NATPE's First Animation and Special Effects Expo (ANIFX) drew a limited number of participants in its first year. While activity on the floor was definitely quiet, some of the panels lead to lively discussions. Topics that are sometimes brushed over were discussed in detail and in a candid fashion.
Event organizers boasted a registration of over 2,000 after the first day, but the lull on the showroom floor indicated that perhaps most of the participants attended the panel discussions. Exhibitors and panelists definitely made use of the opportunity to interact in a more relaxed setting rather than the frantic pace of NATPE's other annual convention.
The event's "Career Center" was spare, probably more reflective of the present lull in animation industry recruiting and lack of company, student attendance rather than of any shortcoming of the event itself. Overall, timing seemed to be the great disadvantage of NATPE, with this brand new event taking place so shortly after the World Animation Celebration in Pasadena, and on the cusp of the Annecy Animation Festival, the "big daddy" of world animation events.Despite the rather meager attendance, ANIFX presented a fine selection of panel discussions and seminars, most of which featured impressive panelists and interesting content. What made the sessions more colorful than usual was that most of the moderators truly did get a friendly banter going on between their panelists. Plus, the panels included some new faces who were happy to express their points of view, as well as seasoned professionals who know every trick in the book.
For instance, Thursday's Children's Programming: Contents Under Pressure delved into sensitive areas regarding the new FCC regulations that require three hours of educational programming a week on US networks. Jean MacCurdy and Margaret Loesch were especially insightful as they outlined how the changes would influence their respective networks. The fact that guidelines to the FCC's mandates are not clearly defined is a frustrating challenge. As DIC's Robby London says, "The government is like a bad parent...we don't know how to act in order to avoid getting sent to our room." Does a show that encourages kids to read entertaining books educational? Or to qualify must a show contain strong educational messages? All of this has been left up to the network heads to decide. The entire panel agreed that while the average parent is not upset with current children's programming, certain special interest groups are. By turning the responsibility of policing programming over to the children's industry executives, parents are thus excusing themselves from having to actively participate in viewing with their children.
Another frightening aspect of this change for the networks is that the FCC does not have jurisdiction over cable, and hence, if network television becomes too educational, it will push fun-seeking kids even further into the world of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. The forced "volunteerism" of this program has everyone wondering how long it will be before someone says, "Enough is enough."
On Saturday, the Writers Guild of America Animation Writers Caucus presented a panel discussion entitled Getting Your Toon on the Air. It was noted that in this time of increased competition for viewers among the many network and cable programming outlets, there are fewer risks being taken with animation. The definition of a "good rating" is now a two or a three, whereas it used to be a around a thirteen. "The days of 'here's my idea--let's figure it out together' are over," said John Goldsmith, an agent and producer with the Gotham Group and Metropolis Animation. "Those kinds of things end up in 'development motel', where you might check in but never really check out." Kaaren Lee Brown of Bohbot Entertainment noted that while "It is harder to get things on the air. . . . it is easier to keep them on the air."
The lively discussion echoed with the idea that perseverance and resourcefulness are key in pitching an idea. Rob Hudnut, co-creator of Captain Simian & The Space Monkeys, recalled that The Blanket, his new home video series for children, was turned down 15 times before it was signed. Brown, representing the syndication market's point of view, said "A three-page treatment, a well-defined character, and two or three pieces of art is enough for us. Then we'll option it and take it from there." While all agreed that the marketplace is tough for the independents today, Goldsmith offered the suggestion that when making any kind of pitch, one should "have great writing, an animation director attached, and a deep-pocketed producer or investor attached."
Animation World Network hosted two panels as well. Both Copyrights, Contracts and Royalties: Legal Aspects of Programming Distribution on the Internet and Pipeline, Tools and Content: Using the Internet as a Broadcast Medium were very well received.
Perhaps panels and discussions is where this NATPE event should focus its strength for next year. The sentiment is that a lot of the "biggies" stayed away because they were unsure of this conference's focus and how it differs from NATPE's large January event. In the fast-paced, high-cost business of trade shows, it seems unfair to expect animation companies to put on two trade shows a year in order to sell product. However, this event may become a premier place to discuss the hurdles and challenges facing our industry. NATPE should examine how they want this event to relate to the one in January and what they hope to achieve with this new affair. Currently, the industry's lack of enthusiasm for the event would suggest that it doesn't have much need for it. Of course, then again, in twenty years it may be the largest market in the world and we will all look back, and brag, "Well, you know I was at the first one...."