Despite a recent burst in production of animated shorts, short film compilation discs remain a tiny niche within the DVD market. Karen Raugust reports.
The production of animated shorts has been on the rise over the last five years or so. Not only are more and more animators producing short films for the proliferation of content-hungry online and mobile distribution platforms, but the major studios have upped their activity in the animated feature film business and are having their animators create short films as training tools. At the same time, studios large and small are mining their archives so they can reintroduce classic short films to a public with a growing interest in this genre.
The expanding supply of shorts has led many companies to consider releasing compilation DVDs. But compilations remain a small and challenging niche within the DVD business. Competition is fierce, and the offerings at retail are dominated by brand names. At the same time, compilation DVDs face competition from newer digital technologies ranging from video-capable cell phones to video podcasting, which are becoming accepted means of distributing animated shorts.
Both Buena Vista Worldwide Home Ent. and Warner Bros. Home Ent. have ongoing DVD compilation series featuring classic shorts, targeted mainly at collectors. Buena Vista, for example, released Volume VI of its Walt Disney Treasures series in December 2006. "Mickey Mouse and all the popular characters started in shorts," comments Lori MacPherson, BVWHE's gm, North America. "We're appealing mainly to the Disneyphile collector market, but there are a lot of families that end up buying them too."
Each year, four numbered, limited-edition, two-disc Walt Disney Treasures sets are released, packaged in tin cases and includine an exclusive lithograph and an authenticity certificate. Much of the content is animated; Volume VI includes More Silly Symphonies and The Complete Pluto Volume 2, while previous releases have included collections of award-winning shorts, black-and-white Mickey shorts and color Mickey shorts. Each disc contains never-before-seen materials that would appeal to the collector market, in addition to the short films themselves. Marketing includes ads in collectors' publications.
Pixar has created a number of short films over the years, largely as a means of professional development for its animators. In 1996, it produced a compilation VHS release, Pixar's Tiny Toy Stories, which featured Knick Knack, Tin Toy, Luxo Jr., Red's Dream and The Adventures of André and Wally B, but no Pixar compilations have been released in recent years. Currently, most of Buena Vista's DVD releases of Pixar feature films include Pixar-produced shorts as extras, such as Mater and the Ghost Light on Cars and Jack-Jack Attack on The Incredibles. Similarly, Disney feature DVD releases sometimes include shorts as extras; the Oscar-nominated The Little Match Girl appeared on The Little Mermaid last October, for example.
Warner Bros. Home Ent. has seen its kids episodic DVD business -- including Nickelodeon, DC Comics, Cartoon Network and other TV releases -- grow 37% in the past year. Compilations of shorts account for a relatively small part of that business, with a primary initiative being the Looney Tunes Golden Collection, of which Volume 4 was released in late 2006. Introduced annually in the fall, each four-disk set contains 55 to 60 shorts plus lots of extras. Volume 4 included Bugs Bunny Favorites, shorts by Frank Tashlin (including many Porky Pig cartoons), a Speedy Gonzales collection, and a disc of shorts featuring Sylvester and other of Warner's classic cartoon cats.
"Our customers want to share these crown jewels with their children," says Dorinda Marticorena, WBHE's vp of family entertainment and sports marketing. "But they are also fans themselves. They can't get enough of the backstory." As a result, the studio invests a significant amount of resources on enhanced content for these collector DVDs, such as featurettes about the animators and the like, created by Warner's in-house special feature creative team using original production materials the studio has saved. "The enhanced content has generated significant press for the Looney Tunes franchise," Marticorena reports.
Another upcoming release from Warner is Tex Avery's Droopy Dog: The Complete Theatrical Collection, scheduled for a May debut. The studio also occasionally includes shorts on its feature film or episodic TV discs.
An independent studio with a strong brand, especially in the U.K., is Aardman Animations, which has a large collection of short films. Its compilation DVDs to date have included Aardman Classics (which has sold about 100,000 units since its 2002 release), featuring Creature Comforts, Wat's Pig and other shorts, and Aardman's Darkside, containing edgier fare such as Angry Kid, Rex the Runt, and Big Jeff.
"We try to trade off the backs of the higher-platform releases," explains Sean Clarke, head of marketing and licensing. The Aardman Classics disc was timed to the feature Chicken Run, and a re-release, with a new sleeve, was issued with Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Both were merchandised alongside the higher-profile features. Packaging calls out the best-known shorts on each collection.
Distribution of Aardman's compilations occurs primarily through specialty retailers and e-commerce rather than mass, and the U.K. accounts for the bulk of sales, although the company sees opportunity in the U.S. market. U.S. consumers are responsible for the largest number of downloads of many of Aardman's Internet-distributed shorts, including Angry Kid, especially through the AtomFilms site.
Outside of brand-name studios, a handful of other companies are releasing DVD compilations featuring animated shorts. Distribution is mainly through online and niche channels, although some have mainstream distribution as well. Many are tied to film festivals.
In January, MTV released a boxed set of Volumes 1 and 2 of The Animation Show (which has a broadcast deal with MTV2). Linked to Mike Judge and Don Herzfeldt's theatrical tour of animated shorts, the DVD set is available at Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy and other retail channels. (Volumes 1 and 2 are available separately on the MTV and Animation Show websites.) The DVD productions are loosely based on each year's theatrical tour, but with some replacements and additions; the set includes extras, such as a featurette about animated shorts and animation festivals and a book of interviews that reveal the personalities and influences of the 22 films' creators.
The theatrical tour, which includes shorts mined from animation festivals around the world and from the 1,000 to 2,000 submissions the company receives each year, is currently in its third incarnation, and a Volume 3 DVD is expected to follow.
Robert May, one of The Animation Show's producers, says that the focus of the enterprise is to allow people to experience animated shorts in a packed theater. But the festival visits a limited number of cities. The DVD is a way not only to provide something for collectors, but to expand the festival's reach beyond the towns where the theatrical version tours. "Working with MTV means we're on the shelf in Target in towns where the show's never played before," explains May.
But it can be difficult to stand out in the crowded DVD section. "The number of releases is astonishing," he says. "We're just testing the market. Does it make sense? Is there an audience?" Early results seem to show there is, May reports. It helps that the theatrical festival lends publicity to the DVD and provides a core base of potential customers.
Other film festivals that have released DVDs over the years include the 25-year-old Spike & Mike Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation; The Sundance Festival; and Resfest, a globally touring festival now in its 10th year, among others.
For the last two years, Magnolia Pictures, in conjunction with U.K.-based Shorts International, has toured a film festival to show each year's Oscar-nominated shorts (live-action and animated) in theaters prior to Academy Awards night. It has released companion DVDs, as well as airing a version of the festival on its sister cable network HDNet. This year's DVD includes 2006 nominees The Danish Poet, Lifted, The Little Matchgirl, Maestro and No Time for Nuts, as well as five additional animated shorts from the U.S. and Australia, including Blur Studios' A Gentleman's Duel, Branscome International's Guide Dog (directed by Bill Plympton), Charlex Films' One Rat Short, Chris Jones's The Passenger and Adam Parrish King's Wraith of Cobble Hill.
At one time, many Internet destinations focusing on animated and live-action entertainment announced that DVD distribution would be a key way to expand the audience for their short content and generate an additional income stream for creators. But, since then, the DVD landscape has become ever more crowded, increased broadband penetration has made the online viewing experience accessible to and enjoyable for a wider audience, and new technologies such as mobile entertainment and podcasting have provided a viable alternative to DVD. For all these reasons, Internet-origin content is a rarity on DVD today.
In 2000, AtomFilms was one of the first online entertainment venues to come out with a series of DVDs. "We were a little bit ahead of the curve," says Megan O'Neill, Atom Ent.'s vp of acquisitions and production. "It was before DVDs were widely accepted and before short films were a cultural phenomenon." Furthermore, the site's business model evolved as technology allowed more people to watch entertainment online. Around 2002, O'Neill says, "We became less of a distributor and more of an online broadcaster." She notes that some of the shorts available on AtomFilms are included on compilation DVDs released by other companies. Game Over by PES, which was financed by AtomFilms Studio, the company's in-house content-development arm, is slated for one of the Animation Show DVDs, for example.
Atom also had a deal with CustomFlix, announced in 2004, whereby users could select from 125 films in Atom's collection to build a customized, high-quality compilation DVD to purchase through CustomFlix.com. While that partnership has ended, O'Neill believes the "create-your-own" concept is a good one. Although some people will always want to have their own collections of shorts on DVD, "I think most people will want to curate their collection themselves and watch it on whatever device they choose," she says. AtomFilms currently makes some of its films available for purchase at Atom to Go, which allows customers to download films for later viewing on multiple devices.
Web-based entertainment is more likely to find its way to DVD when a feature-length film is made from the property rather than as a compilation; the original webisodes often are included as extras. Examples range from Queer Duck: The Movie, originally conceived as a webisode on Icebox.com, to releases such as Broken Saints, an online Flash-animated graphic novel that unfolded over a three-year period and was released as a made-for-DVD feature film by 20th Century Fox Home Ent. in spring 2006.
Habbo.com, the online social networking community for teens, commissioned several studios around the world in 2005 to create three-minute animated webisodes that would translate the Habbo experience to the realm of traditional entertainment. Originally, the plan was to compile these onto DVD for retail distribution, potentially followed by a television series. However, the company's animation strategy has changed over the last two years. In January 2007, it announced a partnership with Lionsgate for a 14-day contest in which its members would vote on which of 10 commissioned animated shorts they thought would make the best feature film. Lionsgate and Habbo said they would consider the winner for a possible movie to be released by Lionsgate both online and on DVD.
While securing mainstream DVD distribution for a compilation release is a significant challenge, perhaps an even greater barrier to growth in the DVD compilation market is competition from alternative digital technologies. Many purveyors of short films, whether film festivals, studios, online animation hubs or independent creators, are signing deals to get their content into the mobile space and onto portable entertainment players such as video iPods.
For example, the Sundance Institute and Sundance Channel announced they would distribute about half of the shorts from their 2007 film festival through iTunes for $1.99 each, while Aardman recently announced a deal with Player X to distribute Wallace & Gromit, Angry Kid and Creature Comforts on mobile phones in the U.S. In the U.K., mobile phone company O2 has a dedicated Aardman channel featuring made-for-mobile animated shorts.
"The question is, if you can consume shorts on the Internet or your mobile phone, do you want a DVD as well?" says Clarke, who notes that Internet content often is supported by banner ads or pre-roll sponsorships, meaning consumers can access it at no cost. He says Aardman has experimented with ways of differentiating its DVDs from other digital content, such as with on-disc extras, sound chips on the packaging and bonus postcards. Because of the specialty distribution, he notes that it is possible to pack in a lot of added value and retain a strong price point. Aardman also is considering the possibility of holding back some content for DVD-only release, at least for a certain window.
Consumers initially seem to be willing to try watching short animation over mobile phones and iPods, and they like the flexibility of being able to choose which films to watch, as well as the ease and convenience of downloading. But only time will tell whether these technologies (and other future technologies) will replace DVD as viable distribution platforms for shorts. Some users may continue to prefer the quality and the extra features associated with DVD.
"I don't yet see [DVDs and other digital channels] as conflicting," says May of The Animation Show, which has partnered with Mobifest LA in the mobile space and has a deal with iTunes. "But two to three years from now, we'll really know."
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).