From a sidewalk cafe in Cannes, Kabillion CEO Bill Schultz had a streetwise view of the international animation scene on display at the recent Mipcom. “I’ve been approached by a number of European, Latin American and Australian producers willing to provide programming for free,” remarks Schultz, an Emmy-winning producer (“The Simpsons,” “Jakers!”) who attended Mipcom on behalf of the multiplatform Kabillion, a VOD and online company that presents animation by France’s MoonScoop, Germany’s EM.Entertainment and U.K.-based Mike Young Prods. “To get a critical mass of exposure for any property, they’re realizing that they need multiple platforms.”
Schultz’s experience reflects the challenges — and the opportunities — for independent animation companies vying for viewers. “There’s tremendous openness to animation produced anywhere,” he believes. The ad-supported Kabillion site, launched this year, “allows us to showcase fantastic shows created for kids overseas,” Schultz explains. While downloads from Kabillion.com are currently available only in the U.S., that will expand as more people watch clips online and create avatars to interact with animated content.
Unlike much live-action content, toons tend to translate easily across cultural and language barriers. The Web merely speeds its proliferation to the world, as evidenced by Disney’s recent purchase of British Columbia-based Club Penguin, a popular children’s networking site, as well as the popularity of animated clips on aggregator sites like YouTube, Channel Frederator, Revver, Metacafe and Atom Films.
“Animation is very successful online,” says Jay Zaveri, CEO of the indie Indian studio Future Thought. “On Atom, animation attracts over 60% of the views, and as soon as an animated video is featured on YouTube, it gets three times the typical views.”
Zaveri follows such traffic because Future Thought is currently posting a 28-part series of original animated shorts called “Crime Time” on several sites. He expects online animated clips could eventually function as more than a calling card to attract potential clients: “We plan to create 600 shorts during the next four years. Over time, we think we could get as much as 50% of our revenue from the Internet.”
It’s unclear when such a lucrative future will arrive, however, notes Fred Seibert, founder of the online animation site Channel Frederator. “In animation, no one has solved the online revenue problem. Atom Films will give you money for exclusivity, which I don’t think will work,” he says. “But because animation is popular, somebody’s model eventually will work.”
The viral nature of the Web — where people email animated clips to their friends — makes online success a tricky thing to control, but also eliminates the hurdles for entry. This will likely impact Hollywood’s legendary position as a gatekeeper of “professional” animation. Seibert recalls that launching Channel Frederator in 2005 triggered a huge number of pitches from animators worldwide. Until the Web, he observes, “There was no focused outlet for most animation outside of festivals.”
He likens online animation sites to the way MTV provided a forum for musicvideos and got artists thinking more globally than locally: “The challenge now is for animators who’ve been operating in regional markets to understand what a world market is. Online channels will aid them, but it will take awhile.”
In the meantime, animators are raising their profiles from unexpected corners of the globe. In Israel, PIL Animation has used online postings to attract the eye of European children’s programmers, while Australia’s Renmotion has earned opportunities from Nickelodeon and other clients via Web-based samples of its animation style.
And Cyriak Harris, who creates Monty Pythonesque animation from his home in Brighton, England, remarks: “Pretty much all the work I get these days comes from people who have seen my videos on the Web, either on my own site or YouTube. My commissions range from Web advertising to TV adverts and musicvideos, and clients come from as far away as Hong Kong.”
Perhaps the most unique example of how the Web is helping independent animators get discovered is the breakthrough of Tokyoplastic. Its website sparked the interest of advertising agency McCann-Erickson/San Francisco, which offered Tokyoplastic the chance to pitch ideas for a nine-spot Microsoft campaign. Of course, the agency had no idea that these artists weren’t Japanese, recalls company co-founder Sam Lanyon Jones. “We were just two pasty English guys, so we thought about hiring sumo wrestlers and flying them to San Francisco. We’d pose as their translators.”
Just a few years (and TV campaigns) later, London-based Jones says the success of Tokyoplastic “has been completely viral. We’ve gone from being two guys sitting in their bedrooms doing fun stuff to having relationships with Nicktoons, Disney and Cartoon Network. We’re doing four short films right now, and we’d love to do animated features. One of the great things about the Internet is that if what you’ve done is really great, it will rise to the top.”