Earlier this week, reports surfaced that there were going to be some layoffs at DisneyToon Studios, the studio responsible for the Tinker Bell and Planes series. The reason? There wasn't an specific one but it's not too hard to see why the layoffs occurred. The Tinker Bell series is done, with Legend of the Neverbeast being its last instalment, and the second film in the Planes franchise, Fire and Rescue, didn't do nearly as well as the first did last year. With the home media market shrinking every year, there are not many options for a studio that has specialized in producing home video products since its inception.
Let's start with the obvious. DisneyToon was an ill-conceived studio from the very beginning. Unlike most studios where creativity is the most important element, DisneyToon was created with the sole purpose of making money from low-cost productions. Creativity is an unknown word at DisneyToon and, as you have probably seen, you can tell how low quality their productions are. However, for parents, these productions were a good way to keep the little ones occupied. While we Disney fans balked at the endless "cheapquels" that were produced for most of the Disney classics, they sold very well and turn a profit for the company.
Things got better when John Lasseter assumed control of the studio and halted production of all "cheapquels." Instead, he gave the studio a new purpose: to create spin-offs to well known franchises that, while still having a small budget, could deliver better results than before. So that's how the Tinker Bell and Planes franchises were born. Things looked better because the Tinker Bell series now offered better quality films to the public, and, at first, they were very popular. Of course, the main goal was still to make money, but at least some creativity was included in the process, making the films enjoyable - if still somewhat forgettable. At least they were no longer offensive to most Disney fans and didn't tarnish the legacies of great films.
Unfortunately, their way of doing business is now obsolete, as their main market is no longer the hot commodity it once was. The home media market is going through some radical changes and revenues have been decreasing. Suddenly, the Tinker Bell series is not so hot anymore and the Planes series crashed in its second outing. What can they do? It's not like people will mourn the closing of the studio like they did when Studio Ghibli was supposedly closing its doors. DisneyToon don't have a legacy to speak of and I'm sure many people will even rejoice if the studio closes its doors. The only downside is that more people will be out of a job, which is always unfortunate, but what can a studio with a poor reputation, no legacy to speak of and no specific goal do?
Well, the easiest path is obviously to close down the studio, fire the remaining people that work there and be done with it. For the Disney Company, that won't represent any significant loss, since they have three other fully functional animation studios (Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar Animation Studios and Disney Television Animation) that are big money makers, and the general audience won't even care. But this situation can also be seen as an opportunity to reinvent DisneyToon and create a studio that would no longer be seen as the "ugly duckling" of the company. Many people around the web have said that the studio could be used as an experimental studio, where Disney animators can develop darker or more mature stuff that they can't develop in the big studios. I think that's a great idea. They could turn DisneyToon into a sort of "Disney Double Dare You," the studio that was supposedly going to be created between Disney and director Guillermo del Toro to release darker stuff - but that sadly never came to fruition. Turning DisneyToon into a darker studio would not only give it a better reputation, but also win it a fanbase that doesn't consist only of 5-year olds.
Another idea that has come to me is, instead of doing feature films, DisneyToon can become a TV content producer. Not for family entertainment, (since Disney Television Animation has that market) but to release mature programs. Just imagine having the first adult-oriented animated drama, sci-fi or fantasy show on TV and then releasing them on networks like HBO or Netflix? They could also make comedies, but more adult-oriented ones and release them the same way. This not only will give them more adult fans, but will validate DisneyToon's existence as an innovative animation studio. The opportunities are just endless.
In stark difference to Disney Animation and Pixar, who make movies for all the audience, DisneyToon has exclusively been a "Kiddie studio" up until now, just aiming for toddlers and little children. Right now, it's future is in jeopardy and the obvious thing to do is to shut it down since it's have never been a highly-regarded studio anyway. However, if the the Disney Company is willing to take a chance, I think they can turn DisneyToon into a revolutionary and daring studio. Either by making experimental and darker projects, or by tackling more mature TV shows, DisneyToon can join their big brothers as a valid animation studio. The future can be bright for DisneyToon, if the company is willing to take the risk.