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Mouse chat

While all the new projects are no doubt a big topic of conversation at Cartoon Forum, is the uncertain future of Disney’s linear TV channels around the world the elephant, or the mouse, in the room?

Television’s tectonic plates shifted a little earlier this year, after The Walt Disney Company (TWDC) CEO Bob Chapek revealed plans to switch off 100 TV channels around the world in 2021.

That came after Disney channels in markets including the UK, Australia and New Zealand had already gone dark, as the world’s biggest children’s entertainment company continued its steady shift away from linear TV schedules towards streaming.

It’s not often the case that producers are willing to discuss the strategies of their potential business partners. But such is Disney’s gargantuan size, when it comes to opining on the Mouse House’s decision to zero in on Disney+, it’s open season.

So what do some of the international producers who are pitching at Cartoon Forum this week feel about Disney’s decision to close many of its TV channels around the world?

Some were completely non-plussed, perhaps a sign that Disney to date has only really been an active commissioner of animated series in a handful of European markets, such as the UK and France, to complement its North American output.

This means that in countries like Portugal the potential loss of a linear Disney network is not such a big deal. “Maybe there are too many channels nowadays and, with younger audiences migrating to streaming more and more, it only seems natural that this is happening,” said Pedro Lino, director at Lisbon-based Ukbar Filmes.

But in those markets where Disney has been actively commissioning originals for networks such as Disney XD and Disney Junior over the years, the feeling of loss is a lot more significant.

Those to have recently made an original series for TWDC, such as UK- and Ireland-based Sixteen South, are keeping an ear to the ground when it comes to whether TWDC’s shift to Disney+ will affect investment in original content from EMEA positively or negatively.

“Disney+ is such a strong platform that it’s a really smart move on their part. What does it mean for getting a show off the ground with them? Time will tell. Let’s hope they buy lots,” said Colin Williams, Sixteen South’s creative director, who successfully got Claude, pitched at Cartoon Forum in 2014, made with TWDC.

Pablo Jordi, co-founder and producer at Pikkukala in Spain and Finland, agreed that a lot of uncertainty surrounds Disney+’s appetite for original animation in EMEA. “I’m not sure what it will mean in the long term for independent producers like me. It seems like Disney is still receptive to original content produced by independent production companies and is listening to pitches, but we will have to see.”

However, from a live-action perspective, it appears the plan is for TWDC to commission more than it’s ever done in EMEA to supercharge Disney+, as Jan Koeppen, TWDC’s president in the region, made clear at the recent Series Mania event in France. Much of this content will be aimed at families, but it remains to be seen how much is intended to be animated. And with TWDC hungry for exclusive rights around the world, does working on a show for Disney+ simply amount to glorified service work?

“It’s sad and it feels like the end of an era. I don’t know what its plans are and whether there will still be commissioning opportunities for indies. I would hate for it to be based purely out of LA and the US. I don’t think that will be the case, and I’m sure there is an infrastructure in place for producers in Europe and across the world to work for Disney. I hope it turns out to be a good move and people are able to retain their jobs,” said Lindsey Adams, founder and producer at Daily Madness Productions in Ireland.

The overwhelming sentiment expressed by our Insiders was that Disney’s shift toward a direct-to-consumer model via streaming was inevitable, given how the audience’s viewing habits have changed over the past decade.

Some also expressed concerns about the future of cinema, as Disney continues to make its latest features films available in living rooms around the world, a trend accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Others argued that Disney’s decision doesn’t necessarily mean linear TV is ‘dead’ by any means, whilst conceding that declining viewing figures for linear channels highlights a creaking business model. As Zofia Jaroszuk, producer at Poland’s Animoon, said: “We’re all leaning towards streaming now and, as a producer, it’s our goal.”

Nevertheless, there’s no doubt a children’s channel is still a valuable asset to any company attempting to build a brand and the closure of Disney channels could give other linear TV networks a boost. Meanwhile, a regulatory model for US-based streamers in Europe is beginning to take shape, with content quotas and rules over rights ownership potentially playing into local producer’s hands.

For now, and after a gruelling previous 18 months of uncertainty, it’s best to end on a positive note, as supplied by Eliza Jäppinen, CEO at Visible Realms in Finland: “If you’re going towards streaming instead of TV, it opens a whole new level of creativity because you aren’t pigeonholed into the time slots that linear TV has, which is a good thing for creators. It is going to be challenging and very competitive, but we’re in a great moment with lots of opportunities facing the industry.”

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