In 1999, when Shigetaka Kurita designed the first emoji for a Japanese mobile platform, he likely never imagined the cultural weight that the modest designs would eventually carry. But when the whole world has a phone in its pocket, and text messaging is the single-most prevalent form of communication, it follows that a brand-new universal shorthand would emerge. Soon, in every corner of the globe, little yellow emotion-laden nuggets were being harvested in the digital gold rush. It was then only a matter of time until another creator came along and harnessed the power of the ubiquitous symbols for a would-be animated blockbuster.
“I always loved Toy Story, and I wondered, ‘What’s next?’” says Tony Leondis, director and co-writer of The Emoji Movie. “I looked down at my phone one day, saw an emoji and said to myself, ‘Why not?’”
The film, which opened July 28 and at press time had grossed approximately US$76 million worldwide, follows a quest through the most modern of landscapes—a smartphone. “The fun part was that we had all these personalities that were already established by the emojis,” says Leondis. “We had a treasure trove of established character traits, but it was our job to put a twist on them.”
As main character Gene travels through the phone adventure, Leondis and his team had to face the creative conundrum of transforming well-known apps into locations for the narrative. “The big challenge was physicalizing all the apps in the world,” he says. “The one I’m most proud of is what we did with Spotify,” he explains, citing the streaming music platform with 50 million subscribers. “In the film, the streaming music becomes literal streams that resemble equalizers from a distance.”
The Emoji Movie is perhaps the most striking example of platforms themselves inspiring new content, but others are on the same path. In the past, the production community viewed new digital platforms through the lens of distribution. Now, platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook—and the social media trends they inspire—have begun fundamentally altering productions and IPs themselves. It is a giant feedback loop, and only the swiftest and most savvy creators will be able to exploit it.
Montreal, Canada-based Echo Media, for example, hatched a new IP from a mere Twitter hashtag. Babyatrice started as tweets authored by Quebec comedian Guy A. Lepage that described the cute, funny things his young daughter said. Producers married the tweets with illustrations from artist Eric Godin and developed it into a TV show. The half-hour animated series is currently in production with Radio-Canada and is expected to be ready for distribution in 2018.
Sarah Chatelain, brand director for Echo Media, says that every stage of the process had to be carefully plotted, with each creative addition bringing something new to the table. “From a tweet, to an illustration and then TV series, along every step you have to sort of rethink your process,” she says. “You have to consider that with Twitter, you only see it for a second and then it is gone—with a TV series, there is a totally different set of concerns.”
Paul Hembury, director of entertainment talent at BBC Worldwide, is also endeavoring to take a successful idea from social media into more traditional channels. After discovering teenaged pop sensations Max and Harvey, who made their name on the music platform Musical.ly, BBCW decided to put the duo on the small screen. It’s now compiling footage from their world tour for an upcoming two-part CBBC documentary—Max and Harvey (in a Show)—slated for wider distribution this fall.
Hembury says there was a learning curve when he first started surveying new platforms for ideas. “It piqued my interest when I saw the success that so many book publishers were having with a young online audience,” he says. “I thought it was counter-intuitive.” Hembury says he soon learned that the core of popular music properties was the same as it always has been—a rabid fandom. The passionate relationship between singer and audience that has elicited frantic screams for The Beatles through One Direction is still the driving force behind teen music IPs, no matter the platform.
The new wrinkle that Hembury and other producers have to take into account, however, is the one-to-one relationship made possible by social media. “Increasingly, physical proximity is what it is all about,” Hembury says, explaining that the “meet-and-greet” tickets are often the first to be sold out at performances for new pop stars. “What the fans want most is a hug and a selfie,” he says. “The closer you can get the better.”
Max and Harvey themselves also have a good handle on the space they inhabit in the cozy, new world of pop stardom. When Hembury first approached them and asked what it felt like to be “famous,” their answer reflected a keen understanding of the contemporary talent-audience relationship—and one that will no doubt serve them well in the future. “We aren’t really famous,” the boys said. “We are just well-known.”
Finland-based Gigglebug Entertainment followed a similar path transforming an app into a successful property. “In 2013, we came up with an idea to make an app that would feature a cartoon character that you could tickle on an iPad, and the character would start to giggle,” explains Anttu Harlin, CEO and producer at the company. “It did well and we started writing stories for these new characters.” Fast-forward five years and Gigglebug has spawned three different apps and a 62 x five-minute animated series currently airing in 13 European countries that was recently picked up by Channel 5 in the UK.
With the success of incubating content in one format and successfully translating it to another medium under its belt, Gigglebug’s creative team began developing a new property, GIFTEEN. “Our creative director was fooling around with creating GIFs, which he was showing us all the time,” says Harlin, explaining that what began as a lark soon became quite popular. “The numbers just kept going up and up.”
The GIFs popularity spread like wildfire, and with 36 million views and counting, the company decided it was ready to take the next step. “I thought, ‘Let’s get a story going here, this is really something,’” says Harlin. Gigglebug is now in production on a new animated series for nine- to 12-year-olds based on the GIFTEEN property. It is expected to bow on Facebook’s new Watch platform next year.
It would be impossible to separate Babyatrice, The Emoji Movie, Max and Harvey or GIFTEEN from the platforms that spawned them. It’s only half the story, though. A deep dive reveals that the trends flourishing on these same platforms are now also being integrated into the content.
But determining whether or not a trend is worth pursuing is a difficult task for anyone, and perhaps doubly so for animation producers.
Lloyd Mintz, SVP of global consumer products at Genius Brands International, owner of the YouTube-based tween girls property SpacePOP, says that producers have to be able to evaluate the attributes of a trend and decide if there is something sustainable at its core. It is not just about latching on to the next big thing. “We aren’t going to MIP with a new show called Fidget Spinners,” he says, by way of explanation. “It’s a tricky proposition, but you have to be able to strike a balance.”
Not that SpacePOP is immune to capitalizing on social trends—far from it. The company has integrated the DIY slime trend in its content with SpacePOP slime, even signing a license with Taste Beauty to create a related consumer product. “Slime was a good bet for us,” says Mintz, explaining that the trend’s roots date back to the NickSplat programming block and its iconic series You Can’t Do That on Television. “Even as hot as the slime curve is right now, we felt that it wouldn’t feel dated in a few months because it is sort of an evergreen. To me, fidget spinners are different.”
Echo Media’s Chatelain looks at trends in a similarly analytical way. She says that the only way to navigate the space is to “live in the trend.” Chatelain prefers to examine a trend and see what is truly driving it. She explains that the Ice Bucket Challenge, first popularized in June 2014 as a fundraising tool for the ALS Society, was a learning process for her as she discovered what propelled it.
“It didn’t last long, although it did raise a lot of money,” she says. “But what was interesting was that the part of it that is still around is the ‘challenge’ aspect. The thing that stuck is seeing someone do something they wouldn’t usually do—then filming it and observing the reaction.”
Chatelain says that learning to evaluate and understand the mechanisms behind trends has enabled her to better leverage their key elements for productions like Babyatrice.
It’s a notion that Abhi Arya, co-founder and partner in UK-based digital IP creator Sandbox & Co., echoes. “Rather than chasing every trend, we focus on the evergreens,” he says. “We focus on telling timeless stories and emotionally engaging kids with characters and IPs.”
Other creatives see the trends facilitated by social media in a slightly different light. For Chris Garbutt and Rikke Asbjoern, creators of upcoming Nickelodeon series Pinky Malinky, social media and its crazes are considered add-ons that give their fictional universe a bit of relatable spice. “We consider it like a garnish,” says Garbutt, an appropriate metaphor for the creator of a series that follows the adventures of a school-aged hotdog boy.
“We do get inspired by different things we see online, but we have to ask ourselves, ‘How do we apply that to the story and the character?’” says Asbjoern.
When the creators attempt to capture a little of the lightning in a bottle from a social media trend, they have to be careful that the references don’t become dated before the series even airs.
“You have to put your own spin on any of those trends,” says Asbjoern. “That way it becomes more timeless.”
Even before the series airs, Garbutt and Asbjoern have already faced the issue with references to both the Ice Bucket Challenge and Vine videos. Of course, both have already traveled the hyperloop from trend to nostalgic curiosity. “Vine videos and loops might not seem as relevant anymore, but short-form video still lives on,” says Asbjoern, pointing to the underlying characteristic of the trend. “It’s also true of the Ice Bucket Challenge. We can still use it now by positioning it as a sort of ‘Throwback Thursday’ thing—these things do still live on in their way.”
The race is on
The acceleration of a trend’s lifespan offers its own unique set of challenges for producers who both mine new platforms for content and draw upon social media trends. Foremost is the increasing demand it puts on production timelines. With content being consumed at an ever-quicker rate, some producers are feeling the pressure to accelerate the production process to keep up.
The Emoji Movie is an obvious example of this phenomenon. “It was so fast,” says its director Leondis, describing the production process for the film. “We went from pitch to actually having the movie on screens in two years.” He adds that studio executives initially wanted the movie in theaters one year from the pitch—a mammoth undertaking compared to the three-to-five year gestation period given to films of similar scope and budget.
After settling on the two-year time frame, Leondis and his team got to work in an effort to beat the clock. “It was grueling on the whole crew,” he says. “I’m afraid now that they will say, ‘See, it can be done,’ and it will just become the norm.”
So, what was the rush? Well, it’s pretty obvious that nervous executives saw that the references in the film had potentially extremely short shelf lives. The longer it takes the film to get into the local multiplex, the greater the risk it might appear woefully out-of-date by the time it is released. “I just put my head down and got to work,” says Leondis. “For me, it was all about the story and keeping that in mind is really the only way it could happen in two years.”
Some in the production industry are resisting the impulse to accelerate timelines.” It is correct to say that everyone wants things done faster and faster now,” says Claus Tømming, managing partner of Copenhagen, Denmark-based Ink Global Media, co-producer of animated series Zafari.
“To a large extent, the kids animation industry is driven by productions—the purpose of the industry is production itself. But we are trying to oppose that.”
Tømming says that the race to hop on social media trends runs contrary to Ink Global’s core belief in story and character. “Producers believe they have to be fast to catch that trend and be the first to hit the market with certain impact,” he says. “They are chasing and chasing, but if you want to create something that will last, it is going to take a couple years.”
The existence of short timelines is also a consideration for Finland’s Gigglebug Entertainment.
“We try to resist,” says Harlin. “It actually takes a long time to develop good, vibrant stories and a deep story universe.” He contends that producers who chase hollow trends too fast will end up facing bigger problems than slightly out-of-date references when the plot and characters have been given short shrift. “We want to uphold some of the virtues of the story and the characters,” he says. “It takes time to develop a story properly.”
Many producers say that the best way to navigate the fast-forward world of social media platforms and trends is being able to quickly sense changes in the digital environment and consumption patterns. Being agile is paramount.
“We train our team to be aware about what is going on across so many different platforms now,” says Laurent Guérin, VP and chief content and digital officer at Toronto, Canada-based TFO Media Group. He echoes other producers who say it isn’t just trend-spotting that informs new properties, but rather understanding the underlying attributes of a trend.
TFO is currently readying MaXi with partner Frima Studio in Quebec City, Canada. The concept bows this month as an app and focuses on a narrative about 10-year-old siblings living in a world made from musical instruments. The innovative aspects of the property include adapting content through a real-time feedback loop.
“The demands of the marketplace now means that we have to produce in a more agile way,” says Guérin. “Every day the knowledge of kids increases. Whether we are talking about trends or new functionalities or platforms, when we get an idea we have to produce it and get it out there as fast as we can.” He admits that it can be a challenge to maintain high standards of story and character in an environment where speed is seen as the most valuable asset. But, he adds, it’s a fight worth waging. “The digital revolution certainly changed everything.”