And the deep end of the pool at that. Theatrical Animated Features.
Not long ago, I talked to a staff artist at Sony Pictures Animation (where a lot of house-cleaning has been going on). She told me that the head of production at Sony wanted opinions about why SPA movies hadn't been ... ah ... blockbusters.
"Amy Pascal asked animation executives why Pixar movies were doing so well and Sony Pictures Animation's weren't. This was a few months ago. A couple of the story artists who'd worked at other studios wrote up a little paper about what some other feature studios did, how they approached things. They passed it on to Penny and Sandy before those two left. Whether the paper got into Amy Pascal's hands or not, I've got no idea ...
The animated feature universe is crowded these days. The kings of the roost are, of course, Pixar and DreamWorks, but another studio, bankrolled by a running shoe billionaire, is jumping into the animation business with ... ahm ... both feet. Hard to say what kind of success it might have, but Daily Variety and the Portland Oregonian, the studio's hometown paper, speculate on the 'toon factory's prospects:
Laika slate impresses, but market is fickle
Animated feature films have become hot commodities at the box office. But some ("Kung Fu Panda") are hotter than others ("Surf's Up"). Whether any of Laika's announced projects end up in the hit category depends on everything from execution to audience taste.
"It's a very impressive slate," says Ramin Zahed, editor in chief of the Southern California-based Animation Magazine. "When you look at the story lines, these are stories that will be best told in animation. Lots of properties fail when they don't use the magic of the medium."
The Oregonian found people outside the studio who spouted the usual worn wisdom: "It's the story" ... "They'll do good if they come up with something fresh and original ...." (I'm holding out for a cartoon that's stale and derivative ... although that area's been pretty well covered.)
Variety went straight to the source to get a prediction of Laika's success. A Laika production exec gave her own anaylsis about the studio's prospects ...
"There's a lot of people moving into animation, and what they do is copycat," [said Fiona Kenshole, V.P. of development]. "The world isn't waiting for another Pixar and another DreamWorks. We want a slate that's uniquely ours, that hits the four quadrants and is commercial, but is really, really strong, based on good storytelling."
"We're to the left of Pixar and to the right of 'Nightmare Before Christmas,'..."
Laika rose out of the ashes of the Will Vinton studio, when Nike owner Phil Knight bought Will's failing production facility and began work to turn the place into what he hopes will become an animation power house.
Over the last couple of years, a steady stream of Los Angeles animation talent has journeyed to Portland, from director Henry Selick to Disney Televsion Animation board artists. There's been rumblings of getting Laika into the TAG family, but so far it remains a non-signator studio.
Laika's chances of becoming an Oregonian DreamWorks? That depends on the power of its upcoming product. "There's a very Portland feel to the kinds of things that we are doing," says Fiona Kenshole, and maybe if I were from Portland I would know what that statement means.
Being L.A. born and bred, all I understand is that you have to create pictures the general public wants to see, then partner with a distributor that will be muscular enough, adept enough to get the population to embrace features like Coraline and Here Be Monsters the way Finding Nemo, Shrek or Ice Age have been embraced.
Good luck with those aspirations. Because we wouldn't want Phil Knight to ask for a memo three years down the pike detailing what went wrong ... and how the studio should change to achieve some of Pixar's or DreamWork's success.