For decades, ambitious young animators harboring dreams of making a living at their art had to face the hard reality of the marketplace: their only option was laboring in the assembly line of someone else’s animation studio.
Then YouTube came along, and that changed. Thanks to the video-hosting site’s profit-sharing Partner Program, animators can now be their own bosses, appealing directly to audiences while enjoying a cut of the traffic.
Program participants — who number roughly 20,000, including the dominant Annoying Orange (the biggest channel on YouTube last year), Mondo Media (“Happy Tree Friends”) and FilmCow (“Charlie the Unicorn” and “Llamas With Hats”) — have gained hundreds of thousands of subscribers and tens of millions of views monthly, translating into incomes in the high six figures for the most successful companies.
“It’s been a huge game-changer,” says Aaron Simpson, VP of animation and business development for Mondo Media. “Profit sharing had been done a bit before on some websites, but not on the huge scale that YouTube allows.”
The site offers a vast global audience — and instant feedback. In a pixilated Darwinian landscape where only the fittest survive, “The competition can be vicious,” he says. “But that allows the shrewd to make quick adjustments or take a whole other path.”
Always scouting the Web for new voices, Frederator Studios founder Fred Siebert says YouTube is “both a launching pad for great talent and a viable platform for earning,” noting that such YouTube animation stars as Chris O’Neill (“Leo & Satan”), Ed Skudder (“Dick Figures”) and FilmCow’s Jason Steele and Tom Ridgewell have pioneered a business and creative model.
Steele says he began by trying to pitch shows to various networks, “but soon the stuff I was releasing online was making so much money that I just focused on that.” With the rise of the Partner Program and “the ease of setting up online merchandising,” an indie artist like Steele can make a good living from the Internet alone.
For Brit Ridgewell, studying at the U. of Lincoln, “The Internet has cut out the middleman; I can create whatever I want and instantly expose it to the world. There’s no red tape, no overruling producers.” In addition to earning about a year’s tuition every month, his YouTube exposure has also led to dozens of serious job offers. “It’s been invaluable in furthering my career and having important people find my work and offer to fund other projects.”
Long before submitting material to YouTube, O’Neill was uploading cartoons to Newgrounds.com, a user-produced Flash forum where the Ireland-based animator managed to build a mostly American following.
“Later, I put links to my YouTube account at the end of my Newgrounds videos. Subscribers started snowballing, and before I knew it, I had 250,000 fans,” he says. “Making money from videos is easy. You’ve just got to know what people want.”
As an employee of the Six Point Harness toon studio, Skudder doesn’t quite fit the same DIY model. “They pay us to create the show, and a lot of our revenue doesn’t come straight from YouTube,” he says, “but we’re actually looking to make most of our profits from merchandising down the road, and I’d be a profit-sharer in that.”
More than anything, the enormous popularity of online-based toons bears out the notion that animation is healthier than ever as an art form. “It’s huge globally, and getting bigger every year,” Simpson says. “And not just the Internet and movies. Look at TV. Fox used to dominate. Now you have all the competition: Adult Swim, TBS, Cartoon Network, HBO, IFC — they’re all in the game.”
Other popular outlets include Vimeo, Daily Motion, College Humor and Adult Swim, though none can match the financial rewards of a global YouTube audience.
Ridgewell says, “I’ve met people who work in TV who get offended at the amount of money I make. We don’t need to make money from TV because we’re replacing it. There’s a new generation out there that prefers YouTube to professional broadcasting.”O’Neill is even more blunt about it. “Most TV animation is turning to shit,” he says. “All my once-favorite cartoons, like ‘South Park’ and ‘The Simpsons,’ have just given up. Internet animation on the other hand? Every week something new wows me.” “When you have a choice between making your own stuff for the Internet, or doing someone else’s TV show, it’s a no-brainer,” Steele says.
And according to O’Neill, there’s room for more voices. “If you can supply solid content on a regular basis, you can make a great living.”
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