Animation producer Max Howard began his career in animation working on "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", after which he joined Disney in Florida to set up their fledging Orlando studio. Since then he has worked for many of the biggest animation studios, and for the past decade has forged a career as an independent producer, as well as consulting for the animation industry and giving lectures and workshops all around the world. We asked him to talk about what it takes to produce an independent animated film.
You worked for many years as a producer at huge studios such as Warner Bros. and Disney. How was that experience?
Max: I’ve been fortunate to work at three of the major studios as either an executive or producer, which has provided the experience for my current role as a consultant and lecturer for the animation industry, working with companies and organizations from all around the world.
How different is it being an independent producer?
Max: At a major studio, one is part of a huge and amazing machine, with loads of moving parts. When coordinated correctly, and with the right film project, it is incredible to behold. When one first joins these organizations, it can be like entering a maze - complex and challenging to find the right pathway. I was fortunate enough to work on some amazing films and at a time of incredible growth within the animation industry. I suppose I was part of creating the maze! When I joined Disney Feature Animation, there were a couple hundred artists in the department - when I left ten years later, we had grown to over 2,000 in three separate studios.
There are always loads of hurdles to jump, no matter if it is producing at a major studio or independently.
In the independent world, one has to try and be an expert in so many more areas - not only making the films but also raising money, marketing and distribution. These were certainly areas I had not really been directly involved with at the major studios.
Being an independent producer has many differences – the word ‘independent’ for example, is exactly that - ‘independent’ of the studio system. It opens up so many possibilities as one is free to follow a more singular vision……. one’s own vision for example. But with it comes an even greater responsibility as the independent producer takes on the mantle for delivering every aspect of the plan, from development thru production to distribution. From raising the financing to collecting the revenues and everything in between! It is not that one is superior to the other but there is now a viable independent industry, an industry that was not possible just a few years ago. In the CG world, software was proprietary and hardware beyond the reach of the most filmmakers.
If you wanted to make a film in live action you rented everything you needed. In animation, you had to build it and this was a step too far for most aspiring young filmmakers. This has now changed – the technologies required are much more readily available, making it a barrier to entry that has been lifted and now we are seeing more and more independent animated feature films reaching the marketplace and that can only be a good thing for our industry.
Last year, twenty-one films were released in the U.S. - a record but still way below where I hope we can go. On average, the U.S. sees over 300 films in any given year, making animation still a small percentage of the whole.
On a side note, we are fortunate that the talents of animators are now integral to most, if not all, of the live action films produced - although not always appreciated or rewarded appropriately for their services.
But I digress from the question of identifying the different challenges of being an independent producer.
Animation is a wonderful method for telling stories. In itself it is a moving art but used for the purpose of making feature films. It is a unique tool that can inspire and entertain audiences around the world and these films can become timeless and go on entertaining generation after generation. We all grew up on classic animated features made long before we were born and that trend continues. Soon independently produced films will be added to the list of classics to be enjoyed long into the future.
What are the biggest challenges you face putting independent projects together?
Max: The simple answer is “money”.
At the majors one has to get budgets approved. No easy task but for the independents, they have to identify and convince investors, and other potential funding bodies, about the merits of the enterprise. One not only needs to be a filmmaker but now a sales person as well. Secondarily, the ‘independent’ budget is much less than the majors, begging the question, ‘How can you deliver a high quality film for this price!’ Without existing examples it is challenging to convince investors and distributors in advance as to why and how you can be successful. And then, you have to be ready to answer questions relating to productively, quality and potential revenues.
The answer is to show investors as much as possible, but this can be something of a ‘catch 22’. In order to prove your case, you need investment, and therein lies the catch! All this makes "money" the most challenging piece of the ‘independent’ producer’s puzzle.
What project are you most proud of and why?
Max: There are several and for varying reasons it is a tough question to answer. In everything I have worked on there has been something special - moments to be treasured, lessons learned and always a sense of achievement. Nevertheless, working in the independent arena provides tremendous challenges but with an even greater sense of achievement when the films are completed, as the journey to bring them to the screen is much more complex and all encompassing of one’s skill set.
I place ‘Igor’ right up there as a film I am very proud to have been associated with. A great team effort with a gifted director at the helm and all produced at a fraction of a major studio budget.
What are you working on now and when can we look forward to buying a ticket?
I am working on several films in various stages of the process and, although I cannot speak of the projects themselves, I can share with you that I am working with a number of independent studios and producers to fulfill their goal of creating feature films at a reasonable price that will stand an excellent chance of resonating with the international audiences.