Saturday, June 30, 2007

Rat On Top

(Despite the picture, we're not implying that Mr. Willis is a rat, even though his new flick is the top live-action feature in the marketplace. There are only so many Pixar visuals we like to put up in a given week.)

To nobody's particular surprise, Ratatouille collected $16.6 million in its Friday opening, landing at Numero Uno.

Predictably, the other two animated features that have been sailing along are now victims of Brad Bird's backwash, falling out of the top ten...

Shrek the Third occupied the 11th position on Friday, with a $311,891,000 total. Surf's Up now hangs ten in the twelfth spot, with a cume to date of $52,219,000.

The top live action flick (did we say?) is Live Free or Die Hard at #2, gripping a $25,626,000 cume after a Wendesday bow. Welcome back to the upper reaches of the chart, Bruce. It's been kind of a dry spell, big guy...

(This will be a heavy five or six days, what with July 4th falling on Wednesday.)

Update: As the AP reports:

LOS ANGELES - Disney has put a rodent on top of the box office, though not the studio's venerable mascot, Mickey Mouse.

"Ratatouille," an animated comedy about a gourmet rat that gets a chance to cook in a French restaurant, debuted as the No. 1 weekend movie with $47.2 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.

20th Century Fox's action thriller "Live Free or Die Hard," Bruce Willis's return as unstoppable cop John McClane, opened in second-place with $33.15 million. Since opening Wednesday, the movie has grossed $48.2 million.

Sadly, predictably, Shrek 3 (#11 and $313,811,000) and Surf's Up (#12 and $53,814,000) took negative hits of 51.4% and 63.5%.

Update II: Look for some press hand-wringing about how Ratatouille underperformed its predecessors. But $47 million is just shy of many analysts' projections in a competitive weekend.

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The 'Toon Linkage of Our Lives

Yet another round of animation news from all points of the globe...

Sony Pictures Imageworks breaks ground on its brand spanking new Albuquerque studio, and New Mexico rejoices:

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will speak at a groundbreaking ceremony today for a new studio for Sony Pictures Imageworks, the digital effects and animation arm of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

The 100,000-square-foot facility will be located in Mesa del Sol, a master-planned community development south of the Albuquerque International Sunport. The studio is expected to initially create 100 new jobs.

Hey. They're not building it in India...

And the MSM reports on the various handicapping on the box office opening of Ratatouille (this weekend's great parlor game):

SMH Capital analyst David Miller sees the opening weekend of "Ratatouille" slightly surpassing "Cars," with a $65 million debut and an ultimate global box office take of $572 million.

"For the CGI (computer-generated image) animated films, we are not going to place as much emphasis (on the debut) as the global ultimates," Miller said. "Our research shows that families of kids will skip the opening weekend," Miller said.

Deutsche Bank analyst Doug Mitchelson forecast an opening "lower than recent Pixar films" at about $50 million, but said strong reviews could boost its domestic box office take above $200 million.

The honcho of DWA rolls out the future of CGI:

His name is Jeffrey Katzenberg, he is the CEO of DreamWorks Animation, and he has come to announce both the death and the rebirth of cinema as we know it. “I can honestly say to you with every ounce of conviction in my being: I have seen the future of movies, and this is it.”

Katzenberg is talking about 3-D. Yes, I know, it’s been knocking around since the Fifties, mostly as a camp exercise in camera kitsch in movies such as Bwana Devil or House of Wax, or later as novelty value in Jaws 3-D, or later still in 3-D IMAX versions of “regular” blockbusters such as Superman Returns.

But this time, says Katzenberg, it’s different...

Just what a weary, troubled world has been waiting for. News of a Ninja Turtles sequel...

As of two weeks ago Imagi Entertainment (the TMNT movie animation studio) informed Mirage Studios that there was a 50-50 chance of a CGI film sequel. Last week they upped the odds to 70-30 in favor of a sequel, as talks between Imagi and their distribution partners Warner Brothers and the Weinstein Group seem to be heading in a positive direction....

And while we're on the Weinsteins (who co-financed the latest turtle flick), the Hollywood Reporter offers more detail on the W. brothers' 'toon alliance with the Korean government:

The Weinstein Co., animation management powerhouse Gotham Group and the provincial Chungcheongnam-do government of South Korea have joined forces to produce and distribute animated feature films.

The Weinstein Co. and Gotham Group also have entered a multiyear, first-look deal that will give the Weinsteins access to a steady supply of animation and family entertainment talent and content.

The movies will be based on work from Gotham Group's client list of more than 350 directors, writers and illustrators including Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, the creators of "The Spiderwick Chronicles"; Doug TenNapel, who wrote and drew the graphic novel "Creature Tech"; and animation director Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas"). Material also will come from outside sources.

The movies produced will be computer-generated, and while financial details were not disclosed, it is known that the money in place will ensure that six to 10 films in the $40 million range will be made for theatrical distribution... recounts the rise of Laika Animation from the ashes of the Will Vinton studio in Portland, Oregon. And profiles the people who made it happen -- Phil "running shoes" Knight and his son Travis:

After the advertising market plummeted following September 11, with Vinton Studios near bankruptcy, Phil dipped into his billions and saved the company. And Travis's job. Now the largest shareholder, Phil asked his son and a couple of Nike veterans to join the board of directors. Travis was relieved about Vinton, but uneasy about his new role. Not only was he now the boss's son, he was about to become his bosses' boss, whatever that meant. He feared what must be going through their heads: What the hell does this kid know?

The board met in a conference room at Vinton. There was Will Vinton himself, with his handlebar mustache, the creative genius who'd put the studio on the map in the 1980s with the California Raisins. (He'd be gone in a matter of months.) There was Phil, the new chairman of the board. And there was Travis, the youngest and quietest director, taking it all in, feet throbbing in his shoes.

"I said yes," Travis says of Phil's request to join the board. "But I didn't know what it meant."

New episodes of George of the Jungle roll out from Studio B in Vancouver, Canada...

The Man from J.U.N.G.L.E. is back. An updated version of George of the Jungle, produced by Vancouver's Studio B animation studio, makes its basic-cable debut tonight on the all-toons/all-the-time specialty channel Teletoon...

Purists have grumbled that the new version has none of the character or animation style of the original, but that's a natural reaction: the new George of the Jungle owes more to postmodern 'toons like Spongebob Squarepants than it does the golden era of Disney animation.

We'll end with a longer remembrance of animator/director Art Stevens, who passed away May 22:

Stevens started [at Disney] as in-betweener and was soon assigned to work on FANTASIA, and contributed his artistic talents to the "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," "Pastoral Symphony," "Nutcracker Suite," and "Night on Bald Mountain" segments. He went on to in-between on BAMBI (1942), and several other features before achieving full character animator status on Peter Pan (1953). His credits also include ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS, WINNIE THE POOH AND THE BLUSTERY DAY, MARY POPPINS and the underwater sequence from the 1971 Disney feature, BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS...

Have a safe and sane July 4th weekend...

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Retirement Blues?

I've now ended my quarterly 401(k) enrollment marathon, and so my thoughts are (unsurprisingly) on retirement issues. Now that I have time to breathe, I'll put up this down trip from the Wall Street Journal:

...If you retired today with $1 million and invested that money in 10-year inflation-indexed Treasurys, you could lock in a yield of around 2.7%, which means your initial annual income would be just $27,000. By contrast, if you had bought newly issued 10-year inflation-indexed Treasurys in early 2000, you would have garnered $43,000...

I take a little issue with Jonathan Clements, author of the Wall Street Journal piece, because he spins his scenario in the gloomiest possible terms. And his terms aren't, I don't think, tethered securely to real-world results.

Like, if you put the mill into a short term treasury bond fund, you'd pull down 4.5-5%. (Over the past ten years, Vanguard's short-term treasury fund has paid 4.83%. Last year it was 4.68%.)

If you put the mill into laddered Certificates of Deposit, you'd be collecting over 5%.

If you put the mill into, say, Fidelity Asset Manager 20% (80% bonds, 20% stocks), you'd have gotten a return of around 6.5% over ten years.

And if you had put the million into Vanguard's Wellington Fund (which has a 60% stock, 40% bond mix), you would have collected almost 10% on your money over the past ten years. (Since the fund's start in 1929, the yearly earnings have averaged 8.49%.)

To sum up, if you'd deposited that million into Wellington ten years back, you'd have collected just under $100,000 (averaged) per year. The very conservative Fidelity Asset Manager would have made you 65 thousand per annum. Vanguard's short term Treasury fund -- which pays the least of any of its short-term funds, would have gotten you $46,800 each year.

Sure, a million dollars doesn't go as far as it used to, but a lot of animation veterans who've been around for twenty or thirty years probably have a net worth that's close to a mill, counting the equity in their houses. And I know any number of artists in their twenties and thirties who've managed to build up savings in their 401(k)s and are already vested in the Motion Picture Industy's Pension Plan. Those things put them in the middle of the road to finanacial independence.

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History Snapshot: The Mintz Studios

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At the Charles Mintz Studios, mid-1930s. From left to right: Music composer Joe DeNat, animator Manny Gould, Harry Love, Charles Mintz, Al Rose, Ben Harrison, animator Jack Carr.

Today Charles Mintz is remembered -- if he's remembered at all -- as the guy who swiped Oswald the Rabbit from Walt Disney. But Mr. Mintz was briefly a player in animation, from the 1920s until his death at age 44 in 1940.

This is a shot of his California studio when he was releasing through Columbia Pictures and battling the Disney powerhouse. And failing. He managed to get two shorts nominated for Academy Awards in the 1930s, and lost out to Disney both times.

Disney was most likely pleased.

(This photograph -- from Bob Foster -- appeared in the Leonard Maltin book on animation, but since I worked on it awhile before finding this out, I throw it up now as a late-night sacrificial lamb. Feel free to ignore it.)

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Around El Studios

A busy week, what with all the 401(k) meetings at all the different studios (me going "blah blah...asset classes...blah...saving for retirement...blah blah blah"). I get tired of hearing the sound of my voice.

At Film Roman-Chandler Street, King of the Hill reaches the middle of its current teevee season, with episode #9 (out of 21) starting production next week. Staff is working its way back to being a well-oiled machine after the previous well-oiled machine got dismantled for three months when Fox thought it was all done making new episodes, but then changed its mind.

At Film Roman/Starz Media near the Burbank airport, most staffers who were on the Simpson Movie have now returned to the Mother Ship known as the television series. Only a few stragglers remain on movie-related items like commercials and interstitials. But the Big Movie is o-ver. (As it would have to be, since the film comes out July 27th.)

At DreamWorks, most people I talk to think Kung Fu Panda is shaping up as a top-notch animation entry.How to Train Your Dragon has Peter Hastings at the helm and an accelerated schedule on story and production for a Fall 2009 release.

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WSJ on Ratatouille

The Wall Street Journal weighs in on the box office prospects for Pixar's Ratatouille:

Pixar has a track record of generating family-friendly hits, and the new movie has gotten positive reviews. Still, there are signs that getting the word out on the new film is more of a struggle than usual. In a move seen in Hollywood as an admission that Pixar has a challenge on its hands in a competitive summer, Disney recently held more than 800 sneak-preview screenings of the film on a Saturday night. Such tactics are usually reserved for films that studios believe need an extra boost. "It's not an easy film to sum up," says director Brad Bird. "Disney decided that the best advertisement for the film was the film itself."

The sneaks may have helped. Firms that track potential moviegoers reported a jump in awareness and interest in the movie.

So, despite the fonder wishes of Jim Hill's executive correspondent at the Mouse House (whoever it is), Brad Bird's latest might perform pretty well.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A New Feature Animation Shingle

Variety informs us that a new (or maybe reconfigured?) feature animation group is entering the fray...

A trio of toon veterans are launching Frederator Films as an indie feature film company with a mission to produce 2-D animated genre movies budgeted below $20 million.

Fred Seibert's partnered with Kevin Kolde and Eric Gardner, with all three acting as producers on the projects. Seibert's the former president of Hanna-Barbera and longtime producer via Frederator Studios, which debuted a decade ago with "Oh Yeah! Cartoons" for Cartoon Network; that show spun off "Cow & Chicken," "Powerpuff Girls" and "Dexter's Laboratory," and Frederator followed with "The Fairly OddParents," "ChalkZone" and "My Life as a Teenage Robot" for Nickelodeon.

Fred I've known a long time. (Kevin and Eric, not so much.) I'll be interested in knowing where and when they set up shop, because more animation employment is always a good thing.

..."Fred is the master at identifying voids in the marketplace and filling them with paradigm-shifting content," Gardner said. "There has been a dearth of both 2-D and genre animated feature product, which Frederator Films will be rectifying." Pics will be aimed at young males.

It sounds like a doable plan. I'm looking forward to seeing it fly.

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Art Stevens, RIP

Over at Disney's this p.m., and I found out from Burny Mattinson that longtime Disney Animation veteran Art Stevens has passed away...

Art came to Disney's in 1940, and worked at the Mouse House his entire career. A longtime assistant for John Lounsberry, Art was elevated to feature director on The Rescuers when Lounsberry died. He ended up the lead director on The Fox and the Hound and finished his career with The Black Cauldron.

I worked with Art on F and H, and thought he did a commendable job in pulling the film together. (During its making, half the animation crew departed, and there was some fierce infighting among the directors.) That the feature turned out as well as it did is much to Art's credit.

Born in 1915, Art was 92 when he died. It was good knowing you Arthur. I will always have fond memories of the time we worked together.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

JMH and Whining Execs

Got a call today from a reporter who asked me if things were as awful as Disney Animation as Jim Hill and his Media make out.

Since I'm not a regular customer over at JMH, I answered the gent's questions and then took a cyber-stroll over to Big Jim's place to see how bad the awfulness at Disney Animation actually was:

Here's the official party line for the Walt Disney Company nowadays : That everyone who works in Burbank is just thrilled that John Lasseter & Ed Catmull now exert so much control over the corporation. More importantly, that all Mouse House employees have been eager to embrace Pixar's "Quality is a great business plan" aesthetic.

Okay. Now do you want to know what's really going on? Take a gander at this excerpt from an e-mail that I received late last week from a Disney executive:

There are a lot of people here who are now actively hoping for a Pixar backlash. The transition has not been handled well, due mostly to the great care & attention that's being lavished on Pixar....

Many of us here feel that Disney's own executives (Who in some cases have decades of working experience) are needlessly being forced to take a backseat to the crew from Emeryville. Meanwhile the people from Pixar are afforded stronger creative control, get superior treatment, receive more credit and have their asses kissed regularly by Iger & associates.

The good news is that all of this may all change once "Ratatouille" 's box office receipts get counted. Though Brad Bird has made a great little movie, it won't hit the B.O. numbers that Wall Street wants and that will get a lot of attention...

Wow. Pretty bad, all right. (Jim and Sharon Morrill -- one of those Disney execs with "decades of experience" -- appear to be exchanging e-mails.)

Me, I'm just your garden-variety union thug. Certainly not the all-seeing, all-knowing JMH, with spies and tentacles everywhere. All I've got is my pair of size-twelve feet to carry me around the various halls and rooms and cubicles at Disney Animation and talk to people. So I'm at a big disadvantage, and fully understand how, next to JMH, I'm an ignorant moron.

But here's the deal. Disney Animation has endured two sets of management changes in its recent past: Eisner replaced by Iger, then Stainton replaced by Catmull/Lasseter. And let's face it: any time there's a single management change let alone two, transitions can get choppy and brutal. Status quos get upended. People who the incoming management decides are less than wonderful get tossed out. Often this is, from an objective point-of-view, unfair.

But this is Hollywood, where unfair is a way of life.

And here's also the deal. There've been a lot of layoffs at Disney Animation, and a lot of semi-forced departures of long-time executives. So naturally there is a lot of disgruntlement (I've heard much of it.)

And whattayaknow? There are a lot of folks out there wanting the people who pushed them out of the high seat to be brought down several pegs. (In the jolly 1980s, when I was slipped the axe by Disney management, one of those people was moi.)

In any studio, there are always three groups of citizens: 1) the contented and happy, 2) the "Oh, things are okay, but..." crowd, and 3) the discontented and unhappy.

No matter how wonderfully well the studio is running, you have these three groups.

And no matter how hellish and Guantanomo-like a studio is, you have these three groups.

The difference between good studio and bad is the size of each group. At the good studio, the happy crowd predominates. At the bad place, misery reigns supreme. But you always have a few employees in categories 1) through 3).

At Disney Animation right now, there are employees in production who are edgy and wondering what's going to happen. They're not "contented and happy." They haven't been thrilled with some of the recent happenings at DAS. But up on the third floor in the story department, story artists seem to be whistling while they work. The hovering execs of earlier regimes have disappeared, and the artists create their storyboards without some MBA offering his generous opinion every fifteen minutes. They like the idea of animation story people having the opinions that count. They like what's happening at Disney now.

So you can list these folks under category 1): happy and contented. And they want to see the studio to succeed. As do, truth to tell, a lot of the less happy employees on other floors. (Go figure.)

Are there people around and about hoping the new management team falls on its face? No doubt. But most of them aren't currently working for Disney Animation.

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The Unknown VIP

Vip Partch -- Water On The Brain

See this book cover? It belongs to Virgil Partch's collection of WWII cartoons, published in 1945. Water on the Brain has some of VIP's funniest drawings. But it doesn't have this: Vip Partch -- WOB frontispiece

This drawing is on the fly leaf of the copy of Brain that's been in the family for sixty-plus years. It shows Partch on the left, Ralph Hulett (the artist with a mission) in the middle, and a naked woman -- apparently a willing canvas -- on the right.

Hulett and Virgil Partch were buddies at Chouinard's, and went to Disney's at around the same time (the late '30s.) Partch left in the early 1940s to become a major print cartoonist, Hulett remained at Disney.

I don't know what Partch was getting at in drawing this 'toon for my father, but I think it had something to do with Hulett's tendency to paint during every waking moment.

Maybe there's more to it than that, but it's better if I don't travel there.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Studios on Monday

At Warners Animation, Sander has moved on and new studio boss Lisa Judson takes the helm on July 2 after coming out from New York. The top floor of the Warner Animation building is filled with new cubicles and animation desks, primed and ready for more productions and staff (ditto for the one-story structure on the other side of the Warner Ranch parking lot.) Hopefully Ms. Judson will make that happen.

Meanwhile, work proceeds apace on Tom and Jerry, The Batman, and The Legion of Super Heroes -- all with 13 episodes each. Crew will be cycling off The Batman in the next few weeks, even as artists come aboard for Scooby Doo and the Shadow Goblins, the big dog's latest direct-to-video feature.

Over at Nick, production and series is expanding as a couple of new shows ramp up and management works to figure out where to house new staff. I tried to get a list of everything that's now in work and was told: "Wait a few weeks until everything is firmed up. Then we'll tell you."

So I guess I wait a few weeks.

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The End of Cheap Sequels

The BIG trade paper reports:

Game, set, match Pixar.

With last week's reorg of Disney animation, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull gained control over all Mouse House feature toons and won their pitched battle against DVD sequels.

Disney Toon is now a separate unit of Walt Disney Animation Studios under their aegis...

A year-plus ago, when I bopped through DisneyToon Studios on Sonora, a mucky-muck said to me with a funny smile: "Oh. We're not part of the Disney Feature chain of command anymore. We report to the main lot now. Not features."

This was soon after the Pixar acquisition. Soon after Mr. Catmull and Mr. Lasseter made their way down to Burbank for the first time. It turned out to be true. One of the rumors that swirled was that Sharon Morrill asked Robert Iger not to put DisneyToon under Disney Feature anymore.

Whether that was the way it went down, or whether the story is just one more urban myth, I have no idea. But what seems to be reality is the changes at DTS as related above.

The days of sequels are fini.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Inevitable "Too Many?" Question

What with Ratatouille rolling out in a week, director Brad Bird got presented with the usual inane statement:

Some critics say there's an overload of animated movies...

I'll be frank. The supposition always makes me crazy. It's a symptom, I think, of the press wanting a quick and easy theory as to why movie X doesn't perform "up to expectations." But Mr. Bird has a good answer:

It's kind of like saying, "Is there a movie overload?" There's only a movie overload if they're bad. If they're good, it's just like, "Yeehaw!" The problem with animation is too many people are making the same movie. There's nothing wrong with the medium. The medium is as big as the sky, but you have to go to different places in the sky. You can't just go to the same cloud and expect people to get excited about it, with the jabbering sidekicks and the pop references and the hit pop songs.

It's simple, really. When you create a film the population doesn't want to see, it doesn't go see it. (And mostly, they don't want to see the same damn film over and over.)

And when you do turn out something new, fresh, and entertaining? Why, the greenbacks tumble down on you like snow in a Texas blue norther.

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WGAw's Upcoming Election Contest

We'll take a moment now to note a story from the House of Labor.

The WGAw is going to be having an election for new officers in September. And I think a lot of players in the entertainment industry will be watching with interest.

WGA West president Patric Verrone will face board member Kathy Kiernan for the presidency of the guild in an election held against the backdrop of upcoming negotiations. The WGA West disclosed the candidates list on Friday -- three weeks prior to the July 16 launch of what are expected to be contentious contract talks with studios and nets.

A total of 23 candidates for 11 offices were selected by the guild's nominating committee. Ballots for the election will be counted Sept. 18, six weeks prior to the Oct. 31 expiration of the current contract.

...Verrone's background is in TV animation, working on such shows as "Futurama"; Kiernan is a CBS newswriter...

I know less than nothing about the internal political dynamics of the WGA (west or east). I've no idea how popular or unpopular Mr. Verrone is. So of course I'll make a prediction.

Mr. Verrone will be returned to office for another term.

The WGA has been prepping for contract negotiations for a year or more, and it makes no sense to me that he would lose re-election while the negotiations are going on. The WGA membership -- I think -- will vote to play the hand it dealt itself two years ago to a conclusion, which means it will re-elect the architects of the WGA's "pattern of demands" and see where the pattern takes it.

The alternative to this scenario makes no logical sense to me. But I could have my head embedded far up my large intestine.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

June Turnstiles Twirl

Evan Almighty charges out of the Friday box office gate with $11.1 million and the #1 pole position, proving again that Steve Carell made the right career move in leaving The Daily Show...

John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson (the Donald Crisp/Alan Hale Sr. of the current era) scored with 1408, which rakes in $7.5 million for the second slot in the derby.

And where are the animated features? Why, at #7 and #8, where Surf's Up has reached $48.6 million and Shrek the Third has crossed the $300 million threshold.

Friday's Variety had these observations about the Summer of 2007's box office performance:

Despite predictions that summer 2007 would mark the clash of the tentpoles, the season is actually turning out to be a very good one for the studios...

The top three movies at the domestic B.O. this year are "Spider-Man 3" ($333.6 million), "Shrek the Third" ($299.6 million); and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" ($277 million).

As of June 17, box office was up 7% for the year compared with 2006. And this summer is running 1% ahead of 2004, the biggest on record.

Update: And as the weekend comes to an end, Evan Almighty collects $32,112,000. Which means that the comedy feature will end its run in the $100 million to $125 million range, depending on the breaks.

The Stephen King horror fest 1408 returns $20,175,000, while the comic book heroes in Fantastic 4 also break the $20 million ceiling. Knocked Up drops a mere 24.4% to collect $10,663,000 as it closes on the $100 million marker.

The animation contingent showed some legs, with seventh-ranked Surf's Up dropping just 27.6% to collect $6,700,000, and Shrek the Third (now residing at #8) showed a 36.1% drop as it reached $307,908,000.

Next week, Ratatouille drops into the box office bouillabaisse and things will be...ah...changing.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

One More Weekend Link Fest

DreamWorks Animation invades BURBANK! DWA has been in Glendale since it moved form the Lakeside Building in fabled Universal City. Now, however, it will have a satellite space near Bob Hope Airport...

DreamWorks Animation LLC executed a lease deal for 14,786 square feet of office space at 2842 Ontario St. in Burbank, CA. The deal will have the animation giant occupy this space for the next five years.

Over the past few years, I've heard this question more than once: "Is all our animation going to India?" But apparently Indian animation honchos are asking: "Where are the Indian animators?"

“Barring one or two films, I am not happy with the quality of animated movies being made in the country,” [Indian animation director V.G.] Samanth said. “People are entering into the business just to make quick money. They produce low cost, low quality animation movies.” The Indian animation industry is predicted to reach $869 million by 2010, representing a compounded annual growth rate of 25 percent over 2006-2010, according to the Economic Times article. Currently, 300 small, medium and big animation companies employ approximately 12,000 people in India.

(I've never believed the animation biz will disappear from Los Angeles, mainly because the gravitational pull of top-flight animation talent here is so strong...)

In line with our earlier post about the shake-up at DisneyToon Studios, AP reports that sequels to the old Disney classics are coming to an end:

LOS ANGELES – In a major strategy shift, the Walt Disney Co. said it will stop making lucrative direct-to-DVD sequels of such classic animated films as “Cinderella,” a move that reflects the growing influence of former Pixar Animation executives John Lasseter and Steve Jobs, who once called the films “embarrassing.”

The change comes with a shake-up at the company's DisneyToon Studios, including the removal of longtime president Sharon Morrill, who will continue with the company in another capacity, Disney said Friday.

DisneyToon Studios will become part of Walt Disney Feature Animation and report directly to Animation President Ed Catmull and Lasseter, who assumed roles there after Disney bought Pixar Animation Studio last year for $7.4 billion in stock.

Of course, the story above doesn't point out that prior to Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, DisneyToon Studios did report to Feature animation. (Also note that the AP calls "Disney Animation Studios" by its older handle: "Walt Disney Feature Animation." But we pick nits.)

And as Pixar/Disney scored big in the licensing department with Cars, so DreamWorks aims to cash in with a lucrative deal for its forthcoming martial arts bear:

Mattel will be creating a wide range of products across multiple categories of action figures, games, plush and role play for the forthcoming DreamWorks Animation release Kung Fu Panda. Mattel is the No. 1 toy company in the world and also includes the Fisher-Price and Radica Brands in its Mattel Brands portfolio. DreamWorks Animation's latest release, "Shrek the Third," continues to score in theaters around the world, as one of the biggest hits of the summer.

Hong Kong-based Imagi, the studio that produced TMNT, has got more animated fare in its production pipeline:

Hong Kong-based Imagi Studios, the creative force behind TMNT, will be releasing two manga-based films, Gatchaman and Astro Boy, next year and in 2009 respectively.

Where comic book superheroes and videogame adaptations made the rounds in Hollywood just a few years ago, it’s old cartoon franchises that are calling the shots these days...

TMNT director Kevin Munroe told TODAY...“I’d say it’s because a lot of people who grew up on these cartoons are now getting into decision-making positions within studios.”

And they’re giving these cartoons a computer-generated spit-and-polish which will not only attract fanboys but also a new generation of movie-goers.

“We’re basically making films for eight to 18-year-olds,” commented Imagi’s co-CEO Doug Glen, noting that there are few feature-length cartoons for those in this age group.

And I'll bet you've been waiting for this important news:

American Greetings Properties (AGP), the intellectual property and outbound licensing division of American Greetings Corporation, and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, LLC (TCFHE) have agreed to expand and build upon their current, successful partnership with a new long-term deal, it was announced today. This new agreement grants TCFHE the exclusive marketing and distribution rights in North America, to several additional franchises from AGP’s impressive roster that are being developing into animated series and specials.

Leading the way is the highly-buzzed about Sushi Pack which chronicles the adventures of five crime-fighting pieces of sushi, and the all-new Care Bears series. Both animated programs will receive significant national television exposure as they debut this fall as part of CBS’s Saturday morning programming block.

Needless to say, I'll be glued to my set this September, following every exciting move of these crime-fighting pieces of sushi. (Thank God it's pieces of sushi, and not pieces know...something else.)

Finally, we link again to Will Finn's Small Room and his excellent missive from Ward K. This has been linked by lots of other animation sites in the blogosphere, and we do like to follow the crowds. (We'll also link, while we're at it, to Ward Kimball's lengthy TAG blog interview here, here and here. Oh yeah, also here and here.)

Have a most harmonious and prosperous weekend.

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Central California Coast

Near Bishop

Another Hulett landscape. A mid-sixties painting, this one of a farm located in Steinbeck Country, in the Central California coastal range...

I mean, aren't all those white birds marauding seagulls? From in off the Pacific?

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Change At Top of Diz Toons?

Word is now circulating that the top-kick at Disney Toon Studios will be moving on:

John Lasseter, the new all-powerful Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Studios, has caused a major commotion in Burbank this week. As per a report on the website, Lasseter on Tuesday relieved 13-year Disney Toon Studios President Sharon Morrill of her duties while making it clear that the studio will no longer be in the business of direct-to-DVD animated feature sequels and one-off's.

I don't know how much of the above is accurate. I also don't know how much commotion has actually been caused. I've been to Disney Toons, TVA and Disney Animation Studios a lot since the start of the week, and everyone working at those places seems to be soldiering on gallantly.

But I've been hearing from Disney Animation staffers for some days now that, indeed, there have been exec changes over at the animated sequels shop in Glendale. I opted to maintain a dignified silence about it, waiting for some eagle-eared citizen of the internets to burst forth with the information. Now that JMH has blown the lid off the story, I guess there's no reason to stay clammed up, is there?

We wish Ms. Morrill well in her future endeavors.

Update: The Morrill departure has now moved from the blogosphere into the entertainment press. Variety headlines its take on the Toon change: Disney Tosses Toons Topper. Morrill sacked over 'Tinkerbell' problems.

Update II: Here's yet another story with another unkind headline.

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AFI's Top 100 Films -- Part Two

The American Film Institute has updated its "One Hundred Best Films" list. A decade ago, they announced the tabulation of top films, and now the Big List is freshened with a few changes:

Older films that did not make the cut on the 1998 list broke into the top-100 this time, led by Buster Keaton's 1927 silent comedy "The General" at No. 18. Others included 1916's "Intolerance" (No. 49), 1975's "Nashville" (No. 59), 1960's "Spartacus" (No. 81), 1989's "Do the Right Thing" (No. 96) and 1995's "Toy Story" (No. 99).

Citizen Kane again takes the top spot. Animated features hold down exactly two positions: Snow White at #34 and Toy Story at #99.

Lists like the AFI's "Hot 100" are always a little silly. Trying to decide "best" or "second best" is like trying to decide which flavor of Ben and Jerry's ice cream is the most tasty. You get a hundred different palates, you'll get a hundred different answers. I happen to be crazy about How Green Was My Valley, which beat Citizen Kane for Best Picture in 1941. I'll concede that Kane is the more ground-breaking and memorable picture, but the John Ford flick Valley doesn't even show up on the AFI roster.

And only two animated features out of a hundred slots? I'd think the number would be higher than that...

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Up With the Mouse House Story Crew

This a.m. I was hanging with story artists at Disney Animation. The crew working on Princess and the Frog got their first viewing of all the story reels late last week, which now run in toto a little under an hour and a half. The group I talked to were happy with what it saw.

"It needs some trimming, but it's got a twist and it works," one artist said. Another crew member related: "I've seen it twice now, and it's growing on me. John said it was one of the best first passes he's seen..."

Shortly, Princess and the Frog (plus crew) journeys to Emeryville for yet more feedback and notes.

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Walt Lunches With the Fleischers

Disney and FleischerClick on the thumnail for a larger picture

At the Disney commissary, January 4, 1956, from left to right: Gerry Geronimi, Walt Disney, Ben Sharpsteen, Ted Sears, Max Fleischer, Dick Huemer, George Stalling, Dick Fleischer, Andy Engman, Wilfred Jackson (spelled "Jaxon" on model sheets and memos). At the separate table in the right rear: Bill Anderson and Card Walker.

I put this up because of the room. Not due to all those people around the tables (yeah, right).

My father began taking me to the Disney studio around this time. In the middle fifties Walt Disney Productions seemed a magical place, but being in the first grade, I was probably...ah...impressionable.

Where the "Team Disney" building stands today -- that multi-colored Egyptian temple with the Seven Dwarfs holding up the roof -- was a ball field for employees. There were newly-built soundstages. There were the animation buildings and the big parking lot fronting Riverside Drive and Buena Vista and the small but very busy "back lot."

And there was the commissary. The outside of the place is much the same today as it was then. 1940s Streamline Moderne. The inside? Totally different.

Now it's darker, higher tech, self-serve and pretty much like any studio commissary anywhere in town. In 1956, however, it was bright and airy, containing long serving counters behind which stood smiling, middle-aged women in starched cafeteria aprons ladling out food. Everybody ate in that large room you see in the picture, or the patio outside. No segregated, high-end dining room for the execs back then (at least, not that I remember), just people from all parts of the studio chowing down at those utilitarian commissary tables.

I met Cliff Edwards in the 1956 commissary and probably a few other people, but Edwards is the one I remember. (Jimmie Dodd -- one of the Adult Mouseketeers -- I got introduced to on a soundstage.)

Time blurs and fades memories, and mine is probably more blurred than most. But trust me. The 1956 Disney studio was light years away from the facility that stands between Alameda and Riverside Drive in 2007.

Photo courtesy Bob Foster.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Cars? Underperformer? Not Hardly.

Last year there were lots of articles about what a weak sister at the box office the Pixar/Disney feature Cars was. You know, it under-performed earlier Pixar features. Its reviews weren't uniformly enthusiastic, and so on and so forth.

But Variety informs us how the picture has been a bonanza for Disney:

While many refuse to rank "Cars" as Pixar maven John Lasseter's finest two hours, its merchandising campaign has become a global phenomenon. A year after the motion picture release, a sojourn to a local Toys R Us will reveal collectors -- boys to men -- on the prowl for the new shipment of Mattel-made die-cast miniatures, with the movie's extensive ensemble of characters yielding an endless array of product iterations (Dinaco Blue Chick Hicks, anyone?).

Merchandising campaigns for tentpoles are supposed to peak around the time of the DVD release, then begin to taper off, but "Cars" is only getting hotter.

And we once again learn that box-office, reviews and awards are important, but what Hollywood worships -- far beyond the awards and ticket sales -- is total cash flow. And Cars has paid off big time for the Disney Co.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

The Monday Romp, Studio-Wise

It's 401(k) meeting time again, and I get to gallop from studio to studio shooting off my mouth about the joys of studying mutual fund opportunities and saving for retirement...

At Universal Cartoon Studio, they are wrapping up Season Two of Curious George, the Series and hiring staff for Curious George, the DVD Movie. (George is a monkey that keeps on giving...)

And up by the Bob Hope Airport, Film Roman/Starz Media still has a little bit of staff on The Simpsons Movie, working on last-minute repairs and retakes. They're also working on various animated spots to support the movie, so the Movie crew hasn't totally disbanded. (Although it's close. Layoffs have come in waves over the past few weeks.)

A staffer showed me a snippet of the climax -- in wide-screen color. Damn but it's funny. If the rest of the flick is on the same level -- and the tiny bits and pieces that I've seen over the past few months would indicate that it is -- come July 27, Fox-News Corporation will be able to open its own mint.

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And Time-Warner Also Goes to India

It isn't just Disney that is dipping into feature animation on the sub-continent:

Turner Entertainment Networks Asia, part of the Time Warner group has tied up with three Indian production houses - Miditech, Graphiti Multimedia and Famous Studios - to develop localised animated features in the country and to make the features, which will be released next year, foreign media reports inform.

"The Indian animation industry is in a nascent phase and it's now important we help it to take its rightful place on the international stage, I think it will be fitting that very, very soon one of the next animated superheroes comes from India." said Ian Diamond, General manager, Turner Entertainment Networks Asia.

We'll have to wait and see where all this burgeoning activity leads us. More work here? I'm not holding my breath...

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Ramping up Ratatouille

The end of this month, the latest Pixar feature hits your neighborhood multiplex. Early reviews are ecstatic, but one of the media themes out there now is: "It's about a rat in Paris with a hard-to-spell title, so it's gonna be a tough sell..."

I think the "hard sell" meme is supplanting the corporate media's usual "It was hurt by the animation glut," as witnessed by this other Variety piece:

In a summer of easy-to-market sequels, "Ratatouille" isn't based on a pre-existing franchise, its lead character isn't already known by auds, no A-list stars provide the voices of the characters (preventing the studio from pushing them out on the talkshow circuit), and there's the hard-to-pronounce name.

On top of all that, the movie's not even fast-food friendly -- mainly because the lead's a rat and scrambles around a high-end French restaurant. It's also facing some serious competition with "Transformers" and the next installment of "Harry Potter," both of which are expected to drum up family business.

I'm betting that the picture is going to do just fine amidst the stampede of giant, marauding robots (didn't Brad Bird do that one already?). And I'm betting that it plays through the end of the summer and makes Disney a potful of francs.

The Mouse House, unlike Time-Warner a few years back, knows what it has in the latest Brad Bird picture and is promoting it.

Addendum: Jenny L. at BlackWing Diaries links to this Ratatouille review by Mike Barrier that is somewhat less positive than Variety's take.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

The B.O. Among Us

Another weekend at the turnstiles. To nobody's surprise, the Super Heroes have a really big Friday start on the weekend:

#1 -- Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer -- $22,750,000

Clearly surfers of the silver variety trump those who are penguins.

#5 -- Surf's Up -- $2,875,000 (total: $28,246,000)

#7 -- Shrek the Third -- $2,650,000 (total: $290,892,000)

Update: F4 delivers a $57.4 million (and Stan Lee is having a really lucrative summer).

Ocean's 13 collects $19.1 million in its second frame and a $70 million total (and George Clooney overcomes the bad kharma from The Good German)...

And Judd Apatow continues his white hot streak with Knocked Up declining only 26% and reaching a $90.5 million cume.

In the animated sector, Surf's Up collects 49.3 million -- enduring a 47% box office decline in the process, and grossing #4,671,000 after two weekends. And Shrek the Third at #6 rakes in $9 million to come within a whisker of a domestic $300 million gross. (It's now $297.2 million.) I'm sniffing bonuses for the DreamWorks crew.

Update 2: Reuters recaps the box office weekend here.

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The Magic of the Mainstream Media

Down below, commenters point out the idiocy of a Business Week reporter. But I have another nit to pick, because BW says::

Top Pixar creative font John Lasseter has remade Disney's stumbling animated studio, replacing the director for the upcoming American Dog and jumping in to overhaul the recent Meet the Robinsons. The latter flick is approaching $100 million, a rarity these days for Disney-made animated films.

Nobody admires Mr. Lasseter's talents more than I do, and he's great for WDFA. But it would be nice if Business Week had a stronger grip on reality:

Chicken Little -- $135,386,665

Meet the Robinsons -- $96,224,551*

* Still in release. Barely.

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The Magic of "Yes"

On the right: directing tyros John Musker and Ron Clements.

Artist/Animator/Director Will Finn has an excellent new blog named Small Room. And in that Small Room he had, a few days back, an excellent post.

Will was talking about the creation of a key scene in Aladdin, and the pushing and pulling that went on getting it made. Fascinating, behind the scenes stuff. But this bit from Will about him (the animator) not liking the directorial changes that Ron Clements and John Musker (the directors) were making to the storyboards caught my eye:

I immediately started protesting when I got the layout (frame by frame printouts of the rotaing BG with stand-ins for the characters). Doesn't it say somewhere in one of Frank & Ollie's bibles that you should never be in motion while a character is changing expression? Or even worse, be on their backs instead of their faces? Here we had an integral moment when the guy's whole personality is going to change and I kept saying it wouldn't work, it was technically impossible. I wanted to stick with the simpler composition. I must have bellyached for the better part of a week about it and was going to the mat. Finally Musker looked me in the eye and said: "Just try it this way and if it doesn't work we can do it over." He said it quietly, he said it diplomatically, but something in his tone made me hear what I think he really meant:

"Quit being a diva and do it the way we told you or we'll give it to someone else."

The above is a neat little example of how artists -- or corporate employees generally -- can louse up their careers.

The boss, after long (or maybe short) thought, decides how he/she wants something done. He goes to the subordinate that he wants to execute the decision and says: "I need you to do this." It might be animating a scene. It might be writing a script. It might be repairing the muffler on a car. Doesn't matter what the task is. All the boss wants to hear is:

"Yeah! Great! I'll get right on it!"

Now, why do they want to hear this? Simple. Because somebody with more power, a higher salary and a way bigger office is on their tail to move the project along, and they have a couple hundred other decisions to make. And the last thing they want, the event their supervisory hearts least desire , is a long argument over how the task at hand should be done.

This doesn't mean, by the way, that the boss person is right. It only means that the boss person is going to hold it against the subordinate if he gets a lot of lip over the way he wants something completed.

It's not fair, it's not right, it's not equitable.

It's just the way it is.

I've got lots of anecdotal evidence to back up this theory. I was pretty argumentative at Disney (ask Ron Clements). I believed it a moral duty to fight for the "right" artistic vision. By and by I ended up unemployed. Two years later, I was the picture of happy cooperation at Filmation, and I stayed aboard the company ship until it slid beneath the waves.

A long stretch of unemployment in-between those two studios was a strong motivator in getting me to reevaluate my earlier position.

Over the years, I've seen lots of talented artists who've prided themselves on their contentiousness. There's no issue too small for them to fight over. They're usually more unemployed than their more cooperative brethren. Just last week, I was sitting with an artist in his office talking about a designer we both know. The designer argues and defends every drawing, in every situation. And he argues in a loud voice.

I don't know what's with Harry," the artist said. "When the A. D. wopuld swing by to say he needed a character's eyes redrawn so he's looking more to the left, Harry'd get defensive about it. 'They're looking left, I already drew them looking left, what's wrong with them?...' And on and on. It gets tiresome. I wasn't surprised he was the first of the crew to get laid off."

Harry's currently looking for a job.

Moral of the story: Pick your fights. Learn to say "yes" more. And smile when you do it.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

'Toon Links to Dance To

Another weekend, another lovely bunch of animation links...

Pixar has announced it's going after the seasoned citizen demographic with Up.

When I was looking for work a long while ago, I tried without success to get a writing gig on a cartoon show called Transformers. The story editor told me, "selling toys is what we're about this year..." (The year being 1986.)

My how times have changed (not):

The next few years will see everything from He-Man to G.I. Joe to possibly Monopoly show up on the bigscreen. As the film biz runs out of original ideas, nothing, it seems, is too much of a stretch.

In the last two decades, Hollywood has gone through several crazes: U.S. adaptations of French comedies, remakes of vintage pics, film versions of old TV series, and adaptations of videogames and comicbooks. Now studios and high-profile producers are buying up rights to dolls, action figures and games, hoping their lasting popularity can prop up the next studio tentpoles.

As the thinking goes, the instant recognition of popular toys can only help an opening weekend. But everyone involved is also nervous. Studios are banking millions on just a brand name, while toymakers are risking their crown jewels to work in an entirely new format, knowing that a bomb can cut into their sales.

Filmation had He-Man. Michael Bay has Transformers...

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has altered the regs for animated features up for the little gold statue:

An animated feature film is now defined as a motion picture of at least 70 minutes in running time, in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique. In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.

Business Week Magazine weighs in on whether Disney's purchase of Pixar was a smashing idea or not:

...A lot of folks are waiting to see whether Ratatouille justifies all those Disney dollars that Chief Executive Robert Iger spent. A little background: At the time of the deal, Pixar, majority owned by Apple (AAPL) Chief Executive Steve Jobs, was nearing the end of its 14-year contract with Disney to jointly make films. Jobs and departing Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner were sniping at one another, and Jobs was testing the waters for a move of his animation factory to Warner Bros. (TWX), Sony (SNE), or anyone not named Disney. When Iger replaced Eisner in late 2005, one of the first things he did was make nice with Jobs.

When Iger made the Pixar deal, several Wall Street analysts figured that he had overpaid. Heck, even Eisner came out of semi-exile to speak to board members, pleading with them to veto the rich deal. So now, there will likely be a ton of folks on Wall Street waiting to see whether Ratatouille is, well, a rotten tomato...

Chances are good that Ratatouille won't be a blockbuster. It's not the rollicking, show tune-laden, laugh-fest that Pixar usually makes. It is, however, a tremendously well-made, stylish film that will take your breath away in terms of technology—rat hairs look real and human movements are so authentic you won't believe they were generated by a computer.

The Hindustan Times informs us that Disney is chomping at the bit to make lots of animated films on the sub-continent:

Mark Zoradi, [President of worldwide marketing and distribution for the Walt Disney Studios], said he would like to see 20-25 percent of Disney's revenues in India to come from its film and home video business. "We don't have unrealistic expectations, but as we look long-term, India will be a very important, strategic market," he said, adding Disney would also continue to outsource some of its animation production to India in a "significant manner".

"We had done very well exporting our movies, but then we looked at India and realised the infrastructure was about to explode: theatres were getting better, tax laws were improving."

Disney is also keen to make more films in China despite restrictive regulations, said Zoradi, a 27-year Disney veteran.

When I was but a tot, I used to sit transfixed in front of the old black-and-white Philco watching ancient cartoons. They were all black-and-white, the gags were plentiful and often bizarre, and The Little King was one of the 'toons I watched. ASIFA archives has a fine specimen from 1931 ready for your viewing pleasure:

The early sound cartoons that came out of New York have an indescribable quality that is sorely missing from animation today. The best way I can describe it is "fun factor". New York cartoons are gritty, unpredictable and outrageous with jazzy music forming the foundation for the action. There are no pretentions to be anything other than seven minutes of cartoony joy. This cartoon is no exception...

Reuters reports this exciting news flash: Animation is catching on with adults! Going mainstream! Who would have thought it?

"We used to hear that animation for adults wouldn't work, but now all our competitors are doing the same," said Mike Lazzo, senior vice president of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, the evening line-up of animated shows aimed at 18 to 34-year-olds, like Robot Chicken and Aqua Teen Hunger Force....

..."Hollywood loves success and can't wait to pile on success. When Pixar started with Toy Story, everyone began to put an animated feature in production, if not three."

The word is that Sony's kind of...ah...somber about the opening numbers for Surf's Up. Variety prognosticates about Disney's expectations for the next animated feature on the box office horizon:

Industryites predicted that last summer's "Cars" would play to only young males or NASCAR fans, but the pic attracted a sizable female crowd, as well, after Disney marketed the film as a family-friendly comedy. "The Incredibles," in 2004, also could have solely courted superhero genre fans, but it played more broadly.

Their box office performance only proves just how much of a brand the Pixar moniker and its hopping lamp logo have become among auds. Disney is relying on that kind of name recognition to sell tix to "Ratatouille" later this month.

So far, "Ratatouille" isn't tracking as strongly as Disney would like among most moviegoers. The numbers are lukewarm. It's appealing more to females under 35...

Have a useful and joyous weekend.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

New Blood at Warner Bros. Animation

Warner Bros. Animation has a new top kick:

Warner Bros. Television Group has tapped former AOL marketing exec Lisa Judson to top its toon unit.

Judson succeeds Sander Schwartz as prexy of Warner Bros. Animation. Schwartz ankled last month...

Judson's duties in the toon division include overseeing its expansion in the fast-growing area of original production for new media and broadband platforms. She will supervise traditional TV kidvid production for Kids' WB!, Cartoon Network and other outlets, as well as the development of direct-to-video titles with the Warner Premiere homevid division.

Maybe new blood is a good thing for WBA. The studio has been something less than a busy hive of cartoon activity the last couple of years.

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401(k) Rules of the Blessed Morningstar

Now I throw in another "saving for your future" sermonette. put out this article on 401(k) plans and what to do with them. It's pretty basic, but most people need basic, since "complicated" triggers headaches, double vision and nausea. Here's Morningstar's four 401(k) tenets (each expressed in the negative):

Mistake One: Not Investing at All

Mistake Two: Investing Without a Plan

Mistake Three: Letting Your 401(k) Run on Autopilot

Mistake Four: Borrowing from Your 401(k)

Morningstar has somewhat different takes on 401(k) investing that I do, but not that different. My basic advice about where to put 401(k) money is:

Diversify across different asset classes (percentages of your money to a) domestic large stocks, b) domestic small stocks, c) international stocks, and d) bonds.)

Set your percentages (say, 25% in each of the above) then rebalance back to those percentages once a year, because some assets will grow faster than others.

And yes, this is a simple model, but simple is a good way to go when you have neither the patience nor interest to study investing in detail and depth...and therefore shy away from investing in anything at all.

The chart above shows the best asset allocations you can make. But "the best" is always a (somewhat) moving target.

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"Got Any Good Art Riley Stories?"

Actually, yes. I have a dandy Art Riley story, one told to me by Disney story dynamo Vance Gerry, and which I re-told at the Animation Guild's memorial for Art and other deceased members a few years back.

But before I recount it here, allow me to answer the question: "Who is Art Riley?"

Mr. Riley was one of the tyro Disney background artists who was at the studio for decades and decades. He painted backgrounds for Snow White, Jungle Book, and every animated feature in between.

Art lived frugally, lived with his mother, drove the same old Cadillac for years and years. And Vance told me the following story:

One day Art was asked to drive a studio colleague to work and back, and Art was happy to oblige. On the way home, the guy asked him to stop at a supermarket so he could pick up some milk and egg. Again Art was happy to oblige.

He walked with the man into the store. Once inside, Art stared in wonder at the long rows of shelves and refrigerated cabinets, at the fluorescent lights and polished tile floors.

"This is amazing," Art said. "What do they call this place?"

Mr. Riley, you see, led kind of an eccentric, sheltered life. He had never been in a supermarket before.

Art left the studio in the mid-sixties, and moved to the central California coast. He'd invested in blue-chip stocks for years, had Disney stock options, and lived in comfortable retirement until his death in December, 1998. He was 87.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

At WDFA Story Department

...where House of Mouse story development seems to be going swimmingly. Bolt (the cgi animated feature formerly known as American Dog), is heading for its second pass after a successful first pass with the Disney/Pixar brain trusts...

And The Princess and the Frog story crew is pressing pedal to the metaphorical metal as the first screening of the whole feature, bow to stern, sails closer and closer (like next week?) I heard references made to "fried brains" and some long hours at wacom tablets... among other work-related things.

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Studio Walkaround

At Universal Cartoon Studios and Starz Media/Film Roman, some projects are winding down.

At Universal, Land Before Time -- the series has completed its first round of shows; crew leads are waiting to see if Cartoon Network will order a second season.

Universal's Curious George episodics appear to be clicking along nicely in their second season on PBS...

Up the road at Film Roman/Starz Media, there is still a crew working on The Simpsons Movie, only it's smaller now (would have to be smaller, the picture's out July 27). Layout department is gone, cleanup and animation are still working, compositing still has a little while to go. "The writers kept changing and refining, we kept turning out new drawings," one artist told me. Another said: "I did more overtime in the last five weeks than I did at any other point on the picture. The writers kept throwing changes at us." Happily, his overtime is now done. Unhappily, he's facing lay off after eight hectic months of employment.

He said he's still catching up on his sleep.

Elsewhere in the studio, Slacker Cats is finishing up production boards and moving into production. And El Superbeasto (I'm informed) is moving ahead after a period of slumber.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Global Diz

(Disney animation comes to Mumbai, India...)

Today's business sections are filled with stories about Disney partnering with a big Indian producer, making a kind of Oliver and Company, Bombay-style?


The Walt Disney Co. is teaming up with India's Yash Raj Films to make a series of animated feature films with voices of Bollywood stars, the companies said Tuesday.

Burbank, Calif.-based Disney will be co-producing an animated feature in India for the first time. Yash Raj Films is one of India's top production companies.

The two companies plan to co-produce one animated film in a year. The films will carry the Disney brand.

"This alliance begins with animation. It could lead to other collaborations," said Mark Zoradi, Walt Disney's marketing president.

"What we are getting is an understanding of Indian comedy, culture and music," Zoradi told reporters.

The first film _ "Roadside Romeo" _ is about a rich dog that moves from soft beds to make his home in garbage bins after being abandoned on a Mumbai street, said Sanjeev Kohli, chief executive of Yash Raj Films.

Nice to see that Disney is broadening its animation sphere, making animated films in India for the Indian market. Much better than outsourcing jobs from the States. That is what's going on here, right?

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Monday, June 11, 2007

A Moment with Lou Scheimer

The solo studios -- DePatie-Freleng, Hanna-Barbera, and Filmation among others -- are pretty much over. There's DreamWorks and Jeffrey Katzenberg, but that's about it. Almost everything else today is but a gear in larger conglomerate machinery. And everyone is an employee, one way or another.

Lou Scheimer was a co-founder of Filmation in 1962, and kept the doors open for 26 years before L'Oreal bought the place and instantly shut it down. He remembers the day that it happened -- along with a lot of other things -- in a wide-ranging interview with The Trades:

...It [was] the ugliest day of my life. I had to tell hundreds of people that they were out of work. I had spent twenty-five years trying to keep all the work in this country and training animators. And I'm proud of those moments. And I'm really proud of all the people who worked there too, because they were great people, and they're all doing very well nowadays...

It was certainly a memorable day in my life, since I'd been there since the previous summer and was hoping (don't we always?) for a longer run. But Lou called us into the third-floor theater and gave us the bad news. He was emotional. We were emotional. And shortly thereafter, we were carrying our belongings out to our cars in cardboard boxes.

Which, come to think of it, is often the fate of employees who work in a "project-to-project" business. And project-to-project is what the animation industry is in 2007.

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Square Dance at Wartime Warners?

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Late on a Sunday night, I got me a vintage photo (courtesy of Bob Foster.) Warner Bros. Cartoons, early in the 1940s. It looks like either some western style party going on, or maybe the gang was doing a tribute to Republic Pictures.

From left to right: Phil DeGard, five unknowns, producer John Burton Sr., unknown, director Friz Freleng, animator Bob Matz, animator Phil Monroe, Mrs. Eddie Seltzer, Ken Harris, unknown, Manny Perez, sound effects tyro Treg Brown, Chuck Jones, Tom McKimson, Bob McKimson, layout artist Bob Gribboek, two unknowns, cameraman Ray Bloss, unknown, and Harry Love.

This looks to me like a soundstage, no doubt in Burbank, no doubt for a special social function. If anybody knows the exact date...and the occasion, do put your knowledge up in the comment section.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Disney Toony Animation

To continue the ongoing story of the week's studio walk-throughs:

What's termed "Disney Sonora" is a large building sitting near what was once Glendale's Grand Central Airport (seen above in its glory days) and is now a large industrial park owned by Disney and -- off by the cement channel known as the L.A. River -- DreamWorks Animation.

The "Sonora Building" is two stories, housing Disney Television Animation downstairs and Disney Toons Studios upstairs. Disney Television Animation produces half-hour series and reports to the Disney Channel hierarchy (it once was under Disney Feature Animation); Disney Toons Studios reports to the main studio lot in Burbank. In the last few months, John Lasseter has become involved in Diz Toons product.

Both first and second floors have been refurbished over the last couple of years. Downstairs, the DTVA crews work in traditional-looking gray cubicles with walls six and a half feet high. A year and a half ago, the downstairs was jack-hammered into its present splendor, with complaints of dust and noise from the Toon residents on the second floor.

A few months back, the upstairs got a make-over with new carpeting, new cubicles, and a large, spanking fresh open area with fifties-retro hanging lights similar to Disney Features, and new cubicles with deviders that look like starched white linen.

Most of the staff hates the new cubicles. "Too small"..."not enough work space"..."low dividers with people looking in at me all the time"...

On the bright side, when you're just walking through and around the new cubes as I do, the overall set-up looks kind of snazzy, like Civil War tents. It just doesn't have much practicality attached to the snazziness.

But the artists soldier on. The Tinkerbell and Fairies crews have now moved over from the Frank Wells Building on the Burbank lot, and are settling in. The fresh pass on Tinkerbell is now up on reels, and Lasseter is alegedly happy with the new story arc. The sequels beyond it are beginning to take on form and substance.

Enjoy the balance of the weekend.

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Box Office Among Us

The two animated candidates now occupy the middle of the Top Ten list.

Surf's Up came in at #4 on Friday, with a $5.1 million take.

Our old friend Shrek landed at #5, with a haul of $4,300,000. S3 has now collected a $270.4 million domestic gross.

The top two slots are filled by 1) George Clooney and Associates ($11.6 million) and (#2) Knocked Up ($6.2 million).

Update: To nobody's surprise, Ocean's 13 cops the top spot, snaring $37 million in its opening weekend (with the Koch calculator (c) predicting a final take of between $100 million and $140 million -- give or take -- for O13's final domestic tally.)

Johnny Depp and his merry band of cutthroats bring home $21.3 million for a total of $253.6 million (and Pirates is now in #2.)

The baby comedy KU declines less (34.8%) than anything else in the Top Ten, collecting $20 million and a #3 berth for a $66.2 million total after two weekends.

As for the animated entries, Surf's Up collected $18 million in its opening frame, which is no doubt a bit of a disappointment for Sony Pictures Animation, but still good enough for a fourth place finish in a competitive field. SPA's sophomore effort will probably finish south of Open Season. Our guess: it winds up in the $58-$80 million range.

Lastly, Shrek the Third collected $15.8 million for a $281.9 million total and 43.8% decline in its fourth week of release.

Update 2: Variety notes that this summer weekend was a little weaker than year-ago numbers. Ocean's 13 opened slightly smaller than its two predecessors, and Surf's Up probably got bashed by the Big Mean Ogre.

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Two Tales of Leverage

The post down below led me to muse on these stories about labor contracts, work, and leverage.

Tale the first: Clark Gable was a movie star for twenty-eight years. For most of that time, he had it written into his contracts that he worked until 5 p.m. and no later. Comedian Don Rickles relates the following story about the WWII drama Run Silent, Run Deep, on which Rickles was a supporting player and Gable (along with Burt Lancaster) was the star. It goes like this:

...Burt Lancaster, a serious man, says to me, "This is a serious movie, Don. You really need to know about submarines. It will help you in your character development if you know the intricate workings of the submarine."

Burt says all this as if we're about to be ordered to our battle stations.

Meanwhile, Gable is one of the most relaxed movie stars in the history of the business.

"Look," he tells me. "I'm a five o'clock guy."

"What does that mean, Mr. Gable?" I ask.

"It means, kid, that my day ends at five. Regardless. Five is scotch-and-soda time. And then I'm on my way home."

Every day at five, Gable sticks to his guns. Five o'clock comes and he's in the trailer. He enters as a Navy commander and exits as a Brooks Brothers model. Driving off the lot in his Bentley convertible, he waves goodbye as he passes through the security gates.

Because he's a producer of the picture, Lancaster is far more intense and worries about overages.

...Most of the action isn't done on location but in the studio. One scene involves a series of explosions followed by a deluge of water. The mechanics are tricky and the technical guys work on it all day. They can't quite get it right. Finally, at about five to five, it all comes together -- the bombastic explosions and a deluge of water.

Gable and I are in the battle scene, the climax of the film. [Director] Robert Wise signals action and all hell breaks loose. The special effects are spectacular.

In the midst of this drama, Gable says, "Sorry, boys, Mr. Five O'clock is done for the day."

And then, with the grace of a European prince, Gable struts to his trailer.

Lancaster chases after him.

Clark," says Burt, "we finally got this thing to work. It'll cost a fortune if we dismantle it. We gotta film it now."

Ever the gentleman, Gable looks at Lancaster sympathetically. "Relax, Burt," he says. "I'll dive with the submarine tomorrow."

-- Don Rickles' Book; Don Rickles with David Ritz; pp. 76-78.

Okay. So you can look at the above and think: That damn movie star. Only cared about himself. Not a team player..."

Or you can say to yourself: "Good for him. He had a contract, and he followed it."

But either way, your basic reaction probably is: "It's Clark effing Gable. He can do what he damn well wants."

Now consider this second story: During the long string of Disney feature hits, from the late 1980s to the turn of the century, the animation checking department at WDFA took every break and every lunch that they were entitled to. At precisely the same time each day, they got up and walked out.

They didn't work past five unless they were getting overtime.

People in another department in the feature building (who will go unnamed, along with the department) didn't do these things. They worked through breaks. And many lunches. And sometimes worked after five whether they were authorized for overtime or not.

Yet despite all their extra effort, they were laid off at exactly the same time as the animation checkers. That is, when the studio stopped making hand-drawn films (for the first time).

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