"Disruption" Does Not Apply: Innovation in the Animation Industry

On his Animation Anomaly website, Charles Kenney asks:

[I]s the animation industry being held back by existing, established, players? Consider the car industry and the fact that it wasn’t a manufacturer that made the biggest breakthrough in driverless cars, it was Google.

Is animation similarly hamstrung by studios already in business? Will real innovation come from outside it? […] In other words, where is the animation ‘disrupter’?

Why, Charles, I'm glad you asked!

For starters, the analogy to the auto industry and Google is a flawed one: for all the advances of the autonomous vehicle project, you can't buy a self-driving car or ride in a self-driving taxi yet. The legislation changes in Nevada (PDF) only permitted operation of autonomous vehicles on highways in the state. Is it really meaningful to upbraid auto manufacturers for not having delivered a "breakthrough innovation" that isn't available in the market, and won't be for many years to come? Is it, then, useful to characterize a perceived failing/shortage/lapse in animation, or any other industry, as similar to this non-impactful success?

The boring truth of the auto industry is that contemporary automobiles are very, very good solutions to the energy, materials and engineering constraints we face today. The green movement wants to hype electric vehicles and hybrids as solutions for today, but the economics, range, infrastructure and so on are not yet there at mass scale. (EVs are the future; batteries are not. Let's not even get into the rare earth minerals involved in their manufacture, and the total environmental impact from design to disposal.)

Similarly, the boring truth of the animation industry is distribution, distribution, distribution. We continue to see conventionally conceived and executed features because nobody has cracked the nut of how to profit off radically different material. The bulk of revenue for both animated television shows and feature films comes from merchandise, which puts strong pressure to make shows/movies that are somewhat "toyetic" and are on widely-seen platforms (cinemas, cable; now Netflix and, to a far less extent—and only when attached to an already notable brand—YouTube).

Clay Christiansen's Theory of Low-End Disruption has been disseminated far and wide, albeit often without the critical qualifiers that make it coherent. Attempts to apply it where it doesn't belong lead to failures like Christiansen's own miserable track record predicting Apple's success or decline. Even putting aside the fact that disruption theory holds far better for business-to-business markets (industrial animation, the spiritual successor to Will Eisner's American Visuals Corporation?), let us not forget that low-end disruption begins by siphoning off overserved customers. Who is overserved by today's animation fare?

There is no avenue for asymmetric competition here, where a product that is measurably worse in some ways but better in ways important to consumers takes market share away from the established and dominant party. Part of the problem is that, inasmuch as the things people tend to complain about with animation are concept, character and narrative, they have proven unwilling to accept shows that are much better in those regards while being much worse in, say, production values. This is a crucial differentiator between animation and film, where fans of independent movies embrace a less polished aesthetic (probably in part because the baseline for live action, people on a screen, is still pretty good).

Now, perhaps there is an opportunity for New Market Disruption—competition by serving non-consuming potential customers rather than current actual ones. But, really, how many people might be interested in animation but don't watch it in some form already?

Ultimately, dissatisfaction with currently available animation does not mean the industry needs "disrupting," or even "innovation"; those buzzwords have spilled over from the computing technology fields to infect popular discourse with their meaninglessness.

Speaking specifically of the US, the root problem with animation is that it is not viewed as an adult medium. When it is used for material aimed at adults, it tends to be of the juvenile, satirical, farcical or irrevent sort (pretty much all of FOX's "Animation Domination" line-up, [Adult Swim]'s Boondocks, FX's Archer and Chozen). Were animation considered a serious dramatic medium, all kinds of stories would be told using it. What was the last animated theatrical release not aimed at children or all-ages audiences? Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, and some purists would bemoan its rotoscoping technique as "not animation."

For proof, we need only look at the creative resurgence afoot in television (again, speaking specifically of the US). The terrestrial broadcasters, cable networks and providers haven't been "disrupted" (though keep an eye on Aereo), and yet US TV is booming. In fact, it is distribution that has fueled the growth: broadband internet access and streaming services as well as the eventual embrace of time-shifted viewing are making it easier for viewers to catch up on episodes at their leisure, breaking down the strictures of the traditional season model. At the same time, the success of AMC with Mad Men has all sorts of previously second-rate networks hunting prestige projects (Sons of Anarchy, Homeland, The Americans, Justified, etc), all of them trying to reproduce HBO's rise from repackager of third party films to purveyor of critically acclaimed original programming.

The breakthrough that animation needs, then, is nothing less than a wholesale cultural shift, altering the way millions of people see animation. That's not disruption, that's revolution. If we can blame the established, legacy players for anything, it's for sticking to the status quo and not working harder to broaden the perception of animation. But that's it.