Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Final Customer

This isn't a doomsday scenario about there being only one customer left. It's about the fact that while people work for companies and companies work for companies, relatively few of them are the final customer, and that puts everyone at risk.

When you get your hair cut, you are the final customer. You're not getting your hair cut so that you can somehow resell it to someone else. But many of us work for companies whose customers are not the final customer. If you work in animation, your company's customer may be another studio, TV broadcaster, film distributor, or retailer. They are the people who ultimately sell your work to the audience. If any of your customers misread the market, your company will suffer and you may be laid off as a result. The people working in animation production are helpless to control their fates.

The Animation Guild Blog has some quotes from industry veterans. The whole thing is worth reading, but here is the heart of the matter:
What artists in animation don't understand like they should is that companies don't care about them. Artists want to believe that companies do, but it's not the way things are....

It's nothing personal. They're not trying to be mean or cruel. They just have their budget to get down and you're a hindrance to that. So they get rid of you. Nothing personal about it at all.
This is absolutely true, as are the comments about why older artists often become the targets of companies looking to save money.

We know, just from reading the papers, that the people who run companies can be guilty of bad decisions. Large financial institutions like Lehman Bros. have disappeared and we may be watching the death of General Motors. We are trusting our livelihoods and our futures to people who are really no smarter than we are. This being the case, we should trust ourselves more.

There is no sale without a final customer. The longer the supply chain between what you do and the final customer, the more likely that somebody in the middle is going to make a bad decision that is going to affect you. The best position to be in is selling directly to the final customer. That way, you are not at the mercy of the companies in the supply chain.

Ironically, you are at the mercy of your customers, who will probably outnumber the people you are currently selling to. However, because of their number, each final customer has much less power to damage you. Losing one customer or ten when you are selling to final customers will hurt your business, but not as much as losing one company or ten as your clients. The good news is that companies you sell to have enough money to pay you well and to allow you to build your organization. The bad news is if that money is withdrawn, your are unemployed and your company is bankrupt.

Animation artists are too far down the supply chain. We are dependent on too many people between us and the audience. In the next year or two, we are going to see many companies shrinking their workforces and others disappearing all together. Many unemployed artists will struggle to survive until companies start expanding again, at which point they will be happy to return to work. The smart ones will try and figure out a way to sell something to the final customer, because that's the most secure place to be in the long run.

16 comments:

Maurice said...

Whoa!!!

Does this mean that if an economic downturn is bad enough, Disney (for example) will rid of their animation department altogether?? At least in 2004 - 2006, when they abandoned the hand-drawn style they were founded on, they switched to 3D animation to keep those animators employed.

Disney, Dreamworks, 20th Century Fox and Sony all snuffing out their animation subsidiaries simultaneously in a panic would be a horrific jolt, considering thousands of animators, and the Screen Cartoonists Guild, would be extremely extremely EXTREMELY angry.

Maurice said...

Or were you implying something else?

Mark Mayerson said...

What you're suggesting is a worst case scenario, which I doubt will happen. However, it's a no brainer to say that unemployment will be higher in 2009 than it is now inside and outside the animation industry.

My point is that animation artists are essentially powerless as they are working for companies whose loyalties are to the bottom line, not to employees. Furthermore, just as companies like Lehman and GM were badly managed, there are animation studios (not necessarily in the feature field) that are also badly managed or who will be squeezed by their banks or their clients enough that they fall into insolvency.

Building an audience is the only way I can see for people to have some control over their careers. It's unlikely that someone's audience will vanish entirely, whereas a job or a company might.

Jinny Liang said...

Hi Mark, I also read the TAG article earlier. I was wondering, is there anything that an animator or artist working in the animation industry can do to improve their situation? Or would a career change to another field in the arts be an alternate solution on a personal level?.. Also, could I ask your opinion on what you might see coming up job/industry-wise for this coming year's graduates?

Larry T said...

The worst problem is that those 'middleman' companies are the ones who make the money. They take their responsibilities from a larger company and pass their services to a smaller, waiting company.

If the top-level company made a bad decision, the middleman doesn't take on the business. If the end-user company makes a bad decision, well, the middleman has already sold their services to him and are in the clear.

The middleman can back out anytime and disappear into the night with full pockets, which is what is happening a lot these days.

You hit the nail on the head Mark- protect your own interests as your own agent as an employee... companies never have your best interests at heart... ever.

By knowing this from the beginning a worker has already armed himself and won't allow himself to be found in a compromising situation.

Cynical, I know... but gone are the days when someone devotes their entire life to one job / workplace....

Mark Mayerson said...

Hi Jinny. I don't think I'm going to surprise anyone by saying that I think this year's graduates are facing a tough situation. That's the luck of the draw. You can't know when you enter a program how busy the industry or the economy will be when you finish it.

I don't think that animation is going to be in any worse shape than any other visual art, so changing course probably won't make much of a difference.

Here's some basic advice I'd give to graduates from any year. Network aggressively. If you know people in the business, start talking to them now and keep talking to them. It's good to touch base with people when you're not looking for work, just so they don't think that the only time you get in touch is when you want something. If you're lucky, you'll learn what studios are busy and you can target them.

Apply to any animation-related job you can find. Knock on studio doors and if you are lucky enough to talk to someone, get their business card and send them a thank you email. Stay in touch with them once a month.

If there are any industry associations, join them. If there any industry events, attend them. Bring business cards and introduce yourself to strangers. Sometimes artists are shy and don't want to push themselves, but nobody has a reason to seek you out this early in your career. You've got to do the work.

Be prepared to relocate. At this point in your career, you need resume credits and experience. The sooner you get them, the sooner you can position yourself for the jobs you want. Sometimes, the only jobs are at small studios in out of the way locations, because nobody with experience wants to work/live there.

If you're not working, keep producing new art. That way, you can revisit studios once a month and have new things to show. That will convince the studio of your commitment. There's no reason for a studio to see you more than once if your portfolio/reel are exactly the same as last time.

Stay upbeat when talking to people, no matter how discouraged you are. No studio wants to listen to an applicant complain, especially if the studio is struggling to stay in business. Stay enthusiastic and be willing to do whatever they ask, even if it's not what you really want. There will be lots of time to reposition yourself in the future.

Job hunting is a skill. The sooner you start applying for jobs, the sooner you'll learn the ropes. Do not sit at home and wait for the phone to ring. Keep putting out feelers and keep producing new work. Sooner or later, you'll catch a break.

When you do, live below your means. Don't assume the job will last as long as promised. Don't assume that the studio will have another project when the current one is done. Save your money because you will spend time unemployed.

If you're working, keep networking. Let the other studios know that you've been hired. They will take you more seriously if other studios want you. Keep talking to friends in the business, monitoring the situation wherever they are working. That way, when you're out of work, you can hit the ground running in order to find your next job.

While you're working, keep your portfolio and reel up to date. When a project is finished, ask for samples of your work from it, even if you can't show the samples until the project is released. You don't want a studio to shut down and leave you with no access to the work you've done. It's happened.

Graduating in tough times could turn out to be a blessing. Those people who manage to make it through the recession are going to be smarter and tougher than those who don't (though luck does play a part in it). When the business goes through other slow periods, you'll be more ready to deal with them while others disappear.

David B. Levy said...

Great advice to Jinny, Mark! All spot on.

Paul said...

Great article, Mark.

Jinny Liang said...

Thanks so much for the advice Mark! :)

Anonymous said...

Great post , Mark.

Here's the rub:

"The smart ones will try and figure out a way to sell something to the final customer, because that's the most secure place to be in the long run."

I totally agree with that , but on a practical level what many of us struggle with is securing enough start up capital to develop something to sell to the final customer (I'm talking about animation now , whether television product, movies, or web based shows) The costs have come down and the proliferation of software that makes it possible to have a whole studio "in a box" has helped the independent animator , but there are still enormous challenges it terms of securing distribution and a million other little details that go beyond the creative part .

Lots to think about here. If anyone figures it out please post something, I'd love to read your thoughts .

It's easy to talk about starting up your own production and selling to the last customer (cutting out the middleman) , but what do you do if you make an amazing film (like Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues" ) but you can't get distribution ? Nina went broke making Sita and she's still broke and everyone agrees it's a beautiful , well-made film. So where's the reward for creating something on your own ?

JPilot said...

I love these posts, Mark. When I graduated, the animation industry was practically non existent (1984-85). We had to invent our jobs, start as cel painters in the few commercial houses of the time to get our foot in. A few years later that cycle changed and the industry couldn't find enough animation artists to fill their studios. And the cycle had changed again and we are entering a phase in the industry that is completely different than what we have experienced in the past 5 or 6 years. The key to longevity in this industry is the ability to roll with the changes. If you think the state that the industry is in right now is here to stay, it's not. I have seen and worked for giants that toppled under the weight of their own hubris and over confidence (My favorite line from one exec: "I am bulletproof!")
I believe that working on your own project and putting it out there is still a great idea. Regardless of the financial outcome. We are still artists and as such, not everything we produce will get us riches and critical acclaim, nor are we guaranteed remuneration for every hour we put in our personal endeavors. Just like a musician or a writer or a painter, not everything we touch will turn to gold. But if we're lucky... The only way to find out is to step up.

Mark Mayerson said...

I don't want to imply that figuring out a way to sell animation directly to customers without start-up capital will be easy. It won't. I envy those arts that can be created less expensively than animation. There are comic strips on the web that are earning a profit because the strip can be created quickly enough to be cost effective. Animation does not have that luxury.

However, the alternative is the status quo, which at the best of times constrains animation artists from creating what they want to and in the worst of times leaves them unemployed.

I don't know how to get us from here to there, but I know that there is better than here. I hope that's an incentive for somebody to figure out the most direct route.

I think that theatrical distribution for independent features is an iffy proposition. The deck is stacked against producers as the distributors make the decision how much to spend on prints and advertising and how much overhead to charge. If a film doesn't find an audience immediately, the distributor gives up and the producer is lucky to see any money at all. If a film is a hit, it's likely the producer will be cheated by by the distributor's accounting practices. Alternate means of distribution is one of the problems that artists need to solve.

I'm not fully up on Nina Paley's situation, but isn't there an issue with music copyrights? I believe that's the stumbling block. Of course, if it hadn't been for the Sonny Bono Copyright Act, Annette Hanshaw's recordings and the songs she sang would be public domain by now. I hope that Paley is able to solve whatever the problem is and get her feature distributed. I would love to see it.

tiny dean said...

I don't think I have any objections to what you said in this post. Unfortunately, the animation industry seems function as you described it. Artists are at the mercy of the companies producing the work and, unlike movie stars or hot-shot movie producers and directors, their experience and reputations probably afford them little or no advantage in finding secure employment.

Oh well....

Maurice said...

Comment 1) Trivial note. The last time I looked at IMDb, I found that only 16 animators are working on "Princess and the Frog" right now.

Comment 2) Another trivial note. Three of Disney's most worthy competitors of the past - - Don Bluth, Ralph Bakshi and Richard Williams - - are somewhere out there in hiding, building up their comeback in the film business. Bluth is adapting to the screen a video game he created in the 1980s, called "Dragon's Lair". Ralph Bakshi is using the latest 2D software and a minimal crew to make "Last Days of Coney Island", which might be a sequel to "Heavy Traffic". Williams is working on a short film (for release sometime soon) before finishing an animated feature he's animating BY HIMSELF based on one the comedies of Greek playwright Aristrophanes.

Does anyone know of any other legendary animation figures out there with similar plans?

Comment 3) I still search for more information on animators and their assistants for my article. Who knows what assistants Norm Ferguson had other than John Lounsbery?

David Nethery said...

"Comment 1) Trivial note. The last time I looked at IMDb, I found that only 16 animators are working on "Princess and the Frog" right now."


Maurice,

One thing to be aware of about IMDB is that the credits are not always complete or correct for finished films, let alone those that are still in production. The IMDB listing of 16 animators on Princess & The Frog may not be a complete listing of everyone who is animating on the film. In most cases it's up to an individual to keep their own IMDB listing updated. There are people I know have worked on more films in recent years who only have two or three entries from the 90's listed on IMDB . They haven't kept their listing updated and unless another user contributes the credit and can document it then IMDB will not update the database.

Check back later in 2009 or after the film is released and you may find a longer credit list on Princess & the Frog.

IMDB is a useful database , but often wrong or out of date, especially on Animated films. Until recently IMDB didn't even have a category for Animation . People who worked as animators or clean-up artists on animated features were listed under "Other Crew" or "Misc." . Now that has changed so there is a category for Animation Crew.

Maurice said...

Not that I 100% trust IMDb. In this example we are discussin, it's like Wikipedia (which, by the way, has taken many undeserved whippings for its inaccuracies).

Since IMDb is the only source I have for updates on credits, I can only assume the following about the Princess & The Frog animators:

Mark Henn, Ruben Aquino, Andreas Deja, Duncan Marjoribanks, Nik Ranieri, Eric Goldberg, Tony DeRosa, Mike Surrey, Randy Haycock and Bruce Smith supervising.

Dale Baer, Matt Williames, Bert Klein, Eric Daniels, Ian Gooding and Joe Oh providing additional work.