Expanding Toonz’s global footprint and transforming it for new age viewing and learning in its 21st year, P Jayakumar, CEO, Toonz Animation Group, tells Pickle that how the Indian animation pioneer is spreading positivity through MyToonz OTT platform, online animation education arm Ri8Brain and partnership with studios globally
Despite COVID-19 pandemic impacting every aspect of life and business, for animation industry it has been an eventful year in terms of content consumption and global collaborations, bringing the world closer through technology and innovations, reveals P Jayakumar, CEO, Toonz Media Group
Toonz Media Group launched MyToonz during COVID-19 lockdown. How is it doing?
MyToonz is an exclusive OTT platform for kids and family entertainment launched by Toonz Media Group. Toonz has tied up with multiple app stores, tele-companies, OTTs and connected TV companies around the world to make MyToonz available to consumers across platforms.
The MyToonz app is now available on iOS, Android and Android TV playstores, as well as the Roku Video-on-Demand platform, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV. We have tied up with mobile tech services company U2opia Mobile to integrate MyToonz on various telco platforms in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
The MyToonz library includes over 1500 hours of content, with new content being added every week. The library includes movies and episodic content across different genres. Besides English, there are dedicated playlists in Spanish, Russian and Hindi languages.
The content on platform has been categorized to target pre-schoolers, upper pre-schoolers and early teens. The programming has also been carefully curated to provide quality entertainment to kids and families through fun, educational, safe, non-violent and environmentally sensitive content that celebrates diversity.
The MyToonz library can also be accessed online over the website http://www.mytoonz.com.
There has been a very encouraging response from the industry for MyToonz so far. We have received a lot of enquiries from catalogue owners for on-boarding content on to MyToonz. There has also been interest shown by localization companies wanting to collaborate on content localization.
We have been receiving enquiries from various content aggregators of telco platforms who are keen to get MyToonz onboarded on VAS/DCB/WAP platforms and portals. The response from CTV OEM companies has also been positive. The application has been on-boarded on quite a few CTV platforms.
Competing against Amazon Kids, Netflix and YouTube Kids is very challenging. At the same time we have over 40 OTT platforms in the domestic market and over 250 globally. What differentiates MyToonz from them?
Yes, there are several players in the OTT sector currently, but most of them are general platforms. Kids section is only a small part in these OTTs. MyToonz is more of a niche platform for kids and family entertainment.
We have created a dedicated space for kids and families within the OTT space, banking on our rich legacy and strong content portfolio. In fact, we are the first company of its kind from India to launch an exclusive OTT of kids.
MyToonz basically originates from the compelling need to create a safe and engaging entertainment destination for kids and families in the digital landscape. We have envisaged MyToonz as the go-to destination for kids to watch safe, fun and nutritious content, which will be available in multiple global languages.
It is a space where the whole family can come together to enjoy world-class content. All MyToonz programming is compliant with international safety standards for child viewing.
What has been the impact of COVID-19 in the animation space? While we are resilient, is there room to bridge the growth gap that we may have lost?
COVID has impacted every aspect of life and business today. Across industries, we can see the repercussions of the pandemic. With respect to the content, and animation industry in particular, it has been a rather eventful year since the pandemic started.
Content consumption has skyrocketed, and the demand for content has never been so pressing before. Especially in the kids entertainment space, with kids all over the world staying home, there has been an urgent need to keep them positively engaged. And content is now being seen as a source of not just entertainment but also education and inspiration.
We can safely say that because of this demand, the kids entertainment industry has been largely immune compared to other industries that have had to bear the brunt of the pandemic. We definitely have no dearth of work or business. But that said, it is also important to note that developing and creating content in these restrictive circumstances is a real challenge.
At Toonz, our studios obviously had to be shut for a while owing to government and public health protocols. However, there were production deadlines and other commitments to meet. So, we took up a massive asset transfer operation to shift the machines of our artists from the studios to their homes.
We are striving hard to ensure that none of our projects are affected by the situation. We have a well formulated business continuity plan in place, so we are prepared to meet any unforeseen disruption.
In terms of growth, prior to the pandemic we had a healthy year-on-year growth rate of 25-30%. Our expectations for 2020 were naturally very high. But owing to the pandemic our growth projections had to be curtailed. However, we did not go into the negative rate of growth.
Even though there has been no loss of business, there were some project delays mostly owing to remote working and disruption in creative collaboration. There have been some cashflow issues too.
One of the major areas that got affected is our live action studio Telegael. However, we are positive that we will bounce back with our new ventures Ri8Brain – an e-learning platform, and a health app for kids that we are developing.
Toonz has always been an innovator. You adapt quickly according to the curation needs. What are some of the new visual innovations in the animation space today?
We basically adapt and innovate based on the requirements of the script and our co-production partners. We try to make each of our projects unique in terms of visual treatment and aesthetics.
The idea is to follow and adapt the latest trends internationally and also take inspiration from Indian folk arts and legends, depending on the treatment of the story. For example, we recently developed a new show for ETV’s newly launching kids channel, which has Madhubani art motifs throughout. For another movie called A Many Splintered Thing, we followed a graphic novel kind of treatment.
In terms of improving the technical aspects of our shows and films, we keep ourselves up-to-date with the latest technological tools in animation, especially CGI. We currently use V-Ray and Arnold, which is the latest render engine available for 3D animation. We are soon going to include in our pipeline game engines like Unreal and Unity to achieve real-time rendering.
Toonz has been a regular visitor to major global animation markets. How has been your collaboration experience? Has the global market satisfied you (as a delegate) in providing platforms to engage in business?
As far as the distribution side of the business is concerned, the pandemic has caused a notable disruption. With all the major markets and conferences going virtual, most of the business interactions are happening over video calls and online pitches. We did alter our sales and marketing strategy to remain agile with the changing trends in the market, both with respect to content preferences and reinventing our marketing tools and processes.
Toonz’s distribution wing, Imira Entertainment, is one of Europe’s leading production and distribution companies based out of Madrid. Imira specializes in kids and youth programming with focus on the European, US, Latin American, Asian and African markets. Apart from our own IPs and co-productions, we have a vast catalogue of titles, across genres that we offer in these markets.
Many of these titles are available in multiple language dubs. Our distribution and sales teams have strong relationships with broadcasters and OTTs alike. We have regional sales teams with unparalleled relationships and knowledge to cater to specific markets. Being a well-recognized brand we are often able to close pre-sales of our productions much before the shows are released.
The pandemic has essentially compelled us to think global in every aspect. Even though physically we might be forced to stay put at home, from a practical point of view, it has brought the world closer through collaboration and technology.
The virtual markets definitely do not have the charm or convenience of physical events. But there are some obvious benefits in terms of markets become truly global and accessible, and the budget savings. A lot of innovation has gone behind creating virtual markets. But it might be too premature to evaluate them or even compare them to physical markets. But as an industry, we are trying to make the most of the situation.
Do you see a need for physical meetings going forward? Or a mix of physical and digital…
It is going to be a mix of physical and digital.
What are the focus areas of Toonz Animation Studios in these challenging times?
The highpoint for Toonz in the past year has been the wonderful collaborations we were able to make with some of the biggest names in kids entertainment. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Toonz has been able to forge partnerships for new projects from across the globe from illustrious creators like Keith Chapman, Olivier Jean-Marie, James Driscoll and Janet Hubert.
We also entered into partnerships for new shows with some great studios and production houses such as Italy’s Rainbow S.p.A and London-based Nucleus Media Rights.
We are co-producing highly anticipated animation features with leading production houses like Highland Films, Exodus Film Group and Cinema Management Group. With the latter we are co-producing the first ever English animation feature of Oscar Wilde’s popular short story ‘The Canterville Ghost’. All in all, Toonz has been able to strengthen its global clientele in 2020, garnering opportunities to produce specialized, high quality content.
In the last one year, Toonz Animation produced 5,000 minutes of 2D and 3,000 minutes of 3D animation content. We have in our pipeline several exciting projects. And we are proud to say that all of them have extremely diverse and relevant content that uphold universal values. Like I said earlier, we are collaborating with many renowned creators, like Keith Chapman with whom we are doing an interactive pre-school series titled Paddypaws & Pals.
Another one is a value-oriented show called JG & the BC Kids in partnership with veteran American actress Janet Hubert. The show, which inspires kids to embrace differences, is also entirely driven by a multi-cultural team.
Another marquee project currently under production at Toonz is Sunny-side Billy, a very colorful and upbeat 2D animation pre-school series about fun and positivity.
The creative heads behind this project are none other than celebrated animators like Olivier Jean-Marie and Jan Van Rijsselberge of Oggy and the Cockroaches and Robotboyfame. We are co-producing this series in association with the French studio Tractor.
Toonz is also partnering with Russia’s oldest and most prestigious studio Soyuzmult for a brand new alien CGI called Aliens in my backpack. This project comes from Rob Lee and James Driscoll, creators of BAFTA nominated World Award winning titles like The Shoe People.
Apart from that, we also recently signed up with major US girl-centric, STEM-focused toycoGoldieblox to develop an animated series titled Glodlieblox and Friends. This MIPTV season we are also launching in the market season one of the pre-school series Zoonicorn, based on the famous plush toy brand of the same name.
You have been a major supporter of small and medium animation outlets. What damages have they suffered due to the pandemic? How do we bring them back to the fold?
For small studios cashflow had been a major problem these past months. Many had to be either shut down and go for steep salary cuts to keep themselves afloat. The situation has been more or less the same for small businesses in all other industries, and not just animation. However, we have tried to support those studios that have been our long-time partners and those that delivered high quality work to us.
We have gone that extra mile by relaxing payment norms so that their cashflow issue could be eased a bit. But there is a limit to which we can support small studios at this level. At a larger level, we have been lobbying in industry and trade bodies as well as approaching government authorities to develop schemes to support small studios.
There is no running away from the fact that small businesses have borne the brunt of this pandemic. In the case of animation, the pressure has been tremendous on smaller studios to stay afloat.
Even as vaccination is being rolled out globally, how can we protect jobs in the animation space during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Talent has always been a key aspect for this industry, and nurturing and grooming new talent remains a priority. As mentioned before, there is no dearth of business or opportunities in the content creation industry owing to the pandemic.
Jobs are there and new jobs are being created across the board. In the post-pandemic era, we foresee a greater demand for artists and creative professionals who can swiftly adapt to changing circumstances.
There would be a higher demand for professionals who not only have a keen sense of creativity but are also constantly upskilling their knowledge of relevant technology. This includes areas like CGI animation, application-based animations for sectors like film making, entertainment media production, edutainment, gaming, medicine, defense, VR/AR, architecture, interior design and commercials.
Toonz spearheaded the launch of an online learning platform dedicated to animation and creative arts in order to mould new talents in the field. Can you share some of the details?
Ri8Brain is an online education arm of Toonz Media Group, dedicated to learning of creative art forms. Ri8Brain is a highly agile ed-tech initiative that aims to redefine the traditional pedagogy. This online platform focuses on collaborative teaching, providing greater impetus to hands-on, experience-based quality learning for early starters as well as seasoned learners. Ri8Brain will carry over the legacy of Toonz Academy, with a modern and technological twist to it.
The vision of Ri8Brain is to transform the lives of creative minds and artists across the world by honing their talent and upskilling them.
The techno-creative industry is booming globally, and with the right skill set and talent, one can pursue a very rewarding and creatively satisfying career in this industry. This is exactly what Ri8Brain will be facilitating for aspirants.
Ri8Brain works in two modes: Explore – for early starters; and Excel courses – for amateur artists, aspiring creative professionals as well as young and experienced professionals.
India has not been able to scale up to capture the global animation stories market. We are still at the tip of the iceberg. What do you think we lack and what will make us a global player in this market?
I think what we lack primarily is the skill of global storytelling as well as exposure. If you look at Hollywood or other Western industries, they take very simple concepts with universal themes and values and then market it amazingly. Their stories transcend boundaries and have global appeal.
I think that is what is lacking here and perhaps that is what we should do in order to scale up and strengthen our global footprint in animation. However, this needs to be done not just for animation, which is part of a larger ecosystem.
Even for live action, we largely see highly localized content that would not fit into the context of a global audience. To say it plainly, we are not exactly making films for global consumption. And I don’t think that is an anomaly. Just that if our aim is to create global hits, our storytellers need to tell stories which have universal appeal.
Also countries like the US have a history of 100 years in animation, whereas our industry is just over two decades old. So it may not be entirely fair to compare. However, we will reach there soon.
The Indian animation industry is very robust and fast growing. We have scaled up significantly in the last two decades. We progressed from an outsourcing destination to an IP creating industry. It is only a matter of time that we conquer the global arena.
Toonz’ Animation Masters Summit has brought together some of the brightest minds all these years. How has the Animation Masters Summit 2021 digital edition shaped?
Animation Masters Summit (AMS) 2021 will be held from May 4 to May 8. This time again, we are conducing it virtually because of the prevailing circumstances. In the 2020 edition, we had the privilege of having some of the biggest and brightest stars in the industry as speakers.
We had masters like Disney editor Fabienne Rawley (Zootopia); veteran Indian cinematographer Ravi K Chandran (Virasat, Dil Chahta Hai, Black, Kannathil Muthamittal, etc); renowned Bollywood composer Shantanu Moitra (Parineeta, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, Lage Raho Munnabhai, etc.); and Quentin Staes-Polet, gaming expert and General Manager India and SEA, Epic Games.
This time again we have a stellar speaker line-up that includes legendary ad guru Rahul daCunha, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Meg LeFauve (Inside Out, Captain Marvel, My Father’s Dragon), licensing and merchandising master Jiggy George, Hollywood music composer Vidjay Beerpot and award-winning animation director and producer Saraswathi Balgam.
The theme for the 2021 edition is ‘Embracing Diversity: Finding Beauty in Our Differences.’ We will also have two panel discussions—one on diversity in content and the industry—and the other around education technology and the scope of animation in e-learning.