Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Knock Knock

While the story is nothing new, the technique is inventive. My hat is off for conceiving this and managing to execute it in a single take.

You can read about the production of this here.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Jack Kirby Makes Disney and Marvel Blink

Next Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States was to announce whether it would hear an appeal from the Jack Kirby estate over the estate's copyright claims.

Today, Marvel and the Kirby estate jointly announced that they have reached a settlement.

“Marvel and the family of Jack Kirby have amicably resolved their legal disputes, and are looking forward to advancing their shared goal of honoring Mr. Kirby’s significant role in Marvel’s history.” 

I hope that more details emerge.  From my perspective, I hope that Jack Kirby receives co-creator credit on the various comics he spearheaded with Stan Lee.  Furthermore, I hope that the estate receives royalties on Kirby reprints, Kirby designed merchandise and the flood of superhero movies that are being made using characters that Kirby designed and co-created.

There are people who are constantly commenting on various news sites that Kirby's children and grandchildren had nothing to do with creating the work and so don't deserve anything.  My response is that Robert Iger and the stockholders of the Walt Disney company had nothing to do with it either, yet they're making money from it.  Why do their rights trump Kirby's family?

I congratulate the Kirby family for their persistence.  If Jack and Roz Kirby were alive, they would be very proud that their family stood up to one of the largest entertainment conglomerates on the planet and made them acknowledge the value of Jack Kirby's work. 

It's nice to get a happy ending.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Book Review: The Webcomics Handbook

While comics are not animation, there is a great deal of overlap, both in terms of artists as well as how artists are marketing their work these days.  In this way, animation artists who are interested in using the web as a revenue source, or are interested in self publishing or exhibiting at conventions can find a wealth of advice from Brad Guigar's The Webcomics Handbook.

Guigar has been doing webcomics since 2000 and is the founder of Webcomics.com, an online site dedicated to sharing knowledge with artists who are marketing and selling their work online.  He is the co-author of How to Make Webcomics, a book I plugged earlier.

The value of Guigar's latest book is how incredibly specific it is.  If you're looking to create a website with earning potential, Guigar will talk about various hosting sites and their relative advantages and disadvantages.  He lists the various approaches to securing advertising for sites.  He even has tips for speeding up page loading.

Guigar talks about the pitfalls of collaborating and how to avoid them.  He has a chapter devoted to self-publishing, including information on print-on-demand vs offset.  He has a chapter devoted to conventions and how to best present yourself at them as well as the economics of attending shows.

Other topics include copyright, contracts, insurance, search engine optimization, collectives, merchandise, and booth barnacles (fans who hang around your table at cons and monopolize your time without buying anything).

I have never seen a book about artists using the online world with as much practical advice.  My only complaint is that the book lacks an index.  However, that is a small complaint.  If you have ever considered using the web as a revenue source, there is something in this book that will help you. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Challenge to Studios Taking Pitches

The Ottawa International Animation Festival starts on September 17 and studios will be there to recruit.  As well, Nickelodeon will be there soliciting pitches for preschool shows.  I'd like to issue a challenge to Nickelodeon and any studio that takes pitches, though I'm confident that this challenge will be completely ignored.

I'd like studios that are looking for pitches to make their minimum deal public.  How much of the copyright, if any, will the creator get to keep?  What screen credit will the creator be guaranteed?  How much will the creator get per episode that's produced?  What guaranteed employment will the creator get on the project?  What percentage of online, merchandising, publishing and home video revenues will the creator get?

While I have no confidence that companies like Viacom, Disney, Warner Bros. or Fox will take this challenge, it presents an enormous opportunity for smaller studios looking to own intellectual property.  Imagine a studio that offers to let the creator keep half of the copyright and half the profits from all revenue streams.  Creators with confidence in their ideas would be fools not to take their work to that studio first.  Imagine if a studio agreed that if the project wasn't viable after a limited time, the creator could recover 100% of the copyright in exchange for reimbursing the studio for it's production and marketing costs.

We're in a transitional period.  What we think of as TV is shrinking and the online world of Netflix-like and YouTube-like entities are expanding.  Before the online world solidifies, as it inevitably will, a studio able to attract the best content because it offers the best deal would have a competitive advantage.

It would obviously benefit creators, but the point is that it would be good business all around.

Media companies hate bidding wars.  As early as 1909, Biograph was trying to suppress the names of their performers, afraid that they would ask for more money.  However, Carl Laemmle hired Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford away from Biograph and publicized them in order to increase demand for his films.  As much as media companies would prefer it otherwise, the business is based on talent.  If a studio is taking pitches, what will it publicly guarantee to the talent?

And if you're a creator, do you have the nerve to demand to know the deal before you make the pitch?

Friday, September 05, 2014

Goodbye Canadian Content?

UPDATE: Those of you interested in what's happening to TV in Canada should read this article in The Globe and Mail.  It's a good summary of all the potential changes that are coming and how it might change the production landscape.  The reader comments show the level of animosity towards the cable companies and broadcasters.  You can't hold an audience with regulations, only by giving them something they want to watch.

There's an alternate TV universe developing in Canada.  It looks a lot like the old TV universe.  In fact the majority of the programming comes from the old TV universe, but there's an important difference: it comes via the internet and not cable channels.

So what?  Well, you can impose Canadian content quotas on cable, because no service gets on cable unless the Canadian Radio and Television Commission approves it.  And the CRTC always imposes conditions on any license it grants.

However, the CRTC has decided to keep its hands off the internet, precisely because it can't stop anyone from using the internet to distribute content.

There are huge repercussions from this.  First, when there were limited channels available and they had to run Canadian content, there was a demand (even it if was mandated demand and not audience demand) that had to be filled.  Second, when the public paid for cable TV and when the cable channels earned money from advertising, a percentage of the money was put into the Canadian Media Fund, which provided money for the production of Canadian content, including animation.

The problem started when Netflix came to Canada.  It allowed viewers to pay a flat monthly subscription rate to watch anything on the service.   As Netflix arrives via the internet, it has no legal obligation to put money into the Canadian Media Fund or to use Canadian content.  When a generation of young adults who have declined to have cable TV combines with disgruntled viewers who cut their cable to lower their bills, the cable companies panic.  Their billing is dropping and the shrinking audience will force advertising revenues downwards as well.  That's a one-two punch aimed at Canadian content.

Shaw and Rogers, the two largest cable TV providers, are fighting back.  They're collaborating to create Shomi (pronounced "show me") to compete with Netflix.  That's like Coke and Pepsi collaborating on a new soft drink, a move that could only be driven by desperation.  Bell Media has just purchased a library of older shows from HBO for their own version of video on demand.  Suddenly, the cable TV business has the cooties and everyone is running away from it.  Because these new services are on the internet, there's no obligation to run Canadian content and none of the subscription money goes to the Canadian Media Fund.

This will make it harder to produce original animation in Canada.  With lower ad rates, less money in the Canadian Media Fund and the audience abandoning cable, there will be less demand for Canadian content and it will be harder to finance.  For better or worse, studios interested in creating shows will have to compete with the rest of the world, without the government carving out a protected space for them.

There will still be service work, but that doesn't bode well for the future of Canadian animation.  Service work is sensitive to currency fluctuations.  The Canadian dollar has ranged as low as 63 cents and as high as 1.03 compared to the U.S. dollar over the last decade or so.  In addition, there is the volatility of tax credits and government subsidies.  The new government in Quebec has cut their tax credits due to their deficit.  Any deficit-ridden government (which is all of them at the moment) will be looking hard at expenditures.  Service work is great for cash flow, but the flow stops when the job is delivered.  There are no residuals and no money from merchandising.  Studios doing service work are always just a few months away from a potential bankruptcy.

This could be a great opportunity for Canadian studios, forcing them to cut the government's apron strings and grow up, but I'm doubtful.  History hasn't demonstrated that Canadian studios are eager for that challenge.  In the last 35 years, no studio has walked away from government protection or money to stand on its own.

While Canadian animation is booming right now, the future is uncertain at best.  The entire notion of Canadian content quotas may disappear quickly, not through government decree, but through cable TV erosion.  While Canadian studios have worked hard to satisfy the regulations, now it's time for them to focus on satisfying the audience if they want a healthy future.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Is Canadian TV Animation Heading for a Cliff?

The TV animation business in Canada is on a roll right now.  There's a lot of work out there, as a glance at the job board at Canadian Animation Resources confirms.  While animation in Canada includes visual effects, features and videogames, TV still makes up the greatest proportion of production in terms of employment and the amount of material produced.

However, there are trends in several areas that make TV animation vulnerable.  The ground is already shifting and there are more shifts to come.

Television in Canada is regulated by the Canadian Radio and Television Commission.  This government body determines which new channels will be allowed to exist, sets quotas for Canadian content and determines how much money from cable fees will be set aside for Canadian production.

The CRTC is aware of the effect that the internet and internet TV providers such as Netflix are having on the market and have been holding hearings to determine how regulations should change.  There are several possibilities being considered.  One is unbundling. 

The CRTC has declared that certain channels such as YTV, a major Canadian animation market, are part of the basic cable package.  In other words, everyone who has cable is forced to pay money towards YTV.  Other channels featuring animation, such as Teletoon and Family Channel, are part of packages.  You cannot buy these channels on their own.  There are customers who don't care at all about animation who are contributing money towards these channels by purchasing the package they're included in.

Should the CRTC unbundle, allowing viewers to purchase only those channels they want, no one can predict how this might effect the demand for animation channels.  The number of cable channels using animation has expanded to include Nickelodeon, Teletoon Retro, Cartoon Network Canada, Disney XD, Disney Junior and Treehouse.  Can the Canadian market support all of these channels in an a la carte world?  Can studios survive if the number of Canadian buyers goes down?

There is an entire generation that has replaced TV with the internet.  The term "cord cutting" is used to describe people who give up cable TV, but there are many young adults who haven't had cable TV since leaving their parents' homes.  Walking in Toronto, I see children in strollers playing with iPads.  In a world of on-demand entertainment, does the concept of a broadcast schedule have a hope of surviving?

The shrinking audience is affecting even mainstream programming.  W5, a 60 Minutes-like news show has just cut production on the number of episodes for the coming season and laid off staff due to shrinking ad revenues. 

Many in Canada subscribe to Netflix instead of cable.  No money spent on Netflix is re-routed towards Canadian production as it is with cable bills.  This means that the Canada Media Fund, which funnels money towards various productions, has less to work with.

Finally, there is the issue of tax credits.  Ontario just had a provincial election, so the government will be stable for the next four years, but it is trying to eliminate a deficit. No poll of the general public has ever put tax credits for media production high on the list of priorities.  As a result, I would not be surprised to see the tax credits frozen at best and I anticipate some amount of claw back.  Certainly, they won't increase, which means that if another jurisdiction surpasses Ontario's tax credits, work will leave Ontario.

While content quotas, bundling and tax credits have their place, especially for new enterprises, they turn into an addiction.  Ultimately, animation has to please the public if it is to survive.  Instead, too many studios have focused on satisfying regulations that generate money rather than on creating viable entertainment.  I fear that they have built their enterprises on a foundation of sand.  I have seen contractions in the Canadian animation industry in the past and they're not pretty.  I hope that studios are preparing for changes that may destroy their current business model.

To learn more about this, read Michael Geist and listen to this Canadaland podcast.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Guys with Pencils Down to Stubs

Andrew (left) and Adam
Andrew Murray and Adam Hines, the hosts of the Guys with Pencils podcast, have decided to pack it in after a few more episodes.  The podcast has featured people from animation, comics and games, giving the audience a chance to learn more about each of those fields and the careers of dozens of working artists.

The podcasts will remain available for awhile, but if you're not familiar with them, now's your chance to cherry pick the 172 episodes (so far) for whatever artists or fields you are interested in.

As somebody who has appeared on the podcast multiple times, I'd like to publicly thank Adam and Andrew for the opportunity to air my views on things like creator rights and for providing the animation community with such an informative resource.

I'm sure we haven't heard the last of these two.  I've watched them go from students to working professionals and I look forward to seeing what they'll accomplish in the future.