TV, it simply transferred to it. There is a difference, and even then, there has been very little evidence that Annoying Orange is having any influence outside of parody and satire at its own expense.
GIFs pretty much inhabit the internet these days. You can’t click a link without stumbling across one, and God help you if you think you’re going to get very far down your Tumblr dashboard without seeing at least a dozen. Yes indeedy, GIFs are a great piece of the larger internet puzzle which has been discussed on this blog before. That said, are they becoming more a nuisance?
Peanuts and Vine: Together At Last
Commissioned by Peanuts Worldwide, [Khoa] Phan will develop a dozen original, six-second videos using the app. Videos will be based on 12 Peanut themes, including the kite-eating tree, Schroeder’s music, Linus’s blanket, Lucy’s psychiatry booth, Snoopy’s dog house, Snoopy himself, the Red Baron, Woodstock, baseball games, football games, the Great Pumpkin and the Little Red-Haired Girl.
So far so, well, brand synergy-ey. Vine has proven to be quite popular (animator Marlo Meekins has become even more
infamous famous thanks to her creations) and has found its way into sharing ideas that one would never thought worthy.
The coming together of Peanuts and Vine sort of makes sense given the latter’s comic strip origins and the requisite focus on a single gag. Vine would essentially replicate this on a motion picture scale. That said, there are concerns that have been raised.
Does It Reduce The Stature of Animation?
OK, this one’s a wee bit out there, but it’s still valid. Plenty of TV shows and films (animated or otherwise) are being reduced to GIFs by fans. Sure, they’re sharing the content they love and using GIFs as a discussion tool, but there is an inherent danger that the larger meaning or story behind a GIF could be lost by its brevity.
So is there a danger that animated content is being reduced to an extremely short-form of content or is this another opportunity for the technique?
The case for the latter is certainly strong. We’ve already seen animated GIFs used for unique creations; an encouraging sign.
The Nuisance Risk
As with anything on the internet, there is a habit of taking things about as far as they can be tolerated. Animated GIFs are just the latest in a long line of things to mollify the internet (glossy buttons anyone?). With such prevelance comes the risk of over-exposure. Memes have already reached a level of notoriety that has seen them banned from various discussion boards and subreddits. Animated GIFs could be next.
Using GIFs for promotional purposes is where the line may well be drawn. Tumblr has come in for some flack over the use of GIFs in promoted ads on the site. Ditto for corporate GIFs whose sole purpose is to either sell stuff or incite a consumer response. The concern is that all are perceived as being advertisements and therefore to be avoided.
Are GIFs the latest internet fad or are they really the new old way of distributing content? Share your thoughts with a comment!
A good while ago, we wrote about how Cartoon Network was letting down its own fans by restricting the online streaming on their site to cable/satellite subscribers only. Unfortunately, that still appears to be the case, and the network, along with its hit show Adventure Time is all the worse for it.
The reason is simple, fans can’t [legally] view the latest episodes when they want to. If you don’t have a DVR or a cable subscription (as I don’t) then you’re basically out of luck. Besides torrents, there are plenty of site that will stream the latest episodes and they are only a Google away.
And This Hurts People How?
Well, David OReilly created an episode of Adventure Time that was broadcast last night and subsequently attempted to melt the internet but was fortunately unsuccessful. That said, plenty of fans in the hours afterwards attempted to view it and were out of luck.
Cartoon Network doesn’t have it on YouTube and their aforementioned full episode streams on their website aren’t open to everyone. The result? Fans willing to dilute their own viewing experience by accessing crappy streams. As OReilly himself notes:
Fans, so pious is their love for Adventure Time that they would rather watch a shitty compressed stream that isn’t even the right colour than wait for Cartoon Network to rerun it. Nobody gains from this.
The Kicker to The Whole David OReilly/Adventure Time Saga
The kicker to all of this is the fact that nothing can be kept offline any more. Heck, the episode was even leaked prior to its airing on the network itself. Sure, Cartoon Network realise they have a winner, but they also fail to realise that with such an explosive show, they need to be on top of handling it when it goes off.
With a big event like this, attention and demand will be concentrated at around the time that it is first made available. You can capitalise on that, but only if you are ready for it.
How does Cartoon Network gain from people watching illegal streams? They don’t! Plain and simple. However, that being said, there is no logical reason for them not to offer legal streams on their own sites or YouTube channel. How many views could they have gotten if the episode was available immediately after it was broadcast? Half a million? One million? More?
Given the recent success of Bravest Warriors, it’s fair to say that the Glitch is a Glitch episode of Adventure Time could easily be at over a million views by now (<24 hours later). Anything that Cartoon Network could have gained from those views is gone; either spread amongst the streaming sites or lost to unauthorised downloads.
How To Counteract It
What really irks this forward thinker though is that they could counter it so, so easily. They could simply put the episode up on YouTube for 24-48 hours for starters. They could harvest views on their site without necessarily damaging the ratings of reruns later on. They would gain the exposure and potentially drive more people to check out the older episodes which, thankfully, are now on Netflix.
They could also have it available to buy. Again, no sign of that less than 24 hours after broadcast.
Where’s the associated value-added merchandise that we discussed just the other day? Why is there quite literally nothing except the episode available except for the tidbits that David OReilly himself has been posting and tweeting about? The man knows a thing or two about nurturing fans and its sad to see his expertise being completely ignored.
The entire saga should be used a lesson so that people can learn how not to react when something this big hits the internet.
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?
- Technology improved access to old animated content
- Consumers demanded said access to the content
- 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!
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.
In what seems to be a regular occurrence over on The Last Airbender subreddit (yes, I am a subscriber), someone has released yet another internet petition for an official soundtrack release for Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Now this one has gained a bit more traction that previous ones in that the actual production house, The Track Team, has linked to it. So it has a bit more pedigree than previous attempts, so why does it still fail to stack up? Well, it once again makes the familiar mistakes of such campaigns.
Word has come through that anime distributor T3 has shut down. While their release stating as much is long and very thorough, it contains many important quotes that allude to the many, many difficulties and problems that one can face when running a business, especially one devoted to the troika of content, distribution and the internet.
Here’s a few choice quotes (with a summing up at the end) that are well worth pondering (any emphasis is mine):
Each day we struggle with clients that come to us with various films and television projects where we painstakingly spend hours uploading, encoding, and preparing clips in our submission to the various television networks only to learn later that our clients may have “borrowed” a Willie Nelson song and/or where even classical music and Top 40 tracks are used widely in promo reels without the required licensing in place.
Similarly we have additional daily challenges when we spend hours in pursuing the sale or licensing of a project that requires the same level of effort only to learn that there’s not any E&O insurance in place and/or when our clients forget or don’t take the time out to register their intellectual property and works with the Library of Congress.
Beyond licensing, copyrights and related issues, each day we deal with other headaches that include: HD vs. SD, 4:3 vs. 16:9, countless hours of FTP uploading (only to have it fail and start over again), a dizzying array of encoding protocols, resolutions, network quality guidelines, color correction, audio levels, streaming bitrates, and hours upon hours of editing clips, sending video emails, database updates, revisions of show treatments/show bibles
Perhaps more telling is the following:
If it sounds daunting it is, and all along we wanted to make clear that we would leverage existing technology where possible – and we have spent literally hundreds of hours in vetting out various Online Video Players (OVP) and pay-per-view streaming platforms.
Our daily challenges and that of our clients are further evident by the speed in which convergence in the marketplace is taking root – and we find that our clients have poorly prepared for straddling the gulf that is the “lean back” television marketplace with that of the “lean forward” online viewing offered in portals and websites where content must be prepped for tablets, i-Phones, and screens and operating systems of all types.
Today there is time-shifting, place-shifting and so many other elements in play that if you’re a television producer or filmmaker, you need to get your head around the fact that your audiences are everywhere and your content needs to be prepared, licensed and readied for viewing in just about any viewing environment.
Further, social media and promotional advertising is not enough as each project needs marketing, legal, and all sorts of help in getting your film and/or television project picked-up. Again, trying to do this given our limited resources has been a recipe for failure, and one of the reasons that there are so few companies like us that perform on a success-based commission structure.
So what is there to learn from this besides the fact that handling entertaining content is an infinitely tricky business?
For one, T3’s difficulties are likely fairly common throughout the industry, they are not alone in their headaches. Issues such as licensing and copyright are so important and are yet so often ignored/abused that you end up with a situation like this, where a company is spending more time trying to obey and adhere to the rules than they are actually making money.
Animators have to be aware of this, especially if in a small studio environment, but especially when creating your own, independent stuff. If a legitimate company like T3 couldn’t hack it, there isn’t much hope for you either.
T3’s closure notice is full of indications that the landscape for media (particularly video) consumption is rapidly changing and you’d better be prepared to change with it.
This morning, Fed Seibert has a great post about the ongoing revolution in video we’re seeing thanks to YouTube and he has this choice quote (emphasis mine):
But that’s not where the action is. Remember, Adventure Time first blew up on YouTube; we absolutely never would have sold the show without the explosion of interest from their community.
That’s the money quote right there, and the secret to any piece of entertainment’s success. A community will do more to make you money than any advertising can ever hoper to achieve.
He follows it up with this advice:
There’s ways to make money if you’re popular, and more importantly it’s where the audience is.
The old ways of doing things are falling. You simply cannot expect to make money or reach an audience the same way they did in the old days.
Thankfully, the tools to do so are so readily accessible and cheap, like Fred says:
Any of you making films should be making more and posting them.