The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down the production of many live action TV series, feature films, documentaries and commercials, however one area that is still thriving is animation. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, animation production was already on the upswing due to the increasing demand for content from streaming platforms and the popularity of both adult-oriented and all-ages shows. According to Forbes, it is now attracting new interest and new investment, triggering a boom that is expected to outlast the crisis.
Verbit’s keynote session at the annual Prime Time Online conference shed light on media production and future expectations with DreamWorks Animation’s Chief Creative Officer, Peter Gal. Gal is witnessing these trends, challenges and opportunities firsthand.
In his role, he looks after the production of 20 given shows at a time and works with a development team on future sales. Gal’s day-to-day consists of studying the marketplace, talking to buyers and partners and managing everything from physical production, creative, sales and finance for a team of 9,000 media professionals in Los Angeles.
Gal was essentially employee No. 1 of DreamWorks Animation Television. In 2013, a 1,000-episode deal struck with Netflix led to dramatic growth and has resulted in multiple deals with Hulu, Peacock, Amazon and Apple since. As of now, the long-term plan is for the division to remain platform agnostic despite its relationship with Peacock. Gal has come to know the buyers at subscription networks well and is able to quickly identify which buyers will ‘fall in love’ with new projects to ease and target the pitch process.
Little COVID-19 impact
DreamWorks productions are all happening remotely. Gal said he’s blown away by his production teams and the way everyone was able to pivot to remote work. Gal said they’re experiencing minimal delays with overseas partners, but not much else.
“Things that seemed really hard in March and April like how we were going to record actors or how we were going to record and mix music, our teams figured out and we have not missed a beat. We’ve kept every show going and have sold a number of new shows and started them up while working from home.”
Steady buyer demand, but renewed importance
With an understanding that when ordering an animated series, it likely won’t deliver until 2022-23 on the other side of the pandemic, Gal said he hasn’t seen a dramatic uptick in demand, but rather a steady one.
This period has reminded people how important kids and family programming is though. With parents spending more time at home with their kids, many shows, such as Jurassic World Camp Cretaceous on Netflix have emerged as huge family co-viewing shows. Families are spending more time together, which has resulted in a renewed focus that this content matters, he said.
Effective remote communication
Gal said it’s important to find opportunities for people to connect socially when virtual. It helps to talk to your coworkers as people and not just about projects. Many of Gal’s coworkers at DreamWorks have been working together for 15 years, so his team has been stable in terms of executive leadership and talent.
“It’s much harder to start a new show today or work with new talent,” he said. “We discovered friction points where communication was off [with new teams] and spent time on how we communicate to build-in time to share information in a way that isn’t as organic as it is around the office, but makes people feel plugged in.”
Diversity in projects
It’s been a really transformative year for diversity, equity and inclusion. For years, DreamWorks has been aiming to reflect the true, diverse communities of their viewers on screen, casting biracial and diverse show leads.
“We were doing a good job thinking about on-screen diversity. The place where we realized we have not been delivering the same degree was the behind the scenes showrunners. We need to find, empower, support and mentor the next generation of creators.”
She-Ra and The Princesses of Power has a queer showrunner, Noelle Stevenson, an all female writers room and all female directors except one. Gal said he’s incredibly proud of that, but realizes there’s so much more to do in crafting more inclusive workplaces.
Investing in your people
“One of the things we do well is to build talent inside the studio. In the 7 years that we’ve been in business we have examples of people who started as an intern who became an assistant who became a storyboard visionist and now are a supervising director. Our plan is to invest in talent at all different levels – from people who are in leadership and ready to lead and people who are just starting out and mentor and mentor and build careers.”
Gal said whether building and mentoring an individual’s career sees them continue at DreamWorks or move on to other projects and teams, he still recognizes it as a win for DreamWorks to be able to launch new diverse voices into the production world.
Investment in interactive technology
Driven by Netflix, DreamWorks Animation also explored programs based on choice and interactive technology, such as Puss & Book. Viewers are given rudimentary choice points that are exciting and fun for them, he said. Additional projects like Boss Baby and Captain Underpants have evolved to offer viewers richer choice points that make kids feel emotionally invested in the story. While Gal’s productions tend to “get frightened of how to script and board since it can be complicated,” it’s been worth it, he said.
Impact of cinema closure
“Our feature film side is just as vibrant as ever. I don’t think anything has changed in terms of strategy. They’re still planning on big films that have a huge impact on the marketplace. I see them having a strong presence in theatres when theatres come back. We’re still coordinating with [film departments] and planning TV series based off of feature films.”
New user expectations & opportunities
With people being home more and consuming more content, especially in the US people seem open to more experiences and types of animation, Gal said. “In a lot of the world there’s a vibrant market in adult animation, it’s not just seen as for kids. I think that’s changing… I think animation as a tool will only get stronger and stronger post pandemic and I hope we’ll see a lot more variety… We’re not afraid of pushing the humor to make it work for an adult audience.”
Exploring international partnerships
DreamWorks Animation has shows that are Canadian co-productions, including Go Dog Go on Netflix. With so many incredible animation studios in Canada, Ireland and France, there are more opportunities to tap into international partners.
“A lot more people are getting into the animation business. Every studio is busier than it’s ever been, and that’s creating a talent drain in L.A. If we can find artists in Vancouver or Toronto, we’ll put storyboards and design work there. We just want to tap into the best talent.
The future of linear TV
“I grew up in linear TV at Disney Channel and Nickelodeon and I haven’t thought about it much; it’s decline has been so rapid. Gal said we’re seeing more investments in HBO Max and Disney+ vs. Disney Channel.
“I don’t know if those platforms become just another access point for marketing or whether they go away entirely. For years we thought about networks and ratings nonstop and now I don’t need to think about linear and ratings hardly at all.”
The streaming & monetization challenge
We’re hopeful our shows will allow for vibrant consumer products programs, Gal said, to account for how to replace the previous promotion from linear TV.
“There was so much space in telling a captive audience to reinforce a show’s importance, and how you replace that in the streaming universe is still unclear. There’s digital marketing and social, and we hope for consumer product success going forward.”
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