Sunday, August 17, 2014

Is Canadian TV Animation Heading for a Cliff?

The TV animation business in Canada is on a roll right now.  There's a lot of work out there, as a glance at the job board at Canadian Animation Resources confirms.  While animation in Canada includes visual effects, features and videogames, TV still makes up the greatest proportion of production in terms of employment and the amount of material produced.

However, there are trends in several areas that make TV animation vulnerable.  The ground is already shifting and there are more shifts to come.

Television in Canada is regulated by the Canadian Radio and Television Commission.  This government body determines which new channels will be allowed to exist, sets quotas for Canadian content and determines how much money from cable fees will be set aside for Canadian production.

The CRTC is aware of the effect that the internet and internet TV providers such as Netflix are having on the market and have been holding hearings to determine how regulations should change.  There are several possibilities being considered.  One is unbundling. 

The CRTC has declared that certain channels such as YTV, a major Canadian animation market, are part of the basic cable package.  In other words, everyone who has cable is forced to pay money towards YTV.  Other channels featuring animation, such as Teletoon and Family Channel, are part of packages.  You cannot buy these channels on their own.  There are customers who don't care at all about animation who are contributing money towards these channels by purchasing the package they're included in.

Should the CRTC unbundle, allowing viewers to purchase only those channels they want, no one can predict how this might effect the demand for animation channels.  The number of cable channels using animation has expanded to include Nickelodeon, Teletoon Retro, Cartoon Network Canada, Disney XD, Disney Junior and Treehouse.  Can the Canadian market support all of these channels in an a la carte world?  Can studios survive if the number of Canadian buyers goes down?

There is an entire generation that has replaced TV with the internet.  The term "cord cutting" is used to describe people who give up cable TV, but there are many young adults who haven't had cable TV since leaving their parents' homes.  Walking in Toronto, I see children in strollers playing with iPads.  In a world of on-demand entertainment, does the concept of a broadcast schedule have a hope of surviving?

The shrinking audience is affecting even mainstream programming.  W5, a 60 Minutes-like news show has just cut production on the number of episodes for the coming season and laid off staff due to shrinking ad revenues. 

Many in Canada subscribe to Netflix instead of cable.  No money spent on Netflix is re-routed towards Canadian production as it is with cable bills.  This means that the Canada Media Fund, which funnels money towards various productions, has less to work with.

Finally, there is the issue of tax credits.  Ontario just had a provincial election, so the government will be stable for the next four years, but it is trying to eliminate a deficit. No poll of the general public has ever put tax credits for media production high on the list of priorities.  As a result, I would not be surprised to see the tax credits frozen at best and I anticipate some amount of claw back.  Certainly, they won't increase, which means that if another jurisdiction surpasses Ontario's tax credits, work will leave Ontario.

While content quotas, bundling and tax credits have their place, especially for new enterprises, they turn into an addiction.  Ultimately, animation has to please the public if it is to survive.  Instead, too many studios have focused on satisfying regulations that generate money rather than on creating viable entertainment.  I fear that they have built their enterprises on a foundation of sand.  I have seen contractions in the Canadian animation industry in the past and they're not pretty.  I hope that studios are preparing for changes that may destroy their current business model.

To learn more about this, read Michael Geist and listen to this Canadaland podcast.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Guys with Pencils Down to Stubs

Andrew (left) and Adam
Andrew Murray and Adam Hines, the hosts of the Guys with Pencils podcast, have decided to pack it in after a few more episodes.  The podcast has featured people from animation, comics and games, giving the audience a chance to learn more about each of those fields and the careers of dozens of working artists.

The podcasts will remain available for awhile, but if you're not familiar with them, now's your chance to cherry pick the 172 episodes (so far) for whatever artists or fields you are interested in.

As somebody who has appeared on the podcast multiple times, I'd like to publicly thank Adam and Andrew for the opportunity to air my views on things like creator rights and for providing the animation community with such an informative resource.

I'm sure we haven't heard the last of these two.  I've watched them go from students to working professionals and I look forward to seeing what they'll accomplish in the future.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Profits Over Product

A couple of business stories have come to my attention that point up the conflict between those who value profits over product and those who value product over profits.  Neither is an absolute.  Those who value profit need something that customers are willing to buy and those who value product need to make enough money to keep going.  But there is usually a clear emphasis in most companies.

Cartoon Brew reports a story that YouTube is changing the rules on how they pay contributors money from advertising.  If I read things correctly, it was previously based on views.  Now, it's being based on the amount of time viewers spend watching a contributor's video and frequency of uploads.  This puts animators at a disadvantage as animation takes more time than live action to produce, so animated films are shorter and contributors upload less frequently than live action producers.

This is the same situation that faced J.R. Bray and Max Fleischer in the 1910s and '20s.  At the time, distributors paid film producers by the foot.  Film was treated like bolts of cloth or lumber.  It didn't matter what was on the film, simply how long it was.  While it might take as much time and money (or more) to do a 1000 foot animated film than a 2000 foot live action comedy, the animated film was only going to get paid half as much.  The distributors were looking to fill up screen time.  With fixed admission prices, the cost of a show had to be less than the box office take for that show, or there was no profit.  A clear case of profit over product.

Like the distributors of the past, YouTube is not creating the content, only distributing it.  Unlike the distributors, their customers are not the public.  YouTube's customers are the advertisers.  Therefore, they have to keep the advertisers happy and buying ads in order to pay for all the bandwidth and servers that keep YouTube running.

YouTube is blind to content.  It doesn't care what is uploaded in terms of subject or quality.  There's so much content there, that there is no question that there is material that advertisers will be interested in.  YouTube's only interest is matching advertisers to videos in the most efficient way possible, because that's where the money is.  Advertisers want viewers who spend a lot of time looking at something and who return on a regular basis, so that's what YouTube favours.

While this looks like bad news for animators, there are options.  I don't know if it's against YouTube's terms of service, but animators could go out and find their own sponsors and put 10 second ads at the head of their films.  Or they could super "sponsored by..." over their films.  Or they could seek out product placement.  There are also competing video hosting sites.  Animators are free to note their audience sizes and incomes and approach rival sites to see if they can get a better deal.  If enough animators try this, maybe one of the rival sites will realize that there's a way to boost their audience size while hurting YouTube at the same time.  Would YouTube react if suddenly their animation content dropped significantly?

Comics are not animation and the story of Kitchen Sink Press is different than YouTube, but it exposes the same tension between profits and product.  Denis Kitchen, publisher of Kitchen Sink, gave a long interview to John Cooke, editor of Comic Book Creator.  A large portion of that interview is available in a free .pdf download.

Kitchen started out as an underground comics publisher who eventually branched out into other comics related work, such as The Crow, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs and reprinting Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman and Al Capp.  At one point, he was approached by Kevin Eastman, co-creator of the Ninja Turtles, to have Kitchen Sink take over Eastman's publishing company Tundra.  In exchange for his financial investment, Eastman got 51% of Kitchen Sink.

Eastman, like Kitchen, valued product over profit.  The problem was that Eastman was a poor businessman who was losing money on several fronts, which threatened the existence of Kitchen Sink.  Eastman brought in Ocean Capital, an investment group, which took 90% ownership in exchange for supplying the money to keep the company going.  Ocean Capital's plan was to grow the company and take it public.  While Kitchen's focus had always been on product, Ocean Capital's focus was on getting profits high enough to launch the public offering.  Unfortunately, the comics business underwent one of it's periodic declines and after two years of falling profits, Ocean Capital wanted to sell Kitchen Sink or liquidate it to get out from under.

Enter Fred Seibert, known to the animation community from his association with Hanna Barbera and now shows like Adventure Time and Bee and Puppycat.  Seibert bought the company in a fire sale from Ocean Capital, but a turf war broke out between Kitchen and a consultant named Don Todrin.  Both tried to convince Seibert of the right way forward and Seibert, worried about his investment, sided with Todrin.  Kitchen was fired from the company he created in much the same way that animators Will Vinton and Phil Roman were.  A year later, Kitchen's former company was bankrupt.

Denis Kitchen valued product over profit, but some business decisions that backfired put the company he created into the hands of people who valued profit over product.  It's a familiar story.  Walt Disney valued product but Robert Iger values profit.  Iger ignored the enormous concentration of talent within the Disney company and instead spent money to acquire Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm.  The emphasis on profit has contaminated Pixar, which now produces more sequels than originals and watches Disney rip it off with the Planes franchise.

Surviving in business is difficult, but when the emphasis shifts from product to profit, it rarely shifts back.  Investors, as a rule, are more interested in a return than how the return is achieved.  People who value product have to remain vigilant.  YouTube will change its policies to suit itself and investors will demand control in exchange for their money.  If somebody else controls your work, either through ownership or distribution, you're at their mercy.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Studio Ghibli Closing?

There's this. Then there's this.

Animation on TCM

Turner Classic Movies will be featuring animation in the immediate and near future.

On Tuesday, Aug 5 at 4:30 a.m Eastern Time, they'll run Gay Purr-ee, a feature made by UPA in 1962, starring the voices of Judy Garland and Robert Goulet.  The songs are by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, the team behind the songs in The Wizard of Oz, though these songs are not as memorable.

The crew is a polyglot of Hollywood animation veterans from many studios.  It was directed by Abe Levitow and written by Chuck and Dorothy Jones.  Designers and art directors include Corny Cole, Ernie Nordli and Victor Haboush.  Animators include Ken Harris, Irv Spence, Ben Washam, Ray Patterson, Grant Simmons, Volus Jones, Harvey Toombs, Don Lusk and Hal Ambro.  The studios that those animators worked at include Warner Bros, MGM, Lantz and Disney.

On October 6 (and I'll post a reminder closer to the date), TCM will run 10 hours of continuous animation.  Starting at 8 p.m. Eastern Time, the films of Winsor McCay, with eminent animation historian and McCay biographer John Canemaker as guest.  At 9:45, it's the 100th anniversary of the Bray studio, with guest Tom Stathes, who has emerged as a leading historian of silent animation.  At 11, cartoons from the Van Beuren studio, with guest Steve Stanchfield.

Stanchfield has become one of the premiere home video producers for animation.  While companies like Warner Bros. are retreating from home video formats, Stanchfield is upping the output of his company Thunderbean Animation.  His latest release is Technicolor Dreams and Black and White Nightmares, which includes a color copy of the first three strip Technicolor cartoon, Ted Eshbaugh's The Wizard of Oz.

The balance of TCM's night consists of four animated features.   Lotte Reineger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed is on at 12:15 a.m, Max and Dave Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels is on at 1:30, Toei Animation's Magic Boy is on at 3 and Chuck Jones' The Phantom Tollbooth is on at 4:30.