The rise of independent podcasting, explained by someone who lived it.
My podcasting story is similar to most, in the sense that it is mostly…unique. A lot of people start different podcasts of various shapes and sizes, usually with similar goals in mind. But they’re all working within the same ecosystem of a burgeoning, on-demand streaming platform that has taken over traditional radio in the last decade.
Recently, The New York Times did an entire story on whether or not we’ve reached “Peak Podcast,” whatever that means:
Like the blogs of yore, podcasts — with their combination of sleek high tech and cozy, retro low — are today’s de rigueur medium, seemingly adopted by every entrepreneur, freelancer, self-proclaimed marketing guru and even corporation. (Who doesn’t want branded content by Home Depot and Goldman Sachs piped into their ears on the morning commute?) There are now upward of 700,000 podcasts, according to the podcast production and hosting service Blubrry, with between 2,000 and 3,000 new shows launching each month.
For context, there were approximately 270,000 podcasts available just four years ago. In short time, podcasting has developed into a mainstream pastime, and one that is still seeing new adoption overseas. How did this happen, and so quickly?
The answer depends on the type of podcast you’re curious about. I can’t speak much about podcasts owned by corporations, or shows that exist on major networks. Their machinations are removed from my own experience. But I can speak to the phenomenon of seemingly ordinary people gathering around a microphone and reaching an audience far larger than they anticipated.
In other words, I can probably best explain the rise of podcasting by sharing my own story with the medium, and how it’s changed and grown over the years. Six years, to be exact.
Throughout the movie, we watched Bo take charge. She gave orders, figured out solutions, and looked out for herself and others. There was still the story of lost love, but she didn’t just follow her heart. Bo proved that you can be smart, adventurous, and caring all at the same time — and these are all positive traits in a young girl.
In the lead up to Toy Story 4, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the writing for Bo Peep, a character who had been relegated to the background in previous films, now elevated to a major role in what is essentially a romantic comedy starring her and Woody.
Ingham perfectly outlines the core traits that bring out the best in this previously underwritten character, without making her feel like a totally different entity. This is still Bo Peep, voiced by Annie Potts. She’s just grown up a bit, as have we.
While Woody and the gang had been so fearful of being lost toys, Bo found a freedom within it. There was excitement, and she shared all about the fun of the adventure. She offered this message that it’s okay to step out of the nest. It’s scary, sure, but there are so many reasons to head out and explore. You’re missing more by restricting yourself.
Toy Story 4 is doing well at the box office. Three weeks into its release, the sequel has earned over $650 million worldwide, with a good chunk of that being made domestically (which means higher profits for Disney and Pixar).
Soon, Toy Story 4 will surpass Finding Nemo and Inside Out at the domestic box office, but it might only just barely catch up to Toy Story 3. It stands no chance of making the same amount as Finding Dory and Incredibles 2, which are two of the highest grossing animated films of all time.
This is a bit…unexpected. Box office prognosticators like myself predicted a much stronger showing for Toy Story 4, one that would at least keep pace with Finding Dory. Why? It’s a summer release, Toy Story is a beloved franchise, reviews have been stellar, and it’s been almost a decade since the last film. These were all factors that contributed to the massive box office success of Incredibles 2 in 2018 and Finding Dory in 2016.
The same just isn’t happening for Toy Story 4.
To reiterate, the film is doing extremely well by Pixar standards. Just not Pixar sequel standards (disregarding Cars 3, of course). The film should be outperforming Toy Story 3, taking into account inflation. What was $1 billion in 2010 amounts to a far greater sum in 2019. Pixar made Toy Story 4 with the hopes that it would make more profit, not about the same or slightly less.
It’s hard to pin down what’s precisely contributing to this underperformance. It’s been a weak year for animated movies overall at the box office, especially sequels. How to Train Your Dragon 3, The Lego Movie 2, and The Secret Life of Pets 2 have all done far worse business than their predecessors, even with good reviews on their side.
No matter the exact reason, at least one thing is clear. Pixar and Disney now have to reckon with the reality that the sequel gravy train isn’t as long-lasting as they might have hoped. New Pixar sequels won’t necessarily be huge moneymakers, for reasons that are admittedly nebulous and unpredictable. There’s a ceiling to how many movies Pixar can deliver within a single franchise before moviegoers get bored. Audiences just don’t seem to be as invested in a fourth Toy Story as they would be a fourth Avengers film, apparently.
But this is good news for Pixar fans. By and large, we want more original films from the studio, and the underperformance of Toy Story 4 lends credence to artists who want to challenge resourcing decisions. They can now argue that a slew of original Pixar films is badly needed in order to refresh their existing IP in the years before we get an Incredibles 3 or Inside Out 2, which are probably the only sequels most audiences would be curious to see anytime soon.
That said, there’s also a downside to Pixar rethinking their lineup of films in the latter half of the next decade (keep in mind, their next four films are already originals). Yes, they have new incentive to focus on original films because sequels to existing sequels simply aren’t guaranteed hits, but this unearths a new problem. What if Pixar stops making as many original films that don’t have to be franchise starters?
Put more simply, Pixar might stop making films like Coco and WALL-E because stories like that are too standalone in a cinematic landscape where franchises practically rule the box office. Why green light the next Ratatouille or Up when more resources and effort can be put into the next Incredibles, which is a film with so much spectacle, you can’t help but want it to continue.
My worry is that the next truly great original idea for a Pixar film might be tossed aside in favor of something more financially feasible. Or worse, an original idea might be tampered with in order to fit a sequel paradigm outside its intended draw. This is all speculation, and we simply don’t know what Disney and Pixar are truly considering for their next creative output. But we know they’re paying careful attention to what is making money at the box office right now. And they’re not films with satisfying conclusions. They’re films that never really end.
This post contains spoilers for Toy Story 4 and Avengers: Endgame…obviously.
At the end of Avengers: Endgame, one of the series protagonists chooses to end a long career of service to his community of friends and allies — including a longtime rival known for having multitudes of gadgets — after fulfilling one last mission in order to finally renew a life with the woman he loves, whom he thought was lost to him forever, thus saying goodbye to his old life and bestowing an old-fashioned symbol of his heroism and leadership upon someone who isn’t a white male.
At the end of Toy Story 4, one of the series protagonists chooses to end a long career of service to his community of friends and allies — including a longtime rival known for having multitudes of gadgets — after fulfilling one last mission in order to finally renew a life with the woman he loves, whom he thought was lost to him forever, thus saying goodbye to his old life and bestowing an old-fashioned symbol of his heroism and leadership upon someone who isn’t a white male.
Let’s break that down in case you don’t believe me.
At the end of[Avengers: Endgame/Toy Story 4], one of the series protagonists [Steve Rogers/Woody Pride] chooses to end a long career of service [being an Avenger/being Andy’s favorite toy] to his community of friends and allies — including a longtime rival known for having multitudes of gadgets — [Iron Man and the Avengers/Buzz and the other toys] after fulfilling one last mission [saving half of all existence/saving Forky]…
…in order to finally renew a life with the woman he loves [becoming lost in time in order to be with Peggy Carter/becoming a lost toy in order to be with Bo Peep], whom he thought was lost to him forever [his main duty to save the world forced them apart/his main duty to be there for Andy forced them apart]…
…thus saying goodbye to his old life [serving the needs of the world/serving the needs of a kid] and bestowing an old-fashioned symbol of his heroism and leadership [the Captain America Shield/the Sheriff Woody badge] upon someone who isn’t a white male [Sam Wilson the Falcon/Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl].
Toy Story 4 and Avengers: Endgame released in theaters within two months of each other.
Woody is up to the task at every turn, hefting enough emotional weight to reduce a grown man to weeping and equally heavy physical ones. He carries a doll several times his size, one-handed, while he zip-lines over a carnival. He lifts an RC car while suspended from Slinky.
And Woody’s not the only one.
These toys exhibit feats of strength more impressive than any Strong Man at the carnival. Which causes us to wonder: How exactly do they do it?
It turns out toys have a couple of advantages over humans and other animals.
This entire piece is an absolute blast of a read. Ward dives into the scientific explanations behind muscle fatigue and why the toys could be vessels of virtually unlimited power, similar to the Androids of DragonBall Z. This is truly nerdy content, and I’m so happy it exists.
With bodies constructed of cotton and fabric or plastic, they have their own biological constraints to deal with (constraints we can’t begin to understand. Like, how do they convert energy into movement at all?) but muscle fatigue isn’t one of them. Once a toy initiates a movement, via whatever processes they use to accomplish that, they could feasibly keep it up indefinitely.
You can read the entire article here (I highly recommend it).
I should explain something, first. For the last 7 months or so, I’ve been the Box Office Analyst for Atom Tickets, a fantastic ticketing app you can use for buying movie tickets on your phone. Every week, I break down the box office numbers for all the new releases on their news site Atom Insider, plus I do weekly previews of what’s coming out week to week.
It’s fun work, but I occasionally do features for them, as well. Recently, I wrote about the future of Pixar, which distills a lot of scattered speculation and news I’ve written about on this site. The piece should serve as a decent summary of what we know about the next decade of Pixar, and I also reflect on the studio’s past, mainly this decade in both financial and critical terms. I consider it a good read if you’re at all curious about what Pixar has in store for its fans.
And now, nine years later, we have Toy Story 4, which bookends a more curious decade for a studio that has undergone some dramatic changes. In that time, the studio’s co-founder and president Ed Catmull retired. Disney and Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, John Lasseter, was gradually dismissed due to claims of sexual harassment. And the studio’s theatrical output has garnered more mixed reactions from fans and critics overall.
Pixar released just four original movies instead of eight this past decade, and only two of them — Inside Out and Coco — are widely considered to be among the studio’s better work. And yes, we’ve seen plenty of sequels and even one prequel. From the liked, but not necessarily cherished Incredibles 2, Finding Dory, Cars 3, and Monsters University, to the downright resented Cars 2.
Of course, this isn’t really a negative piece.
But if Pixar traditions hold true, Toy Story 4 might also signal a return to form for the studio when it comes to storytelling. One that is bolstered by some positive signs of change.
Make no mistake, Pixar has changed a great deal over the last 9 years. My piece hopefully illustrates how those changes appear to be for the better, and how they might result in some better movies in terms of consistent quality. You can read the whole thing here.
After my first viewing of Toy Story 4, I confronted a lot of the movie’s themes on a mostly surface level. I followed Woody’s journey to its completion, and I reckoned with some of the more basic, obvious lessons the film imparts when it comes to realizing our purpose later in life, reexamining long-held worldviews, and letting go of the past in favor of new possibilities.
But this is Pixar, so there are of course even deeper lessons to confront and maybe even challenge. I came across a noteworthy line of criticism from film critic William Bibbiani, which takes aim at the film’s handling of our main antagonist, Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks).
Warning: spoilers for Toy Story 4 follow. If you have not seen the movie, I recommend you come back after doing so. You will be spoiled on parts of the ending, otherwise.
From Bibbs on Twitter:
Bibbiani brings up an interesting point here about ableism and identity, specifically as it relates to Gabby Gabby. You could argue that his point also concerns Forky, but he’s not a character trying to change himself so others will love him. He simply decides to accept a new role as a toy because he’s already loved for simply being himself.
No, it’s Gabby who has the more complicated turn as a character. She calls herself “defective” right out of the box because her voice box doesn’t work, hence she tries to steal Woody’s, all for the sole aim of gaining the love and affection of Harmony, a child in the antique shop. Ultimately, she succeeds in repairing her voice box after rationally pleading with Woody, who voluntarily gives it to her. But…Harmony still rejects her.
As Bibbs points out:
I jumped into the conversation, as well:
This is an intriguing perspective from Bibbs because ableism is one of the least-recognized downsides for a lot of films, usually because filmmakers don’t understand or think about these implications when telling stories about people with disabilities. By his estimation, Toy Story 4 stumbles in how it unintentionally (at best) sends a message about kids needing to change their flaws in order to be accepted and loved.
At this point in the conversation, I was unconvinced either way. I could see Bibbs’ point, which is one I’ve personally recognized in a lot of other films that handle these ideas carelessly. So I rewatched Toy Story 4 with this criticism in mind, ready to come out with a fresh perspective.
The result? Now, I see Toy Story 4 in a new light. Because it’s saying something surprisingly relevant, at least when it comes to my own disability. Let me explain.
I was born with a genetic hearing disorder. Basically, the bones in my ears have been bad at vibrating sound since I was a baby, so as I’ve gotten older, my hearing in both ears has harshly deteriorated. If I can hear you, I probably have no idea what you’re saying, or I might only catch half the words. It all sounds like a garbled mess to me, and the ringing in my ears doesn’t help.
In a lot of ways, I’m about as “defective” as Gabby Gabby. I’ve had a lot of trouble over the years connecting with people, mainly because I can’t hear them. And few will give me the time of day because they either think I’m ignoring them, not listening, or am just aloof. It’s the kind of disability where people don’t realize you have it unless you explain it. My version of getting a new voice box was getting hearing aids for the first time. They changed everything for me.
So while watching Toy Story 4 the second time, I nearly broke down as Gabby explained this to Woody. She felt like deep down, her identity was a connection based on being herself, or how she feels she’s supposed to be. I was equally blindsided by the moment when Gabby is still rejected by the person she’s yearned to be loved by for years. Without getting too personal, this has happened to me multiple times on a similar level.
Toy Story 4 isn’t a movie about changing yourself for others. It’s a movie about lending validity to what you truly want out of life. If you want to be loved, you deserve to go through whatever it takes to bring your true self to others, using any advantage you can acquire, as long as it doesn’t harm others (Gabby learns this thanks to Forky explaining Woody’s backstory to her). If you want to help people and devote your life to service, that’s OK, too. Woody learns this lesson about it being OK to change your mind about your purpose later in life, rejecting long-held fears of becoming a lost toy.
My disability isn’t a monolith. Not everyone should interpret this movie as a validation of feeling like you need to be “repaired” if you don’t want to be or think you need to be. Woody doesn’t want to change himself in order to become Bonnie’s favorite toy and thus relive the Andy days. He simply moves on to a group of people who love him for him. And losing his own voice box doesn’t make him a lesser toy in anyone’s eyes.
If anyone told me that I shouldn’t have gone through what I did in order to get hearing aids simply because people should just love me for me…well, I’d politely tell that person to mind their own business. Granted, that doesn’t have to be the same response for someone else with a different disability. But that’s the point. The beauty I saw in Toy Story 4 was in its embrace of other worldviews as plausible and worthy, and the fact that not everyone will want the same things you do in life is a hard, but useful lesson to learn.
In the scene where Gabby is eventually accepted by a lost child, they are indeed at least partly connected by the voice box working. But I see this as a wonderful moment, because for the first time, Gabby is heard for who she truly is. Sadly, not everyone can easily fix something like this. Woody can’t force Bonnie to love him like Andy did. Eventually, he stops trying because he knows she’ll be OK without him, and he’ll be OK without her.
I’ve already come across people who find my hearing aids off-putting in some way, even if they try to keep it to themselves. I can’t do anything about that. But with these little devices, I can finally be who I really am around people when I’m not typing away, alone in a room. I can go into a movie theater and stop struggling to understand what the characters are saying. That’s a gift, not me giving something up in order to make other people happy.
All that said, I’m still keeping an eye out for how other people are engaging with this film, for better or worse. A movie can’t be all things to all people, and even the best ones can have messages that need to be analyzed in how they might diversely affect different groups of people. If you had any complicated feelings about Toy Story 4 one way or other, please share in the comments below. You deserve to be heard.