Monday, April 17, 2006

The Wild tames

The weekend estimates for The Wild indicate a fourth place finish and less than $10 million (half of what Ice Age 2 made in it's third weekend). This is well below the forecasts I saw, and likely indicates a final domestic tally in the $30-40 million range... What does that mean for us in the animation industry? First, a digression. I divide feature animation into three production categories. There are the high-end domestic productions (mostly in California, but Blue Sky fits here, too), the super-cheap, primarily outsourced productions (Hoodwinked is the prototype), and the films in no-mans-land trying to straddle those two realms. We all know the films in the first category (by Pixar, DreamWorks/PDI, Disney Feature, Blue Sky, and soon Sony Pictures Animation) have a near-perfect record of success. No matter how films by smaller studios perform, these major players are going to stay the course. The second category is relatively new, and might have some promise, but clearly has tremendous risk. If you want to make a feature very, very cheaply, you'll need a lot of up-front time, energy, talent, and luck. And even then you'll need some decent financing to get to the point of attracting a distributor. The Wild falls into the third category. It was initiated as part of Eisner's shotgun approach to try to find a replacement for Disney's Pixar deal. Films in this category have fairly substantial budgets, and attract some good talent, but they clearly aren't in the big leagues (examples include Valiant, Jimmy Neutron, the upcoming Everyone's Hero, The Barnyard, The Ant Bully). The Wild falls in this category. I don't mean this to be insulting to these films or the people who make them -- I just think it's undeniable that these films don't have the same resources available. And I think this is the category that's going to suffer the most from the market shakeout that we're all expecting. The public won't say, "Hey this film only cost $40-60 million, not the $80-100+ million the majors spend, so let's give it a chance." They will simply continue to go to films that look really appealing, and ignore films that aren't. And making animated features is so labor intensive, and fraught with difficulty, that it's hard to cut the budget by tens of millions and not end up with something that looks bargain basement. So I think we're coming into a feature market that's close to all or nothing. Either make a film for a song, so your risk is minimal, or commit to spending a fortune on your infrastructure and your talent, so you can get every element right. The bar has been set too high, and these productions are just too expensive, to go part way and have a chance with an audience.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

While you may prove correct in your forecast, I don't believe there is any intrinsic reason while these "middle-budget" films ought to fail. The reason why they have so far is because they have been poor movies, fraught with bad decision-making.

Put into the hands of great film-makers, a middle-budgetted film can be a fantastic success. But if they are saddled with ugly designs (Valiant), or a derivitive story (Wild), or any number of bad decisions that have plagued these recent films, you'll end up with exactly what you deserve.

Find a truly talented storyteller, a "John Lasseter in the rough", give him a decent budget, and it'll soar.

spock foolish said...

To me, CG seems far less forgiving than 2D when it comes to producing decent looking animation for a midsize budget. The shortcuts really show.

Mark Mayerson said...

There's a business issue here. Cheap features are low risk for distributors. They pay low advances for the rights and they don't need a big box office gross in order to recoup their distribution costs or make a profit from distribution.

The middle-budgeted features are being made by studios that are not owned by major distributors. They are a bigger financial risk due to larger advances, and as the distributors don't own the films outright, there is a smaller potential upside for the distributors.

(Disney owns The Wild, but it doesn't own Valiant.)

Unless one of these middle-budget films is an instant hit, it's likely that it will be difficult for the studio to put a second feature into production. While they're waiting for their chance, the major studio cgi features will continue to improve and raise the bar even higher.

For this reason, I'm afraid that I agree with Kevin, even though I'm sorry that that the situation is what it is.

Kevin Koch said...

Anon, I completely agree that a really talented filmmaker could do wonders with a medium budget. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the model that most films in that category are following. And I didn't mean to imply that all of these films would fail, only that this is where I think most of the "shake-out" will occur.

Further, I think 'spock foolish' makes a key point about CG features, and the dangers of trying to do them either quicker or cheaper. I think this is less true of hand-drawn features, but it certainly applies with CG.

Mark, that's exactly the way I read the market. Until alternative distrubution avenues become viable, I'm afraid it will be tough for most mid-budget features to succeed from a business standpoint. They will need extra appealing characters, an extra great story, and then some luck.

Steve Hulett said...

Word is out that Tim Burton is backing a lower-budget cgi feature. I talked to a storyboard artist today who was approached to work on it at below his usual rate, and he turned the offer down.

"The recruiter said the company is asking people to 'sacrifice'. But there are plenty of jobs out in the marketplace right now. Why would I be interested in taking a cut if I didn't have to?"

Now, extrapoloate this to the larger CGI feature market. Is an audience going to "sacrifice" to give a lower budget animated feature a chance? Only if it grabs them. Otherwise, they stick to the high-quality, high-budget animated flicks that have become the benchmark for an increasingly fickle public.

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