Fashion and animation go quite well together don’t you think? The former sees no shortage of inspiration from the latter, and the latter is rapidly expanding its fashion sense in recent years. It’s no surprise therefore, that articles on the topic of animation-related fashion come up rather frequently so here’s a few recent ones to check out.
Bronies and Bronyism has long solidified itself into the broader cultural consciousness as a phenomenon with a lot of positive, inclusive qualities that have also been a contributing factor in the success of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. But has the fandom of Bronies ruined the enjoyment of the show for others and could a similar phenomenon have negative connotations for a different show?
One of the truths about success is that the impulse to fiddle with it always overrules the wisdom of leaving it alone. No sooner has an animated show achieved critical acclaim and commercial success than ideas are hatched to parlay that success into something else. Today’s topic represents the epitome of the concept of ‘brand extension‘, where a successful brand in one area is transplanted into another. Think of the Disney cruise ships as being an extension of the theme parks. The former plays off the positive public image of the latter despite no real connection to it besides a common owner.
The proposed Equestria Girls animated TV show is just such an extension. It takes the wildly popular My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and attempts to transplant it from a show based on ponies to one based on human characters. The move is being spun as a celebration of the toy line’s 30th anniversary and will take the form of a series.
Why Equestria Girls Raises Concerns
So what’s the deal with it; why should it matter? Well, brand extension is inadvisable for a number of reasons. Chief among them is that the very hope that customers will follow has been proven again and again to be false. This belief can even be a double-edged sword in the case of a poor extension attempt. Not only is there the risk of failure, but also the risk that the contamination can spread back to the originating brand.
In the case of My Little Pony, this could mean that if audiences reject Equestria Girls, then they may also stop watching My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, buying the associated merchandise and attending the various conventions. So far, both The Hub and Hasbro have been extremely accommodating of fans (despite some hiccups) but this attempt was clearly initiated without any concern for them.
Why Its Being Attempted
Efforts like Equestria Girls are often symptoms that studios or networks are becoming risk averse. In other words, they don’t want to take the chance that a new venture may fail so they rely instead on variations of an existing success story. The risk is certainly lower, but the risk that the brand itself will wear out quicker is a major conern.
At the time of writing (March 2013) the MLP brand shows no signs of slowing down, but the inevitable slowdown is coming sooner rather than later. The Hub (or rather Hasbro) is sowing the seeds for the efforts to keep the brand afloat with Equestria Girls.
We’ll have to wait until later this year to find out how things go, but as of now, Hasbro is willing to take a chance with their most valuable property.
The fandom that surrounds My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has been discussed here on the blog before with the show’s creators and network rightfully being praised for their interaction with it. This was doubly evident once it became known that the show was attracting fans that were, well, far outside the show’s intended demographic. The result was the coining of the term ‘brony’ (bro+pony) and the proliferation of these fans throughout the internet and beyond. Bronies have since spawned many websites, forums and even conventions dedicated to their favourite show.
The phenomenon spurred the creation of a documentary about it after actor John de Lancie became acquainted with it thanks to a role on the show. As with many contemporary projects, a Kickstarter campaign was launched and it quickly reached its initial funding goal. Subsequent stretch goals resulted in a grand total of $322,022 being raised from 2,621 backers.
It was therefore with some dismay (and sadness) that the producers noticed that the completed documentary was available on internet filesharing sites almost immediately after its release to Kickstarter backers:
You may have heard that we are shutting down production. For clarification, this refers to canceling plans to invest more time and money into releasing a disc with additional material and segments that have already been shot but didn’t make it into the film. We have many great stories that just didn’t fit into the flow of what we were creating with the film but thought the Brony community would really enjoy seeing. Because the piracy within the Brony community is rampant and pervasive we’ve come to the conclusion that investing any more time and energy would be not be worthwhile.
So with additional work on the documentary being stopped due to ‘piracy’, how could the brony documentary makers respond to this in a way that not only enables them to continue the additional work, but also attract new fans who may be willing to pay for it?
First and foremost, this does not mean that they should neglect the people who have funded it through the service. Those that donated with the recognition that they would receive rewards have a legal right to what they were promised. That said, many commentators on the post announcing the stoppage were vocal in their support for an additional campaign to fund the extra features.
That does not make a lot of sense insofar that it is taking another drink from the same trough. Although backers are willing to pay for additional extra features, why would you need to pre-sell it to them? Surely those that will donate will buy them once they are completed? The vast success of the original campaign already proves that the demand exists. In any case, the additional costs that Kickstarter imposes would only serve to lower the funds available to create the features in the first place.
Fix the Downloads
The documentary was made available to all backers who donated more than $30 as a digital download. Since then, it has been released to the general public in three DRM-free formats. The reason it has been made available so quickly is that manufacturing takes time, and the producers (naturally) want the film to be out there as soon as possible.
The only problem is that the download is just the film, nothing more and nothing less. Did I mentioned it costs $12.99? Yeah, that too. Why is that a problem? If you are faced with a choice for something (legality aside for a minute), would you rather cough up $12.99 or $0.00? You’d plump for the latter I’m sure. Here’s a screenshot of the torrent as of writing:
All told, you’re look at under 400 people being involved with this torrent. That’s well below the 2,621 that backed it, and certainly a pittance of the 5,000+ that attend the BronyCon convention. That suggest that the numbers involved are relatively small compared to the size of the overall Brony community. The legal method also does not account for cases like this:
Understandably there are costs associated with digital downloads but there is a convenient way to eliminate those that are discussed further down.
As part of the Kickstarter campaign, the rewards included a copy of the documentary on physical media (Blu-Ray and DVD). Those are (as of writing) being produced by the fabricator. However, there is (as of writing) no listing on Amazon (or eBay) for the disc and there is unlikely to be one until it is finished.
The problem with such a situation is that with a release date that is not readily apparent, potential viewers are unlikely to know that it will be available on physical media unless they do some research. Amazon has the ability to feature products for pre-sale, why wasn’t the documentary installed there before now?
Although the main issue is that viewers are moving away from physical anyway, there is an apparent failure on the part of the producers to adequately think out their release plan. As noted with Wreck-It-Ralph, releasing a film in digital format prior to the physical media will do you no good whatsoever. That’s not to say the discs should not go ahead, but that an effort but an extra effort will likely be required.
How to Help the Brony Documentary Make Money
With all the above in mind, it’s time to look at ways that the situation can be improved for everyone involved.
Why not put it on bittorrent?
The first question to answer is why shouldn’t the film be available in bittorrent? There are numerous advantages; namely the elimination of any costs associated with hosting, as individual users do that. They also pay for the bandwidth too, so there’s two significant costs immediately eliminated.
So if your major costs are removed, any monies you do receive will be almost total profit, right? Yes! Of course. So the simple solution is to find a way to extract money from people who view the documentary via bittorrent. Why not include a donation link in the video? Why not include the film’s website where you can sell them things?
Sell Some Merchandise
Right now there is not a single shred of merchandise available relating to the film. Yes there are copyright issues surrounding the My Little Pony show itself, but not the documentary surrounding it. The film has a distinctive (if unremarkable) logo that could and should be plastered on t-shirts, hats and everything else that companies like to flog these days.
The documentary has garnered some media attention but that alone will not attract non-fans and non-bronies alone. People who are not intently interested in the topic matter are unlikely, maybe even unwilling, to cough up money to view it. The advantage of it being freely available is that anyone can watch it, with the result being that people outside the brony sphere are much more likely to either become involved themselves or at least take a more positive attitude to the phenomenon.
Larger audience for conventions and festivals
Films usually require large audiences to achieve success and one of the ways they accomplish this is through festival and convention screenings. Such events are sometimes accompanied by the presence of the filmmakers themselves. If the film is freely available online, such screenings will be more popular (fans always like the personal dimension), raising the profile of the film and greatly improving the opportunity to make money.
It’s always disheartening when something does not turn out as anticipated. It happens to everyone and this documentary is no exception. The important thing to remember is that when faced with a situation like this there is more than one way to respond. The music industry found out the hard way that taking a hard line is certainly the one to avoid. Thankfully the producers do not appear willing to go down that road, but it is nonetheless disheartening to see them not consider the many proven alternative that are available to them.
The latest incarnation of My Little Pony has been worthy of plenty of discussion since its debut. The quality is excellent, the artists behind it are superb and its fans are devoted at a level most marketers can only fantasize about. Thankfully, the network that broadcasts the show, The Hub, has been smart enough to realise this and have allowed the fan community to grow freely, sometimes offering a little fertiliser of their own to give it a helping hand. I’ve discussed the whole phenomenon numerous times too, praising the progressive approach shown by the network to the entire affair.
However, a dark cloud has begun to cast its shadow over Equestria. I was expecting to discuss just one example, but this morning a second, and much more vicious example of a My Little Pony trademark dispute came to light. Both concern fans and both concern, not the Hub, but its parent company, Hasbro.
The first example to come to light (via Techdirt) is the fan-made online game MLP: Online. It was an entirely independent exercise and the developers apparently spent over a year and a half creating it before releasing the first episode just there in October.
Unfortunately, all the effort appears to have been in vain as Hasbro’s lawyers pounced on the unofficial game, going after it for both copyright and trademark infringement:
Shortly after that–exactly 4 weeks prior to now–we received a complaint about copyright and trademark infringement. We initially dismissed this it was most likely submitted by some trolls, as they could be submitted anonymously by anyone through our CDN. However, we continued to look into it, and by the following Monday, found it to be very real.
The developers admit that they weren’t exactly in the clear:
Hasbro is not to be blamed here. As per U.S. Trademark law, as soon as an infringement comes to light, they are obligated to defend the trademark, or they will lose it. They had no choice in the matter, regardless of what they thought of the project or how it benefited them.
However it appears that Hasbro was having none of it, even though there was a willingness on the developer’s side to work with them:
The matter was quite strict: there was little that we could do to work around it. We removed the download link and development was suspended. Discussions continued through the month, but it came down to one fact: MLP:Online had come to an end.
Now there are plenty of official MLP games out there, but the real issue here is whether or not they cater to the fans. A cursory glance of the Hasbro website raises questions about whether it caters to the brony crowd (hint: not if you’re over 10 or a boy). So it would seem natural that someone somewhere would create a game that does cater to the older crowd. MLP: Online appeared to fit that bill. Sadly, Hasbro, while legally right to defend their trademarks, chose the ‘nuclear’ option that will do nothing to foster the fan community.
The other, and far more intriguing story, popped up today and concerns Sherry Bourlan. Sherry is a MLP fan as well as an expert at creating plush toys (check out this very thorough post featuring her recent appearance at the Silly Filly Con in Kansas City). Her’s are not the cheapo kind though, they are expertly crafted and sold for a hefty price (this one sold for over $1,300 and has surely risen in value since). Ms. Bourlan was served with a notice of trademark infringement for selling her replica ponies through eBay with which she promptly complied (her store is empty at the time of writing)
What makes this case fascinating is that it is purely a trademark case (no copyright is involved) and because it centers around the concept of trademark known as ‘dilution‘, where an unofficial product may threaten an official product or cause confusion in the mind of the consumer.
In this instance, although Bourlan operated independently, there doesn’t appear to be any real dilution of a competing Hasbro product or even the My Little Pony trademark. Her products were of stunningly high quality and in any case, Hasbro doesn’t even make a competing plush toy!
So are they right to send a cease and desist? Legally, yes, but on the shooting-yourself-in-the-foot scale, this scores s blunderbuss. The company could so easily have come to an agreement with Bourlan for either a small or negligible -cost license and allow her to continue making her fantastic plushes. The My Little Pony brand is hardly being harmed by these stunning creations although they do show up Hasbro’s shortcomings as a brand; they could never hope to charge that much for a plush.
The moral of both stories is that large corporations can be incredibly short-sighted when it comes to the little people who actually support them. As noted at the top, the actual studio and network (The Hub) has nothing to do with both cases, a not entirely surprising state of affairs given their known stance on the show’s fans.
The parent corporation, Hasbro, on the other hand, sees things in a different light; towing the line of many similar behemoths by simply assuming that any unofficial activity is bad activity that needs to be put down. Little do they know that they are only hurting themselves. Especially so with the plushes. Hasbro doesn’t target adults but Ms. Bourlan clearly does. It’s a market they have actively neglected and are highly unlikely to get into anytime soon, so there’s no skin off their nose at the end of the day. The game is a similar matter and by actively stating that they are ignoring older fans (who have money!), the company is only fooling themselves.
Personally, if I were head of Hasbro, I would be taking a close look at the activity of my legal affairs department and whether or not they are justifying their activities. Defending trademarks is one thing, but you do not need to annihilate to win. Heck, even Disney back in the day found it much more agreeable to get a license out of infringers than to shut them down. They won by coming into the legal fold and Disney won because he sold more products that paid royalties!
Tumblr use Isaia posted a few comics that look at the humourous side of a show growing in popularity in demographics far beyond the one it was created for. They poke fun at the whole idea of a “target demographic” by pointing out that any show that’s good will attract the right audience.
Bronies come in all shapes and forms, but one of the more niche categories has to be the ones that are also Linux nerds. While Linux is well-known for the devotedness of its fans (even more so than those in the cult of Apple) it’s still a bit of a surprise to see them interested in something as saccharine as My Little Pony.
Anyway, here’s what some of them get up to when they blend their favourite OS with their favourite show:
Linux is endlessly sutomizeable and the two main websites KDE Look and GNOME Look are more than happy to oblige with Pony themed items for your computer.
Don’t know what /dev/null is? You clearly aren’t be a Linux nerd.
YouTube user gbaudette has been posting analysis of scenes from, er, My Little Pony. While some may deride the show and its concept, the fact remains that there are more than a few industry veterans either behind or formerly behind it, so it does make sense to look at it from a technique perspective.
It’s true, this post does contain a serious and important discussion about bronies. Although they are sometimes vilified by folks, they nonetheless represent a very special kind of fan that a lot of animated TV shows are sadly lacking.
Let’s be honest, there have always been fans who reside outside a show’s intended audience. This is nothing new and should come as no surprise to anyone, fan of animation or not. What is surprising about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, is that the show’s producers have not shied away from acknowledging the existence of bronies.
Why would they do this? Why would the choose to break with unofficial tradition, which states that you shouldn’t engage with anyone outside the target demographic lest you alienate the intended audience? The answer is straightforward and simple, such fans are what shows like MLP need in order to grow.
Yeah, you could say that it’s really the little girls that are lapping up the toys, but at the end of the day, that is small potatoes to what fans with real disposable income can do. Now you could say, and I do agree, that such fans are not nearly as common nor as numerous than the targeted one, however, they do tend to:
buy more merchandise
buy more expensive merchandise
tune in regularly
participate in online/offline discussion.
All of these things are oxygen for a show like MLP for a number of reasons:
It is broadcast on The Hub, a brand new network with no real audience to being with (it was a replacement for Discovery Kids).
MLP as a TV show was as dated as ever and might as well have been a new show as far as its target audience were concerned
Even though it had the might of Hasbro behind it, The Hub still needed viewers and consumers to watch its shows and buy its merchandise. Marketing and ads will only get you so far.
Arguably the greatest boon to the entire show was the now famous (infamous) post by Amid Amidi on Cartoon Brew. That brought the show a lot of mainstream media attention and focus. Not only did this bring this formerly obscure group of fans into the public consciousness, it also brought MLP and The Hub a lot of free publicity and attention that it never would have received otherwise.
All of this was undoubtedly beneficial to the show and network, however, it is outside of the show that is the most interesting; even though Bronies were tuning and and buying merchandise, they were also forming their own extensive ecosystem both on and off the internet.
Numerous (and I do mean numerous) fan sites have popped up. Yes, they are all the usual kinds you expect to see from a show, but they were all that and much more. They cater exclusively to fans, they help newbies get acquainted with the show, they run competitions, they have downloadable content, they post fan-fiction, they link to merchandise (both official and unofficial), they actively discuss whole aspects of the shows universe, they organise real-life meetups and conventions and yes, they run personality quizzes (that actively embrace new fans):
similar to Applejack.”]
And what is the one truly, unique, magical, fantastic thing about all of this?
The Hub embraced it! All of it!
They didn’t stand there and say: “Hey, there’s a whole bunch of 30-something year old guys watching our show. They’re going to give it a bad name, or worse, make it seem like its for “old people” or something.” No. Instead they said: “Hey, we’ve managed to gain a whole bunch of fans they we never thought we would have. We can’t openly cater to them for fear of skewing the perception of the show, but let’s be nice to them anyway because we’re gaining a benefit!”
That’s right, while the network was in a bit of a bind in that it was never going to actively cater to Bronies in the mainstream public’s eye, they at least had the wisdom to actively court fans in ways that would be construed as friendly. Examples include the parody ads for season 2, and the exclusive figurine sold at the San Diego Comic Con in 2011.
The very existence of the Brony fanbase has benefited those on all sides of the show. The creators know that they have created a product that is superior to what they were tasked with, the network got a lot of free publicity as well as extra viewers and consumers, and fans got a show that they really enjoy and relate to which gives them a sense of satisfaction.