Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Boutique Studio

There are few small, independent* cartoon studios around Los Angeles these days, and of the big independents, there is exactly one: DreamWorks Animation, specializing in theatrical blockbusters.

Today, if you're an "independent," you are most likely a for-hire studio that provides services for one of our fine, entertainment conglomerates. Think of Starz Media/Film Roman, think of Rough Draft.

Yesterday I visited a little studio that falls into a slightly different niche ...

Sabella-Dern Entertainment has been around for a half-dozen years. S-D was launched after Paul Sabella and Jonathan Dern departed MGM Animation after a lengthy run and set up their own shop.

SDE is headquartered in the West Valley, where Warner Bros. used to shoot its Westerns and cavalry pictures, back in those halcyon days when the San Fernando Valley was a collection of orchards and truck farms ... before the heavy asphalt-covered hand of urbanization reached out from Los Angeles.

Today, Sabella-Dern has a fair amount of production. The company is doing three Care Bears direct-to-video features, a My Little Poiny direct-to-video, and sixty-six episodes of the PBS series Angelina Ballerina. They also have another project they hope will soon be in production.

A lot of S-D's creative work is done off-site, but the studio is planning a move to a larger location where more artistic staff can work in-house.

* I here define "independent" as a stand-alone cartoon company that creates and owns its product.

Before the Feds allowed the entertainment business to become vertically integrated, there were several of these, with Hanna-Barbera being the most prominent and successful example in the teevee age. Now, of course, they don't exist.

11 comments:

Buzz Potamkin said...

Before the Feds allowed the entertainment business to become vertically integrated, there were several of these, with Hanna-Barbera being the most prominent and successful example in the teevee age.

Not so -

HB was initially financed by Columbia (through Screen Gems), was sold in 1969 to Taft Broadcasting, and was owned by Taft (or its successor Great American) until it was bought by Turner.

RS was initially financed by Filmways, and was purchased by Taft in the early 80s (or late 70s).

As a result, Taft controlled over 80% of the kids' sked as of the early 80s.

As for Filmation, which controlled a substantial portion of the remaining 20%, it was bought in the early 70s by TelePrompter, then absorbed into Group W, before being sold to L'Oreal and closed.

However, DePatie-Freleng, which also was responsible for a portion of that 20%, was independent - even after it was sold to Marvel, as Marvel controlled no other substantial broadcasting and/or production assets at that time.

robiscus said...

I think his salient point was that before the FCC deregulated our media, those studios were independent of the networks that showed their properties. Even though Hanna Barbera and Filmation were financed by larger companies, those larger companies were not networks.

The way deregulation has played out (and its amazing no one was prescient of this on the horizon), is now the ONLY content shown on channels is content that they, and they alone own. Thats why our tv channels can't play reruns of Star Tretk like they did when we were kids, because only Viacomm owns those shows and as one of the huge media players, they will only show it on channels that they own. The same goes for a lot of animated content. There is rampant corporate hegemony now, whereas a regulated media landscape maintained a structure that encouraged a wide array of smaller channels to lease out content and smaller studios to create their own for the highest bidder.

Those studios are few and far between now because animated content won't be shown unless its produced by the network that broadcasts it.

Its even gotten worse than that in that satellite studios are almost disappearing as well. I can only think of a few off hand that are currently making content. Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon have brought all production under one roof... and with that they have stumbled and struggled to produce anything of real quality. There is an incestuous, stagnant, flavor to all of the production in the corporate building.

But thats just my opinion...

Buzz Potamkin said...

robiscus -

I'm on the East Coast, and I'm heading home, so I'll make this brief, and apologize in advance for being curt

1. Star Trek was produced by Paramount, not exactly an independent.

2. It was produced before the Fin/Syn rules were promulgated.

3. Except for the very brief period under Fin/Syn there has been very little "independent" production.

4. Even during Fin/Syn, the networks insisted (perhaps not incorrectly) on "financial responsibility" from their suppliers. It was the Catch 22 of production, and successfully barred independent producers of animation from the network marketplace. (I know, I tried many times.)

5. Your points about the vertical control of media are well taken, but the opposite wasn't the point of my comment - the point of my comment was that there was never any substantial independent production of animation at any time, or at least not the HB et alia L.A. studios. What wasn't de facto controlled by the networks was controlled by the cereal companies (cf Bullwinkle syndication).

6. Buy a copy of Harold Vogel's book "Entertainment Industry Economics" - it's up to the 7th edition, and it's well worth the price.

I don't know if href tags work here, so I also apologize in advance for the long Amazon link

http://www.amazon.com/Entertainment-Industry-Economics-Financial-Analysis/dp/0521874858/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1221779446&sr=8-1

robiscus said...

Buzz, I'm well aware Star Trek was produced by Paramount. The point is that Paramunt was not directly connected to a tv station before the deregulation of media. Star Trek was also shown on NBC.

NBC did not own Paramount. Paramont did not own NBC. Neither company were owned by the same corporation. That doesn't happen anymore. There is a reason for that and... if you look into it - you'll discover my point.

We can talk about what qualifies as "independent" all day long, the fact of the matter is that in 1985 there were 50 media companies.

Today there are 6.

Anonymous said...

"Star Trek was produced by Paramount, not exactly an independent."

Wrong. Star Trek (the tv series) was produced by Desilu. It was DISTRIBUTED by Paramount.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and Desilu was most decidedly an independent, in the clinical sense. But like most "independents," they "depend" on distribution.

Buzz Potamkin said...

anonymous - technically true, but in 1966 Desilu was already looking for a buyer, and in talks with Paramount's parent - sale was announced in early 1967 - doubtful any of Desilu's actions were undertaken without assessing relevance to that sale

robiscus - you continue to ignore my main point: there was no golden age of independent animation TV production - all the rest of your argument is not to the point

btw, do you think Ren n Stimpy would've seen the light of day in a non-vertical environment? Or Powerpuff Girls? Or Dexter's? Or South Park? Or (gasp) the Simpsons?

I was Exec Prod on two of those, and I can tell you there was no way in hell either of them would've been sold to a pre-vertical network or distributor.

Steve Hulett said...

We can talk about what qualifies as "independent" all day long, the fact of the matter is that in 1985 there were 50 media companies.

Today there are 6.


Precisely my point ... although there are more like five (Disney, Time-Warner, Viacom, New-Corp, GE-NBC-Universal. Sony-Columbia has no distribution, being foreign-owned.)

No "independent" (regardless of how you define independent) owns product. It simply produces product owned by one of the five conglomerates.

Why? Because independently created and owned product will never get on the air because the five congloms control distribution, and they won't put anything on air unless they own it.

robiscus said...

They let the genie out of the bottle when they deregulated and there is no way to get it back in.

Its a drag, because the media landscape used to cross pollinate itself creatively with a whole bunch of different studios all pushing the boundaries. Now it seems very formulaic and rigid.

Free thinkers in the development arm get weeded out by executives playing it safe to secure their jobs.

Buzz Potamkin said...

We can talk about what qualifies as "independent" all day long, the fact of the matter is that in 1985 there were 50 media companies.

You guys are too much. My initial comment wasn't about media companies - it was specifically about animation studios. Name 50 independent animation studios in L.A. in 1985. AFAIR, here's a list of studios with shows on the air in the 1985-6 season:


HB (Taft Broadcasting controlled)

RS (Taft Broadcasting controlled)

Southern Star (Taft Broadcasting controlled)

Filmation (Group W controlled)

DIC (RTL controlled)

Marvel (part of Cadence Industries)

and that great independent, WDTVA

Am I forgetting any? Am I forgetting more than 40?

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