In a break from our usual line-up of brilliant professors, stressed animation studio owners and quirky animators, we're attacking another important role in the animation industry: the non-animation side. These days marketing, administration, creative development and business development are of equal importance to the animation itself. As is the case of many animation studios, this role is done by a small, sometimes one-person, team.
In the case of March Entertainment Inc—a Toronto-based digital entertainment company--'that guy' is Mike Drach. In a typically untypical animation studio role Mike is a staff writer, go-to communications guy, 'marketing flack', publicist, production assistant—and sometimes everything in between. Mike joked with me that you won't see his job role on a Craigslist ad.
Future freelancers, studio lackeys and ambitious animation entrepreneurs--pay close attention--, to the incredible detail Mike provides in the interview below about how to successfully run the day-to-day of a studio, behind the scenes:
You work primarily in Business Development sector of March Entertainment, can you detail what this role entails?
Actually, the “development” in my title refers to creative development. In this industry, it’s a confusing term because it can refer to creative, animation or business development — not to mention game or app development. In my case, this means fielding pitches from external writers, helping develop our own pitch material (bibles, one-sheets, broadcaster’s handbooks), reading samples from potential writing staff, and so on.
Obviously, sometimes this crosses over into actual business development, when it comes to seeking financing or partnerships which would require a more thorough depiction of the series or interactive property we’d like to produce.
How do you approach marketing and business in an industry with so much competition out there?
The sheer amount of competition out there can be both a blessing and a curse. It demonstrates that there’s a lot of work and opportunity available, but you also have to really distinguish yourself if you want to be noticed. It helps to specialize and offer something people haven’t seen.
For instance, with our upcoming show Mia and Me, we’re striving for feature-quality CG animation in a tween-oriented TV series. So it’ll have, for instance, real hair and cloth effects, which a few years ago would have been practically unthinkable on television. Really, your end product is your calling card in this industry, and if you can deliver on your promises, that opens all kinds of doors.
What are the challenges you face regularly in the marketing and development side of animation?
On the marketing side, I’d say just being heard above the noise is difficult, especially when it’s not your company’s core competency. Traditionally, studios didn’t have to go very far with their marketing efforts, because much of that would’ve been covered by broadcasters, distributors, merchandising partners, etc. Now that we have direct downloads, streaming video, and all kinds of interactive offerings going directly to the viewer, you have to be more savvy about it. Plus the lure of all those free social media outlets is too attractive to ignore.
One of the main challenges is figuring out the ROI of your outreach efforts, especially when you’re bouncing between so many projects and platforms. There are some great service providers who can help with that, many of them located here in Toronto, but they can be expensive. So you basically do whatever you can, and see what approach is the most successful.
What are the best and worst aspects about working in the animation industry?
In my opinion, the best aspect of working in animation is that people think it’s so cool when you tell them you work in animation. Little do they know, it’s still essentially an office job. You’re going to have some long days and tough assignments, and you’re always going to have to answer to someone. But at cocktail parties, people won’t mind if you blab on about what you do for a living because who doesn’t love cartoons? Also, seeing the fruits of your labour is fantastic, and it’s even better when you get feedback from fans and the media — positive feedback, preferably.
The worst part, like a lot of entertainment industry work, is that it fluctuates with the seasons, similar to Arctic sea ice. So there can be really slow stretches, and there’s always bound to be some churn. It can be tough if you’re not prepared for it.
What skills/qualities does your firm seek out when hiring new employees?
First and foremost, we tend to hire based on personality. Intelligent, motivated and reliable people will always get priority. Of course, specific skills, education and experience count for a lot as well, but we want to bring in people who clearly love this business and will do what it takes to accomplish great things.
What particular schools, if any, does your firm recruit new hires from? If none, where do you recruit new hires?
Most of our animation crew comes from Sheridan. We have quite a few talented folks from Seneca, Algonquin and Centennial as well. And we’ve had a great experience with Ryerson’s RTA program for bringing in interns to help with project management.
What advice would you give to aspiring animation entrepreneurs looking to start a studio or go freelance?
That’s a toughie. Those are very different career paths, I’d say.
If you feel you’ve got the vision, talent and business acumen to start up a studio, I encourage people to go for it. One strategy would be to pick an under-served market and become local heroes there. Another is to wedge yourself into an already booming market and hope to eventually get noticed by one of the bigger players.
Also, there’s a huge difference between being a shop, or your own studio developing original properties. I’d say the latter would be much more challenging unless you’ve already got a lot of interest in your idea or portfolio. Not having built a studio from scratch, I’m not really the authority to give advice, though.
What kind of education did it take to get you where you are today?
My background is in journalism. I actually profiled my then-future boss as part of a business writing assignment, back when we were a dot-com startup called Infopreneur, and it led to an internship in their sales office. From there, I was able to prove that I could also write reasonably funny shorts.
Has the trend of outsourcing animation overseas affected your firm, if yes, how have you dealt with it or compensated for it?
It’s hard to say how it’s affected us directly. The truth is, outsourcing in animation has been going on for decades; the option has always been there. To an extent, it can undercut the costs of doing it in Canada [and the United States]. At the same time, budgets have been getting lower in general, while some of the better overseas studios are getting more expensive, so it’s starting to put everyone in the same boat. No matter where you are, you have to be able to offer great work, reasonable budgets and an excellent business experience. And we seek the same thing with our international partners.
Do you think that there is an increasing or decreasing demand for animation overall? Why?
Overall, I think it’s increasing. Hard to quantify or qualify, but the medium has been a proven success in the last decade or so; it’s an excellent medium for creative self-expression; and having witnessed the process of live-action film and television production, it feels a lot more fun and less stressful.
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.