Trimming the fat.

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Posted by Brian on April 15, 1999 at 11:10:41:

Apologies in advance for the length of this post...

I've been reading this message board for awhile now about the problems with the way the major studios are run and the inability of the union to forcefully correct these problems, and a number of ideas have been brewing away which I thought I'd try to share here. Unfortunately I'm in the position of having very little first hand experience with the industry directly. I graduated college slightly more than a year and a half ago and have not worked within the major studios yet. However I've got my own scars from the job hunt process and I'm currently watching my girlfriend suffer the same drawn out fiasco, so anything I can do to make the situation less volatile, or at least more comfortable to those of us on the production side of things I'll be happy to lend a hand.

So anyhow, here's what I've been thinking...

The major animation studios are currently both a source of pride and pain for animation artists. The best artists are drawn to these studios because the highest quality animation is produced here and the pay rate is far better than nearly any other available option. But in an environment where a constant stream of high quality artists is ensured there becomes less and less need to be kind and benevolent to everyone. The result is that artists are cast about like an old toy once their work is finished. Those who survive the layoffs have to continue on knowing that pure skill isn't enough to insure steady employment. What happens to the people who have families who rely on that income to keep them afloat?

The obvious solution is to create an environment where all production artists are treated as integral working gears in a project and not merely as warm bodies filling a position. With the current need for 500 to 1000+ artists it's very unlikely you'll achieve that sort of environment in a major studio like Disney or Warners, etc. An independantly run animation studio on the other hand could provide this type of atmosphere because of the absolute reliance on even the smallest link in the production chain. In a small scale independant studio an artist's voice can be heard. There's total freedom to create any animation, any story, any look you can imagine. There's very little to come between the artists and the People Who Matter running the studio. Conversely the studio chiefs can better aid the artists and production since there isn't a maze of departments and middlemen to sift through in order to recognize problems as they develop.

The problem with running an independant studio (to my eyes) is that once you've created your animated show / movie / special you're left with the task of getting it out to the public. Where do you take your work to have it distributed? Well, right now the biggest distribution networks are all tied in with the major studios, -the same studios which prompted the need to create independant studios in the first place. So say you've got a production finished up on a budget that didn't include the need to pay Disney / Warner executives for their "creative" input, -now you have to pay them something in order for your work to be shown on their television channels or to be distributed through their movie networks. It nearly puts you back to square one. So what are the options for making money on an indepently produced animated project and not have the major studios you sought to escape come back to raise your costs higher than is reasonable?

(Again my own thoughts and inexperienced suggestions)

#1: Animation can be distributed over the internet. Right now the ability to generate money from internet distribution is haphazard at best. The best internet run entertainment outlets sell actual physical products that the customer recieves by mail. But how do you make money by showing a cartoon on the internet? There's a couple options, but none of them have been in use long enough to prove their worth in terms of generating enough money to keep an independant studio alive. One option for internet distribution is to charge customers a fee in order to view the animation you wish to show them. Another option would be to charge advertising companies for the right to display ads in conjunction with your animated entertainment. A third option would be to enter a joint venture with major online providers such as America Online, WebTV, Microsoft, and so on and earn your money there. There's difficulties in every option that you look at though. If you choose to distribute your work primarily over the internet you leave out every potential audience member who either doesn't have access to the internet, or doesn't have the ability to view your animations because of a too-slow connection. Linking your production to an online service provider such as AOL could provide an enormous benefit in terms of viewer attention, but here again you risk being taken advantage of by a corporation which may not have the independant studio's best interests in mind.

My own thoughts on the option of internet distribution is that there's a potentially huge, global audience with money to spend on quality animated shows / movies. High speed internet access is gradually becoming available to more and more people and it's only a matter of time before it's possible for internet users to watch an animated film with as much visual quality as anything that can be produced for television. The people who can forge a means of making real money from animated shows distributed through the internet will easily earn enough to support a growing independant studio.

Distribution option #2: Direct to video. Direct to video projects would seem to be a natural choice for an independant studio's efforts to be thrown into. The major factor in dealing with direct to video efforts would be to find a receptive publisher to distribute your material to a wide audience. One of the pitfalls right now of direct to video material is that if it doesn't carry the name of Disney or some other marketing powerhouse you're very likely not going to get much attention by the customer. That's why it'd be mandatory that any independantly produced animation be of superier quality in terms of entertainment value, visual appeal, and sheer volume of supply. The object would be to build up your own recognizable name so that people wandering through K-Mart will remember how impressed they were with your previous efforts and now want to see more of it. Once you have built an audience of viewers you can expand your animated concept to include merchandise. One plus not to be ignored with direct to video productions is that you can easily create a show / movie which appeals to a different audience than your typical babysitter faire. How many American made direct to video animations cater to the folks who enjoy Aeon Flux? Or Cheers? What about independantly created short cartoons ala the Looney Tunes of old?

Distribution option #3: Distribute via an artist run publisher. There's a concept at work in the videogame industry called the Gathering of Developers (G.O.D.) which had it's genesis from a group of gamemakers who felt that they were getting the short end of the stick from the publishers (read "corporate brass") that distributed their games to the world. The driving concept behind G.O.D. is best illustrated by their own mission statement: "The Gathering’s mission is not to build its own brand, but to create value for the company and its partners by promoting the developers and their titles. Our message is simple...brand the developer and its creations so that the consumers can easily recognize a quality product." For a fascinating read, point your web browser to their url: and look through their "About Us" along with the following article which is an interview with Mike Wilson (CEO) of the Gathering and the events which lead up to his founding of G.O.D. To summarize though, G.O.D. is run by a board of directors who've all earned their stripes working in the trenches developing games of their own. All of them know the ropes of creating succesful game properties, as well as the business tactics necessary to put those properties into the public eye. By forming a new publishing entity they entirely bypassed the usual channels of distribution and now enjoy a uniquely profitable position in both the interactive industry and with the game development companies which they serve.

That last bit is an important note: The Gathering of Developers *SERVES* the companies which create the product. If there's ever to be any truly successful independant animation companies to spring forth they'll need a partner in the distribution business who is willing to put their needs before it's own.

In an ideal situation an artist run distribution house would have the means to publish the developer's animation by itself, but that might prove to be a difficult challenge when you consider how completely the major studios already have control of the primary distribution routes. An alternative role for a "G.O.D." concept in the animation industry would be for it to act as an outside middleman in presenting the independant studio's animated project to the major studios. Regardless of the form such a publishing corporation would take though, it would be absolutely imperitive for the independant animation studios to deliver their projects in a timely manner and with the proper attention to quality lest they be the weak link in the chain which brings the whole house down. There's certainly no shortage of qualified game developers who are building up their own companies, I'm fairly certain there's no shortage of similar talent in the animation industry. The best way to start would be to gather a core group of artists and directors who have enough collective experience to run a quality driven, focused studio dedicated to producing outstanding original ideas. A studio with these ideals and capabilities would provide the G.O.D. concept with the muscles necessary to make the whole machine work.

A question that I've been pondering about with regards to this artist run publishing company is: can the current animation union evolve into such an organization? What's to keep the animation union from taking an active role in fostering the development of independant studios in this manner?

I think the potential is there for a dynamic teaming of talent driven independant studios and an experience driven publishing house. The two great tastes that...

Distribution option #4: Charles has mentioned this already, but new technology is allowing videogames to support animated segments rivaling television and movies for sheer quality and production values. A strong independant animation studio could set itself up to offer custom animation segments for these videogames without ever having to bother with expensive exective overhead. The big drawback is that you'd still be doing somebody else's work rather than your own original premises. That's not to say that you couldn't build up your own projects after a few successful endeavors though.

And that, for now is what's been running through my brain lately...

-Brian Reynolds

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