How can animation be even remotely similar to opening a restaurant? One is extremely risky, is enormously susceptible to changing tastes, is faced with intense competition and….well, I suppose they’re not so different after all, are they? So if you’re producing animated content, what lessons can you learn from a restaurant and can you use them to drive success?
Quite amusingly, some of the problems that you see in the restaurant business have parallels in the animation world. If you look around (and I’m using the US as an example here), the most popular type of restaurant is Italian. They’re everywhere and can be found in every part of the country. They can be cheap delis, or expensive bistros, but they all use the same country as their gastronomical inspiration. What is the animation equivalent? Comedy of course! Animated comedies can be found anywhere you look. Shorts, TV series, features, you name it, you’ll find some comedy in there.
Of course there are more types of food than Italian, and more genres than comedy isn’t there? And if so, what do the two industries have to do with each other?
Why Most Restaurants are Italian
For most wannabe restaurateurs, a lot of thought and planning goes into the business before one meal is prepared. During this phase, they will discover a few things, namely that 90% of food businesses don’t make it to the end of their first year, and that margins are notoriously thin. Combined, these two factors tend to extract a lot of influence over the decision-making process. A decision such as what type of food to prepare is just one that is influenced, and explains why Italian restaurants are so prevalent. That’s because the food is:
- Extremely popular
- Relatively easy to make
- Is incredibly varied (large menus)
These traits are so important that they do make the decision to open an Italian eatery very easy, and hence why you see them everywhere; their practically the default choice!
Are there parallels to comedy? You bet:
- Extremely popular (almost always top box office earners)
- Relatively easy to make (comedies can, and are, cranked out)
- Is incredibly varied (jokes aplenty for all shapes and sizes)
Therefore comedy is practically the default choice for animation. That’s partly why we see so much of it in all sectors of the industry.
The Problems You Face When Opening a Restaurant
Succeeding in the food business essentially boils down the three things:
It’s almost shocking how simple it can be. You need customers, lots of them. Your food has to be of acceptable quality or else nobody is ever going to come back. Lastly, you have to charge the right price. Too little and you go bust, too much and you won’t have enough customers to cover your costs, and you’ll also go bust.
Animation is exactly the same. You need viewers, they need to be suitably entertained and they need to buy merchandise. Too few customers, too poor content, or too costly merch, and you too will be out of business.
There’s another aspect too: competition. In the restaurant business it’s all about the USP, or unique selling proposition. Almost every restaurant has a USP of some kind. McDonalds is cheap and quick, Five Guys is neither quick or cheap, but they quality of their food is far superior to McDonalds. Both companies technically compete with each other, yet their individual USP is what makes customers choose one over the other.
Returning to our example. If you open up an Italian restaurant, what’s your USP going to be? Kinda tough isn’t it? You might be the only one it town (yeah, right, that’s like being the only Chinese buffet in town), and if you aren’t, you’ll likely serve the same kinds of food as every other Italian restaurant out there, right? You can have a go at better, more expensive food, but then only so many people will decide to go for the $15 lasagne, and you risk not attracting enough customers.
Making an animated comedy sounds awfully familiar doesn’t it? There’s already a lot of them out there, and viewers don’t, for the most part, value more refined comedy over the lowbrow, common denominator stuff. If you produce an animated comedy, you’re up against a ton of competition, and being better isn’t necessarily going to be enough to produce a profit.
But going too far the other way presents its own problems. Let’s say you open up a Danish restaurant. There aren’t too many of those out there (so little competition), and Danish food is alright (I guess), so that appears to be a good solution right? Well it would, if more people cared about Danish food. There’s a reason you don’t see to many Danish restaurants outside of Denmark; it’s not particularly popular.
Straying from comedy presents similar issues. Action, adventure, sci-fi, and drama are all valid genres, but audiences are less enthralled with them in animated form than they are with live-action. Producing content in such genres is a therefore a greater risk, and will require some convincing of the audience to view it.
The Competition is Always Changing
Italian food isn’t going to go out of favour any time soon, but what if you ran a haute couture cocktail bar that only used organic liquor made on an island off the coast of Alaska by Inuits? That might be ‘in’ right now, but not forever. If you don’t keep pace with popular tastes, you run a real risk of becoming outdated; even if you’ve done nothing wrong!
Just look at McDonalds. The most popular restaurant on the planet thought they had it figured out, except people began buying healthier options, and demanded a more varied menu. The company didn’t comply fast enough; they believed people only wanted cheap food quickly, and now growth has evaporated. All the while, more expensive and slower, but healthier and more exotic places have mushroomed.
Animation has remained a fairly static industry in comparison, yet the arrival of the web has shaken up business models, and tastes have been changed by shows and films single-handedly. Being aware and ready to adapt is a necessity if you want to keep pace with the audience.
At the end of the day, opening and running a successful restaurant isn’t impossible. It’s just difficult. The same goes for animation. Creating and producing great content isn’t impossible, but it is tough, and you do have to approach it in an intelligent manner. Producing mediocre content that’s a comedy just like everyone else isn’t going to help you succeed. There are other factors at play of course (like if your studio’s name is Disney), but for the most part, the content will have to stand on its own, much like a restaurant does.
The good news is that just like restaurants, there’s always going to be a great variety of content, and it’s impossible to tell which show will succeed. New restaurants open all the time, and new varieties of food are always being tested. Someone will open a Danish restaurant someday and it’ll become a raging success. The animation industry is no different, and although comedy dominates, it isn’t the be-all and end-all of the industry or the artform. If you’re going to to produce your own stuff, think wisely, and try for something besides the usual.