Friday, April 30, 2010

Family Guy Producer Talks

Forbes rolls out a lengthy Q & A with Kara Vallow, the topkick at Fox Animation, the studio housing the McFarlane franchises. Some of the takeaways:

[Family Guy] is different than the other shows of its ilk because it is so much a product of one man's vision and voice. Seth [MacFarlane] created the show and he voices it and he's involved in every little part of it. He's constantly pushing himself and the show to not be stale. He's always focused on it being bigger and better and better-looking. This coming season the episodes are going to be way more expansive and more complicated than they have been in the past. ...

[FG] ... costs an incredible amount of money and it takes over a year to churn out an episode, so it's a big leap of faith for these studios on a medium they don't historically understand. But ... if it works, animation is more profitable than any other kind of show. People don't buy Two and a Half Men T-shirts and bobble heads the way they buy things for our shows. With our weird little adult animation niche, the sky is the limit with tchotchkes and action figures and ringtones. ...

Which is one of the reasons -- of several -- that studios make animation. (There's also things like shelf-life, saleability overseas, DVD profitability, etc.)

But animated shows aren't always expensive. Fox prime-time animated half-hours have different production costs than, say, lower rent cartoons shown at all hours of the night or day on basic cable. Simpsons episodes run in the millions, with high writing and voice-talent costs. Willy the Wacky Wombat, pre-produced by a small, non-union Valley studio, animated in Shanghai and shown on basic cable (if it's shown at all), comes in at a few hundred thousand bucks.

(Interesting wrinkle: The salary of the individual artist working on Willy, and the artist drawing Bart? Not that hugely different.)

However, the big reason animation keeps being made is it provides long-term cash flows for your friendly, neighborhood conglomerates. There are hundreds of live-action television shows that were produced in the fifties and sixties; today those shows might earn a trickle of license fees on TV Land. Beyond that they are, as the Germans say, kaput. But t.v. cartoons? Like the Flintstones? Like Yogi Bear? Like Scooby Doo? Those fifty-year-old limited animation epics trigger the sale of rubber toys, and games, and t-shirts. They sell lots of little silver disks. They beget sequels and spin-offs.

In short, Fred and Wilma go on forever.

And that's why, friends and neighbors, there are so many cartoons produced, even to this very day.

12 comments:

Matt said...

Makes you wonder why there haven't been more determined attempts by networks other than Fox. The list of half hearted launches of primetime animation is pretty long, Dilbert; Oblongs; Mission Hill; God, the Devil and Bob, and on and on.

Anonymous said...

In short, Fred and Wilma go on forever.

Fred & Wilma had what made old-school Hanna-Barbera classic:
A perfect storm of ex-Looney writers, voice talent honed on old radio (and both with a taste for wiseguy-silly Jack Benny), and Bill & Joe's MGM-honed timing for gags.

Family Guy, OTOH, could be (and in some places, has been) studied as a medical look into the diagnostic social dysfunctions of Life With ADD:
Quickstaccato spurtsof motormoutheddialogue (dont'cha hate it when people, like, keep talking at you?), gags turning hostile and antagonistic and wishfully ending with injury, sudden non-sequitir changes of topic in mid-conversation, and a genuine discomfort with letting five lines of dialogue go by without falling back on the emotionally-removed "common language" of a cheap pop-culture reference.

South Park's parody a few years ago nailed the reasons why Seth's ADD-generation humor is more baffling than funny: Neurological dysfunction really...isn't that funny.

C.M.B. said...

Networks don't always take on animated shows because while they have the potential to make billions, the road to that potential is blurry and could require patience, and so a less predictable future for a show is a harder sell.

That's why you see so many networks resort to reality shows. Sure they might die young, they don't have toys and mass licensing deals, but they're easier to put onto a spreadsheet for the beancounters.

Mark Mayerson said...

I would love to see an actual budget to find out why Family Guy "costs an incredible amount of money." I'd also like to know why it takes "over a year to churn out an episode."

South Park doesn't take nearly as long and the animation in Family Guy is so limited and so formula that it should be possible to write software scripts to automate about 70% of the scenes.

Anonymous said...

> He's always focused on it being bigger and better and better-looking.

Oh, please, what a friggin joke. Simpson's looks like Michelangelo next to Family Guy. Seth set the bar so much lower from the start, and he wants to climb back out of that hole on the backs of TAG? I agree with the above comment - exactly where is that money going, because it isn't showing up in any amazing animation.

And one man's vision? Did you see Seth stutter like a sheep on Larry King? Call him out on the in-your-face attitude of the show and he comes across like a wet blanket. The show is not nearly as close to a single vision as Matt and Trey's work.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Steve, how does Family Guy rate on the long test giving complaint scale?

Steve Hulett said...

would love to see an actual budget to find out why Family Guy "costs an incredible amount of money." I'd also like to know why it takes "over a year to churn out an episode."

South Park doesn't take nearly as long and the animation in Family Guy is so limited and so formula that it should be possible to write software scripts to automate about 70% of the scenes.


I believe "Family Guy" is considerably cheaper than "The Simpsons." Both have WGA contracts for writers, but the voice cast for "The Simpsons" is hugely expensive. (When you have a couple of million for voices per episode, your costs are up there.)

I have no direct knowledge of the per-episode costs of "Family Guy." There would be 1) the WGA writers costs, 2) the overhead for studio space on Wilshire Blvd. (not cheap), 3) the artists' wages and fringes under the TAG/IA contract.

Here are my (very fuzzy) guesstimates of per-episode costs for two different Fox prime-time shows (one show jobbed out to a sub-contractor; the other done by Fox Animation:

"The Simpsons": 6 voice actors -- $400,000 per episode. Script and production costs, retake costs: $900,000- $1.5 million = $3.3 million-$3.9 million.

"Family Guy": voice costs -- $500,00-$800,000; script and production costs, studio overhead -- $900,000-$1.5 million -- $1.5 million- $2.4 million.

Again, the above figures reflect semi-educated guesses, but I'm in the studios a lot and I see the number of artists who are working, and I know (approximately) what schedules are.

Studio accounting is always tricky, and I might be under or over-counting various phases of production. (I've known some daytime animated shows that have cost $2 million+ an episode.)

Anybody who knows the numbers with more certainty than I do, step on up.

Steve Hulett said...

Hey, Steve, how does Family Guy rate on the long test giving complaint scale?

I haven't gotten a lot of complaints about tests from "Family Guy" applicants.

Steve Hulett said...

A few points re South Park:

It has lower budgets than the examples above; it's a prime-time cable show with few union contracts.

It didn't use to have even a SAG voice contract, but I don't know what the situation is now.

Matt said...

Re: comparing budgets Simpsons vs Family guy.

Simpsons has much higher producer deals on top of script costs. Production on Simpsons used to be much higher too, when they were doing full layout. Now I think the production costs are probably closer, but salaries are higher on Simpsons due to it's longevity.

Biggest difference, Gracie and Groening have much, much sweeter profit sharing. That's a deal Fox won't make again you can be sure.

Anonymous said...

A few reasons FG costs more than other shows.

1.) WGA contracts.
2.) Higher SAG voice costs.
3.) To produce 22 shows in a year, you need a larger writing and animation staff.
4.) Family Guy's artwork is more quantity over quality. More backgrounds, more characters, several crowd scenes. That means more artists to draw them. Also due to the intensity of the scripts and demand for characters to be on-model, it's not uncommon for the storyboard artists to spend 7-8 weeks boarding a show.
5.) Primetime shows have a series of re-writes they make to the script, including after it gets animated. This requires re-boarding, re-timing, possibly new BGs, and re-animating.
6.) Primetime generally pays better.

By the way, Family Guy keeps a lot of union artists employed.

Anonymous said...

you forgot:
7.) Seth makes a shitload of money

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