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Everyday Producing: Why Being Popular Might Matter After All

One Animation Studio Head John McKenna continues his series exploring the inner workings of the animation industry with a look at why commercial success need not come at the expense of artistic vision or impact.

'Oddbods' images courtesy of One Animation.

We’ve had a lot of good news recently at One Animation: our animated series, Insectibles, is the biggest kids' show in Germany right now, beating major, global brands for the top spot.

Oddbods continues to do well all over the world; rating so highly on CiTV in the UK, to pick just one example, that our slots were increased by over 30% last month.

Online, audience engagement with all of our properties on YouTube and other sites continues to build month after month, with impressive viewing stats being regularly posted.

I’m aware that sharing this could be seen as “showing off,” as the Brits call it. But really, it’s what started me thinking about the theme of this piece: why popular success, which as a young idealist I might have dismissed as “commercialism,” the enemy of creative art, should matter to us.

Commercialism, popularity and selling-out

When I talk to student filmmakers, I usually dig myself into a whole. On the one hand, I want to encourage them to pursue their creative ideals, to be a unique voice in the world, unburdened by commercial demands. But, I equally urge them not to look down on popular success.  This can be an unpalatable thing for them to accept when they’re starting out in their careers, and have aspirations to create great art, as opposed to manufacturing content to “pull in” the dollars.

But, I don’t think it has to be either/or. Commercial success doesn’t just indicate you’ve attracted a mass audience for the purpose of monetizing them.  It also means that what you want to say is actually reaching the people you want to say it to.

As long as you aren’t selling out your creative vision to the lowest common denominator just to get viewers (which by the way is far from being an easy thing to do), making your work accessible to a mass audience is A Good Thing.

When we talk about success, what do we mean?

We’re all trying to be successful, pretty obviously, otherwise we wouldn’t bother.

But popular success is important on several levels, and not just for the obvious reasons that immediately come to mind, such as:

  • keeping everyone employed
  • paying back the investors who trusted us
  • giving us opportunities to develop more of the shows we dreamt of when we started
  • Not to mention enhancing everyone’s resumés with a recognizable title.

Pulling back to see a bigger picture, success dictates how much we contribute to and influence global culture.

Popularity physically builds things that define our world – Disney, YouTube, the Metropolitan Opera House, the National Theatre, Facebook, the Louvre, cinemas, theatres, television, books, Legoland – billions of dollars of industry and infrastructure built on one fragile thing: a visionary with an idea to share with the world, who did something to get it in front of people. But what built those things is the fact that the people responded. Without the second part, the world doesn’t change.

We can be part of weaving ideas into popular culture only if people seek out our work.  

This ability to connect with people, at its least powerful, can introduce new ways of thinking that help breach barriers and affirm commonality. 

And at its most powerful it can actually change societies and community attitudes.

That’s one pretty good reason to value popular success.

When the numbers matter

Audience size matters, very simply, because it means our work is being seen by more and more people around the world.  Only in this way does our work have the ability to affect more and more people.

Film-makers give viewers the means to experience the world through the eyes of another.

Empathy for those close to us is natural, hard-wired into us by evolution. Empathy for “the other” is not. But developing it for those different to ourselves in culture, ethnicity, dress, love life, ability or beliefs, makes the difference between civilization and barbarism. As Captain Algren learned in “The Last Samurai” it’s hard to demonize those you’ve grown to understand.

Film, TV and Animation can be powerful mediums for eliciting change

There are many examples of the way film can bridge gaps in our understanding of “the other.”

One example is the animated movie Persepolis, which allowed us to witness the inner life of a young Iranian woman who had to leave her homeland against the backdrop of the Iraq-Iran war. To many of us, she was “the other,” until we learned, through Marjane Satrapi’s recollections, that she was really just like us, someone we might have become friends with if our circumstances had been different.

Another is the US television series 24, which was intended to be entertainment above all else, and in that it proved hugely successful. But in the way that popular entertainment has the ability to create a perception of what is normal, many commenters speculated that the U.S. may have been more inclined to accept the idea of its first black president because it had already gotten used to seeing Dennis Haysbert play one in that show – a skilled, intelligent, and forceful President who loved his country. Not “other” at all.

Wider acceptance of societal differences, such as mixed marriage, homosexuality, disability, gender identity has similarly been advanced by popular entertainment – the Will and Grace effect.

If our creations, by reaching as many people as possible, can serve as a tiny weight on the scales on the side of tolerance and inclusion, it’s reason enough to care about the popularity of our work.

How do we involve this thinking in our work at One Animation?

But just like 24, our shows at One Animation are essentially produced to be entertainment, regardless of the positive values we might infuse them with.

And for me, this is a fundamental reason success matters, and why it is important in driving us on.  It ensures that we crawl out of bed every morning to re-join the battle for creative excellence: we entertain children.

Whatever their circumstances, wherever they are, we offer simple enjoyment for a few precious minutes or hours, and the more kids we reach the more fun we generate around the world.

For a jaded producer to sit in an audience of kids watching a show you helped deliver is the ultimate reboot of your commitment. The laughter and excitement are guaranteed to renew your determination to making your shows even better for them, and remind you why you do what you do.

Too often we allow ourselves to become stuck inside the studio for months on end, sweating over dust-dry cost reports and uncooperative schedules, shut off from the real effects of the enjoyment we’re sending round the world.

These young people are our charge, and that’s easy to forget when we’re neck deep in the scramble of production. We’re creating enjoyment.

We recently received a heart-breaking email from a young mother on the other side of the world from us: a week earlier her 4-year old daughter had lost her battle with cancer.

In the midst of the most extreme grief any of us can imagine, during her darkest days, she’d taken the time to sit down and write to us to let us know that her daughter had loved Oddbods, watching nothing else for weeks on end. She described how great it had been seeing her laugh during those final weeks.

And she thanked us for keeping her daughter so happy in the last month of her life.