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Toons of the 2000s: Top 5 Significant Headlines from the ’00s

by on November 16, 2009

Go back to the Toons of the 2000s Intro.

We wanted to name the biggest news stories for animation as part of our look back at the past decade. We arbitrarily limited candidates to single news stories which, in our opinion, had a significant impact on the art or business of animation, if not the entertainment business in general. For instance, while the rise of anime over the decade from an obscure niche hobby to real substantial mainstream acceptance is a pretty significant long-term trend, it’s also not one that lends itself to any one single moment where you can say, “This is where Things Changed.”

We also freely admit that these selections reflect our own biases, as well as the generally US-centric view of our News coverage and the site in general. This is not meant to suggest that there weren’t any significant news stories or trends overseas. In fact, I believe that globalization is one of the biggest long-term trends in animation today: in addition to the growth of anime as an export product of Japan, the rising importance of the global box office, the excellent (and often far more adult-oriented) animated work of other nations, and the rapid development of high-quality animation studios in India and China are all fundamentally changing the art and business of animation, but again, there is almost no single incident one can identify as a tipping point for change.

After much deliberation, the top 5 news stories we’ve selected are, in chronological order:

1. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Announces the Best Animated Feature Oscar

June 19, 2001

On June 19, 2001, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences approved the final rules for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award, intended to recognize the best animated feature film released in the previous year. In the years since, there have been dubious nominees and/or winners, just as there have been for any of the Oscar categories, but the reality is that this award is a recognition, however small, that animation has genuine artistic merit all on its own.

We’re fully aware of how controversial the Best Animated Feature Oscar is among animation fans and the industry. Many consider it a compliment delivered by the back of the hand – a poor consolation prize that really just ghettoizes animated movies away from the “real” ones. There are others who think that it’s just more Hollywood glitz and glamour, that the Academy is dominated by timid old fogies with inherent biases against animated movies, and that the Oscars don’t matter much anyway. The points are well-taken, but it’s also true that the Best Animated Feature doesn’t ghettoize animation any more than the Best Documentary category segregates that specific branch of film from winning other awards. It’s another berth for foreign animated movies to get some much-needed publicity, bringing work like The Triplets of Belleville, Persepolis, or Spirited Away to the attention of animation fans and the public in general. The creation of the category hasn’t stopped Pixar from racking up four nominations for Best Original Screenplay or DreamWorks for earning one for Best Adapted Screenplay. It seems that every year, Oscar buzz gets louder and louder that another animated film (almost always from Pixar) might finally be the one to land a Best Picture nomination, if not a statuette on Oscar night, even if this says as much about the abysmal quality of Hollywood movies every year as it does about the superlative quality of Pixar’s movies.

Besides, it’s nice to know that an animated film will walk home with at least one statuette on Oscar night that isn’t for Best Song.

2. Adult Swim Begins Broadcasting

September 2, 2001

Even among animation fans, there is little recognition that Adult Swim is not just a programming block but its own network, with an entirely independent management structure from that of Cartoon Network. Confusion over its leadership aside, the creation of Adult Swim and its subsequent success is still one of the most powerful statements in the business that animation is not just a medium for kids. Adult Swim is still the only substantial chunk of animated television aimed at adults, with Fox’s recent “Animation Domination” being the only other serious competitor.

Admittedly, a lot of the network’s early successes were largely borrowing and mercilessly mocking the Hanna-Barbera library that was the backbone of Cartoon Network’s programming at the time, and lots of the shows can be called “adult” only for subject matter than for any genuinely mature sensibilities. However, Adult Swim has been home to some truly oustanding original programming over the years, such as Harvey Birdman, The Venture Bros., and The Boondocks.  It’s also worth pointing out that Adult Swim was how countless numbers of American animation fans discovered Cowboy Bebop (one of the best television series ever made, animated or not), as well as countless other anime series like The Big O, InuYasha, Paranoia Agent, or Death Note, making it a major contributor to anime’s increasing mainstream acceptance throughout the 00’s.

One alternate candidate for this spot was the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Terrorism Scare in 2007, since it was a major headline-grabbing story of the time and did lead to the resignation of Cartoon Network head Jim Samples. However, the creation and success of the network was what allowed that news story to happen, and the contributions of the network itself far outweigh any short-term publicity stunt.

3. Family Guy Returns to Fox

May 1, 2005

TV shows in the past have occasionally managed to dodge cancellation by changing networks, but cancellation is generally a one-way street. History was made in 2005 when Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy returned to the airwaves on Fox two years after being cancelled. The move was largely due to its success in syndication and on the series’ success on the explosive new medium of DVD. Indeed, the renewal of Family Guy was one of the earliest testament to the growing market power of DVD in general, as it rapidly moved from a new and better way of doing home video and into a genuine phenomenon in its own right that fundamentally changed the way the TV industry did business. The successful return of the series probably had more to do with the approval of the Futurama direct-to-DVD movies than the proposals submitted by the Futurama staff that proved how Fox could not possibly lose money on them (with the Maths and everything), while also leading to more raised hopes and dashed expectations as no series since has managed the same return from the dead.

The return of Family Guy was also the start of Seth MacFarlane’s ascent in Hollywood, leading up to his anchoring Fox’s “Animation Domination” block with three different TV series and his becoming the highest paid television writer and producer in the history of the medium in a deal reportedly worth $100 million. Say what you will about Family Guy (and, based on comments on our forums, you guys have a LOT to say about Family Guy), but its return to the air made television history and its runaway success since then is nothing to be sneezed at.

4. Disney Buys Pixar

January 24, 2006

The animation industry simply wouldn’t be the same (if it would exist at all) without Walt Disney and the company that bears his name. However, at the start of the decade, the company’s animation studios were stumbling badly after their remarkable revival in the early 1990’s. A corporate policy that seemed to put more emphasis on building marketable franchises over telling good stories had led to a string of box-office disappointments and a rightfully scorned series of direct-to-video “cheapquels” that served only to tarnish the Disney brand name with sub-standard work. The company even went as far as to shut down production of hand-drawn animated movies at the end of July 2005, in the entirely mistaken belief that audiences only wanted CGI animated movies. It seemed that the only successful animation associated with the company at all was coming from those upstarts from the Bay Area: Pixar Animation Studios, whose streak of critical and commercial successes weren’t enough to prevent (or, perhaps, even were causing) greater stresses between the two companies.

In hindsight, it was a fait accompli. Pixar Animation Studios could have cut a deal with any studio they wanted, but in the end they wanted Disney and they got it when Disney purchased Pixar at the start of 2006 and installed John Lasseter as the studio’s Chief Creative Officer. Echoing the history of “Apple Buys NeXT,” the purchased company ultimately led a takeover from within to supplant the DNA of the purchasing company. Lasseter seems to have triggered a renewed sense of purpose in the hallowed halls of Walt Disney Feature Animation. Animated feature films that had long been in development hell were pushed back on track, resulting in the watchable Meet the Robinsons, the excellent (if highly underrated) Bolt, and the exceptionally good Tinker Bell franchise of direct-to-video movies. The studio also announced its return to hand-drawn animated features with The Princess and the Frog, along with a muted commitment to more hand-drawn feature films in the future. The good news even seems to be spreading to the TV division, which has finally scored a bona fide hit with Phineas & Ferb and is commissioning more animated programming as we speak.

None of this has occurred without cost, with the most prominent being Lilo & Stitch‘s Chris Sanders leaving Disney over the changes that ultimately turned his long-suffering American Dog project into Bolt. Still, with his combination of business acumen and understanding of story, John Lasseter is a most worthy inheritor of the heavy mantle of Uncle Walt. His return after his ignominious firing all those years ago has turned the ship around and promises to return the studio to its past glories.

The recent Disney Buys Marvel deal was proposed for this spot, but the deal is still not finalized and it’s impossible to know whether it will have the same kind of impact as the purchase of Pixar. However, the structure of the deal is specifically intended to minimize the creative and business impact on Marvel, meaning it is ultimately of far more interest to Wall Street and Hollywood insiders rather than the consumers of the entertainment. If it succeeds, there should be no difference other than that Mickey Mouse may join or replace Spider-Man on the checks.

5. Geneon Shutters US Operations

September 26, 2007

As mentioned earlier, the rise of anime in American mainstream entertainment in the early part of the decade was one of the major long-term trends that changed the way the industry worked. However, there really is no single moment that one could point to as the moment when anime “made it.” Rather, there are a pile of contributing stories that accumulated over time, from the runaway success of Pokémon leading into the decade to the debut of Cowboy Bebop on Adult Swim to the birth of the Toonami block on Cartoon Network to the growing amount of anime blocks on cable networks like IFC and the Sci Fi Channel (now idiotically named “SyFy”).

However, the sudden shuttering of Geneon USA’s operations in late September 2007 was the first big domino to fall in the serious contraction in the American anime industry. The industry was already showing signs of weakness, as was the larger home video market and the economy in general. A glut of incoming product forcing consumers to be far more selective in their purchases and the lingering malaise afflicting the home video retail industry affected a niche like anime earlier than the industry as a whole. Geneon shutting down triggered shock waves throughout anime fandom, considering its solid market share position at the time and its long history bringing anime to America (first as Pioneer Entertainment, way back in the days when fans had to choose between subs and dubs on VHS or shell out for laserdisc players). It’s impossible to know fully how related the events were, but it’s hard to believe that the collapse of Geneon’s deal with ADV for distributing titles was completely unrelated to Geneon’s exit and ADV’s eventual fall from grace as well. The void left behind by Geneon’s hasty exit was also ultimately exploited by FUNimation to further bolster its dominating presence in the US anime market.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our picks for the top 5 news stories of the 00’s, even though we’re quite sure that there’s a lot of room for valid disagreement with our choices. Feel free to hit the search box for our News ticker and let us know what you think the top stories were in the comment thread and in the forums!

Go back to the Toons of the 2000s Intro.

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