Joe Strike sheds some light on what distributors are looking for when they go out searching for animation to acquire.
As complicated as the production process is, creating a cartoon is only half the battle; like the tree falling in an empty forest, does a cartoon exist without distribution? (Actually, the answers are yes and yes. In the first case, the tree's descent creates sound waves that bounce around the forest even if they never reach anyone's ears; in the second, the animator can still show his or her cartoon to friends and relatives.) Fortunately, there are quite a few distributors out for independent animation producers to turn to for a shot at getting their short seen by the public at large.
Speaking for many perspicacious animators, Patrick Smith insists on non-exclusive deals with distributors, saying, "the only way to make money is with multiple deals. Individually they're not much, but all together they add up to a chunk of change."
Monster Distributes Ltd. is an Ireland-based outfit that has sold programming to more than 200 countries. In addition to a variety of Christian-themed children's animated series, Monster also handles edgier, adult-content cartoons like 2004 animation short Oscar-winner Harvey Krumpet and '05's nominated The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello; its suppliers include individual producers, as well as studios in Canada, Ireland and Zimbabwe.
Monster chairman Andrew Fitzpatrick's rates content as the number-one factor in acquisition decision-making. "It's style and story," he explains, "at the risk of being obvious, something which will connect with the audience. After that, length is important -- a running time that fits into existing broadcast slots, as well as a number of episodes which conforms to a broadcast season -- and ideally as many of them as possible!
"Beyond that, we look for animation which is original, quirky, fun and ideally with some educational or other values which means the audience has something more to take away than mere entertainment."
Microcinema International specializes in DVD distribution of alternative independently produced "moving image arts." The company's titles include documentaries, video art and even "ambient video" of abstract images and fireplaces for flat panel wall screens. Microcinema cuts deals with everyone from wholesalers to retailers as well as broadcasters, cable channels, podcasters and mobile telephone services.
Since the company's founding in 1996, it has overseen "Independent Exposure," a touring show of independent work screened at festivals and alternative venues. According to Microcinema's website, Independent Exposure has appeared in 44 countries and presented the work of more than 2,000 creators.
With clients like Bill Plympton, Signe Baumane and Patrick Smith (and some 25% of his business coming from animation titles), Microcinema's Joel Bacher is well situated to talk about the distribution market for independents. "Animation defines the independent spirit, because it's a solo art form. From a commercial perspective, it's important to us that the artist has a strong body of work that's relevant and unique." Bacher deliberately focuses on non-commercial artists and projects, leaving anime and more mainstream efforts to mainstream distributors. "We're trying to represent the unrepresented -- we like to give them a boost in the relatively speaking 'commercial world,'" he says, while admitting the company would like to distribute kid-friendly animation too, "but not typical TV stuff."
Microcinema describes itself as "very selective" when it comes to choosing titles for distribution, favoring already "published" (i.e., existing DVDs) over works that have yet to leave the artist's reel; would-be clients are advised to contact the company before submitting any material.
Commercially-targeted animation is Catherine Branscome's stock in trade. In 1999, following up on a lengthy résumé in sales and distribution (including four years in charge of international distribution for the now defunct home video company Good Times Ent.), she set up her own firm, Branscome International.
Complex deals are Branscome's specialty, with overseas properties simultaneously licensed for home video distribution, cable channel airing and licensing/merchandising, with different markets getting different pieces of the pie. Mainstream properties with already existing track records tend to get her attention, but her deals have also included a package of Plympton shorts to the Sundance Channel.
Branscome's package of Plympton shorts became part of the Channel's 2004 salute to the well-known New York independent animator. "It was a pretty cool stunt for us," recalls Ian Bricke, Sundance's director of acquisitions and programming. "We occasionally do a spotlight on an auteur/filmmaker, and he happens to be one who's an animator. We did a retrospective piece to introduce viewers to Bill, then a block of seven or eight of his shorts, along with two of his features: The Tune and Mutant Aliens.
"We do acquire a fair bit of independent animation -- it's in keeping with our overall mission of supporting independent filmmakers. It's not really on a systematic basis, but part of our short film programming. We buy 40-50 shorts a year, as many as 10-15 of which are animated." A fair amount of Sundance's animation comes from the National Film Board of Canada, as well as sales agents and distributors like Branscome. The films of Faith and Emily Hubley have also appeared on Sundance.
Other companies Bricke has dealt with include British "boutique" operations like Dazzle Films, onedotzero ("it's sort of a British version of RezFest -- they represent a fair bit of digital animation") and Shorts International. ("Through them we acquired all the 2007 Oscar-nominated shorts, which we'll be airing next year.")
The Channel will occasionally cut a deal directly with an animator responsible for a particularly impressive piece of work. "Jason Wishnow did an incredible stop-motion film called Oedipus, telling the story with vegetables -- the production values are incredible. We also acquired a film called, The Firefly Man, directly from Todd Fjelsted."
Bricke scours film festivals looking for titles, starting with the Sundance festival itself (where Oedipus and Firefly Man first surfaced), bypassing animation-themed gatherings like Annecy in favor of general fests like France's Clermont-Ferrand.
"The thing about Plympton and the other animators we acquire," says Bricke, "is that they are filmmakers with distinctive voices -- it's the through-line on everything we do. These films jump out because they're unique, because they express a certain worldview and sensibility -- you can watch five seconds of a Plympton short and know exactly who made it."
Bricke's interest is piqued by what he describes as a new trend, one he will be keeping an eye on for future Sundance programming -- animated documentaries. The Channel has already aired the Oscar-winning short Ryan (an acquisition from the NFB), which used animation to tell the story of a gifted animator's emotional breakdown.
He points to Brent Morgan's Chicago 10, which features a cartoon re-enactment of the famous 1960's trial of radical anti-Vietnam war protest leaders. "There's also a fully animated film coming down the pike called Waltz with Bashir, about events in Lebanon in the 1980s. The filmmaker was in the Israel army. He wanted to capture the surreal, nightmarish aspect of that experience, and felt animation was a much more effective way to tell the story. That kind of blurring of categories is very interesting to us, because it's the kind of work that doesn't get on TV in general."
Cable TV doesn't get any more mainstream than the Disney Channel. When Scott Garner, the channel's svp of programming goes prospecting, his sights are set on, as he puts it, "qualities that emulate and speak to our brand values, celebrating families and real kids, reflecting their experiences." That said, Garner is quick to add that "we don't always buy shows that feature kids as the characters. Two years ago we bought a show called Miniscule. It's in the spirit of Pixar's shorts, about tiny bugs in everyday adventures."
The tiny bugs' tiny adventures are only five minutes long, and are used to fill the time between the commercial-free channel's regular programming. (More often than not, they're placed between live-action shows and movies, to distinguish them from Disney Channel's blocks of animated half-hour shows.) "We rolled them out like a long-form series in terms of on-air promotion, and put them close to movie lead-ins and lead outs as part of our programming strategy. The distributors and producers see they're being put into premiere viewing time; they know your network's going to give it some love."
The Channel just snagged Aardman Animation's Shaun the Sheep, fresh off its Annecy "Best TV Production" win. Like Miniscule, Shaun's five-minute adventures will run as interstitial programming, beginning with a highly promoted primetime premiere on July 8, 2007.
For Garner, an "independent" is a small to medium-sized studio along the lines of Aardman -- not a lone animator laboring away far into the night on a personal project. The short-form packages purchased from boutique shops give the Channel more latitude in terms of scheduling than the in-house produced Disney long-form series. Occasionally an outside-produced half-hour show will make it onto the schedule. "Charlie and Lola is a half-hour preschool series we acquired from Tiger Aspect, who produced it with the BBC. We fell in love with the character designs -- they're so different from the rest of the 'Playhouse Disney' block.
"The characters speak with English accents. When we acquire half-hour series, we do focus groups to make sure they're compatible with the rest of our programming; we found out that kids really liked the accents. It's added a different dimension to block and done quite well."
Nicktoons, Nickelodeon's spin-off fulltime animation channel supplements its schedule of SpongeBobs and Fairly OddParents with its own assortment of acquisitions. According to Keith Dawkins, Nicktoons' vp/gm, his channel looks for shows with "strong characters and strong story lines that reflect the creators' point of view." Dawkins points to Kappa Mikey, The Secret Show, Edgar and Ellen, Skyland and Martin Mystery as shows that fill the bill. While a large package of episodes is helpful in choosing shows, he cautions "that doesn't mean that you want 100 episodes right out of the gate -- that's a commitment that you may not be ready to take on."
Branscome describes having a sense of what the market is looking for as critical in staying ahead of the game. "The marketplace is constantly changing. It may be completely different six months from now; a network or DVD distributor may not want same thing later they do today.
"It's the ebb and flow of the business. Comedy is almost universally in demand right now; action/adventure for 6-11 boys was in demand a year ago. It doesn't switch that rapidly, because the whole rhythm and pace of production takes a long time in TV. But what slots and what needs they have to fill, or a new executive coming in and looking for something different -- that could change in six months. You have to check back in, 'are you still looking for comedy?'
"It's not an exact science. The best thing is to ask questions, listen and keep track. Know your customer or potential customer, find out what they're looking for. Do your homework before you go in to pitch. They love it when you say, 'Oh, I might have something for you!' It's like matchmaking."
For Branscome, the ideal show is unique, with strong characters, along the lines of Plympton's work. "The dream, the utopia is something you're passionately enthusiastic about -- and commercially it has market appeal. You're just thrilled to be representing it; it makes everyone money and you love doing it."
With a major home video distribution deal of her own about to be announced for a foreign-produced series, Branscome keeps on the lookout for "talented creators... if you happen to find one, you have a shot." And, while she acknowledges that bigger studios have the edge over the individual animator, Branscome adds that she'd still represent a filmmaker with just a handful of shorts to his or her name, "if I love the work."
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.