Animated features are expensive to make. Could one of the many alternative methods of production out there be to take a leaf out of manga publishers’ book (no pun intended) and release the film a piece at a time?
Why There’s a Problem To Begin With
Whether you’re Pixar with a multi- hundred million dollar budgets or a one man studio working away on your own (obligatory shout out to Elliot Cowan for doing just that), a feature will eat up much more money than a short film. The main problem is outlay: films require a lot of money to be spent before any can be taken in from ticket sales and so forth. This places a large burden on the producer that is often too much, leaving the animation landscape littered with half-finished productions.
Financing is an unwieldy beast. It can give filmmakers the money they need, but at a price. It can also place their creation into others’ hands lest they allow the schedule to fall behind, or have creative differences with their backers. Many know what happened to Richard Williams and his magum opus The Thief and the Cobbler; a film that was prised from Williams’ hands after his backers became worried about the film’s commercial potential.
Even with self-financing and no desire to make money, films continue to suck in a large amount of money and time for which there is no indication of success or failure. That is, save for criticism from family and friends.
The Manga Approach
Manga story arc are known to last for many years running through tens if not hundreds of volumes. The essentially build a larger story from many parts over a period of time. While anime uses a similar approach, episodes are largely self-containing and series also contain a number of filler episodes that do not advance the plot in a meaningful way.
Western animation has already adapted the anime approach in Avatar: The Last Airbender. This influential and successful series built a complex, layered story over the course of three seasons of half hour episodes.
The manga approach is distinct from that of anime because it does not necessarily command that each segment that is published be a complete story in and of itself. Anime episodes can be enjoyed by themselves, as can numerous episodes of Avatar.
How Feature Films Could Mimic Manga
The connotation here is that is theoretically possible to build a feature film from incremental releases. Movies are comprised of scenes, and given that many scenes comprise a complete film, they could be broken out as individual “episodes” on a regular basis.
The key here is that each segment that is released would not have to be self-containing. It is possible to have the plot advance in all of them without needing to leave the viewer on the edge of their seats after every one. The characters should fulfil the role much the same as they do in a TV show. In essence, some releases will be thrilling, but others would merely advance the plot in some way.
While this sounds a bit asinine, there are a few benefits to it.
The first and most important benefit is that it’s possible to bring in revenues from merchandise, etc. before the entire film is completed. If done correctly, they could enable the production to become self-funding; relieving much of the financial burden on the studio or filmmaker.
The second benefit is that it permits the ability to build an audience over time. When releasing features, studios spend months (and in some cases years) building awareness and hype through expensive marketing campaigns. The majority of Hollywood studios typically spend the same amount on marketing as they do on the film itself! Imagine being able to cut that spending in half if you let the film promote itself!
Lastly, when the film is completed, it can be fully exploited straight away. Its audience is already in place, and given that its size will be known with a high degree of certainty in advance of the climax/finale’s release, all the support systems for the merchandising and screening can be ready to go, and therefore exploit without costly delays.
Two Critical Points
This theory has two critical points that command close attention. The first is when it achieves ‘critical mass’ and the second is when it is nearing the end of production.
If a new film is going to be released this way, it will take time to find an audience and build it. At some point, it should achieve a critical mass in terms of audience. That is, the audience is large enough that you can be certain that the production will be a success. Some films may never reach this point however. The key will be to know when it is achieved, and if not, how to finish production or scupper it altogether. This is something that would be unique to each production.
The second critical point is near the end of production, right before the main climax. Based on the release schedule (it could be weekly or bi-weekly), it will be necessary to determine how long the ending has to be and in what form its release will take. Preferably, if the audience has been built up at that point, it would be possible to keep them waiting while the rest of the film is produced. This cliff-hanger tactic is already used by studios like Disney, who’ve developed a habit of screening the first 45-60 minutes of a film at festivals and conventions for the sole purpose of whetting and audience’s appetite. If the audience already knows what will happen for 90% of a story, you can be sure they will wait for the remaining 10%.
Once the film has been completely produced, it should be easy to wrap up and sell as a complete package. Naturally it will require greater planning to ensure that it can be watched in segments as well as together, but if the segments are short, then it should be easier than, say, when Futurama made four features and then cut them up into episodes.