Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra may have moved, but its creators contend the animated series isn’t going anywhere.
When the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender was suddenly pulled from the television schedule in favor of an online debut the week of Comic-Con International, fans worried that the future of the show was in peril. But co-creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino insist that — despite some questionable scheduling changes this year — their show is exactly where they want it to be creatively, and it will find its audience.
Ahead of the Season 4 premiere Friday on Nick.com, Spinoff spoke with DiMartino and Konietzko about the fate of The Legend of Korra, from the final battle over the new Air Nation to the benefits of digital distribution and on through to their plans for this final chapter.
Spinoff Online: San Diego was an up-and-down weekend for you, but what happened from your point of view with the move to put Korra online?
Michael DiMartino: The first thing to know is that nothing has changed as far as the show we’re making or its production. We’ve finished Book 3, and we’re well on the way to finishing Book 4. So this doesn’t change anything about the way the show is going to be creatively. It’s still going to be the same episodes we’ve been planning for years and years.
Bryan Konietzko: Basically, since Avatar ended in 2008 to when we went on the air in 2012 with Korra, the landscape of media and TV has changed. Just in the last year, the number of “cord cutters,” or whatever you want to call those getting rid of cable, is growing. We’re seeing digital streaming companies doing content with famous actors and getting Emmy nominations. There is just a sea change in the industry, and we’re caught right in the middle of it because our show does very well online. Huge numbers. The biggest event on Nick.com for all of last year was the Book 2 finale. It was giant. It was bigger online than it was on TV. So the network has known for a long time that the show’s audience really lived online. They don’t come to the channel as much.
And this could have been done differently. It could have been done smoother. They had a plan to do this, and then something changed. They tried it out on the channel, and it didn’t get much promotion because it was only a short warning. So it just didn’t do well.
DiMartino: It didn’t have the support it needed to do well. But it wouldn’t be “Book 3 — Change” without all this happening. [Laughter]
Konietzko: But the network does know that this show is huge internationally. It does really well for them there, and it does really well for them online — digital downloads, streaming, DVD and Blu-ray. It does well in all that stuff. So they know it has an audience. They just haven’t found a way to make it work on their channel. And the show does skew older. That’s become more of a factor than it was for Avatar. So could this have done smoother? Yes. Better timing? Sure. But this was kind of the way it was headed anyway. And we got the news the day before Comic-Con! [Laughter] I was trying to get some work done so I could [get to the show] when I got the call.
But for Mike and I, we’re not trying to make this show just to be on TV. We’re not trying to get a big ratings number. We’re trying to make this thing last. To us, this lives on DVD and in streaming and in reruns. It keeps finding people. Between Avatar and Korra the digital downloads, steaming and reruns on NickToons meant the audience got bigger. We really look at that. In two years if people are like, “I just found this show,” they’re not going to care that there was this bump in the road with the release.
Looking at Season 3 of the show, you really fanned out the story real estate more than ever before. Almost all of the prime players had their own stories running aside from what Korra was up to. What became the most important thread of the season to focus on?
DiMartino: It was all about this new Air Nation. As soon as we found that Korra’s mission was to find these people and rebuild this nation, that really provided the core thrust for the first half of the season. And then it plays into the end of the season as well. This was something really important because it was carrying on Aang’s legacy — this was something he would have like to see happen — and it also ties into the Avatar’s job of rebalancing the world. Maybe these people wouldn’t have all come together naturally. They needed someone to bring them together.
Konietzko: And then we got to balance that with the bad guys, which was really fun. I remember trying to find the best way to balance those two stories. It was fun because it was nice to have the thrust of the season be something positive. It wasn’t a big war. That was something new for us. So it was fun, but then we balanced it out with four terrible criminals.
And with those characters come the return of Zuko and some of other threads that reach back to Avatar. When you planned out the whole series, were these some of the long-term dominoes you had in mind?
DiMartino: I think with stuff like Zuko, that was always one of the cards we were holding. It was like, “We’d love for this guy to come back, but where do we want to do that?” We didn’t want it to be one of those things where just threw it in in Book 1. We already had a million ideas there …
Konietzko: And so many characters.
DiMartino: Yeah. So with all of that, we have to look at each season in terms of how we pare it down to the core characters. And with the Red Lotus guys, it made sense that we could tie together when they tried to take Korra in her past and Zuko being there. It just fit as a story about trying to make up for something in the past.
Konietzko: It’s funny because fans see him back, and they love that guy so they expect to see him in every episode from here on out. But it’s like, if that was the case every episode would just be three seconds of every character. [Laughs] You’ve got to push some pieces to the side and think of it like gardening. You’ve got to wait for things to ripen before you can pluck them.
One of the main features of Korra personality is that she’s super-headstrong, and her overconfidence gets in her way a lot of the time, though that’s softened a bit over Season 3. With all the planning you do, is it those character ideas that develop on their own?
Konietzko: Not to say that we have every little nuance and turn and up-and-down plotted out from the beginning, but if anything, we know what the character arc will be from the beginning. That’s more than, “Let’s bring this guy back.” Mike and I talk about scenarios and things like that — like “this is kind of a jazz age city” — but not until we have the character does the world open up. When we thought of Korra, she was pugnacious and a go-getter. She really embraces her role. So if she was already there when we started the show, where could we take her? It was humility and self-awareness and maturity through taking her on a spiritual arc. So it’s kind of the opposite arc that Aang had.
DiMartino: That’s what I loved about the first couple of seasons. She’s on more of a selfless mission. She’s not actively trying to defeat something right away. She’s trying to rebuild this thing and create something beautiful and new. It’s cool to see her almost as a maternal figure in bringing back the Air Nation.
I know that in Season 2, Varick was the character that everyone kind of immediately latched onto. Did you guys have a standout addition to the cast in Season 3?
DiMartino: There are so many good ones. I love Opal. There’s something about her and Bo Lin’s relationship that’s really sweet. I wanted to write a character that was just a … nice girl. But without it being boring! That was the tricky part.
Konietzko: You don’t want to make her stereotypical. But she seems genuine.
DiMartino: Yeah, she’s this girl who’s grown up under her mother’s shadow and finds she has this ability. She has the struggle of leaving her family to pursue this new course she’s on. The design on her is great too.
Konietzko: And Su Yin, her mother, who is the matriarch of the Metal Clan is fun. And then Zahir … really all the baddies are fun.
DiMartino: I love the whole Beifong sisters story and the introduction of the city.
So with the clash between the new Air Nation and the Red Lotus driving the finale, what can you say about where the story will go with the fourth and final season?
Konietzko: We don’t want to give anything away because people can see it soon enough, but let’s say that everything comes together in a big way.