***This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 298)***
Big names, big budgets, big ideas: the last decade ushered in a new golden age of television, thanks in no small part to the ascendency of streaming platforms. With audiences now accustomed to choosing from a dizzying array of titles at any given moment, both studios and on-demand services have had to adapt quickly to fight for those all-important eyeballs, most noticeably by investing heavily in new content. It’s a strategy that has been welcomed by storytellers and viewers alike, but it remains to be seen whether it represents a sustainable business model. More poignantly, what does the increasing dominance of streaming platforms over both traditional networks and theatrical exhibitors bode for the future of animation?
“Streaming is a more wide-open landscape than linear,” says Billy Wee, SVP of Original Animation at HBO Max. “But the challenge is fundamentally the same: to work with inventive, inspired creators and help them realize the very best version of their creative vision.” Among the titles HBO Max has lined up for the platform’s May launch are Adventure Time: Distant Lands (four one-hour specials based on the beloved Cartoon Network series, which ended in 2018), a new series of Looney Tunes shorts spearheaded by Peter Browngardt, a reboot of Aaron McGruder’s comic strip The Boondocks, and Jellystone, a new Warner Bros Animation show featuring popular characters from the Hanna-Barbera library.
With so much content now at our fingertips, the nature of animation is also adapting, moving away from trend-based concepts to more experimental offerings, particularly now creators are no longer shackled by the stringent time-keeping of traditional television and theater (a newfound freedom that will no doubt further be cemented with the upcoming launch of DreamWorks Animation co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg’s mobile short-form platform Quibi).
“As there are more and more opportunities for animators, we are going to see a variety in animated content like never before,” says Mike Moon, Director of Original Series at Netflix. “We want to create great, supportive environments for our creators to come and do their best work — when that happens, the sky’s the limit on what is possible for the art form.”
A Wide Spectrum
“I love the range of creative swings that we saw in 2018 and 2019, and the sheer ambition that has come to define the global animation business,” Wee concurs. “It’s hugely inspiring and I expect to see that continue in 2020 and beyond.”
While, unsurprisingly, Disney+ relied on its billion-dollar brands such as Star Wars, Marvel and Frozen to market the November launch of its streaming service – a goldmine of content that quickly reduced any possible disadvantage the company may have encountered in their relatively late entry to the streaming game – Senior Vice President of Content, Agnes Chu, says the platform is equally keen to embrace the new freedoms that streaming can offer. “We have an unparalleled library of iconic animated feature films and series currently streaming on Disney+, and new animated originals provide the opportunity to complement that offer by breaking out of typical formats, durations, genres and target demos,” Chu explains. Exclusive titles on the platform include Forky Asks a Question (featuring Toy Story 4’s popular character), What If…? from Marvel Studios (which re-imagines pivotal moments from the Marvel Cinematic Universe), a new season of Star Wars Clone Wars and fresh Pixar shorts. Also in the works are Monsters at Work, Earth to Ned, a Chip ‘n’ Dale series and Muppets Now.
“Disney has long approached animation as a powerful storytelling medium rather than a genre,” adds Chu. “Nevertheless, we are not resting on our laurels, and it’s exciting to explore this new era of animation with our partners and consider audiences and approaches that expand and broaden the scope of the medium to reach new heights.”
With Disney+ now the sole recipient of its parent company’s long and prolific legacy in American animation, it’s unsurprising other streaming platforms are re-focusing on international output. Last October, HBO Max stole a march on competitors by announcing they had secured the rights to the entire Studio Ghibli catalog – quite a coup considering it has never before been available digitally – while Netflix has the advantage of being largely unfettered by geo-licensing restrictions, which informs its slate. “Every story we produce we release simultaneously in every language and country we’re in,” explains Melissa Cobb, Vice President of Original Animation at Netflix. “We are growing outside the U.S. at a rapid pace, and it’s a really exciting time for us because animation is a form of visual storytelling that travels so well.”
Global Appetite for Quality
Among the animated features Netflix has snapped up from overseas are French fantasy I Lost My Body and A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon from Britain’s Aardman Animations. It has even made incursions into Disney’s traditional territory with last November’s Christmas movie Klaus, a hand-drawn animation produced by Despicable Me creator Sergio Pablos almost entirely in his Spain-based studio. Cobb name checks Klaus and Indian preschool animation Mighty Little Bheem as two animated titles that “travel[ed] the world particularly well on Netflix.” “It’s fascinating to see the universal themes and ideas that resonate regardless of language or country of origin,” says Cobb. “I think we will see more of this due to the global nature of streaming platforms.”
Another area Disney+’s competitors are shrewdly focusing on is adult-oriented animation. Last year, HBO Max emerged victorious in an intense bidding war for the exclusive streaming rights to South Park, while Netflix, following the runaway success of cult cartoon BoJack Horseman, are investing heavily in their adult animation slate, tapping Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward for a new series called The Midnight Gospel (which will be “beautifully surreal” promises Mike Moon) as well as The LEGO Movie directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller for basketball-themed show Hoops. Also on tap are two highly anticipated features: an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s The Willoughbys, directed by Kris Pearn (slated for this spring) and Over the Moon, the feature directing debut of veteran Disney animator Glen Keane (Tangled, Beauty and the Beast), scheduled for the fourth quarter.
Returning shows for 2020 on Netflix include Paradise PD, F Is for Family, Big Mouth and, of course, the second part of Bojack’s final season. “What’s really exciting is that we’re seeing stories told in the adult animation space that have never been told before, with more variety and tones than what has preceded,” says Moon. The sheer breadth of output has proved a challenge, however, “as every production is bespoke and is produced in a unique fashion,” Moon explains.
Equally challenging is keeping up with audiences, who are more spoilt for choice than ever before — not only from their television sets but also their laptops, phones, virtual assistants and video game consoles. “What’s clear to us is that today’s families (the streaming generation) have an evolving set of needs and wishes,” Cobb acknowledges. That includes an increasing focus on diversity and representation. “We’re creating a slate of programming to honor the fact that there is no one type of family,” she explains. “So it’s important that we have a wide range of different kinds of animated characters and stories for kids around the world. We want kids to see themselves on Netflix regardless of their background or ethnicity.” At HBO Max, Billy Wee believes animation fans are looking for something fresh. “I think now more than ever audiences expect to be surprised, and to see blends of genres, styles and ideas that they haven’t seen before,” he says.
Meanwhile over at Apple TV+, fans can enjoy the new adventures of Snoopy in Space (produced with WildBrain), which finds the beloved beagle becoming an astronaut with the help of the team at NASA. The outlet will also feature the new animated movie from Cartoon Saloon, Wolfwalkers (directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart), as well as the new series from Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard titled Central Park. Apple is also offering Helpsters, a new co-pro with the team at Sesame Workshop, which features some colorful Muppets teaching preschoolers about coding.
Amazon Prime, home of acclaimed shows such as Tumble Leaf, Niko and the Sword of Light and Clifford the Big Red Dog, is reportedly moving away from children’s animation, although it has picked up a second season of its cutting-edge, highly acclaimed adult animated show Undone.
Then, there’s Quibi, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s shiny new startup, which will offer both animated and live-action short-form content. The new outlet recently announced that it has greenlit four animated shows: Gloop World, a new stop-motion show from Justin Roiland (Rick and Morty), Trill League (based on Anthony Piper’s superhero comic), Your Daily Horoscope and The Andy Cohen Diaries.
Creative Freedom and Diversity
All the executives who spoke to Animation Magazine were optimistic about what the current streaming landscape means for creators of animation, however. “I think the audience for animation has grown and changed over the last several years and that has led to an incredible variety in storytelling and new creators exploring the medium,” says Moon. “For us, since we aren’t beholden to advertisers or time slots, we’re able to really focus on the different creators visions and lean into how these shows are radically different from one another.”
“It’s really exciting for us to be able to work with creators who are exploring and pushing the boundaries of all different forms of animation,” adds Cobb. “When I first got here about two years ago, the question we asked was, ‘What If we took our Netflix values of supporting creators and not micro-managing them, and brought that mindset and practice into animation – to wholly support the artists who haven’t historically received that kind of creative support?’ It’s been so rewarding so far.”
Although the executives who participated in this story declined to give details of their budgets or the kind of deals creators can expect to be offered – for example, whether they offer producers licensing rights (both HBO Max’s Wee and Netflix’s Cobb say “there is no ‘one size fits all’” approach to their deals) – they do have plenty of advice for those hoping to pitch animated content. “Be yourself!” Wee urges animators. “It’s simple and corny maybe, but pitching is stressful and sometimes overcomplicated. What we want more than anything is to understand the vision and ambition of the creator and what compelled them to tell this story in this way.”
Equally, Netflix’s Mike Moon says creators should “bring honesty and passion to every story that you want to tell.” Cobb concurs: “Bring us your passion!” she advises. “We work with creators whose voices, styles and points of view are unique and driven by passion, because the passion comes through on screen. When we’re doing our jobs well we can help our members find and fall in love with all kinds of new stories from around the world, which can open their hearts and minds and make us all feel more connected.”
K.J. Yossman is a British writer based in London and Los Angeles, who covers animation, entertainment and pop culture.