It took long enough, but animation is just about everywhere you, and (among younger generations at least), is immensely popular. Many have long looked with envy at Japan with its ubiquitous anime and pined for a similar scenario in western markets. Their prayers may have been answered, but the reality is far from expectations. Animation has become a commodity, and with that it has lost its special place in the minds of consumers and fans alike. The question is, what happens now, and where does the industry go from here?
In a way, this is almost history repeating itself. Animation has gone through various cycles down through the years, but always in entrenched parts of the economy. Animated commercials peaked at about 1 in every 3 during the 1950s but quickly tumbled. Prime time TV became a hit before cartoons became relegated to Saturday mornings. Now in 2015, we’re reaching the top of a long crescendo that began in 1990. Film, TV, and web animation are firing on all cylinders. There are not many corners left where you can escape from animated entertainment.
Why does this render animation a commodity? Simply put, it’s because audiences are no longer dazzled by it. Rather, they expect it. Between year-round film releases, a plethora of animated shows on television, and a smorgasbord of animation on the internet, audiences have become used to fresh animation being readily available and accessible.
As a commodity though, animation faces fresh challenges that it never had to before. For example, an animated feature is not the event it once was. There is a new one practically every other week, and if you don’t like the one at the cinema, you can catch up on one that you missed last week at home. Ditto for television animation. Don’t like Bob’s Burgers? No problem, why not try one of Seth MacFarlane’s five shows instead. The web goes without saying since you’ll never catch up to all the new content being produced there.
The end result is that animation has lost its ability to surprise (of course its also not the niche interest it once was either), but with broader appeal comes broad themes. Animated shows must now appeal to more demographics than in the past, and although this does not preclude the production of great shows, it does narrow the variety significantly. Don’t believe me? Think of an animated TV show that is not a comedy. There is not a lot of them is there? Comedies have the broadest appeal, and right now, that is what matters most.
One can’t help but wonder if this will result in a lowering of standards as the industry chases the lowest common denominator. Japan has faced this problem for years, and if the industry there is any indication, producers chased costs rather than refining the art. It’s certainly probable given that current web content does exactly the same as it strives for as many views as possible.
There is good news however, because as more animated content is produced, the playing field becomes more defined, and as that happens, superior content becomes easier to spot. Think about it, with just Disney pumping out films, every one was considered a masterpiece. Now that they’re cranking them out on a very regular basis, they become harder to distinguish, and the films that are truly special (like the Secret of Kells) become the ones that are remembered best.
The one caveat of this good news is that it does become harder to be the one to produce the ground-breaking work, because once the effort needed to turn a profit is known, the vast majority of producers will tend to put in only as much effort as is needed to attain it. Hollywood studios did it in the 1930s leaving Disney to stand out, TV studios did it for kids cartoons all the way through to the early 1990s when Nickelodeon blew them all away, and Pixar did it for features with Toy Story. The cycle perpetuates for each industry too, but we still await the person to do so for web animation.
To sum it all up: we’ll see more animation, but of lower quality. Superior animation will become rarer, but easier to spot and even more rewarding than what we’re used to today.