It has been a very long month. The bad economic news that sounded so theoretical just a few months ago has become all too real. Animation studios in New York have been folding like wilted lilacs. The money needed to fund new preschool shows has been evaporating. The prevailing belief is that things will get worse in our small preschool pond (and the bigger ponds as well) before they begin to get better.
But I was talking to my friend and mentor Cathy Chilco earlier today and she touched on a theme that has been echoing with me ever since. Cathy referred to the pursuit of material goods as an addiction that is not unlike an addiction to drugs or alcohol. She said that the wealthy nations of the world, most businesses and most individuals have been on something of a binge for decades. She suggested that perhaps this sudden economic downturn, as painful as it is, might help remind us all of what is actually important. Our planet has entered rehab, she suggested, and we will need to look at ourselves and our choices a little more closely. And we’ll need to take it one day at a time.
I believe that Cathy is right and though I am certainly not an economist, it does feel like everything is contracting. Even my Christmas tree is four feet shorter than it was last year. And I have seen changes at Little Airplane. Though we have been fortunate so far and have not had to cut any jobs, I have witnessed a real difference in the way we are connecting, both internally and with our community. Just last week, at the suggestion of one of our Associate Producers, Eric Daly, a small group from the studio took a field trip to a preschool on Avenue D. Our team came bearing the one gift that the teacher had requested: a new bookshelf full of children’s books. We also brought art supplies left over from our productions and we worked with the kids to make a handmade book. Each preschooler made a page and our designers helped the kids bind the colorful book together. The visit took only one morning from the company’s busy schedule but it gave us all a lifetime of warm feelings.
I have also seen changes in the way we are communicating with one another. There has been more candor these days and more expressions of appreciation. We talk openly at our morning meetings about the state of our industry and how we might pull together to make it through this difficult time. At our modest holiday event, one of our Lead Animators, Emily Mann, compared Little Airplane to a boat. She said that in her previous jobs she felt like she was simply riding on the boat but at Little Airplane she felt she was actually helping to row it. And she was right. One of our Directors, Sarah Wickliffe, expanded on the metaphor at a staff meeting and thanked the Senior Staff for working so hard to keep our little boat afloat during a time when many other studios have been forced under in the current economy. Needless to say, artists rarely thank management so these few kind words meant the world to me and my team.
My point here is that the bad times in our industry have been drawing us all together in new ways and making us more appreciative of that which we do have: one another, our work, our community and the safety of our small studio.
The hard financial times have also pushed us to think creatively about our upcoming projects and how we might lower costs so they will be easier to finance. For example, we are developing some new animated shows with fewer characters and fewer backgrounds so that they will be easier to design and animate. We’re also creating some new live-action preschool shows that can be produced very cost effectively and still travel well internationally.
This does not mean that the new shows will be less interesting or less beautiful than our current series, it just means that the creative choices will be different. A low-budget series only looks low budget if it was developed as a big budget series and then under funded. One of my favorite shows, Nickelodeon’s “Stick Stickly,” was made very inexpensively but was brilliant and very popular. (If you haven’t seen Stick Stickly, he’s basically just a popsicle stick puppeted by a human hand.) Another one of my favorites is “Finger Bobs” from the UK which featured an artist cutting out paper animal puppets and then putting them on his fingers and putting on a show.
Little Airplane has also looked at ways to diversify while still remaining true to our core strength of making preschool shows. This has led us to new businesses such as opening a small retail shop, starting Little Airplane Academy, offering tours to the public and beginning both film and book divisions. These other revenue streams, though still relatively modest, help inoculate us from the ebbs and flows of creating and producing kids’ TV programs.
So my message to you all during this particularly cold holiday season is one of hope and support. Look around at what you do have. As tempting as it might be, don’t climb into a hole of worry and fear. Reach out to your teams and your community. Let them know that you are doing all that you can to survive. Let them know you need them to row with you. Find new and creative ways to adapt to this changing marketplace. Build new bridges while the old ones are being washed away. And, when you can’t find strength out in the world, look for it within yourself.
But, perhaps most importantly, let’s be there for each other. Sometimes companies and creative people view one another as competitors. I honestly believe this is a fiction. A rising tide raises all ships. Companies need companies. Why? To keep our industry healthy, to train the next generation of writers, artists and producers. And to collaborate on the fine work that we all do making important educational content that touches children all over the world. We are not competitors, we are cousins.
I wish you all peace and happiness in your work and in your personal lives. I feel so fortunate to be doing the work that I do. I know that I owe my position to so many of you who gave me a chance (and a second chance) when I needed one. And, as always, I welcome any and all thoughts and comments from my readers.
Thank you, Cathy. And thank you, all.