Karen Raugust looks at how animators are distributing their properties through a growing menu of alternative venues.
Emerging entertainment technologies are creating a number of new options for animators seeking to secure distribution for their properties. The video-capable iPod, television and broadband video-on-demand (VOD), advanced mobile phones and portable media players such as Sonys PlayStation Portable (PSP) and Tiger Electronics VUGO represent just a few of these new venues. The entertainment industrys acceptance of such channels was illustrated in November when the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences announced it was launching a new category of Emmy for programming created specifically for nontraditional viewing platforms.
Alternative distribution venues are attracting viewers as well, albeit not at the level of traditional media. In October, Frederator Studios launched Channel Frederator, a free weekly animation download (known as a video podcast or vodcast) that can be viewed on an iPod or PSP. It has seen viewership double each week, reaching 200,000 weekly downloads after about a month of availability. Meanwhile, Apple, which offered six shorts from Pixar on iTunes as part of its initial roster of content for the video-capable iPod, saw one million video sales in the first 20 days. Pixars For the Birds and Boundin were among the top downloads.
The world is portablizing, says Fred Seibert, Frederators founder. People are becoming unshackled from their computers. He points out that when he suggested to his 19-year-old tech person, David Karp of Davidville, that Frederator launch a web-based animation channel, Karp responded, Thats very 2000, and recommended the vodcast instead.
Many of the new distribution channels, including the iPod and PSP, are open systems, where any animator can independently create or repurpose content for the devices and make it available to the general public. On the other hand, platforms such as mobile phones or VOD are, for the most part, closed systems in which animators must work through a gatekeepersuch as a carrier, distributor or aggregatorto secure distribution.
Even in an open system, working through a gatekeeper is likely to maximize exposure, and eventually revenue, because the gatekeepers aggregation of content and its marketing expenditures will draw a significantly larger audience than any animator distributing content independently could. Frederator, for example, attributes 95% of Channel Frederator downloads to its listing on iTunes, with most of the remainder coming from the Frederator website. (Conversely, another Frederator vodcast, about cars, generates 95% of its downloads from sources other than iTunes.)
The Pitch Process
In many ways, the process of pitching content to gatekeepers in the alternative distribution world is similar to that for traditional media. First, we listen to what theyre saying about what programming theyre looking for, then we pick titles that might work for them, says Newton Grant, director of business development for Central Park Media. CPM offers downloads for the iPod and PSP (including trailers and some episodes), as well as VOD titles through CinemaNow, Movielink and Comcast, among others. Generally speaking, what theyre looking for is whats relevant to a particular demographic. Its still television for the most part, its just a new way to distribute it.
Sprint Nextel, where a team reviews content submissions on a weekly basis, looks for the same things that any medium would, says Dale Knoop, gm of multimedia services. Quality matters. Sprint Nextel has four dedicated animation channels, including Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Looney Tunes and Saturday Morning TV (which includes Classic Media properties such as Rocky & Bullwinkle, Casper and Mr. Magoo), and is in negotiation with other leading brands. It also features animated content within some of its general entertainment channels, such as Fun Little Movies and SmashTV.
The types of content new-media gatekeepers are looking for varies widely, in part because of differing strategies and technical requirements, but also because the channels are so new theyre still trying to figure out what works. Were making it up as we go along, says Seibert.
Channel Frederator emphasizes content from new talent. Its vodcasts have featured both new and vintage work, most without significant previous distribution outside of the occasional film festival. Unlike many companies in the new-media world, Frederator rarely deals with corporate content providers. Each 10- to 15-minute Channel Frederator vodcast features three to five films, ranging from 10 seconds to seven minutes; early content providers have included Blur Studios and Wild Brain, among others.
Sprint Nextel, on the other hand, works primarily with owners of well-known brands, focusing on the lead characters within each. It seeks providers that can offer a wide variety of content and constantly refresh it as required for a monthly subscription model. But the company considers independent content as well. This is a great time to experiment and see what works, Knoop says.
Tiger Electronics also has focused initially on branded content for its VUGO personal media player, targeted to children 10-14, although Tiger marketing director Adam Biehl says that independent work might be a possibility in the future. We market to mass consumers through mass retailers, so were looking for mainstream content and mainstream styles that are trend-on, Biehl reports.
The VUGO launched with content from Cartoon Network (including free downloads of Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends that were promoted on packaging) and Nickelodeon. Consumers purchase and download approved, age-appropriate and copy-protected episodes from the Vugo.com website; they also can record television shows, listen to music and view picture files, as well as run legally obtained MPEG and AVI files from other sites. Tiger is a division of Hasbro, which has had success for several years with its VideoNow personal media player.
Many content providers and gatekeepers note that short content seems to work best on new media channels today, due to technology constraints and user behavior. But longer lengths are possible and will probably become more common in the future. On iTunes, video listings include long-form programming such as 60-minute television shows, and people are comfortably downloading, using and enjoying it, says Richard Townhill, Apples senior manager of pro video applications marketing.
Knoop notes that there is no technical limit to a shows length on Sprint Nextels advanced network; the company offers live television feeds on its phones, similar to a 24-hour cable network. Factors that help determine optimal duration, in addition to consumer usage patterns, include a shows format and rights-clearance issues. Some content providers dont want their productions excerpted or shown in out-of-linear-order segments, for example.
Content Providers Objectives
The creators objectives and new media plans play into the decision about which alternative channels to pitch. Some content providers, especially larger corporate ones, are looking to make a profit, some are primarily seeking exposure, and others mainly want to position themselves early to test what works, build relationships and create a leadership position for themselves as the market becomes more fragmented.
While profits can be elusive at this point, a few content providers say theyre making money in the alternative space. There is profit, says Leila Pirnia, director of strategic planning and business development at DIC Ent. There are no big dollars, but theres some pretty healthy money coming in. DIC distributes broadband downloads and streams, as well as other content such as games, through a year-old deal with Yahooligans!. It also has a partnership with SmartVideo for a streaming DIC-branded animation channel that runs on mobile phones with Microsoft operating systems, a Trollz-only mobile deal with One World Interactive for lifestyle content such as wallpapers and ringtones, and an alliance with Hasbro to distribute episodes on the VideoNow portable media player.
Were definitely in the figuring-out stage, says Pirnia, who adds that getting into the market early has helped DIC learn a lot. On Yahooligans!, for example, DIC came to realize that shorter clips were downloaded more, and reduced the average length to three to eight minutes. From its deal with SmartVideo, it has learned about mobile technology, such as the relative importance and reach of the various operating systems, the fragmentation of the handset market and the differences between older (2G) and more advanced (3G) networks. Until youre active in a new market, you dont know what you need to know, says Pirnia, who advises keeping deal terms short and nonexclusive to maintain flexibility.
CPM views new-media channels as a means of both exposure and profit. Some of what we do is for promotion; some is about monetizing the content directly, Grant says. [New distribution venues] allow you a new way to get the word out about your programming. CPM uses iPod and PSP downloads to help promote some of its lesser-known backlist or upcoming properties, for example. Grant notes that one of the appealing things about many alternative distribution channels is that they offer a wider variety of content, so consumers are able to make new discoveries.
While alternative media services dont attract as many viewers yet as traditional channels, they already are viable promotional tools. Fred Seibert says the second episode of Channel Frederator included a Flash-animated music video from an indie artist, which caused the artists CD to rise from a ranking of 28,000 to 6,000 on Amazon.com within 24 hours of the vodcasts debut.
Biehl notes that tweens use personal video players to share their favorite shows with friends. Thats why content providers want to work with us, because [the VUGO] promotes their network TV offerings. Its another way to reach out to their consumers. Because all content on Vugo.com is copy-protected and cant be traded, corporations are comfortable supplying content, Biehl adds.
Adapting Existing Shows
While some animators are creating content specifically for alternative distribution channels, much of the material available to date is repurposed from another medium. Apples Townhill explains that the iPod can handle content of all frame sizes and aspect ratios. It still looks pretty good, but the screens real estate is not all in use, he says. For those making content exclusively for the iPod, he advises creating the animation close to the final frame size, and counsels animators to keep the master as clean as possible for best results.
In some cases, existing content may need editing. Pirnia notes that Yahooligans broadband content must be simplified for transfer to mobile phones, due to the small screen size. There is more focus on characters, for example, and less background is included.
The alternative distribution space is constantly evolving in terms of what types of content work, how deals are negotiated and how animators are compensated. But there is no doubt new-media services are hungry for content. And animators are well-positioned to get into this market early. Those who take advantage of the opportunity in the short term will be more likely to succeed once these now-new distribution venues become mainstream.
Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).