The Creative Plateau: Why The Corporate Breakdown of Animation Is Harming The Industry
It was only a few years ago when I got into animation. At the time, I watched Cartoon Network shows like The Amazing World of Gumball, Adventure Time and Regular Show. As I got older, I began diversifying into other channels like Disney XD and the once-known Hub Network (Transformers: Prime and Gravity Falls were big ones for me!) However, as audiences grew older, the animated mainstream market began changing for a new younger demographic.
Although, this isn’t to say there wasn’t a market for adult animated projects. There are indeed some great genuine classics ranging from Disney’s renaissance like The Lion King to Dreamworks’ rise to fame like The Prince of Egypt. Outside of this mainstream market lay other works like Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings, and The Book of Life. Iconic animated movies like Shrek, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Toy Story are registered within the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. And this is just only within the United States: international pieces like Spirited Away, Song of the Sea, and Fantastic Planet have made their mainstay within the American animation world.
However, in today’s world, the animation industry, both mainstream and indie, has taken a toll. The rise of streaming services, executive shake-ups, and world-changing events has transformed the industry to a point where studio cutbacks and shareholder interests are placed above the interests and devotion of aspiring creative minds who use the medium as an outlet for compelling storytelling.
This has led the industry to what I like to call the ‘creative plateau,’ a point where the invigoration of an entertainment sub-industry is curbed and halted by external factors. You might be wondering what are the external factors that are causing this. If you are, let me catch up to how we got here in the first place.
The animation industry had always been on the rise, but the medium tended to favor child audiences (ages 6 and up) above everyone else. Titles like Spongebob Squarepants, Dora the Explorer, and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse dominated the children’s programming block (and still do to this day.) However, as innovations and discoveries were made, the tree of creativity began to blossom as new technologies and techniques gave birth to films like Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and The Mitchells vs. the Machines. All was going well, until the inevitable, world-reckoning pandemic occurred.
However, surprisingly, COVID didn’t manage to completely stop animation teams. In fact, animators and animated teams were quickly accustomed to their newfound circumstances. According to Bob’s Burgers supervising producer Janelle Momary, in Entertainment Weekly, the digital pipeline allowed them to “set up some artists remotely prior to the pandemic… Now we’ve conformed to do it all virtually.” With companies and animation studios taking to the digital space, it seemed like all would be well. Once again, that period was short-lived.
By mid-2021, lockdowns within the United States were lifted with steady restrictions and teams began moving back to big studio rooms to continue working on shows and movies. However, by the time that everyone was ready to come back, they were introduced to new executive heads: Bob Chapek, the new CEO of Disney, and David Zaslav, the emergent head of Warner Bros-Discovery. Meanwhile, Netflix said its goodbyes to one of its biggest leaders in the field Mike Moon. What would come following these shake-ups would be disastrous for those fortunate to find a place during the pandemic.
In May 2021, Netflix laid off 70 employees in the animation department during a 150-employee layoff. During the Warner Bros-Discovery merger, shows like Infinity Train, Summer Camp Island and Tuca and Bertie were axed and led to heavy criticism from both its fans and creators. However, Zaslav argued, “We did not get rid of any show that was helping us.” At the other end of the block, Chapek stated that adults would rather watch something other than an animated movie after their kids go to sleep, leading to backlash on social media.
And here’s where we are now: Spider-Man: Freshman Year is in a state of limbo with Marvel Studios and Disney awaiting fan reception, The Owl House is close to finishing its third season despite executive Disney not making the fan connection, and Warner Bros. shows like Batman: Caped Crusader are circling the market.
With the voices of corporate heads speaking louder than those behind-the-scenes, it was obvious that animators and animation teams would be placed in this troubling predicament. What would be the cause of this? It seems to be a mix between the effects of rising streaming, creator layoffs, and the emphasis on kids animation. Allow me to explain.
One of the biggest reasons why the creative plateau exists has to be the direct-to-streaming system. What is this mainlined system? The direct-to-streaming system, made popular thanks to the pandemic, is based on the idea that movies on theatrical platforms are moved to streaming platforms to engage interest in these services. In hopes to make up for lost box office revenue, studios make the move to increase subscriber count to recover what they could.
Some believe that this system could provide evidence to revert to old ways, others like Ian McKee believe that streaming releases should be adapted alongside theatrical releases depending on what is released. How does this system hurt animators and animation teams? The answer’s simple: it gives executives the option of whether an animated film is financially successful, which hurts team morale and originality.
Take for example the recent Pixar movies like Luca, Soul, and Turning Red.
While Soul was forcibly released to streaming due to the mid-late stage of the pandemic in December, Luca was released on Disney+ in June 2021, a few months after most restrictions were lifted within the United States. During the period between Soul and Luca, Disney committed to same-day releases of Raya and the Last Dragon and Cruella, accumulating $363.9 million combined (more or less) at the box office. Meanwhile, Soul and Luca would only garner a little over a half of that amount ($182.8 million) thanks to the direct-to-streaming option.
This led to the prominent backlash from Pixar’s staff towards Disney’s “economical” decision to send these movies direct to streaming. According to Insider, many of the staffers who worked on both these movies expected some theatrical releases or a premium price attached to these films a la the Mulan live-action reboot. A veteran Pixar animator believed that, “Everyone is worried about keeping their jobs if our films aren’t seen by Disney as financially successful.”
These executive decisions would ultimately put consumer data and marketable revenue above all else instead of genuine creativity, which critics and fans saw in both Soul (95% on Rotten Tomatoes) and Luca (91%). This problem would continue to plague the release of Turning Red, which came out earlier this year.
Just like Luca, reported by Variety, Turning Red wouldn’t be Pixar’s big return to theaters and was heading to Disney+ instead. This led to more of Pixar’s staffers and animators being disappointed with this decision, but as Disney executive Kareem Daniel points out, the company was “equally concerned with sustaining and growing the number of people who pay to use Disney Plus.” Turns out, Turning Red was also a hit as well with 95%, but only earned up to $20.1 million.
The direct-to-streaming pipeline has allowed companies to hinder the potential successes of films that turned out to be socially successful. Because of such executive decision, not only has it harmed the potential box office revenue that could have come from these films, but it also has harmed the relationship between the teams who work hard to make these movies and the distributors who release them. However, while this issue primarily impacts the films-side of things, there is also the matter of animated shows and the effects of corporate decision-making on that end.
Layoffs within the entertainment industry are commonplace. However, in a time where companies and studios are scrounging to recover lost pipelines of revenue, show cancellations and team layoffs have never been higher. For distributors like Disney, Warner Bros-Discovery, and Netflix, these things add on to the reasons why creatives and animators don’t place their trust in these studios. The biggest example can be seen during the infamous Warner Bros-Discovery purge a few months ago.
As far as executive shake-ups go, the shake-up at Warner Bros, with Zaslav’s arrival, led to some of the most unexpected choices the whole entertainment industry had seen. In a slow, but fiery blaze, Zaslav and company began gutting releases beginning with Scoob! Holiday Haunt as well as the live-action Batgirl. Scoob! had nearly finished production, but only those who worked on the film were lucky to see it while they could. Unfortunately, Zaslav’s iron fist didn’t stop until he was sure costs could be spared.
In August, HBO Max saw a huge cancellation streak of released and upcoming animated shows as well as shows in development shipped out to be sold to other platforms as mentioned before. This move would lead to one of the biggest social backlashes that any company had seen in recent times. Fans spoke out on Twitter and Instagram and creators like Owen Dennis (Infinity Train), Ian Jones-Quartey (O.K. K.O.: Let’s Be Heroes), and Julia Pott (Summer Camp Island) voiced their concerns over the long-term relationship between animators and executives.
Did it save the company financially? Long-term, maybe. Short-term, definitely not.
Dennis, Jones-Quartey, and Pott are right: animators and animation teams are ultimately left to fend for themselves instead of relying on the powers that are meant to help them inspire creative ingenuity. The trust that had been built by animators, creatives, and executives over the years is slowly being broken apart because of the idea of putting money and legacy popularity over originality. It’s the reason why Lightyear was placed in theaters in the first place: Buzz Lightyear has an iconic reputation behind his name and the association with the Toy Story universe drove fans to see it in the first place.
Even then, legacy popularity could also be put aside for recuperating capital. Batman: Caped Crusader, Bye Bye Bunny: A Looney Tunes Musical, and The Amazing World of Gumball: The Movie are under iconic brands whose characters are easily identifiable with fans. Yet somehow, these projects are being shopped to other platforms and distributors because Warner Bros-Discovery is recovering its losses.
This conundrum has also affected primary streaming distributors like Netflix. Under a new corporate restructuring, Netflix’s animation department saw 100 employees laid off between May and September with the intention to reorganize under new vice president Traci Balthazor. However, this layoff turns out to be part of a bigger animation cutback at the company, which saw a couple of animation projects axed before these layoffs.
With all of these cancellations and cutback, distributors have seemingly adapted a tougher, cooler mood towards animators and their projects where these shows and movies are subjected to have a more strained development process. Because of this process, more creatives and teams are turning to other means of distribution (through studios like A24 and Focus Film Features) to provide their hand. In addition to the corporate cutbacks and direct-to-streaming, there’s also that old ideology of animation being a medium just for kids.
Not Just For Kids (And Some Adults)
It’s been known that the reputation that animation has in the entertainment industry is due to most people regarding the medium as being “For Kids.” This notion isn’t a by-product of the pandemic; this issue has always been there since the first days of animation. This particular excuse is notably associated with Disney Animation’s plethora of films stemming from the days of Frozen and continues into the range of kids programming on studio networks.
However, this idea stems from the bases of psychology: children aged 4-7 are more susceptible to engaged with fast-paced, low-fantastical animated content as it aids in their development of inhibitory control between reality and fiction. To showcase this, many animated kids shows, like Bluey and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, opt to follow the educational route when developing animated products.
At the end of the day, when kids are off to bed, you can expect adults to be heading to watch whatever’s showing on cable channels like Adult Swim and engage with shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy, or Rick and Morty. However, most of these adult-oriented animated shows rely on being pure comedy, almost satirical, and currently, the range of these types of shows continues to grow while other shows that are derivative from this norm are hidden away behind extremely late time slots or niche platforms.
However, it turns out that more people are looking to find something other than adult animated comedies or kids shows. According to a Parrot Analytics report, audiences are demanding different types of animated content like superhero, sci-fi, and crime dramas above comedies and kids content.
More adult audiences want something more original and creative from these brands rather than what’s already offered. Thankfully, there are some shows that manage to not only break free of the formulaic bonds of corporatism, but propel into the mainstream. Adult-oriented shows like Invincible, Arcane, The Legend of Vox Machina, and Pantheon are some great examples of this being.
In addition to these shows being adult-oriented, they tackle similar themes and ideas that you’d find in live action movies like the family and relational dilemma as well as themes applicable to real life like man versus nature. However, the ways that these shows tackle these concepts have been fleshed out through centric storylines and interesting aesthetics that pull these audiences in in the first place.
Beyond television, there are over thousands of animated movies that manage to push the boundaries of complex storytelling and worldbuilding. Classics like The Prince of Egypt, Anomalisa, Akira have left their marks for a new animation movement and hidden gems like The Breadwinner, Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood, and When Marnie Was There continue to inspire new creative works of over hundreds of animators and studios who remain dedicated to creating impactful stories through the medium.
Unfortunately, as long as distributors and big studios remain dedicated to outputting what audiences have been used to in the past, the potential for experimenting with animation will slowly dissipate as adult comedies and kids content stay.
Thankfully, there seems to be a spark of hope in place of America’s animation industry. You might already know where I might be going with this and if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, you’re right.
A Shining Spark From Elsewhere
While the American animation industry tries to survive under pressure, a shining light presents itself from another part of the world. Or, should I say, other parts of the world.
Particularly, anime and international animated projects are making a rise for aspiring creatives in lieu of the animation problem in the United States. Anime has played a big role in influencing modern pop culture through shows like Naruto, One Piece, My Hero Academia, Dragon Ball Z. While the United States has added onto the potential revenue of these franchises, other countries like the Philippines, France, and Mexico have strong demand to engage with these franchises.
Studios like Toei Animation, Studio Ghibli, and MAPPA, in addition to anime-based distributors like Crunchyroll and Viz Media, are the leading runners of keeping the traditions of the animation industry alive. Moreover, there are dozens of schools and institutes, like GOBELINS, whose focus is to continue innovating and diversifying creativity within the industry.
Even now, creators and industry professionals have taken to social media, particularly YouTube, not just to voice their concerns, but to showcase the potential of what animation can truly achieve with the right hands. There are even special events, like the recent Animation Is Film Festival, that highlight special animated pieces that appeal to both kids and adults alike. Overall, there is a lot of potential that can be reached within the industry if executives can open themselves up to what makes animation special in the first place.
I won’t discount what the entertainment industry has done to improve animation though. Through these recognizable platforms, these shows and movies were able to garner audiences from around the world and still continue to rally support from their fans. In addition, there are creatives and executives who persevere to make sure the animation industry, and those within it, continues to survive.
I want the people behind these projects, as well as the industry itself, to succeed and have these special projects presented in both theaters and at home. Animation will always have a special place in my heart and seeing these projects being halted by top executives worries me about where this industry is heading. I will always believe that animation has the potential to do anything and appeal to all ages; it is merely who holds the pen that drives this creative force of power.