The Law of Proportional Effort

Here’s something that you don’t often hear discussed: just how many of an animated thing do you have to make? The question may seem confusing, but consider it for a second. When you make an animated feature, you can be successful with just one. A TV series requires at least a few episodes in order to become a success. Are the two linked, and what does it mean for web series if they are?

What got me thinking about this was the fact that the average animated feature clocks in at about an hour and a half (give and take a few minutes.) TV shows last (on average) half an hour but require many more episodes to be considered ‘successful’. In fact, the average animated show has 22, eleven minute episodes, that’s about 4 hours worth of content!

This is partly because of audience expectations. In other words, an audience only expects to see one film, whereas they have been conditioned to new TV episodes ever week for many decades.

Such expectations form part of what I call the law of proportional effort. That is, the shorter one instance of content something is, the more instances you have to create.

Of course the rule is heavily influenced by the level of quality. After all, there are weekly and daily reminders on YouTube of content that is exceptional and garners millions of views in a single day.

However, such videos are one hit wonders. They’re the creators’ ticket to 15 minutes of fame. Follow-ups invariably fail to match even a fraction of the success. Gangam Style anyone?

Instead, traditional success built up over time is by far the better choice thanks to its relative stability. An acquired audience does not disappear overnight like simple viewers do. Audiences do require time to build up, and invariably that means either one long, piece of content, or lots of shorter ones.

How many shorter ones? Web series’ have grown based upon the notion that they are produced on a regular schedule. The de facto standard seems to be every week. That’s 52 episodes per year; double that of a 22 minute TV show!

You’ll notice that the title of the post includes the word ‘effort’. That’s because effort does play into this. A web episode can (and ofte is) presented, edited and produced by only one person. TV episodes on the other hand, require proper teams, and a feature film requires and entire studio (or division thereof). (Animation is, of course, slightly different, but even web episodes can be done on a weekly basis with just a few people.)

The gist of it all is that success is a function of effort, and is often exemplified by the number of studios that start right out of the gate by making a feature film. It requires the most resources, but also produces the greatest revenues. Conversely, episodes require more content, but can be produced with smaller teams, and hence less money.

The key is making sure the balance is correct. Feature films may offer the best results per minute of screen time, but shorter, more numerous episodes will produce better returns relative to the risk undertaken.

What do you think? This was a bit of a rambling post (and apologies, my free time is severly limited at the moment), but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the matter.