Analysis

Here’s the Reasons Disney Shuttered Blue Sky

Deadline are relaying the news many were fearing ever since Disney acquired FOX in 2019. Blue Sky was owned by FOX and its long-term future was in doubt with many wondering whether Disney would retain a third feature animation studio. That question is now answered, and the answer is no. Blue Sky will be wound up in April (two months from writing) and all features currently in progress are cancelled.

Impacts

Blue Sky had about 450 talented employees and was the only major feature animation studio on the US east coast. Far removed from the industry hub in California, but very close to some of the top schools in the country.

With Blue Sky gone, the wider region as a whole will feel the impact. Retaining talent in the greater NYC area will be more difficult, and the pool of resources will shrink as a result.

This is all the more depressing when we keep hearing stories about how the animation industry is booming and business has never been better. There may not have been room for Blue Sky within Disney, but there certainly was room for it within the wider industry.

Disney decided not to simply spin-off or sell Blue Sky, and while this says a lot about Disney (they don’t want to create competition if they can avoid it), it also suggests that they felt they couldn’t find a buyer if they tried.

Is the industry saturated with studios?

It’s certainly possible. Major feature studios are a dime a dozen, especially once you look overseas, and even in the US they are more than a few:

  • Disney Feature Animation
  • Pixar
  • DreamWorks (NBCUniversal)
  • ReelFX
  • Laika
  • Sony
  • Warner Bros.
  • Paramount

and these are just the major ones. There’s dozens of independent and boutique studios putting out their own films or producing on behalf of the likes of Netflix. Throw in the oversees studios such as Illumination and suddenly the marketplace does seem a bit crowded.

Despite the fact that animation is weathering the COVID storm much better than live-action, it has also lost the ability to release films in cinemas; perhaps the last level playing field remaining for film releases. Some studios’ decisions to switch to a ‘digital-first’ or simultaneous digital/cinema release can’t have helped matters either. Streaming is booming, but the economics for streaming services other than Netflix remain a bit murky.

The release decisions behind films such as ‘Onward’ and ‘Soul’ are less about pioneering digital so much as hard economics; studios do after all, have to pay for the films before they earn a cent from them. COVID certainly brought the inevitable changes forward by a good half-decade, but many studios were not prepared for the change and were still producing films based on the expected revenues from a theatrical release. This, I believe, was probably the last nail in the coffin for Blue Sky.

What Likely Killed Blue Sky

As alluded to in Disney’s statement:

“Given the current economic realities, after much consideration and evaluation, we have made the difficult decision to close filmmaking operations at Blue Sky Studios.”

This is true for a few reasons

The first is that FOX never had their own streaming service. They relied on Hulu but that service is very much known more for TV than for films even though it does carry the latter. Without its own service, Blue Sky’s films were relegated to other streaming services and were never able to build their own niche with audiences.

Secondly, because of this, there is no audience eagerly awaiting the next Blue Sky release. FOX never crafted a unique brand image for the studio that spoke to the kind of films it made. Instead, Blue Sky became synonymous with ‘Ice Age’; a single franchise.

Thirdly, because of the first two reasons and perhaps most critically, Disney simply felt they already extracted all the value from the studio already. By that I mean that moving forward, all signs point to Disney+ as being the primary avenue for delivering new content from Disney as a whole. There is also the matter of library content of which Disney has a vast and rich collection of animated features of its own let alone Pixar’s. Crucially, it now also owns Blue Sky’s as well. The main value of Blue Sky as far as Disney+ is concerned is in its library, and by owning that, they can extract revenue without the cost of producing new films.

Yet they are producing new Disney Feature and Pixar films, why not for Blue Sky as well?

Simply put, it’s a combination of all three factors. Blue Sky wasn’t afforded the chance to build their own streaming audience or to build a brand image that aroused excitement from such an audience. Now that they are owned by Disney, that company is not going to spend the time, effort and money to do so because they don’t perceive a payoff down the line (doubly so with COVID) AND because they’ve already paid for Blue Sky’s library which is valuable in itself.

Contrast it with Disney’s purchase of Pixar back in 2006 when the latter was very much firing on all cylinders with audiences salivating at the though of each new film, and heralded a new way of making films that people wanted to see. Disney had neither and saw great value in acquiring Pixar for not only their library of films but also for their upcoming slate AND their way of doing business. Does Blue Sky add any of that to the greater Disney empire? Nope.

The demise of Blue Sky was perhaps inevitable as innovators outmaneuvered not just it, but its parent company FOX as well. There’s a reason Rupert Murdoch decided to sell it after all. What the future holds for the wider industry is unclear, but it does hint that further consolidation is likely.

Although this is not surprising in the least, it’s downright disappointing that Disney did not find a better solution for the sake of Blue Sky’s employees and the east coast as a whole.

Increasing the Voice of Minorities in Animation

Many industries lack minority participation and animation is no different. How can the industry do more to increase the voice of minorities in animation and initiate changes now that will improve the situation over the long-term?

The Three Hurdles to Overcome

To understand how to increase the voice of minorities in animation means to understand the problems that are stopping those voices from being heard in the first place. Three hurdles stand in the way of minority voices in animation, and until they are overcome, we are unlikely to see much real improvement.

Too Much Comedy

Comedy dominates animation from pre-school all the way up to big-budget features. It dominates internationally and domestically. To succeed in the animation business is to have a successful comedy under your belt. Only then can you get license to explore, and even then you may only get one chance.

The problem is that comedy sells, and sells big. Comedy has universal appeal and is therefore the most profitable. Any other genre is probably going to come up short. The proliferation of comedy simply leaves little room for much else and unfortunately it’s in other areas where the opportunity to hear minority voices often lies.

Too Much Dilution of Ideas

The creator-driven boom of the early 1990s resulted in many raw and potent ideas reaching the screens of millions. That success eventually became guarded, and networks began to dilute and water down ideas to fit what the audience expected, not what it deserved.

Today, media companies are anemic to risk. Minority ideas are risky for a variety of reasons. So what’s a corporation to do? Risk losing their shirt, or water things down enough to make them palatable to the largest audience possible? As Elizabeth Ito notes, studios need to stop making things for the “suburban families and blogger moms” of the world and modifying ideas to suit. Those groups are the least risky because they can be the least open to new ideas. They are comfortable in their suburban lifestyle, and anything strange is to be approached with caution. They have predictable tastes.

Minorities can have some of the strongest and innovative ideas and artistic creations you can imagine but they often lie beyond the pale of what the groups above expect. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that networks and studios will water down such ideas to fit their intentions. They’ve certainly done it with ‘urban’ art.

American Culture is Asphyxiating

There is a tendency of Americans to perceive the rest of the world as being, well, like America. This is less to do with willful ignorance and more to do with blissful ignorance. American culture is potent in other countries, but is inescapable in America itself.

Minorities often come from immigrant backgrounds if they are not immigrants themselves. American society demands conformity and actively works to stamp out foreign identities; instead reducing it to ‘heritage’ status. To be a minority voice means to speak differently which is often conflated with being foreign.

American audiences believe foreign cultures are exactly like they’ve been led to believe. For example, to be Irish in America means to actually say ‘top o’ the morning’ to people and if you don’t they will say it to you as a form of misplaced well-meaning. To artistically speak with an Irish creative voice in America means to comply with these expectations lest you become unintelligible. To speak as a minority in American animation is to conform to expectations which stifles an individual’s true voice.


What Has to Change

What has to change is not simply a matter of overcoming the hurdles above. Doing so would not necessarily increase it. Many things need to change and they are tied to socioeconomics, demographics, and culture. There is no magic cure, there is no easy fix, and most importantly of all, it will not come quickly.

The Privilege of a Formal Artistic Qualification

To hold any formal qualification is to be privileged. To hold one from a 3rd-level institution is to be especially privileged. Minorities are overwhelmingly over-represented in lower socioeconomic classes but are the least likely to attempt much less attain a university degree. The value of an art degree should not be discounted, but it should not be upheld as the required entrance to an artistic career.

Young minority artists are susceptible to exclusion from art school for many reasons besides financial cost. They may also have lacked the resources throughout their educational career due to underfunding of art programs in public schools. For many, the possibility of even applying for art school is remote.

On top of this the emphasis that studios place in an art degree means that many minority individuals are automatically excluded from consideration for positions. Sure the value of a portfolio is important, but the qualification give you a head start in both skills, and critically, contacts. CalArts is the pantheon of an education in animation thanks to its proximity and relationships with major Hollywood studios. Yet its exclusivity, and eliteness benefit only those who can a) afford it, and b) are fortunate enough to have had years of preparation prior to entry.

Animation programs exist at other institutions, but they are no different. Here in Baltimore, MICA offers an animation program but how many minority students can stomach the $150,000 cost of a degree that doesn’t even touch on housing and living costs?

Student loans play into the picture too. If a minority individual is lucky enough to attend an art school, they are likely to have student loans that must be paid back. The old adage that the majority of journalism graduates work at Starbucks is not so far removed from the truth as one might think. Loans do not have terms that require a carer in the chosen field in order to pay them back. They demand money from any source and many a student in any discipline finds themselves cut off from a desired career because the need for money trumps the ability to wait for the required opportunity.

Studios also perpetuate the situation through internship programs. I’ve personally taken issue with the widespread use and abuse of internships within the animation industry, particularly in New York City. A poor member of a minority (gradate or not) cannot afford to work for free; many wealthier individuals can, and do to their professional benefit.

Until the vanity sheen placed on formal educational qualifications is eliminated, many members of minorities will struggle to carve out a career in art for themselves.

The Urge to Repeat What’s Come Before

Were you excited for the new series of DuckTales? How about the new Looney Tunes shorts? Have you ever noticed how a lot of animated content is recreated or rebooted? The landscape is littered with them and a good half are probably made by Hanna-Barbera trying to resuscitate something they own.

Repeating what came before stifles minority voices because the new entity, regardless of its intentions or crew, will always be framed within the context of the original. Characters can be altered, new storylines written, but the overarching idea cannot. Such ideas are also least likely to come from a member of a minority to begin with.

Recreating old ideas also takes away the opportunity to create something from a new idea. Noelle Stevenson’s reboot of She-Ra may be great and feature a strong LGBTQ+ voice, but how does it compare to Steven Universe and the voice of creator Rebecca Sugar? Stevenson’s series will always be a version of ‘She-Ra’ whereas as Steven Universe is unambiguously Sugar’s.

What Stories Are Being Told

The stories in American animation in particular are primarily middle-class in plot, setting, and tone; reflecting the backgrounds of their creators and target demographics for better or worse.

For the record, the content of the story is not the same as the voice. Disney have made themselves the poster child for tackling stories featuring minority characters in films such as Moana. But does that film tell a Polynesian story with an authentic Polynesian voice or does it merely pay lip service to Polynesian culture with a decidedly American story and American voice?

I firmly believe it is the latter.

American media also continues to tell the same stories they’ve always have. Feature films in particular are notoriously homogeneous in their stories. Superheros and their overt masculinity currently rule the box office roost. Female stories told with a female voice are still hard to come by. TV shows still trot out the same tired cliched formats and if you don’t believe me, Central Park is getting rave reviews.

The story that’s told is about much more than the plot, or the characters, or the setting. It’s about the context. the juxtaposition between The Sopranos and The Wire demonstrate it perfectly. One is a show about a New Jersey mafioso told through the voice of an outsider looking in. In contrast, The Wire is a show about cops and robbers but speaks with the authentic voice of a Baltimorean lamenting the problems in their city. Which show has a better story is debatable, but which show tells it in a special way is obvious.


How to Increase the Voice of Minorities in Animation

The current situation is far from ideal. Minorities are hampered almost every step of the way towards spreading their voice in animation. What can be done to improve things?

Implement Apprenticeship Programs

A good first step would be to implement apprenticeships for younger artists. There is no good reason to force younger artists (minority or not) into school for years on end to get a qualification. Why not train them in the basics on the job and pay them a wage too? If they need classes, their schedule could be adjusted, or a few night classes at a local college would work. They certainly did at Disney in the early years.

Apprenticeships would give minorities the ability to acquire technical skills while still being productive, and reduce the risk they undertake to acquire the knowledge necessary for an artistic career. They would also give many youngsters the leg-up they so desperately need to get a career started and which universities claim to provide but so often do not. With a secure method of attaining skills, a young artist would be better situated to progress their career, and ultimately be better placed to provide their unique voice to a production.

Minorities, and especially women minorities, are challenged in progressing their careers. Studios should be aware of this and be willing to maintain systems and processes that not only encourage them in their careers, but enable them to do so as well. Implementing apprenticeships would be the change that’s need in the education of artists.

Realise That Representation Does Not Equal A Voice

For a long time that continues up to the present day, representation was seen as a way of providing minorities with the encouraging voice they needed to see on-screen. The Simpsons poked fun at the token minority in everything nearly 30 years ago and sadly not much has changed.

The Simpsons also caught the short end of the stick for the character of Apu; said to represent a perpetuated stereotype performed by an non-Indian voice actor. Except Apu was written by a bunch of Harvard graduates and he spoke their voice just like every other character on the show. Apu was never mean to represent Indians, he was merely an Indian character that became a representative of Indian culture on that show.

Merely representing minorities on-screen does them a disservice because such characters speak with the voice of their writers, directors and producers in addition to their actors. To provide representation only is to sidestep the issue when so many crew and backstage roles are not filled with minority individuals making their contributions to a production.

Representation can provide the necessary voice when used in conjunction with other roles behind the screen. Realising this and working to ensure that work behind also permits minority voices to be heard is the challenege.

See Past the Fad

fad: n. A fashion that is taken up with great enthusiasm for a brief period of time; a craze.

Police brutality and racial inequality in the United States are not a fad. They are systemic problems existing for many decades and will continue to plague society for some time to come even if change happens now.

What certainly is a fad however, is the reaction to current events many people are choosing to exhibit. Changing your social media avatar, tweeting in support, even attending a protest or two does not induce change. Change occurs over time, and it can be a long time to boot. Martin Luther King laboured for nine years between the Montgomery bus boycotts and his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington DC. He was dedicated to his cause and put in the hours and energy to achieve change. He kept pushing despite pressure and threats from many quarters to stop. If he was to hold his speech this year, he would have had to start his campaign when Steven Spielberg’s Tintin abomination was released to theaters. Do you even remember when that film came out?

Many corporations and animation studios are ‘standing by’ their black employees but what does that actually entail? Have they always stood by, or are they just exploiting the opportunity being presented as a PR exercise? Further to the point, a single gesture gets a message across but is instantly forgotten. Where is the long-term commitment? More critically, who is going to follow up on the studios in a few years let alone hold them to account if they don’t? As the saying goes, talk is cheap.

To be aware of the failings of the animation industry to appreciate and promote minority ideas and voices is to lament the many many lost opportunities allowed to pass by. Change can come, but it will take time and effort that extends far beyond current events and will require a commitment from more than just the powers that be. It will require seeing past the fad surrounding current events and seeing the long-term future where progress is like a growing child. Day-to-day changes are imperceptible, but over time are readily apparent.

Conclusion

I’d like to end the post on a positive note.The voice of minority creators may not be as loud as it should, but its members who have been afforded the opportunity to speak have roared. Jorge Gutierrez is proud of his Mexican origins and imbues his creations with the soul of Mexican culture. El Tigre and the Book of Life are just two that spoke in his voice with success and appeal. Aaron McGruder used The Boondocks to not only speak in a black American voice, but his very unique black American voice. The result transcended cultures and brought something to many who had never experienced anything like it before. Similarly Noelle Stevenson and Rebecca Sugar brought unique queer voices to their respective TV shows. LeSean Thomas and Ian Jones-Quartey have forged careers for themselves too.

Countless others work behind the scenes and we can’t discount their contributions either, no matter how small.

The shift from monoculture to niche culture affords minorities the opportunity to create animation in a way that’s never existed before. We have to recongise the opportunity in front of us to increase the number of the minority voices we hear within the animation industry. This is not a screed for quotas or enforced participation. It is a plea for the industry to see the ability of minority voices to improve and progress the industry as a whole and to change the status quo for everyone’s benefit.

Disney Isn’t Running Out of New Ideas, but it is Allergic To Them

Rather amusingly, the question of whether Disney is running out of new ideas pops up more regularly than you might think. In the latest version, Maya Phillips points out the discrepancy in the variety of content the company used to put out even twenty years ago, and what it puts out today. The reasons aren’t mysterious or secreted away in the vault, they’re much more straightforward. Yet they are indicative of a corporation with an allergy to new ideas and their rewarding results.

What’s Really Interesting About the New Avatar: The Last Airbender Series

Were you surprised about the announcement earlier this week about a brand-new series of Avatar: The Last Airbender? I sure was, but outside what was discussed around the net this week, there’s a few things that make the announcement really interesting, and potentially game-changing.

The Simpsons Rise Again Through the Magic of Memes

Everlasting cultural ubiquity stands as the holy grail of any creative endeavour. This tantalising achievement so often seemingly within reach is more often than not beaten down by the bulwark of a society whose tastes change and whose fickleness is monstrously incurable. The Simpsons though continues to find new paths to cultural relevance; the latest of which is through internet memes.

Six Trends in Animation to Expect in 2018

It’s a new year and as always, a good time to speculate on the trends for the forthcoming twelve months. Animation in general had a fantastic 2017 (dare I say it, the best) and hopes are high for 2018. All things being equal, that will hold true. Yet what emerging or developing trends will influence and transform the industry as we stare down the wait until 2019? Here’s a good guess at the six of the most important.

A Few Thoughts on the New Powerpuff Girl, Bliss

Powerpuff Girls and Bliss

The revelation that the Powerpuff Girls have a sister is certainly surprising. Bliss adds a new dimension to the long-established franchise that arguably is nonetheless long in the tooth. Yet why did it happen now? What is the bigger meaning behind the move? And why is Bliss a product of circumstance?