Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Wise Old Studio Exec

Not long ago I sat down with a movie exec who deals with cartoons. Happened to walk by his office and there he was at his desk. I walked in and we chatted. He told me this:

"The tv animation business hasn't had a smash hit, a homerun, since Sponge Bob Square Pants. That one circled all the bases. TV, home video, merchandise, everything.

"Since then, there've been shows that have done okay, but nothing that hit like Sponge Bob. Disney is now doing live action for kids, and because some of those shows have done well, other companies are taking cracks at doing the same thing . Even we're doing live action ..."

We talked about how the viewing public is being sliced and diced into smaller and smaller slices. Where thirty years ago there was three broadcast networks, now there's a hundred and more cable channels, the internet, You Tube, all of them competing for eyeballs.

"Yeah. We've put cartoons up on the [company] web site, have a lot of them there. But we don't make much money from them."

I thought about that after I left the exec's office. The conglom for which he works has distribution pipe lines and plenty of 'toons. What they don't have is a coordinated strategy for marketing the things.

Let's face it. Broadcast and cable television is highly competitive. And despite various unions' suspicions, I tend to doubt that there is this high pressure spigot spewing big bucks from the internet into corporations' wallets. I do believe there's a cash flow being generated, and that flow slowly growing, but I don't think the Promised Land has been reached. Not yet, anyway.

But here's a simple yardstick for judging the health of different types of animation: hiring and layoffs.

All I have to do is check the Animation Guild's employment data base for the past nine months, and the tale is told. Hiring for feature animation has trended up, employment for animation artists working in teevee land has been down. The linkage?

Horton Hears a Who = hit.

Kung Fu Panda = major hit

Wall-E = major hit.

And television?

"The tv animation business hasn't had a smash hit, a homerun, since Sponge Bob Square Pants ..."

What else you need to know?


Anonymous said...

I think there are two things that need to be known.

#1. Spongebob was second guessed by every single executive that previewed it and none of them expected it to do well. None of them got it. So the idea that they are trying to uncover something that they were oblivious to the first time around makes me laugh. They are all undoubtedly still trying to "follow in that path" that made Spongebob a hit because not one of their tiny brains realizes that real hits - hits like Spongebob that cross boundaries and knock it out of the park - chart their own path. They deviate from a formula. IN short, they are a risk, and executives won't take risks - and there fore they won't find the next Spongebob. The next show to resonate like that one will be a show that slips through the fingers of executives and gets on the air despite their criticism of it.

#2. There may be hundreds of channels on the tv Steve, but thats not the difference between the climate of years gone by and the current one today. The real distincion is that back then there were many many studios all doing their own thing, and it created a varied landscape of production. Today there are what? - 3 studios that produce cartoons. Thats a step back in creative production, no matter how many channels there are. Channels don't create content, they just air it. Studios create content and when media was deregulated in the 90s, it was the death knell for small studios. Instead of a vibrant sector headed up in different buildings, we have 3 huge ones complete with bureaucracies, incestuous hiring, cancerous office politics, ruling by committee, and a host of executives unwilling to take a risk. It was better before with more studios working to distinguish themselves from each other. The days of the big studio have been a huge catastrophe.

Anonymous said...

What's also worth noting is that the creators of Spongebob have remained true to the character and have taken the time to build his personality, not to mention build relationships between the characters, in such a way that appeals to kids and adults alike. Too many other shows (like The Fairly Oddparents) go after cruel behavior for laughs and eventually turn viewers off. It's not just executives that don't get it. It's writers and directors of toons who don't get Spongebob's success, who continually underestimate kids' belief in heroism, kindness and fair play. Spongebob the show is a successful cartoon because viewers like Spongebob the character. No amount of "clever" wordplay and slapstick can substitute for good character development and thoughtful writing.

Steve Hulett said...

It's true that studios often don't understand or know what they have.

Disney sold off large pieces of the monster hit "The Sixth Sense," prior to release because it didn't foresee how it would connect with audiences.

"High School Musical" had a tiny budget and was just one more cable feature prior to its success.

"Star Wars" couldn't find a studio that wanted to make it ... {Because "nobody wants to look at Sci Fi ...")

And so on.

There's more than three animation studios, but I understand your point. Conglomerates control everything. Executives who know nothing about animation often give notes that make product far worse, etc.

The media seems to marvel that Pixar has "hit after hit," but the studio's approach is pretty straight forward: let a "brain trust" of the better creative minds help mold and shape product to make it better. Keep the accountants and administrators away from the process.


Few other studios do that obvious thing, but it's hardly surprising. Territoriality and corporate politics often trump building a better mouse trap.

hoopcooper said...

Robiscus is right on all counts as I see it. And I see it every day. Execs hated Spongebob before it aired, and since then they've tried to replicated it with no understanding of what made it connect with kids.

My only professional advice to Artists and Writers pitching to the few networks that are taking pitches is to "hide the ball." Pitch them the simple high concepts they want to hear, but have good story and resonant character hidden away in your portfolio for when the thing gets picked up.

But these are definitely frustrating times.

Floyd Norman said...

When arriving at Pixar back in 1997, I saw the guy who owned the place standing in the hallway.

Although known as a "control freak," I never saw Steve Jobs ever meddle in the creative process at his studio.

This remains something most executives are still not able to do. Stay out of the creative process because you know nothing.

Anonymous said...

But Floyd, you worked at Pixar only EVER so briefly.

Anonymous said...

I'll take Floyd's ever-so-brief experience in Pixar's story department over most anyone's, any day. He's been around the block so many times that he can probably see what's up in a fraction of the time it'd take most of the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

"Robiscus is right on all counts..."

Then the planets must be aligned, because its indeed a rare and magical occasion when that happens....

Anonymous said...

If I had a dollar for every time I heard an executive or gate keeper say the words"SpongeBob was a fluke" I'd be able happily fill up up my gas swelling SUV many many times.
Alert! It wasn't a Fluke! It was very talented people being allowed their freedom to create.

Keep an Eye on The Mighty B. Her rating are looking like a mighty wave rising.

Anonymous said...

Note to self. Always preview ones messages.

Anonymous said...

"Who is the management at dreamworks Feature Animation? Who is calling the shots there now? Who is everyone answering to? Who has final say?"

Little Jeffery Katzemberg. No wonder they keep trying so hard to make a good film.

Floyd Norman said...

I worked on two features up at Pixar. Though hardly a lifetime, I was able to get a pretty good sense of Mr. Jobs. Even spoke with him on a number of occasions.

I learned enough during my brief time at Pixar. Much the same way I learned much about Walt Disney during my brief stint in story on "The Jungle Book."

Anonymous said...

You worked at Disney, too?

Anonymous said...

That's why he's able to channel Walt so authoritatively.

Kevin Koch said...

Damn, what happened to respecting our elders? This kind of snark directed at someone who's had an incredibly long and distinguished career in animation is disappointing and unseemly.

Vincent Waller said...

Yeah, its disappointing, and they don't even have the balls to step into the light while they do it.

Floyd Norman said...

Not sure what the problem is, guys.

I've never claimed to be any kind of animation big shot at Disney or Pixar. Hell, I don't even know John Lasseter -- and I was just a kid when I worked for Walt. However, I did observed these guys carefully because I wanted to know what made them tick.

In truth, I'm not that different from the rest of you, except I'm a bit older, and learned how to survive in an often unstable business. I sure don't see myself as anything special, nor do I buy into the studio "bull" of honors, awards, and "legendary status."

Anonymous said...

Why did Kevin and Vincent assume that was a snarky remark that someone made earlier? It could be taken that way, I guess, but it could also be taken as a positive - couldn't it?
If it were meant to be snarky it sure could've been said a lot nastier and clearer.

Anonymous said...

Hasn't Floyd made a name for himself at poking fun at others that usually work above him? I'm sure Floyd doesn't need you two to defend him as if the only reason he should be respected is because of his age.

Vincent Waller said...

Oh I think everyone can use hand when they are being snarked from the Anon seats.

Anonymous said...

As suggested before, you assume a lot.
First you assume that statement was snarky and not in some way complimenting Floyd - I doubt you or Kevin would want to delve too deeply into why you both assumed it was a snark. Second you assume Floyd needs your help - as Floyd indicated himself and on countless of other occasions he doesn't especially as someone else noted Floyd has made a name for himself throwing out a snark or two. Third you assume that person who said the comment which may or may not have been snarky was younger than Floyd - guess what: Floyd isn't the only older member of this community. Fourth you assume that person wasn't someone along the lines of John Lasseter himself having a little fun with Floyd (or complimenting him).
There are many reasons to use the anonymous by-line. It sometimes fosters nastiness, but it also fosters freedom of thought that having to sign your name to wouldn't always.
This is such a small community that everyone knows everyone else (within reason) or will eventually work with everyone else.
The "they don't even have the balls to step into the light while they do it" is an old tired dare. I'm guessing everyone has probably posted anonymously when they wanted to say something slightly controversial or just didn't want to use their name.
This site would see a lot less activity if they removed that option and along with it the freedom of discussion that this site currently enjoys.
I think Kevin and Steve have rightly allowed the anonymous by-line to remain.

-enjoying being anonymous

Anonymous said...

Please. From one "anonymous" to another, your comments totally came off as a jab on Floyd. How else should one interpret them? They sure didn't sound like compliments. They sounded like snide, bitter retorts. Your lengthy attempt at an explanation reveals your defensiveness but little else.

Animation Girl

Anonymous said...

Interesting that the "Kevin" person has a profile that's private-meaning that although he shares his first name with the union president and dozens of other guys in the business he's actually an "anonymous" as I am.

Oh, and my name's Kevin too. Or maybe not. Who cares?

Animator "girl": the Anonymous lengthy response above was spot on imo, not defensive or "bitter" (can we just retire that word?) at all. And he has a couple of good points. All of you make way too much of barely anything at all.

Anonymous said...

My guess is if the original comment was 'snide' and 'bitter', as animator girl thinks, then that poster is probably as old or been in the business as long as Floyd.

Vincent Waller said...

I understand being Anon when sharing something that might get you in Dutch with an employer.
But when speaking to other folks, it just appears...well not looking to call names, but you know how it appears.
I'll leave you throw what ever last words you want to throw. Maybe you will even do it with your real name. Maybe not.
Have great week end

Anonymous said...

Hey. Anonymous, the matter is that you really haven't even contributed ANYTHING to the thread. You just attacked someone for giving their opinion, and that a disservice to everyone. Because the more you attack people for saying things, the less gets said.

Anonymous said...

Words will be retired when no longer applicable. Until then..

Animator "Girl"


Vincent Waller said...

Grrrrrooowwwl ;)

Kevin Koch said...

Just to clarify, the "kevin" above is indeed the TAG president (I think I've ended up with a couple of blogger profiles -- sorry if that confused you). Also, I don't think I have much trouble recognizing genuine snarkiness when I see it, any more than Vincent Waller and Animation Girl do.

And the poster above is correct that Steve and I decided to allow anonymous comments to foster discussion. On balance, we think it's useful, even if it also fosters snarkiness.

Anonymous said...

Obviously, this "anonymous" probably doesn't have much to offer the animation community if he doesn't even know that Kevin is the TAG president.

I find that the nastiest comments here almost always come from students or non-professionals. Not always, but quite often.

Anonymous said...

I'll add that if the comments weren't snark, what was your actual point?

Anonymous said...

Geez. There's a lot of vitriol directed at one nine word sentence that if it had a winking emoticon at the tail of it would've (I hope) been ignored.
Even assuming it was intended as snark (more likely sarcasm) does it deserve all of this over-reaction?
It also seems that many are assuming that all the "anonymous" posters are the same one that said the "oh, so offensive" posting. It doesn't read that way to me, but those that are unnecessarily protecting Mr. Norman seem to see it that way.
Just as that poster (who seemd to actually be responding to the silly post above it) should've taken a moment to think about what he/she said so should some of Mr. Norman's defenders. Mr. Norman sure seemed to have taken a measured response to it.

animator boy (not tto be confused with animator girl)

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