What Netflix’s involvement in content distribution in Africa could mean for the evolution of Afro-anime.
Over the course of 22 years, Netflix, a company now synonymous with innovation and disruption, has continued to change the way in which content is created and consumed. From the breakneck speed at which they onboard subscribers, to the legal battles they fight on all fronts from technology, to intellectual property, to talent, the media giant is changing the way media fundamentally works.
In a very quiet way, Netflix is also changing the way the animation industry works. By building out a blueprint for a global network of animation studios Netflix decentralizes their production capacity. That way they have regional assets who can support content development as well as US-based advantages.
While Netflix is currently building a central animation office in Hollywood from which most of its creators will work, its productions are also being animated at studios around the world, among them Sergio Pablos Animation in Spain, Cartoon Saloon in Ireland, Pearl Studio in China, and Bron Animation in Canada. Then with new agreements for production on Altered Carbon: Resleeved, Dragon’s Dogma, and SPRIGGAN, Japanese animation studios Anima, Sublimation, and David Production add to two 2018 deals with Production I.G and bones are added to the roster.
As most have realized now, co-productions based on a keen study of local international markets has been a major part of Netflix’s global expansion strategy and it is still the strategy as Netflix ramps up their animation catalogue. While film and television has been in the spotlight for some time, it is clear that the company is playing the long game with all forms of content, and in many ways, they are playing in a lane all their own.
At the close of 2018, while many people were heading off to celebrate the holidays, and unwinding from an emotionally and psychologically taxing year, Netflix was busy setting the tone for their newly launched animation division. Helmed by James Baxter, one of the greatest living animators, and the seminal talent behind Disney’s The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, the animation division at Netflix is bringing together star-power, quality storytelling, and mega budgets.
According to Netflix Director of Content, Japan, “Netflix aims to be the most compelling and attractive home for anime fans, creators and production studios. We are creating an environment where production houses can do their best work, and deliver their shows on a service where we connect anime fans from over 190 countries to content they love.”
In what feels like the second phase of world-domination, or an accelerated response to the exit of Disney and Marvel content, Netflix is on a buying spree, purchasing rights to entire universes that it can then turn into animated content treasure troves. The most recent acquisition includes rights to 15 of Roald Dahls’ works, and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Series. In fact, the investment in animated content is such a major priority that the deal with The Roald Dahl Story Co. may be the biggest single investment in kids and family programming.
Not only is Netflix creating animation at an incredible pace — the streaming platform currently has a slate of 30 projects in various stages of production, but they are projects that will likely push the boundaries of animation. It not only about the stories, but its also about the experience. The Liberator is an animated multi-part series that will be produced in Trioscope, a new enhanced hybrid animation technology that combines state-of-the-art CGI with live-action performance. The story focuses on one of the bloodiest, most dramatic marches of WWII by maverick U.S. Army officer Felix Sparks and his infantry unit’s 500 day battle to liberate Europe.
Whether Netflix is adapting content from video games, purchasing IP with a built in audience, or crafting a story with the ability to morph into different formats, Netflix is not just creating content they are pushing experimentation to its limits. While any company with money can practice trial and error, the number of times the big streaming platform has come up all 6s should make you wonder what makes them so lucky. The key is to remember that Netflix, is a media company AND a tech company, and data, is their secret sauce.
Phase 1: Data and World Domination
Two decades of viewing has led to a data stockpile that many companies should rightly envy. The data Netflix has amassed — what its viewers like, how long they watch, when they watch — is “everything.” The situation continues to play out as a digital war of sorts, with Netflix sparring with Amazon, and then Hulu in some jurisdictions, Apple close on everyone’s heels and Disney preparing for battle. With every move its competitors make, Netflix is using a seemingly endless number of subscribes to fine tune their strategy, and the more people using their platform the better the algorithm gets.
In the beginning, when Netflix dealt in DVDs, there was a perfect opportunity to amass data on the market, to really study what the consumer’s taste were when it came to movies, television shows, and documentaries. Netflix had a front seat to the changing tastes of content consumers. Once that information was logged, Phase two kicks in. When Netflix released its first set of originals they could test assumptions based on data collected during the DVD and licensing days. For the bet to work, it Netflix’s ability to create content that people would subscribe for had to be replicable, and that would be the only way they could end the dependency on licensing content from studios. Once it was clear the bet paid off, phase three brought experimentation in content and strengthening of the original catalogue.
When you marry the data-driven approach to content creation, to a globally expanding platform, it is not difficult to understand how Netflix could quickly become one of the largest IP holding companies in the world. With an IP war chest, Netflix could ultimately facilitate the entire content value chain. So far Netflix has set its sights on film and television, but with that kind of system, the streaming platform could very quickly disrupt the gaming industry as well. With early explorations into interactive storytelling, and the growth of VR/AR applications for content, we could see Netflix playing in these spaces very easily.
For now, Netflix is in the business of entertainment, but this is a company that has made unpopular business decision for years, never doing what is expected, and disrupting, or down right destroying industries in its wake (Blockbuster-who?). It is unlikely that entertainment is the end goal.
Phase 2: African Originals
With experimentation at the heart of their content creation and acquisition strategy, Netflix’s ability to collect viewer data has another powerful impact on their global content strategy- they can predict better than any other company, what might be a successful local content strategy. This combination of big data and media, makes Netflix a potential ally South African and Nigerian entertainment industries. Early partnerships between Netflix and key players in both ecosystems demonstrates an understanding of which countries are major exporters of content and culture within the African continent. Despite how some may feel about the quality of Nollywood, many people on the continent of Africa, and parts of the Diaspora, watch the films, and have done so for years.
Similar to the phases described earlier, we see a similar pattern for African content. Phase one were licensing deals through IrokoTV at a time when rights and ownership issues were a significant barrier to global distribution for Nigerian filmmakers. In addition to Iroko, there were a number of independent projects like Isoken, and The Wedding Party, who negotiated deals with the streaming platform to carry the films, and in many ways circumvent theatrical releases in international jurisdictions. In the last two years a sizable catalogue of Nollywood films, as well as South African films, has emerged. Now, with enough data on viewers, and country preferences and tastes, Netflix is moving into phase two, Netflix originals, the first of which is Nigerian Netflix Original film, Lionheart directed by Genevieve Nnaji. Once the strategy for Originals is validated, and expansion into strategic parts of the continent is accomplished, we may see a level of experimentation with local storytelling that we have not seen before.
In fact, at the end of 2018, Netflix pledged to commission more local content from Africa for 2019. Recently, following a four-way bidding war, Netflix won the right for Tunga, an original animated family adventure musical from Godwin Jabangwe a Zimbabwean writer out of the Impact 1 program created by Image Entertainment’s Brain Grazer, and Ron Howard. With a mid six-figure guarantee, Jabangwe will be working with Netflix to create the original based on Zimbabwean Shona culture.
If Netflix would fight to win a project like Tunga, then it is time to pay attention to the African content space, and not just live action formats. Netflix sees content production as an opportunity to attract audiences, and with their significant investment in IP like the Dahl collection, it is not far-fetched to believe that similarly situated intellectual properties known either regionally, or continent-wide, could command a significant value for the streamer or other competitors chasing close at their heels.
In 2020 alone, we have seen an unprecedented delivery of African content on the streaming platform. From South Africa’s Queen Sono, to Blood and Water, to the release of Nollywood’s blockbuster hits like Queen of Boys, Merry Men, and Living in Bondage, the distribution and production game is heating up. As recent as June, Nollywood’s boss lady, Mo Abudu, announced a string of projects with the streaming platform. The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, the debut novel by Titilola Shoneyin’s will be produced by Ebonylife TV as a TV series and Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman will get feature film treatment. It is clear that Netflix is doing far more than talking about content in Africa, they’ve rolled their sleeves up and getting their hands dirty.
Phase 3: Afro-anime and Netflix
At the end of the day, it is not enough to focus on one medium when it comes to storytelling. Netflix knows this. What started as a DVD distribution company is now one of the leaders in entertainment production and content delivery. So, when looking at continent, what’s the potential? What could the long game look like? Why should we care?
The African continent is home to the youngest population in the world and will have some of the largest populations in the world by 2050. Netflix is among the few that has already begun their entry strategy. Though Nollywood has captured Netflix’s attention, all creative entrepreneurs are fair game, it can’t all be about live action film. Quality intellectual property will always be the cost of admission and the gateway to real economic development and growth.
As we watch the rise of African comics, and Afro-anime coupled with Netflix’s interest in purchasing great ideas, it has never been more important for African countries to focus on capacity building in the creative sector. Capacity isn’t just about the technical skill sets of the creators, it is also the infrastructure of the country. Anyone who has tried to render an animated short with data in Nigeria will understand exactly where the challenges exist. Or, a new comic book publisher without clear data around distribution or their core audience feels the pain of negotiating a quality rate for licensing a character.
We could certainly be witnessing the beginning of a localized, culturally rich animation industry that will have impact locally and internationally. On the other hand, it could be an intellectual mining of resources that leaves young creatives without ownership, without rights, and without economic empowerment. Thus far, Netflix has remained keenly aware of culturally differences, and have been intentional about the way they engage in different territories. That being said, the world of content creation is in flux and no one knows what tomorrow will bring.
So, while many creators are drawn in by the seductive call of the media giant’s big budgets, creative freedom, and global reach, the fundamental need for strong local business-legal infrastructure will always critical.
When we get to the third phase of Netflix’s evolution of African content, will our creatives own their properties? Will they create only for the streaming platform because our institutions are still unable to support local storytelling? The big tech companies are coming, Netflix is already here. Who has the next move?
The Content Biz Bailout
- Netflix’s first original animated series ‘Mama K’s Team 4’ is a girl empowerment project greenlit out of South Africa’s Triggerfish
- Zimbabwe gets the Netflix treatment via pending animated musical Tunga
- This short film animated by Anthill Studio, Malika-Warrior Queen, is based on the comic book series written by Youneek Studios is still looking for financing. Would you be interested in watching the animated series?
- Bino and Fino have been educating children about the continent and African culture forever. Their hard work has lead to distribution through Amazon Prime Video and the translation of the fun filled adventures into several languages.
- Netflix isn’t the only one looking at the continent. Annecy, one of the premier animation film festivals in the world, selected Africa as the spotlight territory for 2020. While Coronavirus has certainly impacted the festival season, there should be a sense of hope and excitement with so many partnerships in play for the continent of Africa.
- Check out how industry player on the continent feel about the ANNECY announcement here.