Saturday, October 31, 2009

Before the Fall

The article below dates from about 1981, though I no longer have a record of what Canadian publication it appeared in. Though no one knew it at the time, it was published at the peak of Nelvana's promise. The studio's trajectory had been on a steady climb with its TV specials and it was working on its first feature, known originally as Drats and later renamed Rock and Rule.

By the time the feature was finished, it almost finished the studio. Nelvana had been forced to sell of its share of the film in order to raise the money to complete the film, which had gone over budget. Had the film turned into a hit, Nelvana would not have benefited except in the area of reputation. The distributor, United Artists, lost all interest in the film after a disastrous test screening in Boston, so even that potential benefit failed to appear.

After the film's completion, the company was essentially bankrupt, but Michael Hirsh managed to bring in enough service work to keep the doors open. Eventually, he would prove his genius for sales by finding well-known properties that TV networks and distributors were happy to purchase animated versions of. The company prospered to the point that it was bought by Corus, a Canadian cablecaster, making Hirsh, Loubert and Smith millionaires. Of the three, only Hirsh is still involved in animation. He took over Cinar after a major financial scandal crippled the company and has successfully turned it around, renaming it Cookie Jar.

Nelvana today bears no resemblance to the company portrayed in this article. The young, enthusiastic and talented crew who were bent on changing animation are long gone and the company is now a division of a public corporation focused on its bottom line. The failure of Rock and Rule (and unfortunately it deserved to fail) changed the course of Canadian animation history for the worse. To date, no Canadian studio has accomplished what Nelvana was trying to do, so the promise of 1981 remains unfulfilled.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Happy Birthday Ralph Bakshi

Today is Ralph Bakshi's 71st birthday. Below is a publicity pamphlet that accompanied the release of Heavy Traffic. I still feel that Traffic is Bakshi's most satisfying film and one that pointed in a direction that too few have followed. Persepolis may be the only animated film I can think of that's similar.

Note that the film was rated X at the time of release. Current versions are rated R, though I have no memory of what's been cut. Regardless of the rating, what makes the film groundbreaking for me is the combination of cartoony designs and realistic emotions. Besides breaking animation's family friendly stereotype, Bakshi also showed how much more a cartoon was capable of.

Most of the film is on YouTube. One part is missing, and I suspect that it's the Maybelline sequence that Mark Kausler animated, as there is some explicit sexual content there. The film is also available on DVD for $10 U.S. It's not a great transfer, but the film is worth seeing in any condition.

(Click to enlarge.)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Musker and Clements Interview

I'm sure that there will be many interviews coming to publicize The Princess and the Frog. Here's one that deals with some technical issues, the crew and the possible futures for drawn Disney animation.

(link via Jim Caswell.)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Gene Deitch's 50th Anniversary

Gene and Zdenka Deitch

Gene Deitch has now been in Prague for 50 years and The Prague Post commemorates the occasion with this article on Gene and Zdenka.

(link via Fantagraphics Flog! blog)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Animation Development

Animation Development From Pitch to Production by David Levy is a very good book about a very bad process.

What's good about it is that Levy does not minimize the difficulties of pitching and maneuvering a creation through the broadcast bureaucracy. He interviews creators and development executives about the various stages of the process and he is as quick to point out mistakes made by creators as those made by broadcasters. Levy has pitched his own material for over ten years and he is not shy about relating his own experiences, including those with unhappy endings or those where he later recognized he was at fault.

If you are interested in selling a show to television, this book is the best preparation in print that I'm aware of. If you've just toyed with the idea, this book will let you know what you're up against and perhaps persuade you that there are better ways to spend your time.

The development process is a badly flawed process on multiple fronts. One of the ironies is that development executives are paid salaries where the people who create ideas to pitch to them create these works for free. Should an idea be accepted for development, the amount of money a creator can expect to see to develop a script or bible will be minimal and the process will take a long time, meaning that creators can't afford to devote their full time or attention to the idea in question.

Development executives seem to know everything a successful show needs except how to create one in the first place. They are also unwilling to devote time to determining if an idea is worthy or not, so creators are forced to start off with the barest descriptions of a show. Should a creator put effort into a more detailed proposal, the odds are that the executives won't bother to read it and may also consider the creator someone who isn't willing to collaborate. On the one hand, executives want creators with a vision; on the other hand, they want creators who will be happy to take direction. In effect, creators are asked to suck and blow at the same time and the proportion varies depending on the executive, the broadcaster and the day of the week.

These executives are powerless to actually put anything into production, so their notes are questionable to begin with. Should they like something, they have to sell it to their superiors and there is no guarantee that the development people share the taste or prejudices of their bosses.

If a creator is lucky enough to move to a pilot or a series, the creator has to hire a lawyer to negotiate the right to continue on the production and for a share of profits or royalties. It's a certainty that the creator will have to give up ownership of the property in order for it to go forward.

The system is set up so that major corporations have a creator work for peanuts until such time that they think that there's money to be made, then they take ownership of the property and allow the creator to continue contributing for as long as it is convenient. The corporations would no doubt point to all the money they spend on development, but the majority of that money is spent on their own employees, not the creators who bring them the material they need to survive. The entire process is so drawn-out and stacked against creators that it's a measure of creators' optimism and commitment to their ideas that anyone bothers to pitch in the first place.

Anyone who watches television knows that the results are nothing special. The majority of shows fail, even with all the work that goes into their creation. Except for pilots, usually made on a shoestring, the development process completely divorces the idea from the execution, which can often be crippled by budget, deadline or choice of subcontractors, something the creator will not have final control over.

Levy is the eternal optimist; someone who feels that his career has been enriched by pitching and development. It has led him to some successes and to some employment opportunities on projects he didn't create, so who is to say that he is wrong? My own feeling is that any creator committed to an idea would be better off figuring out a way to develop it without interference, even if that means the idea isn't realized as animation. From my perspective, as someone who managed to get a show on the air, the compromises are too high a price to pay.

In any event, I do wish that I had the chance to read Levy's book before my series was sold and went to air. There is valuable information here about what to expect and I recommend this book for that reason. I hope that one day the book will be a historical curiosity about a process that didn't survive the changing media landscape.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Not Attending Ottawa

I had plans to attend the Ottawa International Animation Festival next week. In particular, I was looking forward to the feature films that will screen there. Unfortunately, some family business has come up that must be dealt with during the festival, so I am unable to go.

I'm mentioning this in the advent any of you would be looking for me there. For those who are going, enjoy the festival.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Alice in WTF?

I have no idea who created this, why they created this, how they created this or if it ever ends. If you are one of those people who enjoyed Alice in Wonderland while (how shall I put this?) under the influence, I suspect that you will find this an enjoyable experience.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Frederator Aggregator

Let’s get one thing straight: Paying artists is always a positive thing. But the manner in which the guys at Channel Frederator are doing it continues to reflect their lack of regard and respect for the filmmaking community upon which they’ve built their brand. Seriously, in what universe is $50 considered an acceptable fee for anything nowadays? Have they been misinformed that filmmakers can time travel back to 1964 to make all their purchases?

Here’s a reality check—the last time I went out to lunch with Channel Frederator founder Fred Seibert, our lunch bill ended up being over fifty smackers. In other words, this paltry amount isn’t even enough to fill up Fred’s tummy for one afternoon, yet somehow it’s supposed to represent a filmmaker’s reward for months of blood, sweat and tears. They’ve also announced that every month they’ll pay the filmmaker of the most viewed film a whopping $200. Guess what? That’s still less than what we pay every single filmmaker on Cartoon Brew TV.

-Amid Amidi on Cartoon Brew

As you can see from the above, Channel Frederator has started paying a small amount for animation it will host on its site. Amidi is somewhat outraged at the amount. I think that Amidi is missing a fundamental aspect of Fred Seibert's business model and I think that the animation community doesn't yet understand how to function in the online world.

If you want to understand what Seibert is doing, I'd recommend that you read three books: The Long Tail and Free by Chris Anderson and What Would Google Do by Jeff Jarvis. Seibert's Next New Networks is practically a textbook case arising out of these books.

The long tail occurs when shelf space becomes infinite. In a brick and mortar store, space is limited so the proprietor focuses on those items that sell the best. That way, each square foot of space produces the maximum amount of income. However, in the online world, space is infinite and the cost of servers and hard drives is continuously coming down. Therefore, it's possible to offer a much wider variety of merchandise. Items that might only sell once or twice a year could not be carried in a brick and mortar store because they wouldn't produce sufficient profit, however when shelf space is unlimited and the cost approaches zero, a retailer might as well carry everything. The long tail consists of those items that, individually, do not add up to much in the way of sales, but if you have enough of those low-selling items, they can add up to a profitable business. Online retailers of this type are aggregators. The gather up anything in their category and make money by tiny profits on thousands or millions of items. Examples of long tail businesses are Amazon and Ebay.

The cost of duplicating something digitally is close to zero. With servers and hard drives becoming cheaper, the cost of hosting things also approaches zero. This is the thinking behind the book Free. Free is the most attractive price, so if you can afford to make something free, you're sure to find interested customers. The trick is to find something that you can sell while you're giving away the free item.

Jeff Jarvis says that the way to succeed in the online world is to build a platform that other people can use to form communities or do business. Google is the obvious example, but so are Amazon and Ebay. Amazon is a platform for anyone who wants to sell a book, whether a multinational conglomerate or a hobbyist in a basement. Ebay has created a worldwide market for any item you can think of.

Channel Frederator, now part of Next New Networks, is a classic aggregator. They gather up anything they think has the potential to attract a viewer. They don't have access to libraries of material from Disney, Warner Bros, Nickelodeon, etc. so they'll take material that's in the long tail and try to gather up enough of it to keep pulling viewers to the site. As recommended by Jarvis, they've built a platform that animators can use to reach an audience.

The material is available to viewers for free. What Next New Networks does is sell the viewers to advertisers. This is exactly the model that broadcast TV and radio have used for years.

Amazon or Ebay don't pay you to list with them, because the expectation is that you (and they) will profit from that listing. Channel Frederator is paying, though a pittance, but the amount is besides the point.

What's missing is the animation community's understanding of how to take advantage of Channel Frederator.

What Channel Frederator supplies is a piece of internet real estate. It is worth exactly zero, as anybody can start a blog or upload to YouTube for free. The valuable thing that Channel Frederator supplies is an audience. People interested in animation will go there looking for something to watch. It's likely that putting your film on Channel Frederator will result in more views, at least initially, than putting your film on YouTube, because Frederator is more focused. YouTube has everything, but your video is the proverbial needle in the haystack without some other kind of marketing to direct the audience to it. At Frederator, the audience for animation is already there.

Rather than complain about how little Frederator is paying, animators need to work the system. They should be using exposure on Frederator to drive to the audience to their own sites, where they sell something. Free points out that you can't charge for things that are abundant, you can only charge for things that are scarce. Therefore, while the audience can watch your film for free, you want to sell DVDs of it and include an autograph and quick sketch with every purchase, giving your viewer something they can't download. You can also be selling T-shirts, coffee mugs, etc. And of course, there should be a "donate" button on your site.

If you've got a reasonably good film, you'll probably make more from selling swag than from what Frederator is going to pay you. Furthermore, you should be collecting email addresses from your buyers, so that every time you release a new product, you've got a list of people to notify who have already bought something from you. By definition, these people like you enough to pay something for your work. They are a valuable resource.

If Frederator is willing to gather an audience for your film, carve off as much of it as you can and then monetize it.

Now, before you do this, I suggest that you read Frederator's Terms of Use. In particular, I want to quote the following:

Ownership; Licenses

We do not claim ownership rights in your User Submissions. However, by uploading, submitting, emailing, posting, publishing or otherwise transmitting any User Submission to any of the Sites, you hereby grant us a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, perpetual and irrevocable right and license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, prepare derivative works based on, perform, display, publish, distribute, transmit, stream, broadcast and otherwise exploit such User Submission in any form, medium or technology now known or later developed, including without limitation on the Site and third party websites, podcast, video game consoles and services, video-on-demand and television. You represent and warrant that you own or have the necessary licenses, rights, consents, and permissions to grant the foregoing licenses to us. We shall own all right, title and interest in and to all derivative works and compilations of User Submissions that are created by us, including without limitation all worldwide intellectual property rights therein. You agree to execute and deliver such documents and provide all assistance reasonably requested by us, at our expense, to give us the full benefit of this section.

If you can wade through what's above you will note that while they don't claim ownership of your work, they claim perpetual non-exclusive use of it. They also have the right to modify it and prepare derivative works from it. They can place it on game consoles and all of the above are without any additional compensation. So, they can use your film forever, they can cut it or add to it, they can ship it with the next version of the Playstation or XBox. They can do all that and more without asking you for permission.

Note that they can develop derivative works. In historical terms, imagine that you've created a film called Porky's Hare Hunt with the prototype of Bugs Bunny. Frederator decides that the core idea is a good one but you didn't make the most of it, so they turn around and derive A Wild Hare from your film, only now, they own the new version of Bugs Bunny (not you), and they continue to use your film as a Bugs Bunny DVD extra or as part of a package of Bugs Bunny cartoons they sell elsewhere.

Would Frederator do any of the above? I have no idea. However, they have the legal right to. More than the $50 fee they're willing to pay, the Terms of Use are the part of the deal that smells the worst to me.

Some artists will inevitably complain that they don't want to deal with selling stuff, they just want to create their work. While in the past you could sell that work to a studio and receive a reasonable paycheque, those days are rapidly coming to a close. The economic model for film and TV as it existed is crumbling. Fred Seibert (and Cartoon Brew TV for that matter) will not pay you enough to create your work. We may see the studio jobs in animation vanish the same way that journalism jobs are vanishing. If that happens, we may all be reduced to creating work for free and then selling something related to the that work. Certainly, if you want to retain ownership of your work, that's what you'll be doing. However, if you want to maintain control over your work, you won't be contributing to Channel Frederator.

(This article is about strip cartoonists, not animators, but the lessons it talks about are ones that animators should be thinking over seriously.)