I was active in developing and producing online animation since the first internet bubble burst back in the early part of the decade. A show I developed was optioned and produced by Mondo Media. I also co-created and launched a show called The Mr. Shrimp Show. It was developed as 2 minute segments featuring topical commentary in an oddly recognizable universe with a talking man-headed crustacean. Typical stuff really. It eventually aired in both the US (on G4 tv) and in the UK, was featured on WIRED magazines short lived animation destination site and was optioned for development by a large online company who shall remain nameless. A bit later I co-founded an online animation studio and we walked the dark, lonely, pathless world that was online entertainment in the late 90’s and earlier this decade.
I’ve worked in television animation since but I still return to interesting online entertainment projects, animated and live action, because of the creative freedom they offer as well as the promise of finding audiences outside the mainstream and figuring out how to monetize that.
Below is an essay I wrote back in 2001 when I was working as an online creative director for Pearson Television. It was featured in The Comics Journal issue number 232. It’s listed in a few academic collections and was even reading material for a new media/future of broadcasting class at MIT. This is the original, unedited (some spelling mistakes will no doubt make it through!) draft that ran in Comics Journal. As far as I know they never made it available online. Recently I have seen more and more debate about how to produce online entertainment (and to make money from it) and the discussion seems eerily familiar to me.
The content is a bit dated. But I stand by the opinions I expressed and what happened to the business models that were being put forward. And almost every week I read about companies that seem to be making the same mistakes that were made countless times just a few years ago. I have inserted updates on most of the URL’s mentioned in the essay.
Why Online Animation
Should Not be Tomorrow’s Television.
Walt Disney, the man, not the multinational corporation, is really to blame here. And Chuck Jones, and Tex Avery…they always made it look so easy. Cartooning, more particularly animation can create amazing entertainment dynasties from Mickey and Bugs to Spider Man and Bart Simpson.
Animation of course can also create amazing revenue streams. Toys, tee-shirts, licensing and marketing opportunities, software, syndication residuals and spin-offs. That kind of money gets a lot of attention in Hollywood. It is no coincidence that most of the major Hollywood studios have a lucrative and active animation arm and those that don’t spend an enormous amount of money trying to create one.
The traditional way of launching animated entertainment properties has been through television and film. Of course nothing lasts forever. The Internet arrived, and things just haven’t been the same since.
Though their ranks thin every quarter, here on the West Coast the Internet animation boom continues. In Seattle, Honkworm (Now a dead URL -ed.) is still making fish talk.
Mondo Media (www.mondomedia.com) (still kicking, but using Youtube as a ‘distribution’ channel -ed.) continues to pursue the syndication track delivering topical 3-minute cartoons to almost every web site in the World.
Wildbrain (www.wildbrain.com) (The URL is still live because Wildbrain was always a fine animation house making great TV shows and commercials. Online was an avenue they flirted with and produced some of the best looking and funniest material. Since 2001 they have moved into the decidedly NOT virtual world of limited edition toys at kidrobot.com as well) continues to spend some of their considerable talents on Web projects.
Mediatrip (Now a dead URL – ed.) continues delivering some original content along with left over studio trailers and publicity interviews.
Spumco (now a blog about John’s work – ed.) follows the lead of the infamous John Kricfalusi with the most outlandish and well-crafted animation on the web, but still seems to be searching for a life outside of SouthPark comparisons and golden age retro styles.
Stan Lee Media (stanleenet.com is no longer a live URL. Turned into dust I guess – ed.) wants everyone to know that they are really…really, into superheroes.
Shockwave.com (still around. Game focused now. -ed.) was one of the first kids on the block, but now seems more interested in games and the repurposing of content than producing original programming. They recently distributed Tim Burton’s ‘Stainboy’ and it’s the only place a Tim Burton project that gets a million viewers over three weeks can even remotely be considered a success.
But the online Animation Company that gets the most press is Icebox (www.icebox.com) (Still an active URL that seems to be selling something to everyone. I wonder if they make enough to keep the servers running? -ed.). They brought in the big Hollywood guns. Writers and producers from proven properties like South Park, The Simpsons, King of the Hill and it seems just about every other show that’s ever aired on TV. They raised the stakes across the premature-born online animation industry by spending more, producing more and acting as lab rat for the notion you can birth a property on the web and move it into the lucrative TV market.
Icebox is a Los Angeles based ‘online’ animation studio that was founded in November of 1999. A relative latecomer to the online content game they bring together a mix of Hollywood insiders and corporate experience that brings high stakes to this game. Their mantra seems to be ‘develop animation on the Internet, pay the bills when you sell it to Television’. This type of thinking has changed the direction of online animation development and not for the better.
Most of the recent crop of online animation companies sprouted into existence in early-1998. Originally there was an interest in alternative forms of entertainment on the web. A chance to empower artists and the development of a new truly robust platform for original animation.
Early on every company I talked with and worked with was sweaty with the anticipation of being able to find talent outside of Hollywood. Yes, entertainment executives wanted those brave souls with creative talent who dare to reside elsewhere in the world! Of course once they found them, it might not really be such a different story from what’s happened to the young and idealistic of past decades when drawn to Hollywood. But never mind that. There was fear in the eyes of many in Hollywood that the next big animated property would be created and produced by some 10 year old in Des Moines, Iowa and the damn kid wouldn’t even need a Network or a Development Executive to help out.
This lead to more than one company journeying to out of the way places trying to recruit talent and days spent scouring the Internet for strange web sites and passwords to the ‘very-most-coolest’ of online animation. The Online Studios descended upon places like the Alternative Press Exposition in San Francisco, fighting over photocopied zines, and bizarre stories of alien abduction.
The truth is that the more adventurous hollywood talent scouts have been watching the ‘alternative’ and ‘small press’ comics industry for years. Remember ‘Men in Black’— The independent comic. It was distributed by Aircel Comics in 1990, and created by Lowell Cunningham. Six years after the first printing it was turned into a blockbuster by Sony Pictures. There are many, many more examples. The difference is when studios used to look at the independent work they were looking for products that had broad appeal that would have a reasonable chance of making back some of the millions it would cost to develop and release a special effects laden movie or television series.
However, by late fall and early spring of 2000, the independent comics world didn’t turn up the next ‘Pokeman’ quickly enough, and the online animation studios turned once again to the tried and true talent in Hollywood. Ideas for building companies based on distributing and developing ‘outsider’ projects quickly dried up.
A new Business Plan was born. It called for offering opportunities to the top creative talent in Hollywood to produce content freely, unencumbered by the Studio System. A system that has, if nothing else, perfected feeding the majority of consumers in this country and overseas broad entertainment.
That’s where we stand right now. As 2001 approaches, the online content companies crashing and burning have began to slow, but so has the ability to raise venture capital and issue easy IPO’s. Internet animation has been resigned to a platform for television development. Will this pay off? Will glutting the Internet with 3 minute animated knock-knock-jokes prove a legitimate path to animated mega-entertainment Brand creation? Is any of this good for animation or Internet entertainment?
The argument in support of the current trend coalesce into three essential points:
“The Internet is the ideal ground to launch ideas for eventual television production.’
It seems to be the first entertainment platform being used solely to launch its products into some other medium with little or no revenue possibilities to support the growing staffs and rapidly advancing quality expected. Imagine the implications of television production having as its main goal, the launching of motion pictures. The Internet can produce great work, but it shouldn’t be developed to rely on selling properties to television in order to exist.
“By delivering shows cheaply and quickly and tracking response we will learn what will be a hit with audiences.”
How cheap and how quick? Is it really less expensive to develop 10 Flash animated episodes than taking a ripe idea, a good script, and some flashy art to a young producer at Fox or Warners or your friend’s agent at CAA? What exactly constitutes a hit in online entertainment? The announcement earlier this year of Icebox taking an online cartoon into television production seemed to be more a creation of previous relationships and creative alliance making than the fulfillment of starting an original property on the web and developing it once it becomes a huge success.
“We only need 1 idea in 30 to be a hit in order to be profitable.”
They seem to be sharing that opinion with most garage bands in the country. It seems one should possess a business model built upon something other than Vegas inspired odds making especially when you consider that these companies are going through 1-3 million dollars a month.
As the above points make clear, the current Internet Animation industry seems to have a clear perspective on one thing, you can make money if you are on Television! This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what Internet animation is about.
The Internet offers the ability to launch material unencumbered by any corporate review process. The near zero-dollar investment for distribution is also great for would-be Ed Woods. I’m not saying this is a recipe for great work, but it would allow for original, creative work that does not have to play by the rules that exist for broad entertainment.
The main question becomes how do you define ‘success’? What kind of audience do you need to reach? Smaller periodicals can sustain themselves with a circulation of a hundred thousand. An original web show that does not carry the burdens of a large production studio should be able to find a method . This is no easy task given the unstable platform and the ever-changing technology but once those obstacles are taken away the audience for narrow-casting will only grow.
The most interesting shows on the Internet are the shows and sites that look nothing like a Network TV offering. Radiskull and Devil Doll (http://www.joesparks.com/radiskull/) (now the URL is his personal site. No longer hosted by Shockwave -ed.) and Doodie.com (still an active URL but features ‘lovely’ flashing banners and more ads than content -ed.) work well on the Internet exactly because they wouldn’t succeed on a television network where shows must attract millions upon millions of viewers. Online animation feeds a smaller, sometimes more, sometimes less selective audience. Most importantly, original online programs need find an audience only one 50th the size of NBC’s West Wing and could still be successful. The Internet offers artists a chance to get more particular, more personal, more crazed and at the same time draw on the millions of web-surfers world wide to find an audience.
Of course the difficulty for even these independent Internet ‘hits’ is finding a way to monetize that success. How do you pay to produce the show? All artists would like the opportunity to make a living from producing their work. Working the early shift at Starbucks in order to afford a night of animating or inking gets old fast. The Internet is the first mass distribution platform that can reach millions of people that is affordable to the average person. If you attract 200,000 people to your original online program every month (week?) eventually there will be a way to make a living from that. That is a far different than launching a show on a television network that MUST attract 6 million people every week.
The real value and excitement of Internet animation comes form the need NOT to please. The freedom that comes from not having to pay a staff of 100 artists, the ability to be small and original and not worrying about attracting 15 million people to share your vision. Seinfeld, Baywatch, Friends, The West Wing and Survivor succeed on television because they attract a huge number of viewers. They are broad enough to touch many people and keep them coming back. The price to do that? It takes good writers (roughly a dozen for a season of a sitcom and we all know the quality that most people regard sitcoms as having. On a show like The Simpson’s there might be 20 writers/producers plus additional consultants for a season). It is hard work being funny for 10 million people every week. Television shows must also have fast thinking Producers, a Networks support, promotion and marketing, Directors able to convey story telling visually, flawless technical abilities and most importantly an idea that can attract and retain millions upon millions of viewers.
That’s the really tough part. Creating a television show that can attract a tired mom-and-dad for an hour every week, animation that kids rush home from school to watch, a comedy that leaves everyone in the office talking the next day, drama that can make people cry when a favorite character is felled by tragedy. This need to feed a huge number of people is both the strength and weakness of television. Advertisers will pay very well for a 30-second opportunity to talk with an audience that size. Television creates broad entertainment and broad entertainment is expensive to create, develop and produce.
That is the advantage of Internet animation. You don’t need to cater to a huge, broad audience. Do your thing, and see if you can find an audience. ICEBOX brags that they have more than 30 Emmy winners creating work for them. I don’t understand how that would interest anyone dedicated enough to look for entertainment on the web. If I can watch their work on my 27 inch Television while sitting on my comfortable couch, why would I go through the effort to look at a 4×5 inch square featuring limited animation and mono audio while propped up in my office chair looking at a 15” monitor? I suspect a press release like that is meant to impress bankers and venture capitalists, but only if they aren’t thinking about the medium they are looking at. The Internet is an open distribution platform, where people can watch what they want when they want. The personal vision of an inspired creator might find an audience of like-minded individuals and that will produce great new work.
It looks like the current Internet animation companies will hasten the death of a platform for original, innovative online animation. It is very similar to what happened to the American comic book industry that was defeated in its early attempts to break new ground and speak to a more discriminating audience.
Throughout the 1940’s and 50’s comic book development in America was adversely affected by several things including the Comic Book Code Authority being imposed in the mid 1950’s. But there was also a driving desire to exploit characters for use in other mediums. That meant paying less attention to the possibilities of the Comic Book as a platform for worthwhile artistic development. There were, arguably, exceptions like Jack Kirby and Will Eisner. But overall the American comic book became a platform for broad entertainment, and was forced to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Often an emerging art form, whether print making, painting, comic strips or animation acts as a default educator to the audience. Those who practice the art form have a responsibility to show the best of what can be accomplished; they have duel roles as artist and teacher. If you continually lower the bar, you risk destroying the possibilities of the medium. The comic book and graphic novel, while elevated to a unique and original art form overseas, became nothing but fodder to plunder for motion picture serials and television series. The comic book industry in America, with rare exceptions, failed to grow as an art form for several decades. It wasn’t until the rebirth of independent comics in the late 1960’s and again in the 1980’s that America began once again to innovate in one of its native art forms.
The Internet offers a fresh platform for original development. It shouldn’t need to be just a feeder for typical television material. It can deliver a unique, non-corporate, original and controversial idea and let individuals decide what to make of it. Internet animation should celebrate the strange the novel and the completely original.
The current Internet animation companies are destroying the aspects of the new medium that are most valuable. The moment that Internet animation becomes nothing more than a vehicle for television development, the medium begins to suffer. The very things that Internet animation doesn’t inherently have, high overhead, cumbersome production schedules, troublesome development egos, a temptation to curb vision to achieve ratings success, are exactly what the internet animation companies are forcing on it.
What’s really needed is a way for an individual artist or a small team that attracts tens of thousands maybe a hundred thousand fans via the Internet to make a living delivering their content. They shouldn’t need a major Hollywood studio to do that they don’t need Icebox to do that. They need a way for fans to directly support the programming they like. If all this Internet animation opportunity adds up to is another ‘development path’ for T.V, the promise of a free, independent, active, and original animation platform will be lost.
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