Pretty much everything I've posted so far has had to do with art or history. My interest in JibJab has to do with the business of animation.
I suspect that most people are familiar with JibJab from their political parody of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” It was created during the 2004 presidential campaign and besides garnering enormous attention on the web, was also featured on the Tonight and Today shows on NBC. Their films are made with Flash software.
Evan and Greg Spiridellis are the founders of JibJab and Evan was at Sheridan College the last week of April to talk about the history of the company, focusing on their business model. Having been through the TV animation mill myself, I not only agreed with everything he said, I realized that he had thought things through beyond my own experience.
Spiridellis stressed the opportunity of using the web to reach an audience, build your own brand and own your own content. This is very different from the worlds of film and TV where you've got to get past gatekeepers and you end up owning little or nothing.
Gatekeepers don't want to guess wrong or they'll lose their jobs, which means it's far easier for them to say no than to say yes. I have pitched many TV series and sold exactly one. I thought all the ideas were good but the gatekeepers didn't see enough in them to take a chance.
With the web, however, there are no gatekeepers. You can reach an audience with no intermediaries and present your content as you see fit. The trick, of course, is to earn money while doing it.
JibJab has taken a varied approach. By using Flash, they're creating with a low cost animation tool. Their website hosts ads as well as sells merchandise. What really interests me, though, is they are actively trying to build up their audience in measurable ways. They have an email list that’s currently 650,000 people. You sign up on the website and if three emails to you bounce, the software removes you from the list. It’s self-editing. This guarantees that the list is current. Furthermore, when they release a new film, they get between eight and ten million website hits. That’s more viewers than many TV series and feature films get.
JibJab is currently negotiating for a TV series and feature film and they’re using their popularity as leverage. Spiridellis said that had they pitched without a sizeable audience, they would not have been taken seriously. In an increasingly fragmented media culture, anybody who can bring an audience with them is going to find it easier to raise money.
Another area where Spridellis’ wants to break the mold is in the size of his studio. He feels that he can do an animated feature with a crew of 20 rather than 200. I believe that he’s right. Rather than try to compete against Pixar and DreamWorks, Spiridellis will take a simpler animation approach and concentrate on content. The smaller crew and simpler approach are another way that JibJab will reduce costs, reduce gatekeeper risk and get their work to the public.
I only hope that the Sheridan students grasped what Spiridellis was talking about. New technologies result in new business leaders. Sound film led to Disney. TV led to Hanna Barbera. Home computers led to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. The web has led to JibJab and Spiridellis is very conscious of the opportunities it presents.
The ground is shifting dramatically right now, opening up opportunities for independent producers in ways that were unthinkable even five years ago. Artists will always dream about working for studios like Pixar or Disney, but they should also be thinking about creating their own material and getting it to the public. The web is still wide open and don't forget about iPods and cell phones. Spiridellis’ presentation is one that’s all too rare in animation schools and is exactly the type of thing that should be encouraged.