So what do you do when its getting harder and harder to produce independent animation for television programming? Or youre trying to make a living from animated entertainment on the Internet, but ad rates have dropped through the floor? You can either keep hoping or you can read the handwriting on the wall and look for more profitable opportunities. That is what the folks at Blitz Digital Studios have done, with animated content for advertising, Internet games and professional presentations. Theyre successful and they have tons of work. Whats their secret?
First, lets get clear on what theyre not doing. Theyre not creating advertising-supported stories for the Internet. Theyre not creating games with the hope of duking it out for shelf space at the local Wal-Mart. And theyre not trying to create TV shows in the hope that the FCC changes its mind and mandates that broadcasters outsource more programming. What they are doing is creating brand-promoting content (online marketing campaigns and TV commercials), games (advergames, viral branded games, and downloadable games) and Website and presentation content.
Blitz clearly has a lot of creativity on its staff, and enough rounded talent to produce almost anything in-house, including any and all phases of modeling, animation, gaming and music production they even have their own recording studio. Other companies may claim to have the same capabilities, but there is one area where Blitz is clearly outstanding, and that is in its deep understanding of branding and brand development for major corporations. Whereas many other content creators generate content just for entertainment purposes, Blitz is deeply dedicated to the bottom line its customers tend to be Fortune 1,000 companies that pay for content up front, but need to be convinced that this content fits into the overall marketing strategy and results in a return on investment.
You notice this dedication the minute you step into the companys North Hollywood, California headquarters the talk in the halls is not so much about what 3D or 2D tools are being used (animators are given wide leeway for what they prefer individually) on a new scene, but on how it fits in with the wishes of a customer or their ad company, and how it can best be pitched. You are never quite sure whether youre in Hollywood or Madison Avenue. Gregg Apirian, the vp of business development, notes, We used to be known, like many other houses, as an animation studio, but if youre going to hit these big clients and big budgets, you cant do it as an animation studio you have to do it as an agency.
The understanding of corporate culture (both by Apirian and by founders Ken Martin, Mark Cohn and Ivan Todorov) has paid off handsomely. Blitz customers include household names such as General Electric, Warner Bros., Showtime, Cisco, Atari, Best Buy and Kellogg, which have trusted the studio with their precious (and highly protected) brand images.
Whereas a lot of animation companies dont even know how to pitch ad agencies, Blitz has developed strategic relationships with several, including giant agency J. Walter Thompson (for which it is sole vendor of online and animated development), and the Leo Burnett agency, for which it developed three highly trafficked Webisodes. Whether to pitch a company directly or go through its ad agency can differ from situation to situation.
Sometimes we go directly to the company, sometimes through the agency, depending on whats appropriate. Its about hitting that magic person that can appreciate our pitch, says Apirian.
Blitz has put in considerable research on the best process for pitching a company for interactive content such as an advergame. For instance, we know that advergames work well for car companies, says Apirian. We have worked with Chrysler, and are now looking at other car companies as well. First off, our goal is to be their agency for web design. The process of selling them on an advergame is to put together a concept, a proposal and build a little internal demo.
We take a car they most likely want to use lets say, an off-road vehicle and then we model and texture it. We then throw it into a game engine that we have. We dont do anything too extensive at this stage, and we make sure the demo is something we can re-use for something else later on for instance, a demo for an off-road car can be turned into an off-road racing game that we can use for ourselves.
Blitz then presents this short demo to the client, either in person or online. If the feedback is positive, the demo becomes a full proposal.
Not all products are suitable for promotion by an advergame. We try to put ourselves in a gamers mind and ask, What would you want to play in this scenario? and then we go to the programmers and ask them Can this be done? Apirian notes. We pitch it to the client as, It makes sense, its a good ROI (return on investment) and an extension of your brand. If it doesnt make sense, for instance for a product like a computer printer, I would not pitch a game, I would pitch a good Website.
Sensitivity to client needs means knowing how far you can go with your concepts. Some clients such as whiskey companies may be conservative and stick closely to their style guides, while others tell us to go for it. General Electric, for instance, wanted something really creative for re-branding its image. To assure that the Blitz and the client are on the right track, the company provides several comps (compositions, or rough mock-ups) in Photoshop or Flash for the customer to choose from as an indication of the direction he wants to go in.
It is of course important that the company Website (www.blitzds.com) be ultra-cool but informative, since every client will spend time perusing it. We get hundreds of calls from people who have seen our Website and want something similar, Apirian notes. It then becomes my job to find out what they really need, and what kind of return theyre looking for.
In addition to advergames for clients, Blitz is now creating its own games, such as Puzazz, for sale over the Internet. The business model is to create a free sample version of the game that is downloadable online, and then hook the player into the game so that he/she buys it, for amounts ranging from $3-$5 for a short game or upgrade to $20 for a full-up game. Players can pass the trial versions on to their friends, providing a form of viral marketing that results in thousands of trials per week for a desirable game.
Conversion rates of 2-4% (from trial to buying) are considered good for the industry. An additional revenue generator can be from game tournaments, where players pay fees of around $10 to play for prize money and recognition. Apirian notes that, Many of the players of our games are women, especially for puzzle-style games. For all of our games, we try to push the boundaries, to make the experience similar to that of a console-type game. For gaming, Blitz uses Macromedia Flash for 2D, Shockwave for 3D and the DIVX codec for video. The company has experimented with Java, but has found it too limiting up to now.
What kind of animators does Blitz hire? We judge applicants by their portfolio and timing. We pay beyond whats fair, but they have to be able to perform on schedule, says Apirian. They must be able to multitask. Knowledge of both 2D and 3D is good, as is a knowledge of physics for gaming interactions. Reliability is really important, so we need references. Finally, a really major requirement something thats difficult to find is that the person is able to communicate. Many artists cant do this. Our need is to be able to talk directly to a client, even if management is not around, and we have to be able to trust them to do that.
When asked what mistakes some companies make in building online advergames, Apirian responded, Some people build these games with such large file sizes that only broadband viewers can see them they dont bother to optimize each page for slower Internet speeds. We take care, even under insanely short schedules, to optimize each page.
Another challenge is dealing with tight schedules and last-minute changes. Animators here also know programming, and our programmers know art, so if a schedule is tight, we can all help each other. On the outside, programmers often wait until all the art is finished to get started, and you miss deadlines that way, Apirian remarks.
Apparently, becoming successful sometimes means just saying no. If a company has a budget totally out of line with the requirements, its better to just pass. Its better to produce successfully for a company with an appropriate budget, and get referrals from them later on those referrals then usually start out knowing what a budget has to be and what they will get as an ROI, says Apirian. If they just want a cool look for a few thousand dollars, well pass on it. Someone that wants serious value out of their Website is someone we can work with. Its a good source of business its a given that everybody needs a better Website!
Blitzs customers speak well of the company. Derrick Morton, the vp of marketing for GameHouse, for instance, noted that, Blitz has an intimate knowledge of Flash. While many agencies understand the animation techniques and are competent with Flash, no one weve found understands ActionScript at their level and can also design impactful graphics. He also commented, They understand how to take the basic brand design and incorporate it into everything from interface to layout. They get it!
Future plans for Blitz include more games for major clients such as Electronic Arts, creating cinematics, generating interactive game-like content for presentations and kiosks at trade shows, and exploring the needs of new types of companies such as aerospace and new applications such as wireless game delivery.
The company has won accolades for its Webisodes of Gary the Rat, starring Kelsey Grammer, and for its original Web series, Regurge. Its success with online content is all the more remarkable when you consider how hesitant many risk-averse advertising agencies were in investing significantly in web-based promotional campaigns. The breakthrough success of Blitz Digital Studios appears to be good not only for the company, but for the animation industry at large.
Christopher Harz is a program and business development executive for new media enterprises, working with digital animation companies around the world. He writes extensively for trade magazines on topics including the New Internet, visual effects for films and television, online video games and wireless media. Harz was previously vp of marketing and production at Hollyworlds, producing 3D Websites and video games for films such as Spawn, The 5th Element, Titanic and Lost in Space, and for TV shows such as Xena, Warrior Princess. At Perceptronics, as svp of marketing and program development, Harz helped build the first massive-scale online animated game worlds, including production of the $240 million 3D animation virtual world, SIMNET. He also worked on combat robots and war gaming at the Rand Corporation, the American military think tank.