Streaming sites are ushering in the next golden age of animation. This may seem like a lofty claim, given the history of the Disney Golden Age of the 40s-50s and the renaissance of animation in the 90s, but with increased investment in animated content of all sorts from streamers such as Netflix and HBO Max, this golden age is not too hard to believe. The investment of streaming sites into animation, both original and already existing properties is pushing the industry into exciting directions and opening the doors for a greater variety of stories. This conclusion can be made through the increased job market and demand for animation, the increased accessibility of international animated titles, and a sincere push towards more diverse storytelling through on and off-screen representation.
Increased Job Market & Demand
Firstly, the demand for animation created by streaming sites, combined with increased viewership during COVID-19 in particular has catapulted the animation industry into an exciting direction. With streamers comes more stability, typically asking for more deliverables than television networks, which are characterized as being less committed to projects.
Chris Prynoski, President and founder of Titmouse, an independent animation house, comments on this difference, saying, “Usually it’s like, OK, we’re doing this 10-episode season…” But Netflix asks for 10 times that amount” (Marsh).
With this demand for content, and the fact that animated content can be both cheaper to produce and contains re-watchability, the amount of animation work and projects green-lit has skyrocketed. Back in 2017, for Titmouse in particular, over half their projects were for web-based platforms and the studio expanded to 500 employees (Marsh). So not only are we entering a golden age for audiences, being delivered a variety of engaging content, but also for the people working within the industry too, especially under the uncertainties provided by COVID-19.
The ability of these online platforms to reach multiple different audiences has led to streamers investing in a range of projects, from adult animation to family, rather than just sticking to one. With increased popularity and reliance on streaming platforms within multiple homes, and less so on cable, these streamers offer larger budgets that open the door for more jobs and creative possibilities. Barry Ward, President of Canadian animation studio Bardel, notes that the possibilities provided by streaming sites allow for both quality and quantity.
Ward comments that, ““These platforms are going toe to toe with the major terrestrial entertainment companies. With Netflix in particular, from day one you could tell that they were going to give television a run for its money. It was high-quality programming. Until that point, budgets for internet-based content were low, as was the quality. But now the budgets are as high or higher than what you find on [linear] TV.” (Marsh)
With these factors in mind, a new wave of creative possibilities and freedom can be ushered in, not to say the approach of these companies is completely open-ended. Nonetheless, the inclusion of older titles on these sites, which may have had relative success when aired on television, has allowed for these series to receive new audiences and fresh takes, such as the “Clone High” revival coming to HBO Max, previously aired on MTV from 2002-2003.
Increased Availability of International Animated Content
Secondly, an exciting aspect offered by streaming sites is the availability of international animated films and titles, introducing people beyond American animation to include titles from Japan, Ireland, France, China, and more with relative accessibility to the general public. Through my own experience, I was lucky to see an international animated feature film through a GKIDS screening or festivals such as the Animation is Film Festival is Los Angeles, and most of the people who attended would not be considered with the average movie-goer or viewer. Overall, the exposure to the general public of international animation had remained rather limited until streaming. This cannot be more true for anime, which has seen an increase in viewership and general popularity over the years. Instead of having to pirate episodes on repost websites and pray I do not get a virus, or record the few anime episodes offered through cable, anime, or Japanese animation itself has become available with a simple subscription.
I’ve been astonished by the variety of anime titles picked up by Netflix, Hulu, and more, along with original anime series for the streamers, given that growing up, I had to wait weeks for an episode to be released with subtitles, and feeling somewhat guilty watching them on sites were the creators don’t receive a penny for my viewership. Furthermore, to see Japanese animation embraced even more in the mainstream has been a shift undoubtedly influenced by streaming platforms, which allowed for titles such as “Attack on Titan” and “Demon Slayer” and more to be available to audiences quickly and around the globe. Seeing HBOMax, for instance, partner with international animation distributor GKIDS in order to include Studio Ghibli films and that work of experimental Japanese director Masaaki Yuasa, was a lovely surprise.
According to The Wall Street Journal, on Netflix alone, more than 100 million households watched at least one anime title within 2020, growing 50% from the previous year (Tsuneoka).
While there was a market for anime before streaming, it has become far more popular due to accessibility, and older titles are finding new fans. For Toei Animation Co. in particular, revenue generated from overseas distribution/viewership more than doubled in the past year, in thanks to their properties such as “Dragon Ball Z” readily available on sites like Hulu (Tsuneoka).
The increase of international titles available has ushered in more global collaboration as well, with Netflix developing sixteen projects in their new Tokyo based office. One of Netflix’s recent Oscar-nominated features, “Over the Moon,” was produced and released by the streamer in collaboration with Pearl Studio, a Shanghai based production company, and animated by Sony Pictures Imageworks. The film itself took many direct Chinese cultural inspirations and involved many Asian and Asian-Americans in its creative process and casting.
Investment in Diverse Storytelling
The flexibility of streaming sites allows for more creative freedom and inclusion, as the restrictions typically provided by television are not applicable to OTT media. As a result, streaming sites have become a platform for representation and for newer creatives. This is not to say that more inclusive media is not being developed within television, just look at Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe, arguably a pioneer in that department, but I have noticed an increase and dedication, at least on Netflix’s end, to diversifying content both on and off the screen.
For example, “She-ra and the Princesses of Power,” a modern reboot of the She-ra series from the 1980s, spearheaded by DreamWorks Animation & Netflix, throughout its five seasons has included positive representations not only of people of color, but also queer romance and identity. The show runner Noelle Stevenson herself is part of the LGBTQIA+ community , making it even more impactful to have a far-reaching platform to share her own experiences in an authentic manner that involved actual queer people in its development . In 2021, the series won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Kids and Family Programming. With She-Ra in particular, there’s not just one token queer character, a majority of the cast is confirmed to be within the LGBTQIA+ community, and their identity is important but not the only thing that defines them. Some of these characters include main cast members Adora, Catra, Scorpia, and Perfuma, who are in on-screen, canonical relationships with women, along with bisexual characters such as Bow and Glimmer, transgender characters such as Jewelstar, and even non-binary characters, such as Double Trouble. What’s great about this example in particular is how there is not one single way a queer character should look or act, they are all different in their own way. This is a great representation for especially younger kids, the target audience, seeing queer people confident in who they are and capable as heroes in their own right. With the red tape that can come with airing specific episodes featuring on-screen kisses and explicit references to LGBTQIA+ experiences in different countries, allowing for certain elements to be hidden in the background or cut out completely, it’s nice to see representation so open on platforms.
As someone who remembers seeing the final season of “Legend of Korra” include bisexual characters, only for it to be online only, at the time it felt rather limited. Networks such as Cartoon Network and even Disney TV, for which on screen queer representation is visible, but not as explicit as examples in streaming series, has made strides, but the amount of inclusion and the rate of its increase seems to be more available due to streaming sites. Furthermore, these sites are willing to take more risks, with the mentality that there is a market for all sorts of content. Even Disney has started to use streaming services to promote more explicit representation through Disney+ in which “Out,” a Pixar short with a gay lead, was released.
Due to arguably the more open mentality of streaming platforms and the freedom of content, streaming sites have become platforms to uplift LGBTQ+ and BIPOC content creators and leaders within animation. “Danger & Eggs,” a children’s animated series on Amazon Prime, became the first children’s cartoon to feature an openly transgender show runner, Shadi Petosky. This allowed for her to delve into LGBTQ+ topics authentically and accurately in episodes, one of which featured a transgender character Zadie, at a pride event, serving as the episode’s center. The increased visibility of diverse characters and intersectional approaches to characters and their identities is setting a new standard for general representation in animation, and proving that there is a market for this authentic content full of heart.
As for more adult animated content, “Great Pretender,” an animated crime-comedy series created by Japanese animation studio WIT Studio in partnership with Netflix, has been embraced not only for it’s style and compelling scenarios, but also it’s diverse set of characters, including Black and Latinx characters, in ways similar to “Cowboy Bebop.” Especially within anime, a genre that is known more for its inclusion of East Asian and White characters, this was seen as extremely refreshing by fans. Additionally, the inclusion of women in prominent roles beyond romance was another great addition. When writer Ryota Kosawa was asked about his inclusion of non-Japanese characters, he had this to say:
“This time I was conscious about giving balanced roles to both the male and female characters, as well as giving diverse roles to characters across different races. I took care to ensure that even the villains aren’t defined by their nationality or race, and I tried as much as possible to make the characters hard to hate. In the end, for better or worse, what’s important is whether the characters stand out or don’t stand out.” (Morrissy & Loveridge)
Coming from live action experience, when asked about Netflix’s involvement and how that was different than a normal television broadcaster, Kosawa mentioned how working with Netflix made it easier to include multicultural speaking parts, as the talent pool in Japan is more limited and the Netflix budget that helped finance these details, hence forging a supportive creative environment (Morrissy & Loveridge). More representation and diverse stories is not non-existent within television, but clearly there’s a creative push amongst streaming platforms to support these creatives and go beyond the limitations of broadcasting, creating an exciting future for the future of animated content.
Overall, I’m personally looking forward to the variety and fresh animated stories that are being brought to the forefront by streaming platforms. This is uncharted territory for animation, and perhaps the next best thing for the industry as a whole. This is not to say that streamers cannot do wrong and that this process will be perfect, the fear of monopolies and the conglomerates that have formed through the streaming wars, such as AT&T acquiring HBO Max, or Sony owning the popular anime streaming site Crunchyroll, as areas of concern. However, with streamers such as Netflix spearheading campaigns to shake up the American animation industry and provide some competition as well as a platform for up-and-coming creatives and newer stories, is an interesting shift to keep an eye out for.
Chappell, Caitlin, and . “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power Set a New Standard for LGBTQ Rep.” Comic Book Resources , Valnet Inc. , 1 June 2020, www.cbr.com/she-ra-set-new-standard-lgbtq-representation/.
Deerwater, Raina. “EXCLUSIVE: ‘She-Ra’ Creator Noelle Stevenson Talks to GLAAD about the Final Season, Queer Representation in Animation, and Watching ‘Killing Eve’.” GLAAD, GLAAD, 19 May 2020, www.glaad.org/blog/exclusive-she-ra-creator-noelle-stevenson-talks-glaad-about-final-season-queer-representation.
Marsh, Calum. “Surge in Streaming Services Leads to Animation Job Boom.” Variety, Variety Media LLC, 27 July 2017, variety.com/2017/artisans/production/netflix-amazon-animation-jobs-1202506357/.
Morrissy , Kim, and Lynzee Loveridge . “Interview: Great Pretender Director Hiro Kaburagi and Writer Ryota Kosawa.” Anime News Network, Anime News Network, 14 Dec. 2020, www.animenewsnetwork.com/interview/2020-12-14/great-pretender-director-hiro-kaburagi-and-writer-ryota-kosawa/.167355.Tsuneoka, Chieko. “The World Is Watching More Anime-and Streaming Services Are Buying.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 14 Nov. 2020, www.wsj.com/articles/the-world-is-watching-more-animeand-streaming-services-are-buying-11605365629.