Search form

Cowboys and Indies: the Vertically-Integrated Individual — Part 1

Christopher Panzner looks at how independent producers have to be a vertically-integrated individual as well as a little of a cowboy to survive in the industry.

The Artist/Entrepreneur

Leonardo da Vincis notebooks were as much about budgets as they were about scientific experiments. The artist is forever tied to the businessman, especially in an industrialized art form like Animation. Animators dont live on gingerbread gathered under the rainbow, we need to pay rent and pay the dentist like anyone else.
Tom Sito, Gang of Seven

We live and breathe this art form and should be the ones to decide what should be made.

Greg Manwaring, Global Animation Services

Throw off your chains and work!

Jonathan Peel, Millimages UK

To be an independent producer you have to be a little bit of a cowboy as well.

To be an independent producer you have to be a little bit of a cowboy as well.

Repeat after me: Money is good. Try it again: I like money. Money is my friend. Good. Now lets try some math: 49.9% of you have a hard time saying the above. Most artists. Another 49.9% of you dont. Most producers. Or, at least, thats the caricature in a business known for cocktail napkin sketches and three-minute pitches. Left brain, right brain and all that. And, lemme see, four plus four is eight, nine and nine, 18, carry the one point two per cent of you are thinking some variation on: If I can raise the money myself, I can make whatever I want.

Enter the Dragon: the vertically-integrated individual, the artist/entrepreneur, the independent animated feature film digilante. Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar, youre gonna go far

Fire Bad, Money Good

Lets be honest and say the obvious, for a change of pace: apart from farmers, shepherds, fisher-um-persons, homesteaders, etc., money makes the clock tick. If you dont own your own arable land and live near a fresh water supply, you work for money. Sometimes, the gods smile on certain individuals and they have the good fortune to do a job they like. The really lucky ones do a job they like and make money at it. The blessed love their jobs, are great at it and own their bank. (Inheritance is outside the scope of this article.)

The relationship between creatives and financiers is inherently hostile. They dont think about the same things, they dont talk about the same things; they dont do the same things. They dont even speak the same language. About all they have in common, in this business, is images on paper: animals in pants and dead presidents. Again, for the caricature, financiers see artists as flaky, long-walks-in-the-rain ponytails or poets. And artists see financiers as the soulless bean-counting robots in charge. Yea, its about power. Whoever pays, decides.

The inherent problem in animation is an artist capable of adding up two columns of numbers or a creative producer is about as rare as six-toed kittens or albino twins. But heres da bomb: its possible. And, whereas an artist can learn the sickeningly irrefutable laws of mathematics and actually do a spreadsheet and understand it, in the realm of the impossible is a financier who can learn to draw. Scientific impossibility.

Yea, its about power. And money. And the possibility of doing a job you love, that youre great at, that you financed and that you get the proceeds from it if its a success. A few loners and rebels, Dotty, have understood. (The joke, of course, is that money doesnt come with instructions on the back.)

Mike Mennies of Melnitsa Animation (left) and Lance Taylor of Facelift Ent. Inc.

Mike Mennies of Melnitsa Animation (left) and Lance Taylor of Facelift Ent. Inc.

Me, Inc.

In my work I use my skills as a musician, editor, cameraman, copywriter, salesman, layout artist, manager, producer and translator I think having a wide skillset is more valuable in a smaller company where you need to wear a lot of hats to help keep things moving forward.
Mike Mennies, Melnitsa Animation
Id suggest working in the animation business professionally for some time to learn how to produce animation and expand your talents, likes, skillset and understanding of how the industry works (and save some money for your independent production). Id also encourage artists to not allow themselves to get pigeon-holed; do many different things the computer seems to be the great equalizer in some ways. More independents are sprouting up, more artist-controlled studios. Its an exciting time to be in the animation industry.
Lance Taylor, Facelift Ent. Inc.

The computer has done a lot more than introduce CGI to Animation. Not so very long ago, the thought of someone who used a pencil to earn a living learning Maya seemed daunting. Many older animators simply refused and retired, either literally or metaphorically. What the computer has done, and 3D in particular, is introduce the notion of math-heavy engineering to what was relatively math-lite architecture, 2D. Programs are complicated, technical. The computer itself a remarkable mix of electronics, engineering, software, creativity and frustration. But, at the end of the day, its a tool like a pencil. An, at times, expensive and complicated tool, but a tool nonetheless.

Unfortunately for the modern business paradigm, the computer diluted the power structure to include the gas station mechanic of the 21st century: the geek. At some point, everyone who has worked on a digital production has been confronted with hexadecimal hucksters and lost data. Gifted, dedicated computer people have also saved your ass/soul on more than one occasion.

So the triangle is artist, technician, financier. The core. (The snake oil salesman is the fourth wheel, but were going to assume that animators, Aktors, know how to sell their projects because theyre show people and, as humanists, for the most part, good at kissing babies and glad-handing, are passionate, have done their marketing homework, do great work that sells itself, are experienced and, in most cases, determined to get it made.) Its interesting how many animation company owners/managing directors were former rostrum camera-um-folks when computers didnt exist. They were at the top of the technology food chain and not haunted by the muses, sirens and demons of artists.

The computer is a transparent part of not only animation, but society, now. Theres air, water, fire, earth money, the fifth element and computers, the sixth element. It is key to the vertically-integrated individuals business plan. If you dont already know this, you will be learning it from a grass-skirted griot elder in your village shortly. All artists today know everything about computers. Including how cheaply you can make a movie with just a few of them (for how fast, see fictional production template metaphor #1a, clause 2, paragraph 5: 100 people/one year or one person/100 years) on the same software that the big boys use. Independent Lance Taylor, of Facelift Entertainment in Vancouver, spells it out:

Its easier than ever before in the history of the animation industry to have the tools necessary to create independent animated films artists can control most of the filmmaking elements themselves, resulting in a more thorough vision without the need of thoroughly filled wallets or purses but that, in and of itself, wont make you a film. That comes from within, and a solid fundamental understanding of the basics of animation.

Its quite simply a question of talent (and, of course, time=money or, how often we forget, money=time.)

The computer also links you to all of the other aspects of a production in one form or another and the world. And most artists mature enough to create a film have either done commercials a high-quality, high-budget, high-responsibility, high-risk, 30-second film where youre essentially a one-man submarine band and/or specials (30- to 60-minute films), and/or worked in a small/medium/large studio for a number of years where they came into contact with every aspect of production, and/or have freelanced, telecommuted, traveled around the world seeing how things are done elsewhere and/or own/ed their own independent work-for-hire/co- or production animation TV/film companies that was a mouthful!

The new Animation Salon des Independents includes all of the above, every combination thereof and some hybrids, like writers. People who know and/or can do it all. They co-/or create: the concept, the script, the designs, the bible, the pilot and the budget. They assemble the creative team and may or may not direct, do voices, animate, and, well, redefine the notion of auteur.

Welcome to the 21st century! Talent a given. Technology a given. Two down, one to go: finance.


Greg Manwaring of Global Animation Services.

Greg Manwaring of Global Animation Services.

Chutzpah, the Movie

I spoke to the receptionist of Fujisankei and asked her who would be the best person to speak to. My mother always worked as a part-time secretary when me and my brothers were in school and I notice that a lot of people are always rude to receptionists. I was put through to the managing director and we arranged a meeting. Nothing happened, then a year later I got a phone call I borrowed a suit, turned up and all of a sudden my film was going to be made. BBC2 came in as a presale. The film was shown as part of a manga season although it was made in the basement of a junk shop in Cardiff.
Tony Johnson, Ghost Brothers Productions
I admit that I might be a bit spoiled, having worked on hit films like The Lion King and Roger Rabbit, but dont hold it against me I just want to duplicate that same kind of success for us here in Europe. People will try to change your thinking. Change can be good, but take into account who is advising you, and what they have done themselves.
Greg Manwaring, Global Animation Services

But, first, a word from our sponsor Its said that in Hollywood people dont write scripts, they write speeches that are given over breakfast at the Polo Lounge. Hollywood wisdom is no laughing matter. Like industry rumors, everything is always true. No matter how good your movie is, youre going to have to pitch it, develop it and SELL it. Sales means a commodity sold and incoming cash. Thats right, a film is a commodity like oranges, tires, vacuum cleaners or encyclopedias, get used to it. If it sounds vulgar, youre going to find yourself selling one of the above anything and everything BUT movies.

Movies dont go on your parents refrigerator they are shown in corporate theatre-chain megastrocities and on gigantinormous TV stations who both have a, yes, pecuniary interest in it succeeding. Thats why they buy it in the first place. In fact, its why they give you cash upfront to make it because theyre pretty sure they can resell it for a profit. (They also need product, now and forever.) Its why they have money to invest in the first place. Its called capitalism, a much-maligned and underrated system of personal wealth accumulation that a majority of free thinking artist/humanists find problematic.

Its asses in seats if youre confused. Eyeballs, wallets, demographics, buzz, column inches, success call it what you will, a film is made to be seen by the paying public for a profit. Its an industry: Lifes a pitch and then you buy. If that bothers you, goodbye forever, because a financier is not interested in working with anyone not interested in making a successful film that will make him or her a fat return on investment (ROI).

Youre also going to need chutzpah. Gotta bang on doors, do the dog-and-pony show, be convincing, charming, funny and show where your partners are going to make money off you and how much. (Yes, its understood/assumed youre going to be making money off of your project, too.) In the same way that Maya, 3ds max, etc. presented a problem to be overcome a tool to be learned, a skill to be assimilated theres yet another program to master: Excel.

Oops, almost forgot and IF you need money, see Soft Money, Cold Cash: Money Shopping for Animated Feature Films.

That out of the way, trying to raise money in this post-neo-1929 (2000 A.D.) dystopia is, indeed, like herding cats. Its never been more difficult. Which has to translate into making better product the good news for everyone for less money, the bad news except to financiers! A challenge = opportunity for the talented and shrewd.

Its going to be necessary to innovate on every level reinvent the wheelie in the way films are created and financed.

Independent animator Bill Plympton

Independent animator Bill Plympton

Plato and Zappa

My latest feature, Hair High, was done for $300-400,000 although I didnt pay myself a salary, I worked for free wrote it, storyboarded it, did layouts, animation, voices, directed and produced.
Bill Plympton

Although most people believe it was Frank Zappa who said, Necessity is the mother of invention, it actually first appeared in Platos Republic. A combination of philosophy, talent, experience, maturity, discipline and cooperation is requisite for construction of the new animation feature film pipeline. Some enterprising pioneers/mavericks have already blazed a trail, others are on the rise and still others are planning their strategies, but a war normal model is emerging: the garage band.

Rather than ask what or how much you need to make a film, lets reverse engineer the thing: who do you need to make an animated feature film, at least at the development stage? Writer, artist, director, musician and producer. Lead guitar, rhythm guitar, vocals, drums and bass guitar, respectively in my humble opinion, but whichever role you happen to play will inevitably be the most important to the ensemble, of course, just like in a band. The truth is, however, that they are all of equal importance.

We said that the wheel has to be reinvented, from the ground up, and no less is required of everyones EGO. (AWN asked me never to capitalize anything, but a historical exception must be made here.) And as every band needs their George Martin ( or Malcolm McLaren (, every film needs its godfather, another Hollywood standard. Someone who can pick up the phone and get the person the band needs on the other end of the line. Producer, venture capitalist, business angel, private investor, sugar daddy, distributor, celebrity, banker, the government. every films got one.

Most artists motivation for starting up the band in the garage is the result of one or more of the following: entropy (the inevitable and steady deterioration of a system, i.e., the waste of time, talent and money in the existing system and the evolution toward a state of inert uniformity); the digital revolutions pre-bubble, circa-`90s maxim that in a few years, a 16 year old will be able to make a feature film in his garage; a desire to make content that doesnt fit the industry norm or that breaks new ground (adult, risqué, edge, etc.); a determination to put ones stamp entirely on something; the biological clock factor; getting laid off from one of the big studios; a burning desire; freedom; a serendipitous meeting; but the list is endless. Theres no stereotype.

And the garage band paradigm begins at the beguine. Deferment is the name of the game, at least in the beginning. The Talent has to bring their talent and time to the table usually without quitting their day job. Its often the only way to get the thing off the ground. The upside is that they get a bigger percentage of the back end, just like in the music biz, or cashed out on the first day of principal photography for a pre-agreed amount.

And, like the saying goes, Hollywood is where your laptop is, in this oh-so-cosmopolitan industry. Independents are emerging from around the globe. (Check the currency conversion rate for your international co-producers!)

Richard Morss of Banjax.

Richard Morss of Banjax.

The Entrepreneur and the Undertaker

Have at least twice as much capital as you think you will need to get started; be confident and optimistic at all times; be thorough in everything you do; be flexible and open to change; make sure you really want to do what youre doing and keep current with all your colleagues/buyers
Richard Morss, Banjax
Animation should be exploring the kind of subject matter that we see every day being handled in live action. The medium of animation be it traditional or CG can, I believe, handle any subject matter be it horror, sexual material, thrillers or drama.
Dino Athanassiou, Stardust Pictures

As Dorothy Parker said, You can die of encouragement in this town. As an independent, youre going to have to be practical, smart/savvy, techno-friendly and manage. You have to do the homework. Especially the marketing homework on the Knights Who Say Niche (adult, manga, musical, ethnic, abstract, etc.) or modest-budgeted, high-definition CGI feature (to do it all in-house, to reduce the market, dontcha know, in the U.S. and Japan, to be able to bump it up to 35mm at will, improve the quality, extend the archive date of the materials, yadda, yadda, yadda.) And not Disney/Pixar, not Miyazaki. Auteur only bankable. With good, financially stable partners and web-shopping possibilities (DVD, merch, T-shirts, etc.) through your portal, which promotes the Kultura.

(And, quick!, who wrote Monsters, Inc.? Thats right, in alphabetical order, according to Robert L. Baird, Jill Culton, Pete Doctor, Ralph Eggleston, Dan Gerson, Jeff Pidgeon, Rhett Reese, Joanthan Roberts, Andrew Stanton. The writer/storyboarder doesnt have to be a celebrity. It can be anyone, really, for animation. Just a great story. To which a number of talented people contribute, perhaps?)

The ability to rival a Pixar or a Disney, from their point of view and, therefore, purely from an entrepreneurs P.OV. would be, erm, naïve for questions of distribution. Can you hear those church bells ringing? Is it a wedding or a funeral? Its not making the film thats difficult; its getting it seen.

So the give to this take is to produce for emerging content/technology markets, better and cheaper. Not necessarily faster, but hey, why not! With a great story.

And CASHFLOW. This last part of our discussion will take place right after an analysis of the art and the industry from the artists point of view

Special thanks to all the courageous souls who contributed to this article.

Chris Panzner has split the last 25 years doing TV, animation and films. His favorite joke is: Ya know, I was thinking the other day no, wait, that wasnt me. He recently created writing company Power Lines and production/distribution company Eye & Ear.