Friday, April 10, 2009

Fail Faster and Cheaper

"The main problem, as I see it, is that over seven years of development, there was a whole lot of money spent. I’d guess somewhere around half a million. In the end, there is just one eleven-minute pilot that is not aired. Consequently, the network is very, very cautious and slow with the production of each pilot. Also, the eleven minute pilot doesn’t really tell much more about the show than, say, an eleven minute animatic with one minute of animation that could be completed for one-tenth the cost."
-Fran Krause
Amid Amidi of Cartoon Brew has an interview with Will and Fran Krause about their experiences pitching and producing a pilot for the Cartoon Network. As you can see from the above quote, the process went on for a very long time and cost a lot of money. In the end, the pilot didn't become a series.

While everyone wants success, whether it's defined as money, popularity or quality, the hard truth is that most things fail. So long as the audience has choices, it will migrate to what it enjoys, and abandon everything else. While no one courts failure intentionally, it does have one undeniable benefit: it proves that something doesn't work.

Both the Krause brothers and Cartoon Network learned this but at much too high a cost. The resources spent on the pilot could have used to make several pilots or a couple of half hour specials. The Krause brothers retain the rights to the characters, but there's a lien against them. Anyone interested in picking up these characters has to reimburse Cartoon Network for the money it has already spent. Therefore, the odds of this happening are low.

This gets back to the idea of efficiency that I talked about here. In industry, where time is money, there is a benefit to rapid prototyping -- taking an idea and putting it into tangible form as quickly as possible. The next step is to test the prototype and see if it is viable. In other words, you want to fail quickly and cheaply. If the only benefit of a failure is to discover that an idea doesn't work, the less time and money you spend on a failure, the smaller your loss. Furthermore, the less you spend on one idea, the more money you have left to spend on another. Success is often a question of percentages. The more ideas you can afford to test, the more you learn and the more likely you are to finally succeed. Too many enterprises fail because they run out of money before they find an audience.

The answer to all this is to fail faster and cheaper. Why do an 11 minute pilot? While that's the format that Cartoon Network ultimately wanted, why not do 30 second pilots and put them on the web? Far more ideas could be tested for the money spent on an 11 minute pilot and the network could have tangible feedback in terms of hits and comments from a real audience, not executives or focus groups. Once an idea showed promise, then money could be spent to expand it to an 11 minute pilot and the odds of success would be much greater.

That wouldn't eliminate the network bureaucracy, though, which is why I still think that artists shouldn't bother pitching at all, unless it's directly to the audience. Costs for 30 second pilots can be low enough that they can be supported independently, though an individual can't afford as many as a larger business can. However, if the idea clicks, everything changes. Paul Graham, a software engineer and venture capitalist has written:
"Someone running a startup is always calculating in the back of their mind how much "runway" they have—how long they have till the money in the bank runs out and they either have to be profitable, raise more money, or go out of business. Once you cross the threshold of profitability, however low, your runway becomes infinite. It's a qualitative change, like the stars turning into lines and disappearing when the Enterprise accelerates to warp speed. Once you're profitable you don't need investors' money. And because Internet startups have become so cheap to run, the threshold of profitability can be trivially low. Which means many Internet startups don't need VC-scale investments anymore. For many startups, VC funding has, in the language of VCs, gone from a must-have to a nice-to-have."
What Cartoon Network, and other big media companies, bring to the table is money. It used to be money and distribution, but now distribution is free thanks to the web. If artists can keep their costs low enough, they no longer need Cartoon Network for money plus they get to own their creations. Artists will still fail, but if they can fail faster and cheaper than media companies, they have better odds for success.

15 comments:

David B. Levy said...

Lots to chew on here.

I disagree with the suggestion of 30 second self-created independent pilots, but only based on the brevity. A creator won't learn very much about character-based storytelling with a pilot so short. I'd say two minutes could be a great optimum short length. That gives a creator time two establish at least two characters engaged in a simple scenario and interacting with their world.

Networks do more than provide money and distribution. They also have space on the toy shelves. YouTube provides exposure, but what succeeds virally as a one-shot YouTube hit doesn't automatically translate into a potential series bonanza on the tube, the web, or elsewhere.

The common ground on development is that it should (and COULD) be cheaper, faster, and more efficient. The ultimate example of this could be if a network such as Cartoon Network created a two-minute shorts program with a cookie cutter contract. All deals are the same. Sign and get to work. And put someone in charge that knows how to spot talent, but does not bully the creators to change their vision to suit his/her idea of what a children's cartoon ought to be. Each party delivers a two minute cartoon after 3 months and show them online to gather feedback. Cream should rise to the top.

Mark Mayerson said...

Hi David. 30 seconds may be too short, but I think that 2 minutes is too long. I'm sure you're familiar with John Hubley's Maypo commercials. My favorite of the bunch is the one with Uncle Ralph asleep on the living room sofa. It's 60 seconds, develops two characters and their conflict, resolves it with a twist and still manages to sell cereal.

What you're suggesting about a cookie cutter contract is similar to what the NFB is doing with their Hothouse idea. Mike Fukushima explained in his last visit to Sheridan that when the NFB would give a green light to a new film maker, the resulting film would always be longer than expected and go over budget. It also would take longer to produce. In order to fix that, the NFB now has a program where people pitch ideas based on a theme chosen by the NFB and then get a fixed amount of time and money to do a film of pre-determined length. The NFB's goals are very different than Cartoon Network's, but in essence the NFB has decided to fail faster and cheaper. They're getting more films made and developing relationships with a lot more talent.

Finally, if I could somehow stuff my brain into a 22 year old body, what I'd be doing is creating 30 second shorts with a variety of characters for the web. If anything seemed to attract interest, I'd switch to regularly produced shorts with those characters. I'd probably form some sort of co-op or partnership with friends at that point to increase output.

What everybody wants (broadcasters, toy companies, etc.) is an audience. If you own something popular, money people will come to you offering deals. I would rather spend 7 years betting on myself creating a variety of material than spend those years creating a single 11 minute short that I don't own and didn't even air!

Thad said...

The art of animation isn't dead... just the industry.
I'm really loving the posts as of late, Mark. They've helped my friend and I rethink some of our aims with our short films (done in our spare time).

Rick Roberts said...

We really have come to the point that a cartoonist dosen't need a studio to make and distribute a cartoon anymore. The tools are easily available and cheap (depending on what you use) and can be put on the internet instantaneously.

The problem is how do you make serious income off the internet and how do become popular when there is so much out there. Until those problem is solved, artists will have no choice but to work for the studios.

Mr. Semaj said...

Cartoon Network has all but abandoned the format they used during the 90s, where they let the cartoonists make their own projects, and let the audience decide which were the best ideas. Everything about the channel today is so fake, including the faceless blobs in their intersials.

Are they even doing the Cartoonstitute program anymore?

Brubaker said...

According to Joe Murray, Cartoon Network for a brief time only ordered animatics of a possible show rather than a full-blown pilot. The executives in charge at the time thought that the focus group can understand animatics so they when Joe pitched "Camp Lazlo", they ordered a animatic test to show to a test group.

Joe, however, didn't believe that the focus group can understand animatics well, so, with his own expense, put together a simple color test using the Flash program.

So yeah, there was a brief time CN did this, but it was abandoned after only few shows.

As far as Cartoon Network's originals go, in the case of comedies, they're improving. Their last three were "Chowder", "Flapjack", and the upcoming "Adventure Time" (based on the Nicktoons short).

That's a pretty good track record right there.

Rick Roberts said...

Cartoon Network dosen't care about cartoons anymore. They wan't to compete with Disney Channel and Nick for the tween audience. They were the powerhouse of great original content and classic cartoons in the 90's and now they are not even a shell of themselves.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with Thad. The animation industry is thriving - there are still plenty of studios around and more animators than ever. The art behind animation has died though. "Animators" are just happy to make something move.

Anonymous said...

A whore house may be busy all night long. Both successful and profitable for all involved. But at the end of the night, it's still a whore house.

Anonymous said...

and whores are still whores

Thad said...

I agree completely Rick. Until you can afford to make your own film you should whore yourself out to the studios. Even though the animation industry is dead it still owes us artists a living. after all, we're artists and we need to be supported by the industry we hate.

Thad said...

If I'm not me, who am I? And if I'm somebody else, why do I look like me?

John said...

Hi Mark (and everyone else contributing),

I think that this blog is fantastic. I'm not really one to follow blogs, or comment for that matter, but this one strikes a chord that resonates with how I feel about the industry and my future in it.

I agree with a lot of your points Mark, and from a student's perspective, I think it is time to stop clutching to the old giants and to forge a new path. Disney did their thing. So did Hanna-Barbera. Pixar has the G-rated family blockbuster in 3-D market pretty much taken care of.

It's time to embrace failure. In a typical spiritual paradox: failure is both the greatest threat to animation and entertainment in general, and its salvation. Our culture and economy does not look kindly upon failure. We have been well-trained in our post-consumer culture to be good little ADD lemmings and follow #1: we read the DaVinci Code and listen to the Jonas Brothers and watch American Idol...Why? Because they are popular, and not because we actually like or value them. We follow the hits, which are now dictated to us by producers and execs: "A future classic..." "See what everyone is talking about..."

Failure involves something that is missing in animation today (and many other industries, for that matter): process. To illustrate a point: we don't even do the process anymore, we outsource it wholesale. We focus all of our attention on cutting cost and creating elaborate contracts so that failure can be contained like a cancer. Much like chemo kills a lot more than cancer; this producer-and-outsourcing-heavy tactic kills a lot more than failure.

The tricky thing with indie animating is that there is no one to follow and failure is guaranteed: what is a poor ADD lemming to do?...that goes against his very nature!

Wayne said...

Hi Mark,

It's been a long time. I love your site and will be back often.

Wayne Gilbert

allen mez said...

Another great post Mark. Having worked for the studios and Nickelodeon I found there was a tremendous amount of inefficiency. Four guys in the trenches can make an 11 minute short for a fraction of the cost. Scripts don't get re-written by the legal dept., no producer redundancy, no climate of fear creating all types of snail pace bureaucracy.

The web has taken away the studio domination of distribution. I really think animators will have more and more opportunity to do there own thing and do it well.

Back to animating-A