Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Suits And The Animation Biz

Years ago, I had a good friend, artist-photographer-computer graphics developer-music-history-politics-film-animation-fine arts aficionado and expert on many more topics named Chuck Walker; unfortunately, he passed away at 38 in 1994. Chuck was one of my favorites, always a witty, entertaining fellow with an well-informed and original view of the world. He was also brilliant, unrelentingly creative, scary-smart and among those on the advance guard of the cutting edge in the 1980's graphics technology revolution; among other places, he worked with Marc Canter at (then) MacroMind, now Macromedia. Chuck had much of interest to say about the power shift in technology from creatives to executives in the late 80's and early 90's. I loved the sneer that appeared on Chuck's face and the undisguised contempt that dripped from his voice when he uttered the phrase, "the suits are taking over."

Now, don't get me wrong - I love. . . or at least like. . . "the suits". You need 'em - and there are times when bean-counters prove absolutely necessary; for example, Walt Disney and Roy Disney, no doubt, to some degree offered useful checks on each other. However, the suits should never, ever, have the absolute final say on artistic endeavors, period.

Well, those suits (and expensive ones) are really really in total control of animation, film and music backing and distribution. Nothing new about that - the silent cinema transitioned from artist-moguls like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Harold Lloyd to the all-powerful studio system. It happens. It's the way of the world.

There is no doubt in my mind that in our current climate, a great artist - a Duke Ellington, a Charlie Parker, a Bob Clampett, an Ernie Kovacs - would have absolutely no chance. Unless what they did made semitruck fleets full of money for someone, of course (come to think of it, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Chappelle's Show must be incredibly lucrative cash cows - otherwise they'd be banished from the airwaves, pronto).

Right now, there's stimulating discussion around the blogosphere about the relationship between development executives and the artists who actually make animated TV shows. For a bit of background, to paraphrase John Kricfalusi. . . "here's the most offensive article ever written about animation", Development Executives And How They Got There

And check out what John K has to say about
Why Rock Stars Should Become Animation Executives

Then follow it up with an excellent Cartoon Brew post by Amid Amidi, author of Cartoon Modern, about the barrel o' laughs that is "pitching" TV series concepts - and explore all the links in the article,
To Pitch Or Not To Pitch

3 comments:

Craig D said...

"There is no doubt in my mind that in our current climate, a great artist - a Duke Ellington, a Charlie Parker, a Bob Clampett, an Ernie Kovacs - would have absolutely no chance. Unless what they did made semitruck fleets full of money for someone, of course"

And they'd have to do it right out of the gate, no second chances! Think of how many projects get shot down after a poor premiere, opening weekend, etc.

Been watching the Seinfeld box sets, and man, that might just not have gone to series now-a-days.

Keep on bloggin', Paul!

paul etcheverry said...

That "right out of the gate" phrase is the key. Movies and TV shows that might be original and worthwhile are not given the opportunity to build a "word of mouth" audience anymore, so "Seinfeld" would probably not get that chance now.

There is, however, the side topic of whether a show or artist has a "protector" among "the suits". One example from film history would be that W.C. Fields would probably have not had a film career if not for a producer named William LeBaron (who I thought - could be wrong - was also responsible for Paramount signing Mae West). Conversely, Irving Thalberg could not protect the incomparable Buster Keaton from certain activist executives (Lawrence Weingarten, etc.) or allow him to be essentially an independent producer on the Metro lot.

And it is a good bet that somebody powerful at NBC went to bat for both "Seinfeld" and "Frasier".

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