Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Churn in Small Screen Animation?

This afternoon, I took my bag of 401(k) books to Fox Animation, where a staffer said to me:

I don't know what it is, but I've been picking up that companies are really looking for new animation ideas, new shows, new characters. I'm getting the idea that they want more animation shows, but aren't finding new stuff they like. So the universe isn't expanding, but they want it to ..."

I responded that with the broadcast universe dividing and subdividing to the point where NBC isn't a lot different than TBS, our fine congloms were looking for more animation shows because

A) Unlike reality shows, 'toons have a robust afterlife in reruns and DVDs. (How many boxed sets of John and Kate, the first season you think are going to be sold? Fifteen?)

B) Compared to scripted live action, animated half hours are cost effective.

C) Fox has figured out it can build a whole prime time block around animated comedy. (Others will soon catch on to this ...)

Fox [benefitted] from spinoff mojo as "Family Guy" spinoff "The Cleveland Show" opened very well Sunday at 8:30 p.m. (4.9/12 in 18-49, 9.51m) between the season preems of "The Simpsons" (4.3/12, 8.31m) and "Family Guy" (5.2/12, 10.11m).

The Fox artist pointed out one puzzle piece I overlooked: merchandising. John and Kate dolls and board games just aren't moving that well. Cartoon merchandise is. And the cash flow has to come from somewhere, because broadcast networks no longer command 30%, 40% or 50% of the viewing audience. They are now little more than glorified cable channels, with viewership to match.

That being the case, the networks need to put on programming that makes them money as soon as possible. Jay Leno has a prime time show five nights a week for a reason. He's one hell of a lot cheaper than scripted live action, NBC can turn a profit with 1.5 million viewers, so they give him a shot.

The green eyeshade types have done the math, and know the budgets they have to work with. Which is why companies are looking at more toonage. It's relatively inexpensive, it has ancillary markets, and it will make everyone a nice bundle if it hits big.

Network t.v. isn't a high margin business anymore. General Electric, after all, is looking to unload Universal-NBC for a reason. It can count.

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Television Animation Development!

TAG's teevee animation development panel took place before a packed house last night, where moderator and TAG board member Karen Carnegie Johnson hosted a panel of cartoon execs:

Eric Coleman, Senior Vice President of development at Disney Television Animation,

Carin Davis, Vice President of Creative Development at Film Roman, and

Eric Homan, Vice President of Development at Frederator.

All three shared their insights regarding the 'toon biz with a rapt audience that was interested in what these three are looking for, and how this development thingie works.

Below, we present some of their wisdom:

Eric Coleman: When you're pitching, you want to make an impression. It's the idea and the execution of that idea that's important. If you come in with: "I've got a show about a kid who gets trapped on the internet ..." Well, we get a lot of that. But how do you execute that idea, and what are the characters?

I would caution people about going too overboard. We get nervous when the pitching person wants to come in 15 minutes early to set up. It's important to bring the characters in the pitch to life, but there is no one way to pitch. But we don't want to see printed t-shirts, lunch box designs, things like that.

Carin Davis: Bring in a write-up of your idea, it doesn't have to be a script or a bible. Don't give me a lot of ideas, just one or two ideas that you are passionate about. (If you're an artist) don't be be afraid to pair up with writers. But don't do music, (we're not looking for that) ... especially if you're a bad singer ...

Eric Homan: I would say if you have a "kids on the internet" type idea that is totally great, then do it, if its a different take. What do you bring to the table that makes it original?

Eric Coleman: Different development executives at different studios are looking for different things. Everybody says they want a "Sponge Bob," but what they mean is they want a huge hit.

For the Disney Channel, right now it skews to girls, and we're looking for shows that will also appeal to boys. We want something that appeals to both boys and girls, not something that's "gender neutral" that will be tolerated by boys ... or tolerated by girls. We're looking for contemporary shows, not castles in the forest type stuff. Pitch things that relate to kids today, whether it's human or non-human. We're looking for fresh shows.

Six to eleven is our basic demo, but keep in mind the older end of that demo. It's the mark of death when kids think it's a "baby show."

Disney XD (formerly Toon Disney) is developing more for boys, twelve-year-old boys. There might be something happening with the recent Marvel deal. That took us by surprise it happened so fast, and we'll see what comes out of that.

Carin Davis: People pitching should come in with a couple of story lines. When sombody comes in with "four kids caught on the internet," I want to know who those four kids are. We're part of Starz Media and programming for pay channels where people pay an extra $15 a month, so we're looking for programming (beyond just kid shows.) Recently we've done direct-to-dvd features like Hell Boy, Rob Zombie and so on. Stars Toronto is an all c.g. studio in Toronto that's doing movies that Disney, Pixard and Blue SKy aren't doing. Recently they did 9 which had an indie sensibility and had good luck with it.

Eric Homan: Frederator is independent, and looks at every kind of show because we sell everywhere. If it's an adult show you have three or four places you can go. Studios and networks will tell us what they're not looking for. Right now, for example, action-adventure is a tough sell.

All three execs: Pitching your idea to studios doesn't mean that pitch is owned by the studios, but all of us here listen to lots of pitches, and some of those pitches are similar to each other.

Eric Homan: At Nick a few years ago, when they were doing their shorts program, three people came in with three pitches that had characters with heads that were fish bowls, and the fish in the bowls did the talking for the character.

Eric Coleman: Studios aren't looking to steal ideas. If somebody comes in defensive and worried about being ripped off by a studio, then development executives know this is probably the first time they've been at the rodeo.

Development Times

Carin Davis: Development times are almost always long.

Eric Homan: Yes, development time can be glacial. It took years to get a series greenlight for Adventure Time (which will air on Cartoon Network next Spring).

Eric Coleman: I'll get your show greenlit in three hours (laughter.) No, it takes a long time. After you've pitched, nudge us if you haven't gotten a response from the development team in two or three weeks, send us an e-mail.

There's a long time when you're in the development stage. Testing and decisions have to come from higher ups, and it can be slow.

About the process, someone on my development team will take most of the pitches (I do less of that now; I've paid my dues.) If they like it, next it will get pitched to me. There is a whole host or reasons why the development process -- from pitch to aired show -- drags out.

There is bible development, scripting, boarding, character designs, the pilot (6-8 months), then testing with kids in focus groups. One of the best focus group stories? We had eleven to twelve year old girls -- a tough focus group -- and there was a girl who was the leader. Through the whole presentation she sits there gravely, never laughing. At the end the moderator asks: "So ... what do you think? This somber girl says: "Oh, that was hilarious."

Testing and focus groups aren't what greenlights a project. Greenlight decisions go up the ranks.

There's a need for artists to network. It helps to be in the studio, ono a show. It's harder to break in (with a pitch) if you're far away. ... The trick is making a show you want to make.

Eric Holman: Frederator has a deal with Sony, but it's in the early stages. Sony is fond of c.g features and hybrid films (c.g. and live action). I gravitate toward cartoony stuff. I want to see things that should be animated. ...

Formats for t.v. animation (c.g., hand-drawn, flash animation) is cyclical. Formats fall in and out of favor. Nick has a number of c.g. shows now. Flash was big a couple of years ago, now it's less so. Creators have a big influence on the type of show it is, what the format is.

Carin Davis: Live action scripts sometimes get pitched as animated scripts. The writer will have been around pitching it as a live-actino project, then say, "Oh, it could be an animated project." Welll ... maybe. But it should be something that works in animation. Otherwise, why make it in animation?

Eric Homan: When we were doing development of shorts at Nickelodeon, we paired an artist with promising pitched with four or five different filmmakers, and he developed a series out of one of the pairings.

Eric Coleman: When you're developing a pitch, pitch to a friend who will be honest, who will tell you if your stuff is funny or not. It doesn't help you if he lies and says it's wonderful when it's not.

And we don't care if you're nervous when you're pitching, we're interested in the quality of your idea, and it's execution. Don't keep pitching the same idea. Let it go, and pour your creative spirit and energy into the next thing.

What we're looking for changes over time. You want to find out what different development folks are looking for. I had a good clean pitch today, for example, but it's like other things already in development.

It's good for the pitcher to understand that "no" is really "no." Sometimes the development person can't put his finger on why the pitch doesn't "go," sometimes it's a chemical thing.

Eric Homan: Sometimes we say no because it's just not wanting to be in business with particular person. We don't want to be in the room with that person for a long period of time, and development takes a long time. That could be somebody who's difficult, somebody who doesn't want you to change a word of their script.

Eric Coleman: We're looking for people to develoop original ideas and shows. Anything that seems obvious, isn't worth my time.

When you're pitching to big networks or conglomerates, they want to own all rights. I've seen things get complicated when rights on a great idea have been pre-sold to a smaller company.

Eric Homan: Artists who pitch need to look and see how other people did their show. Many times they developed relationship with development execs, and over a period of time they kept pitching and got a show created and greenlit.

Carin Davis The core idea of the pitched show should be timeless.

Eric Coleman: Disney is interested in "timeless" shows that keep their relevance. That doesn't mean "of the moment." Kids in show don't have to reference their "MP3 devices," something that will date it ....

That's the gist of the presentation. There was a lively question and answer where such things as "faith-based" programming was touched on ("It's a small market and Disney doesn't do it, but certainly there's a niche there. Veggie Tales has certainly made money ...")

All in all, an informative evening. People stuck around afterward to jawbone about the process. With luck, fortitude and clean living, some folks will use the knowledge gleaned last night to become successful pitchers of genius ideas and land themselves some long-running cartoon series.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Marge Belcher-Babbitt-Champion

A year and a half ago (during the 70th anniversary of Snow White) I regularly walked into the Disney hat building and got to watch black-and-white reference footage of Margie Belcher (soon to be the wife of Art Babbitt ... and then dancer Gower Champion) they were playing on monitors in the hall display case.

Ms. Belcher did a lot of dancing and pantomiming in Snow White's dress, and they had a lot of the footage running ... and I stood there like a slow-witted teenager, gawking at it. So what do you know? Seventy-three years later, the energetic little dancer is still going strong:

The vivacious [Marge] Champion is still dancing at 90. She and her dance partner, Tony-winning choreographer and veteran dancer Donald Saddler, are the subject of an upcoming documentary, "Keep Dancing." ...

Champion made her debut at the Bowl at age 11 in one of [her father's] ballets, "Carnival in Venice." Two years later, she was one of three girls who caught the attention of a Disney scout and was asked to audition at Walt Disney's old studio on Hyperion Avenue.

"He told me to call him Uncle Walt because I was too young to call him Walt," Champion recalls. From the age of 14, Champion performed scenes as Snow White for the animators. "It was maybe one or two or three days a month," she says. "They shot me on 16-millimeter film, and I could do enough in a day's work to keep them busy for two weeks."

She says the process of playing Snow White was simple. "When Snow White was running through the forest and scared to death, they had ropes hanging from a clothesline so I would be pushing them aside," recalls Champion. "If there was a bed where Show White had to go pray, they had a cot there so I could kneel beside it. It was always very rudimentary and very hot lights, because they wanted as strong a contrast as possible." ...

She has a good memory, because that's the footage to a fare-the-well.

But the goof they had pantomiming the wicked witch? Not nearly so riveting.

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"The Current State Of TV Development" at tonight's membership meeting

The TV animation industry is always changing; what’s hot today? Tonight we’ll be hosting a panel session to discuss the current state of TV Development and the pitch process. Are you developing a pitch? Curious about what types of shows the studios are looking to produce, or just interested in what may be in the pipeline? We’ll address these questions and more.

Our panel on "The Current State Of TV Development" will be hosted by Executive Board member KAREN CARNEGIE JOHNSON, featuring ERIC COLEMAN, senior vp of development, Disney TV Animation; CARIN DAVIS, vp of creative development, Film Roman; and ERIC HOMAN, vp of development, Frederator.

Animation Guild


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

1105 N. Hollywood Way, Burbank

Between Chandler and Magnolia

Pizza & refreshments, 6:30 pm * Meeting, 7 pm

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Good Times at DWA

I wandered around DreamWorks Animation after my 401(k) meetings there today, and a DreamWorks veteran mentioned:

"We did a couple of test screenings, in Long Beach I think, of How To Train Your Dragon, and they went really well. Jeffrey doesn't want to change a thing ..."

That snippet tracks this:

DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. ... edged up after Jefferies said it likes the company's 2010 films and expects a bigger contribution from the newly released Monsters Vs. Aliens DVD. The firm boosted its 2010 earnings target to $2.50 from $2.35 and 2011 forecast to $2.90 from $2.70. The Street consensus sees 2010 at $2.27. And Jefferies, while reiterating its buy rating, also said lower film costs and successful holiday television specials help make DreamWorks Animation an attractive acquisition candidate ...

The business press keeps harping on this "acquisition" thing. On a slightly different subject, another DreamWorksian informed me:

"The studio staff just had a big presentation of all the features we're doing for the next two years. It happened over at the Alex theater in Glendale, it was supposed to go from 8:30 to 11:00 and it went on until after 1:00.

"Most everybody is really impressed with the stuff that's coming down the pike. And it feels good to know we've got jobs going forward. That's sort of reassuring ..."

All in all, the mood at the Glendale campus appears to be upbeat.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Cartoon Rebates

Late to the party with this, but worthwhile nonetheless.

As Universal and Chris Meledandri's Illumination Entertainment wrap production on ... the 3D CGI-animated title "Despicable Me," the studio and animation house plan to raise their next progeny in France thanks to new tax incentives in the country ...

"Despicable Me" employed the animation savoir-faire of Paris-based FX house Mac Guff. ... " 'Despicable Me' also served as a benchmark for changing the tax rebate to be more friendly to animated films," Gallic film commission Film France's Franck Priot says. "We knew we needed to create a specific set of rules just for animated titles."

From what I've observed, France has good animation training and infrastructure. It has the skilled workforce and the tax rebates. The question is, do the animated features it turns out (and there have been a number, some even reaching the U. S. Of A.), that have the style and panache which will mesh with American tastes and the U.S. market in a major way. Based on the trailer, I think that Despicable Me can do okay in the United states. But is a domestic gross of, say, $60 to $90 million (Tale of Despereaux numbers) going to be enough for Universal-G.E.?

That, of course, is the question.

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Seventy Cents on the Dollar

I believe we can now stick a pin in this sad, miserable story:

Two years after having worked unpaid for three months at a Montreal film studio, a group of special-effects artists is preparing to recoup 70 per cent of what they claim is owed them.

The 130 mainly Canadian artists have been seeking $1.2 million in wages and overtime pay from the two U.S. companies that had formed Meteor Studios Inc. in 2000.

Last week, they accepted the third and latest joint-compensation offer from Discovery Trademark Holding Co. Inc. and Evergreen Digital LLC for nearly three-quarters of the amount.

"I'm amazed we're getting anything," said Dave Rand, the lead effects artist on the Journey to the Centre of the Earth movie ...

He was able to persuade his fellow artists to reject the first two offers - for 45 per cent and 63 per cent - made by Discovery and Evergreen through the provincial Commission des normes du travail.

Although he and some others, mostly fellow American artists, were pushing for full compensation, Rand said many of their Canadian counterparts expressed the need for the money now ...

This is where the plutocrats always get you. They've got the money, and nine times out of ten they can wait you out.

My hat is off to Mr. Rand, because he's one in ten thousand: a guy who isn't willing to roll over and take it up the large intestine.

My rule of thumb has always been, if I can get a settlement of 70-75%, it's an okay deal. Dave is made of sterner stuff than I am.

On the other hand, when the checks stopped coming, I would have been out on the sidewalk with a bullhorn, screaming at people to turn off their computers and get the hell out of the building.

(I mean, what can the employer do? Stop paying you?)

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Family Guy and Disney's Anti-Semitism

Stewie and Brian and Disneyland! In a pirated clip! Arrgh!

Family Guy had an amusing segment on Disney animation last night, ending with an unhappy tag ... (spoiler below) ...

... where a Jewish man comes to the door and gets beaten up.

This references, of course, the corporate/urban myth that Walt was a raging anti-semite.

There might be some smidgen of truth to it, I don't know. Walt Disney was a mid-westerner, and there weren't a lot of Jews hanging out there in the early twentieth century, so who can say with total certainty?

All I know is that when I landed at Walt Disney Productions in 1976, I went to work with story artist Ted Berman, a lontime stalwart of the feature animation department. He'd come to the studio in 1940, and retired from the studio in 1985, as a feature director.

So, my question. If Walt was such a hard-core anti-semite, what was Ted doing there all those years?

(Then, of course, there's the twenty years of Disney that had Michael Eisner in charge, with Jeffrey Katzenberg running the studio for ten of them. Walt was long dead, but Roy Disney was instrumental in having them come over from Paramount.)

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

The 1930s

Adam Begley reviews Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression by Morris Dickstein and finds some serious gaps:

After a fond, lingering look at “Shall We Dance” — Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in the spotlight, romancing to songs by George and Ira Gershwin — Dickstein sums up expertly: “Each number is a miniature of the movie, moving from singing alone, dancing alone, dancing with the wrong person, or dancing to the wrong music to making beautiful music together.” ...

Which makes the omission of Walt Disney (his name doesn’t even appear in the index) all the more perplexing. Even if one rejects the provocative claim by the historian Warren Susman that “Mickey Mouse may in fact be more important to an understanding of the 1930s than Franklin Roosevelt,” it’s hard to deny Disney a place in the pantheon of the decade’s movie makers, if only for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Fantasia.” Whether or not the cartoons that delighted ’30s audiences are complex works of art, they would have slotted nicely into several of Dickstein’s chapters. On the lookout for a cultural artifact that served to “lift sagging morale and stimulate optimism about the future”? ...

More than Zanuck's topical films torn from newspaper headlines (I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Public Enemy, Grapes of Wrath, etc.) or Warner Bros's emphasis on social justice (Angels with Dirty Faces, Adventures of Robin Hood), Disney was probably the touchstone for Depression-era audiences. "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wofl" was practically a national anthem, Mickey Mouse was the most popular cartoon character, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the highest grossing feature between 1930 and 1939.

So yeah. It's strange that Uncle Walt doesn't get a mention.

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Above: TAG newsletter masthead, circa 1993, by Comrade Tom Sito, worker hero of the most glorious socialist cartoon revolution. (Click on it to make it BIGGER.)

Of a Sunday evening, I take various comment threads and weave them into one terrific Trotskyite tapestry:

I'm curious what happens to the people that don't agree to go on call. Sure they can't make ya do it -wink wink- because they are a union shop after all and if they made you work OT with out paying you..then that would be bad.

It's simple, really. If you have the leverage, you can safely refuse to go "on call" and management won't make a peep. And if not, not.

In the mid-nineties, Disney Feature Animation abandoned "on call" because the crew hated it (and experienced talent was scarce.)

Today, there are few leads at the Mouse House who have declined to work on call ... times have changed! (Because of labor regulation changes by the Bush Administration, more employees now fall into the "exempt from overtime" categories and are therefore eligible to be on call. Such a deal.) ...

If Warren [Buffett} was so right, and Disney so right in buying Pixar et alia, why is the stock price today under $28 when it was over $33 in 1998?

That's minus 15% or so in more than a decade - one hell of business.

The entire stock market has been relatively flat and/or negative for over a decade. But as for Disney specifically, Eisner and Jeffrey K. roared in during 1984 and put the place on steroids: jacking up admissions to Disneyland and disney World (big profits there) reaching out to mainstream Hollywood filmmakers. (The early live-action films were made on strict budgets; Disney Television Animation was started, with high-margin results.)

Growth and profits leveled off in the late nineties; Eisner left early in the new century. Disney's problem now is it's a "mature business" and there are few un-mined veins of riches (the parks, the animation library) left to exploit. So Disney is doing what every entertainment conglomerate is doing: buying up franchises and working to control costs. If it gets on a roll making better pictures, so much the better. But Surrogates doesn't seem to be it.

I'd support Democrats if they were Kennedy Democrats, that's John Kennedy Democrats, not Teddy.. .

Jack Kennedy, in his time, was denounced by the hard right as a communist appeaser and a traitor (this sound familiar?) Today, of course, he's praised by some conservatives as a tax cutter, and Joe Leiberman cites him as the reason he got into politics.

Kennedy wasn't far left, but he was "liberal," with a wide streak of pragmatism borne of classical cynicism. (See Richard Reeves' clear-eyed biography, "President Kennedy: Profile of Power," published by Simon and Schuster in 1993.).

Geez, how did the world of animation that I love attract so many socialist? Sigh..

That's an easy one. You visited a union blog. You know, The Animation Guild? One of those nasty, labor organizations that advocates socialistic type things like health care, overtime after eight hours, higher wages, better working conditions?

You come to a commie, redistributionist web site, what do you expect?

* Realities as Comrade Hulett sees them. You, of course, might think that Tom Delay holds the bright torch of Truth. Have a fine and productive workweek, capitalist wage slaves!

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Tire Kicking

Your eagle-eyed correspondent notes this in the New York Times:

After more than a year of almost no activity, [new] deals do suggest that Hollywood is regaining its footing in a sharply changed entertainment sector ...

People are said to be kicking the tires on DreamWorks Animation, which is increasing production from two to three movies a year. Mr. Katzenberg declined to comment on the Merger & Acquisition chatter around his company.

DreamWorks Animation is now the only stand-alone animation studio in town. Every other cartoon factory nestles under the wings -- directly of indirectly -- of one of the conglomerates.

Sooner or later, the DWA will also cuddle up to one of the entertainment monsters. Nothing else makes (long-term) business sense .... unless the house of Jeffrey intends to grow into a conglomerate itself.

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Up Continues to Levitate

As Ice Age 3 winds down, Pixar's latest lifts higher.

It took nearly three months, but "Up" finally led all films in international markets for the first time.

The Disney/Pixar toon managed the feat during the Sept. 18-20 weekend with $13.7 million at 2,718 playdates in 23 markets. The Mouse House has opted for a strategy of opening the pic gradually rather than going day-and-date.

"Up" crossed the $200 million mark on Sept. 22, becoming the seventh 2009 release to hit that milestone but the first to do it outside the summer season.

... In Germany, the opening of "Up" finished a close second to Constantin’s second frame of tyke adventure "Vicky the Viking" with $6 million. "Up" launched with $5.4 million from 809, on par with last year’s "Wall-E" but below 2007’s "Ratatouille," which opened with more than $12 million in Germany.

In Australia, "Up" scored its third straight weekend as the first-place film with $2.8 million at 287 for an $8.5 million cume. In France, the pic managed to finish eighth in its eighth frame with $1.3 million -- off only 1% -- for a $38 million cume.

And "Up" has plenty of gas left in the tank. It opens in Scandinavia on Oct. 2, followed by the U.K. on Oct. 9, Italy on Oct. 16 and Japan in December ...

For those of you scoring at home, we have Cloudy at the top of domestic box office, Up as the current champ overseas, and Ice Age 3 as the foreign box office record-holder for 2009.

I'm guessing that the money pouring in for these pictures is not going unnoticed. I'm assuming that production for more of the same is a foregone conclusion. (More than any other type of movie, animated features are powered by the marketplace ...)

Here's wishing the best for the oncoming flood of holiday cartoons.

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Cloudy Holds Fast

Now with abundant Add On.

So last week a top-level Disney animator says to me in the doorway of his hat building office:

"Have you seen Cloudy with Meatballs yet? No? Well, I thought it was really good. I found it to be fresh and funny. I know the two directors didn't have much animation experience, but maybe that helped the picture. I thought they brought a new slant to what they did ..."

Sure, there are those who probably don't like the feature, but "De gustibus non est disputandum" applies here. And the L.A. Times reports this A.M. that hordes of movie goers apparently like CWB

It's starting to look like a cloudy weekend for everything but "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs."

"Surrogates" and "Fame" both had soft opening days, while Sony's animated film dropped only 31% from its debut Friday last week to $5.6 million. Animated family films tend to decline even less on a Saturday and Sunday, meaning "Cloudy," the third movie from Sony Pictures Animation, could fall between 20% and 25% for the weekend.

That's an extremely small second-weekend drop and would be a sign of excellent word of mouth.

"Cloudy" will almost certainly gross over $20 million for the weekend, giving it a lock on first place ...

Bad news for Bruce Willis's sci fi opus. Good news for animation.

Add On: Friday's results, per the Hollywood Reporter, are about as expected:

Disney will probably have to rein in its weekend expectations for Bruce Willis starrer "Surrogates," after the sci-fi thriller rung up an estimated $5 million in first-day grosses.

That was good only for second place in Friday's domestic ranking ... [I]t looks like last weekend's No. 1 pic -- Sony's 3D animated "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" -- is staging a run at repeat bragging rights, ringing up $5.6 million on Friday for $41 million in cumulative boxoffice over its first eight days in release.

As Sam Goldwyn said "When people don't want to come see your movie, you can't stop them ..."

And conversely.

So Meatballs is on a tear, and animation gets another booster shot.

Add On Too: And Cloudy walks off with top honors for a second weekend ... and Bruce should maybe think about prepping another Die Hard installment, because he's now entered the danger area of "aging action star."

Audiences took a look at the new movie offerings this weekend and decided to stick with what they knew. Two major new wide releases, "Surrogates" and "Fame," both posted weak openings and received poor reactions from those who did attend. Moviegoers gave the films an average grade of "C" and "B-," respectively, according to market research firm CinemaScore. Audiences are typically generous graders, so those are signs of poor word-of-mouth and, most likely, short box-office runs.

"Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," meanwhile, dropped an extremely modest 19%, indicating very strong word-of-mouth and continued hunger for a family film.

After its decent but not great $30.3-million launch last week, "Cloudy" enjoyed the third-lowest second-weekend drop of any film this year, after "Taken" and "Coraline." The studio-estimated $24.6 million in tickets it sold in the U.S. and Canada this weekend brought its total domestic gross after 10 days to $60 million. The $100-million production, the third from Sony Pictures Animation, is now on solid financial footing, aided by the $13.3 million it has earned so far from four foreign territories ...

The score card:

1. Meatballs (Sony) Week 2, Wkd $24.6M (-19%), [3,119] Cume $60M

2. Surrogates (Disney) NEW, Wkd $15M [2,951]

3. Fame (MGM) NEW, Wkd $10M [3,096]

4. The Informant (WB) Week 2, Wkd $6.9M (-34%) [2,505] Cume $20.9M

5. I Can Do Bad All By Myself (LG) Week 3, Wkd $4.7M [2,120] Cume $44.5M

6. Pandorum (Overture) NEW, Wkd $4.4M [2,506]

7. Love Happens (Universal) Week 2, Wkd $4.3M (-46%) [1,898] Cume $14.M

8. Jennifer's Body (Fox), Week 2, Wkd $3.5M (-49%) [2,738] Cume $12.3M

9. 9 (Focus), Week 3, Wkd $2.8M [2,025] Cume $27.1M

10. Inglourious Basterds (Wein/Uni) Week 6, Wkd $2.7M [1,960] Cume $114.4M

As you see, animation sits on top and bottom of the Big Ten

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Friday, September 25, 2009

100 Degree Links

Now with toasty Add On.

100 degrees where I live. How toasty. How refreshing. And then there was:

"Ice Age" helmer Chris Wedge will next direct "Leaf Men," a feature toon that Fox has committed to finance through its Fox Animation label, with Blue Sky Studios producing.

The development comes after a fascinating tug-of-war over the project between Fox, Blue Sky Studios co-founder Wedge and Disney-based animation rival Pixar ...

It's always fun when two cartoon titans duke it out for the rights to a hot property. I say we let Rupert M. and Bob Iger mud-wrestle for the production privileges, and we'll put the bout on pay-per-view ... revenues split equally between ESPN and Fox Sports.


Variety surveys woman power at DreamWorks Animation.

[Ann] Daly's cultivation of creative latitude has given first-time directors like Andrew Adamson ("Shrek") and Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who will helm one of DWA's most anticipated sequels, "Kung Fu Panda: The Kaboom of Doom," their start ...

During her tenure at DWA, [Anne] Globe has been responsible for helping forge partnerships with McDonald's, AOL and Kellogg's as well as extending the studio's videogame licensing pact with Activision. ...

Marvel execs make out like bandits because of Disney's recent acquisition.

... In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission today outlining Disney's $50-per-share deal for Marvel, the companies revealed that Marvel leaders including chief executive Isaac Perlmutter, movies chief and former Endeavor agent David Maisel, and board member and Hollywood veteran Sid Ganis will all receive millions of dollars for stock options they hold because of the acquisition deal ...

When the going gets rich, the rich do rather well.

Get your bids in soon for this:

Up for auction is the original Art for the popular Disneyland Map given to attendees in the 1950s and 1960s, and marked with "Walt Disney Productions" paper label. Oil and pastel on a 22" x 40" art board with fine detailing, by artist Sam McKim known as "the Cartographer of Disneyland."

Meanwhile, across the pond ...

The new category of best animated feature film has been added to this year's roster of European Film Awards, organizers said Wednesday.

The European Film Academy and Europe's animated film association CARTOON announced the creation of the new category. It will honor excellence in European animation.

And more television animation is percolating on the Iberian peninsula:

..."Spain is a massive fan of mature animation, such as 'The Simpsons' and 'South Park,' but our TV channels have traditionally viewed Spanish animation as just for kids," explains Raul Escolano, co-founder of pathbreaking Nikodemo, which capitalized on this market gap by launching "Calico electronico," a Flash-based Web toon about a plump, mustachioed, street-wise antihero, in 2005. The series' following has mushroomed from 5,000 to 5 million viewers per episode ...

Family Guy' new season sees Stewie and Brian ricocheting through different cartoon universes ... as previewed here.

Lastly, Media Daily reports that Diz Co. is looking to make big changes:

Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger is likely to couple the appointment of a new studio chief with new initiatives and changes aimed at reinventing the film business for the digital age.

Iger has openly discussed launching a subscription-based Web site and other payment services, including electronic sell-through that could continue to alter traditional film exhibition windows ...

The need for such enterprising maneuvers is evident in the dismal performance of Disney's studio entertainment unit:

*Disney's studio operating income is projected to decline 25% over five years to $353 million in 2012 on a 7% in decline in revenues that bottom at $5.5 billion in 2012, according to Bernstein. Operating income is off two-thirds from 2008, when it topped $1 billion, which Iger partly blames on poor film choices and execution. Revised estimates for fiscal 2009 call for filmed entertainment earnings to decline more than 80% from the prior year.

*Pixar animated masterpieces like "Up" are profit tent poles too infrequently produced to offset ongoing losses from Disney's core businesses. "Up" was flat with last year's "Wall-E" in global box office (about $538 million) and profitability, according to Credit Suisse. Pixar's competitive edge has been dulled by the widespread industry adoption of computer-generated animation.

*Before the summer film cycle and the release of "Up, " Disney's share of the U.S. box office this year was at a multi-year low of 8.7%, according to Credit Suisse. Disney's 2008 U.S. box office per film was a three-year low of $48 million ....

Which might explain (in part) why Dick Cook has joined the growing army of retirees.

Add On: Simpsons topkick Al Jean looks back at two decades of the Yellow Family:

When I started on the show in 1989, I thought it would be a good show because it was Matt, Sam Simon and Jim Brooks. I never would have dreamed if it would have lasted this long, nor have a feature film, a ride or all those other things it has. The guest stars who have been on it have been unbelievable. ...

Have a restful but zestful weekend.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Japanese Cartoon Dominance

Variety tells us that there are new box office champs in Japan:

"DuelMasters" and "Penguin Problem" (Penguin no mondai), a double bill of toons for kiddies, topped the Japanese box office for the weekend of Sept. 19-20, ending the three-week reign of sci-fi epic "20th Century Boys 3."

I am fully resigned to the fact that animation will always be the ugly, bastard step-child of the movie industry when it comes to awards. Best picture? Yeah, like when pit bulls fly. Best screenplay? It will happen right around the moment the sun implodes and creates a black hole.

Ah, but the marketplace, that's a different deal altogether. Animation has become a major force there, and will probably continue to be one, because audiences keep showing up to watch the movies.

Funny how that works.

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Sanity From SAG

The Screen Actors Guild has taken another step to sanity by electing their new Prez.

Ken Howard's election to national president of the Screen Actors Guild amounts to a repudiation of the uncompromising strategy that previous prexy Alan Rosenberg embodied during his four-year tenure.

With an impressive 47% of the vote after a bitter race, Howard's win for a two-year term sets the stage for the next round of contract negotiations -- and once again raises questions of a merger with sister thesp guild AFTRA.

Over the past few years, SAG has been run by ... how do I put this delicately? ... fanatics* who are totally divorced from reality.

Let's look at the recent handiwork of these folks. They negotiated a three-year contract that had 3% annual wage increases, but by cleverly dragging their feet for the better part of a year and not getting it ratified in a timely manner, they were able to whittle down contractual increases to 2% per year ((0%, 3%, 3%).

Happily, the geniuses behind this strategy no longer hold a majority on SAG's national board, so there is a marginally better chance that there won't be an industry shutdown in 2011. I hope.

* "Fanatics" in this contest are people who keep doing the same things over and over ... and failing.

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A tribute to the late Marty Murphy

A tribute to the late Marty Murphy, who passed away August 26, will be held tomorrow (Friday, September 25) at 1 pm.

The tribute will take place at Pantomime Pictures, 12144 Riverside Drive in Valley Village (1 block west of Laurel Canyon).

The organizers say this will be a "pot luck" affair, and they ask guests to bring beer, wine or soft drinks. For further information, contact Jane Baer at (818) 989-1533.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Buffett on Disney

Warren Buffett, who I'm told knows something about investing and businesses, talks about See's Candy, the House of Mouse, and building wide moats to increase market share.

(His observations on Disney begin at 3:46 ...)

Warren gave this talk in 1998 at the University of Florida.

One of the most telling parts of his answer comes right at the end of this segment, where Mr. Buffett says if a See's Candy clerk snarls at a customer, that creates a negative impression for See's in the customer's head, and the "protective moat" for See's candy business has just been narrowed.

And I flashed on Disney Animation during this period. The animation department had started on a downslope, turning out animated features that fewer and fewer people wanted to see. (The era of Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Lion King was behind it.)

The Disney moat was being narrowed ... while the new studio Pixar was widening its water barrier ... because of the quality of product each studio was turning out. This trend continued until Disney CEO Eisner departed the company when Disney stock flatlined and Roy Disney campaigned for Eisner's ouster; soon thereafter, Disney's new chief bought Pixar for $7.5 billion.

Funny how the quality of a handful of animated features can widen and narrow moats, propel (or sink) careers and create fortunes. Brand names, even well-known ones, are fragile things.

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Dorothy's Zits

Since we got into this flick down below, there's this:

The new digital restoration of "Oz" is as close as one can get to the experience of seeing the classic in theaters 70 years ago ...

“In finding the 1939 nitrate Technicolor print, we got a different look for the film than we previously had,” says Ned Price, vice president of mastering at Warner Bros. Technicolor Operations.

“It had much more midrange colors,” says Price. “It was no so contrasty and you could see much more into the shadow detail. It was less primary color. It was more earth tones and the color didn’t pop as we had it made it previously. It was very colorful but not as colorful as the negative lead us to believe.”

... [F]or the first time, viewers can see more detail on Toto, the Wicked Witch’s hairy mole, the Tin Man’s rivet in the middle of his brow and Dorothy’s acne.

A looong time ago, I saw a nitrate print of Oz at the Nuart theater.

I had never seen it on a big, silver screen. And what hit me about the film when viewing it in a large format instead of on a 24 or 27 inch television?

"Hey. Those are painted flats back there! They shot this thing on a sound stage!"

The stage-bound reality of The Wizard of Oz comes through strongly when the image is a couple of stories high. Doesn't lessen the entertainment value of the film. You just become way more aware of how it was made, because it's all up there bigger than life.

So happy birthday, Dorothy. And your little pimples too.

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At the House of Mouse

Today was my Disney Animation Studio day, and I got a pretty good turnout for the 401(k) enrollment meeting. (Attitudes change when stock markets revive.)

Then I went upstairs and talked to various animation staffers, who told me:

"They called us all in and said, 'Now that the picture [The Princess and the Frog] is done, we're cutting your weekly pay some more.' ..."

"People around here aren't happy about it, but what do you do? This is a paycut on top of the one we already had with the 45-hour week thing. Everybody's just kind of numb and resigned. But the company's got to keep paying Bob Iger his $51 million, I guess ..."

I listened to the complaints and thought: "What's wrong with these people? Don't they know there's a recession on? They should be glad they have a freaking job ..."

I would go on, but I'm running out of management-type cliches. I'm sure that the top echelons of Disney Co. have tightened their belts as well. (Not. Except, of course, for Dick Cook ...)

What the above quotes refer to is newer pay cuts that were given to some of Disney Feature's staff a short time ago. (I didn't hear about it until today.) The atmosphere at DAS is not cheery, but everybody knows that the 2009 marketplace is not ablaze with profit-sharing and salary increases.

"Numb and resigned." That about covers it.

(Happily, Diz Co. is still making at least some money from animation ...)

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Studio Roundabout -- 22 September

I trucked around to three studios today, in my never-ending enrollment of TAG members to the TAG 401(k) Plan.

Over at Disney Toons Studio, they are hard at work on various feature-length sequels to the first Tinker Bell, released last year.

"The second Tinker Bell comes out next month, and I saw 30% of the 3rd Tink. The animators in India are getting better, the animation is less clunky. We're still doing some story changes on number three."

"Story work is going on with the fourth one, and there's story ideas getting kicked around for the next series [these are dvd features with a new set of characters that are so far unannounced -- Hulett]."

A week or so back, John Lasseter announced the fifth Tinker Bell will go into work, but Toons staff tells me there are going to be more features starring the winged sprite than that.

Meanwhile, the slow ramp-up for the next series of Toons' feature 'toons continues.

To review: Disney Toons and Disney Television Animation are separate Disney units reporting to different Disney divisions (Lasseter/Catmull call the shots at Toons; the Disney Channel runs Disney Television Animation.) At the Sonora building, Toons is humming up on the second floor, as busy as I've seen it.

On the first floor, lots of cubicles are empty as a few artists work on storybook for Jake and the Pirates, and a few more artists create art and boards for a new pilot. Inspector Oso, starting work on a new season, has crew trickling back to work, but there are big sections of the first floor workspace that remain quiet. (To be fair, Disney TV has other shows in the Frank Wells Building on the main lot.)

Diz TVA should be gaining artists over the next couple of months as new and returning shows go into full production.

The final stop of the day was over at Film Roman/Starz Media, where there is nothing new to report on the Marvel of Yellow Family shows being produced in the building.

Other than, artists are still working on all of them.

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Non-Paid Animation Employees, Canadian Edition

The on-going tale of the visual effects crew that got stiffed by their employer continues with this letter from Dave Rand to a lawyer involved in the case:

Dear L:

First of all I am delighted that we will be able to speak of this following the settlement as it is my experience that this is usually not the case in these types of "negotiations" and from your letter I see you must have negotiated this for us..THANKYOU! I do not agree with the amount but that was a group decision as the law in Canada only guarantees $2,000 dollars per employee.

I completely understand your point of view as you are a lawyer and the law dictates your stance as it should. I'm not sure what you as in individual may think of this but I do believe if you had been in our shoes during the robbery, and had to explain it to your mortgage banker, and your wife and children right before Christmas, you may have formed some very strong opinions about the situation and the laws surrounding it as most of us did.

What happened to us was a crime, followed by a cover up. I believe, and have been told by the former management of Meteor, that the actions were premeditated. The employees were used because the current law allows it and it was the cheaper route. I do not agree with that law and because it is legal for me to speak about it I took advantage of the leverage provided by every opportunity to get the story attached, as I, and most of our group believed, it needed to be told. Discovery and Evergreen had no problem whatsoever using the law to their advantage as well.

They also were able to keep it out of the press in the US because The Discovery Channel, being part of Discovery Communications (worth over 6 billion at the time) have a very influential advertising budget. So we needed to fight them on every front possible. We needed this to be tried in the court of public opinion, the same public they rely on for their lively hood.

I have not met an artist or other employee today who does not know about our case, the usual comment is that they can not believe it even happened, and is still going on. Since our story was told, artists are more inclined to walk off the job, most recently with the Orphanage and Slash fx here in the states. The Animation Guild for all of North America has taken notice and are using our story to protect their members and future members from this abuse.

I believe this pressure actually helped our case as Discovery and Evergreen, like all crooks, would rather commit their crime under cover of night and not in broad daylight. Being a family network the word can not get out that they robbed families right before I had no problem facilitating the release of that fact in an honest and legal way.

As for some precedent regarding negotiations with talent and the press just google "writers strike negotiations and news coverage" there's 241,000 pages of links. I believe one day you'll see similar pages concerning fx artists as the single common thread that all top grossing films have for the last 17 yrs is stunning digital imagery.

I understand bankruptcy laws and their importance to the economy. I also understand those that abuse them, this was the latter. This was abuse. Had there been profits Discovery would have taken their cut for sure. We did not sign up to take part in their risk and believed their promise to pay. Meteor was always run like a family and that trust was abused also.

As for what you call the "lesson" I disagree completely, the only lesson from this is that when the paycheck stops, the work stops, that is the only leverage you have and the only time you'll have it, as further demonstrated by our case. Since Canada only legally obligates employer to $2,000, it's best to leave immediately.

The rest of the talent in the entertainment world went through this decades ago and it is the sole reason strong unions were formed...they don't care about insurances...their members walk when the money stops and the press does plenty of coverage both during the stirkes and during the negotiations.

In the wake of this and thanks to Eric's efforts a website went up that got us organized or we would have been forced to accept the first offer. We were all spread around the globe making it very difficult to bring the group together in time without this tool. Discovery, Evergreen, and the Insurance Company were using the law to continue to exploit us but they were only stopped by our organization.

In closing I'd like to personally thank you for all your efforts on our behalf. I need to once again make it clear I will not sign any type of release or gag order that dissallows me from speaking of this or the case in any way. I'd rather they keep all of my $12,000. To me it will be more satisfying to take part in making a change instead of going with the flow, to me it would be worth every penny.


Dave Rand

People go on working for companies that stop paying them for a variety of reasons:

A) Fear of ticking off the boss,

B) Desire to do quality, professional work, no matter how awful the circumstances,

C) Fear of being "blacklisted",

D) Desire to support the "Family"/"Team".

Companies, dear readers, are not above bullying, cajoling and manipulating employees, especially when they run out of cash and want to keep a project going.

Companies even, on occasion, start breaking laws and arm-twisting the people who work for them to "go along" with breaking laws too. (Things like hourly wage regulations, minimum wage laws, minor items like that.)

But here's what employees have to train themselves to do:

Refuse to work for a company that isn't paying. When there is no paycheck, get up from your desk, walk out, and don't look back.


You might be in the business for love. But you're not in it for charity. You want to work for free, go work for yourself, not some dink operation which is making money off your sweat and skill.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Artists' Rights

Apparently Jack Kirby's estate isn't going to take it anymore.

The heirs of Jack Kirby, co-creator of Captain America, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, The Avengers, Iron Man, Hulk, The Silver Surfer and Thor and have sent notices terminating copyright to publishers Marvel and Disney, as well as film studios that have made movies and TV shows based on characters he created or co-created, including Sony, Universal, 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures ...

Such claims, if found valid, would begin from 2014 and, as always, its worth noting that Marvel/Disney will still own the trademarks of the characters in comics, and the studios in movies.

As the L.A. Times and the Nikkster note:

The children of Kirby, who died in 1994, are being represented by Los Angeles law firm Toberoff & Associates, which has represented the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel in a similar claim against Warner Bros.

It's always seemed weird to me that companies are considered "people" who can hold copyrights, have rights of speech, rights of privacy, etc.. But then we live in an age where companies are all. Even if they don't hold the pencil or create the characters.

There's a reason the U.S. of A. is known as "our charming corporatist state." The guvmint is all about the care and feeding of our fine, transnational corporations.

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At Warner Bros. Animation

A bunch of Warner Bros. Animation employees were asking for 401(k) forms when I was there today, so maybe the economy's coming back a little. (Two months ago, nobody was interested in putting money into a 401(k) Plan: "You crazy? I've got bills to pay off, I'm not gonna lose money in the stock market ...")

Moods have changed. But then so has WBA. It's busier than I've seen it in years ...

Besides the announced shows now in work (Laff Riot/Looney Tunes, Batman, Scooby Doo), and the super hero direct-to-video features, the studio is developing shorts with some of the old characters. I asked one of the Laff Riot creators about the shows he's working on, and he said:

"There are two shows back, and they're funny. They look good. I hope the writers keep it up, because the board artists are staying close to the scripts.

"The character designs vary. We started off with Darrell Van Citters's models, now we've got a lot of Clampett influence and we're moving toward Chuck Jones ..."

In other words, the character designs for Laff Riot are what you'd call eclectic.

But what's most gratifying about going through WBA these days is that all the cubicles and offices are pretty much filled. As one Warners artist observed: "We're bursting at the seams."

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Big Surprise

So Family Guy didn't win the Emmy.

For the creators of Family Guy, the first animated series to be nominated for a best comedy series Emmy since The Flintstones in1961, the nomination will have to be enough.

NBC’s 30 Rock won the category for the third year in a row ...

Wow. You could knock me over with a feather.

I'm one guy that advocates and applauds "animated" categories at these increasingly irrelevant award ceremonies. Let's go ahead and "ghettoize" animation.

Because if you don't create a category for toonage, the creative community working in live action ... which now and forever dominates the television and motion picture academies ... will make damn share that animated features and television shows never win any awards beyond "best song" and "best score".

Whether you think Family Guy was legitimately the best comedy show or not, live-actioners would rather jam knitting needles in their eyes and shred their tongues than vote for an animated anything.

So special animated categories, bring them on. If animation people want one of them little gold statues, they better hope the academies have those special slots, because that's the only way they will ever get one.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Imagi Nails Down Release Dates

The Hong Kong/Sherman Oaks animation studio announces the global release of Astro Boy:

Imagi International Holdings ... with studios in both Hong Kong and the U.S., today announced that it had finalized the Astro Boy premiere dates for Tokyo, Hong Kong and the U.S. ...

... Japan, where Tezuka Osamu created the legendary Astro Boy character in the 50s, will be the host of the world premiere of Astro Boy on 5th October ... Hong Kong, will host its own premiere on 17th October ... Los Angeles will host its premiere on 19th October ...

This first release will be a big deal for Imagi, and it will be doing multiple roll outs through the month of October. The picture hits big, the company kicks into high gear with several other projects. Corporate chiefs say that Imagi will move ahead with newer product no matter how Astro Boy performs, but I tend to think that the film's success will be a huge shot in the arm.

Imagi is continuing story development on its next project. If Astro is successful, the Sherman Oaks studio space should fill up pretty quickly with newer employees ... or so I'm told.

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After Dick Cook

The Journal of Wall Street speculates where the House of Mouse goes from here:

Whoever takes over as head of Walt Disney Co.'s movie studio following the abrupt departure of Chairman Dick Cook last week will be tasked with making the struggling film division stand out among a growing number of corporate siblings ...

Disney Studios today is just one of several high-profile film labels owned by the Burbank, Calif., media giant ... In some ways the new units have eclipsed Disney Studios proper. Pixar has surpassed Disney as the preeminent animated-feature company ... "Up," grossing more than $415 million world-wide ... Disney's "G-Force" ... has taken in less than $170 million.

This is all quite silly, of course. "Disney's G-Force is in fact a Jerry Bruckheimer's G-Force since Jerry is the guy calling the shots. Just as "Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean" is in actual fact a Jerry Bruckheimer production.

And so on and so forth.

To shake your head and say: "What a shame, Disney is being eclipsed by Marvel and Pixar" or whatever, is to skip around the central point: Disney is a corporate brand. Period. And the corporate brand is whatever the Disney corporate overlords choose to make it. Pixar is now Disney and Disney is Pixar.

But Disney as a "creative force"? As some kind of philosophical statement about entertainment? Please. That ended when Walt breathed his last at the hospital across the street from the studio in December, 1966. Before that time, Walt Disney Productions had a point of view because Walt himself ran the place with a certain approach and style. But afterwards? Well, as Ward Kimball so piquantly phrased it:

"Walt's dead and you missed it."

Disney today is much the same as Time-Warner ... or Viacom ... or Sony. It's an entertainment conglomerate that's the sum of its moving parts, rapidly becoming a transnational corporation that has as much to do with Uncle Walt as Time-Warner has with Jack L. Warner.

Which is to say, very little. Time and history march on. Deal with it.

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Toonage Overseas

As Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs lands at the top of the domestic charts, animation continues its tear in foreign lands.

Disney/Pixar's "Up" remained a solid draw with $8.4 million at 2,191 in 26 markets. As of Sept. 15, international cume had hit $182.7 million midway through its offshore run with launches still coming in Germany, Italy, Japan, Scandinavia and the U.K.

The Mouse House has opted for a staggered "Up" release in foreign markets to maximize admissions by targeting holiday periods, along with avoiding competing head-to-head with "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs." It's become the top Disney toon in Latin America with $44.6 million as of Sept. 15, in Spain with $31.9 million and in China with $11.6 million.

"Up" has also generated a solid $36.7 million in France, 40% better than "Wall-E."

"District 9" took in $7.6 million at 1,765 in 19 markets for a foreign cume of $35.8 million, and Fox's "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" pulled in $7 million more at 4,100. As of Sept. 15, the third "Ice Age" had hit $671.3 million -- the third-best international total of all time, trailing only "Titanic" at $1.24 billion and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" at $752 million.

In Italy "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" held on to the top spot in its third frame, pulling $4.6 million from 690 screens for a cool $34 million. That stellar take now makes "Ice Age" Italy's top draw of the year so far, ahead of "Angels and Demons." ...

The lesson here: animation is steadily gaining traction around the globe. Every large entertainment conglomerate has now tasted robust cash flow because of animated features (Sony, after a run of lacklustre returns, is now reversing its previous sad fortunes with Cloudy With Meatballs.)

Why is this happening? And why now? I think it's a happy confluence of technology and product. 3-D is taking off around the world, and animation has been the best positioned big screen attraction to harness the new format. (Like how many live-action three dee extravaganzas have you raced down to the AMC to goggle at recently? I thought so.) Then there are the stories and characters in animated features. Some certainly do have American subjects, but many (Wall-E, Kung-Fu Panda, Ice Age, Shrek) don't. And fuzzy animals generally have no national allegiance.

Beyond all that, plugging the voice of a major national star into the mouth of a Panda, green ogre or giraffe has more impact and resonance for audiences and movie companies than a French of German actor spouting dialogue for say, Brad Pitt or Clint Eastwood.

So what does the future hold? Probably more animated features. It might even reach the point where animation is taken seriously at the academy awards.

Add On: The L.A. Times thinks Cloudy's opening was so-so, while Entertainment Weekly found it "strong." TAG blog thinks it did fairly well considering Sony has no brand name for animation and released the feature at a relatively dead time of year.

The rest of the field came in at less than half of the flying food. The Sunday totals (with animation filling the 1st and 6th slots):

1. "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," $30.1 million.

2. "The Informant!" $10.5 million.

3. "I Can Do Bad All By Myself," $10 million.

4. "Love Happens," $8.5 million.

5. "Jennifer's Body," $6.8 million.

6. "9," $5.5 million.

7. "Inglourious Basterds," $3.6 million.

8. "All About Steve," $3.4 million.

9. "Sorority Row," $2.5 million.

10. "The Final Destination," $2.4 million.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

One Animation Studio Going In a Different Direction

Think c.g.i. animation is all the rage? Think again.

Laika, Phil Knight's Portland movie studio, laid off 63 in its computer animation department this morning after deciding to focus exclusively on an old-fashioned filmmaking technique called stop motion.

The studio originally planned to develop both stop motion and computer-animated films, but said today that it has recently concluded it would rather specialize in stop motion. For the foreseeable future, Laika said, it will only use computer animation on a limited basis, to augment stop motion ...

As Disney Animation Studio moves again toward hand-drawn toonage, Laika decides that the Henry Selick style of making animation is their best card to play.

Today's layoff, which reduces Laika's work force from 243 to 180, is the second round of cuts in its computer animation department. In December, it laid off 65 after scrapping a computer-generated feature called "Jack and Ben's Animated Adventure."

Now. If they can just have Henry direct all of their product, they'll be all set.

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Sony Pictures Animation Arrives

Took the boys and girls in Culver City a while to do it, but better late than not at all:

The beloved children's book turned Sony Pictures Animation's movie Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs scored an easy No. 1 by attracting not just kids but also tweens, teens, and twentysomethings as well as parents to Friday's North American screenings at a record 1,828 3-D sites, including 127 Imax locations. That's why four-quadrant family films like this are such a favorite of Hollywood. All day and night, Sony kept upping its box office predictions as the money just kept rolling in ...

Sony, until now, has had less than stellar results with its animation division. Open Season was a moderate hit; Surf's Up was, despite a generally warm reception from the animation community, a flop. The division has changed executives, revamped strategies, subtracted and added staff.

But now, riding a wave of positive reviews, good market positioning, and the 3-D boom, it looks as though Sony has itself a hit. (Of course, it doesn't hurt that feature animation is red hot.)

Meanwhile, Jennifer Anniston and Megan Fox underperform, and Tyler Perry's core audience has viewed its fill and moved on. Not a good weekend for live-action.

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Richard Cook's Quick Goodbye

As a commenter noted below, after four decades at the Disney Co., Mr. Cook is shown the door.

... A person close to Cook said the movie chief "didn't see it coming." He was summoned into a meeting and was told the studio "wanted to go in a different direction," said the person. A Disney spokesperson denied the report.

But in a meeting Friday with colleagues, Cook described himself as "a square peg in a round hole," three people said.

The first evidence of discontent bubbled to the surface in a conference call with analysts in May, when Iger described the studio's performance as "disappointing" -- and placed the blame on Burbank's doorstep, criticizing the choice of films and the execution. Cook's departure comes nearly three weeks after Disney agreed to buy comic-book publisher Marvel Entertainment, producer of the "Spider-Man" and "Iron Man" movies, for $4 billion.

I know Dick Cook not at all. I met and shook hands with him in the lobby of the Frank Wells Building a while back; beyond that I have never laid eyes on him.

But it doesn't surprise me that he got blindsided and ushered out in the way he did; that's the way the game is played in Tinsel Town. You don't see eye to eye with the Top Dog, then pretty quickly somebody comes to your office with a stack of cardboard boxes ... and you are told curtly to "clean out your desk."

From what the media is saying, and what I've been hearing, Dick Cook and Robert Iger did not see eye to eye. A couple of years back a Disney Animation supervisor informed me that Mr. Cook had told him that the Disney purchase of Pixar was too rich, and shouldn't have been done.

If this is true (and obviously I'm dealing here with second-hand hearsay), then it's kind of obvious the Disney executive suite held differences of opinion. (And that Robet Iger knew about the differences.) It wouldn't surprise me if Mr. Cook was not thrilled with the Marvel pick up.

And so Dick "round peg in square hole" Cook is now exiting the Burbank lot. Under the circumstances it's hardly surprising. The Disney Film Group's performance was down, the two men didn't agree, so adios to the second in command.

Happy retirement, Dick. Thirty-eight years is a long ride. Especially in this day and age.

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Congratulations to John Wells, New Prez of the WGAw

Despite smears and nasty attacks, John Wells is the new President of the WGA.

"I'm remarkably humbled by the membership returning me to the Presidency of the Guild. I look forward to working with the Board again and to working with David Young and his talented staff to meet the many challenges that lie ahead,”

This is good news for people who work in animation, because there is now somewhat less risk of a strike in 2011. Which means that the Motion Picture Industry pension and health funds stand less risk of taking another hit, and animation employees who would otherwise be laid off might not become collateral damage after all.

Why is this? Not because John Wells is a management "tool", or because he's less than a stalwart member of his guild, but because he's not a zealot.

And most of the Writers United group are zealots. They believe in the justness of their cause and the road on which people should be traveling to achieve that justice. From recent evidence, if you are somebody who believes in a somewhat different route to salvation, then you are misguided, impure, and ultimately "the enemy."

(This remind you at all of our current national discussion about the way the country should go?)

So I'm glad Mr. Wells got the nod from WGAw membership. He might still find it necessary to call for a strike two years hence, for the conglomerates are not pussycats, and there is a preponderance of Writers United adherents on the WGAw board of directors. And there will be plenty of internal pressure to march in that direction.

But there is now at least a chance that there will be no job action in 2011. If John Wells's opponent Mr. Davis had been elected, there would have been none.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Cloudy with a chance of boxoffice

Here's hoping the boxoffice is as good as the 86% Rotten Tomatoes rating.

The Los Angeles Times's business section emphasizes the clouds ...

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which opens tomorrow, is likely to sell close to $30 million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada this weekend, according to people who have seen pre-release audience polling. That's just a little better than the first movie from the studio's Sony Pictures Animation division, Open Season, that opened to a so-so $23.6 million in late September of 2006. Given three years of inflation and the fact that 55% of its theaters will play the movie in 3-D, which typically adds a $2 to $3 surcharge to ticket prices, that means Cloudy will be essentially keeping pace with Open Season.

Sony's second animated feature, 2007's Surf's Up, was a flop, grossing only $58.9 million domestically.

September is generally a slow month at the box office, particularly for family films, so an opening over $30 million would be something of an accomplishment for Sony. The studio's choice of a relatively weak date for a family movie, however, signifies its unwillingness to compete with higher-profile offerings like Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Monsters vs. Aliens and Up.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, based on the popular children's book, cost a hefty $100 million to produce, so even a $30-million debut isn't too strong a start. The studio is surely hoping Cloudy will follow the path of Open Season, which ultimately grossed $85.1 million domestically.

At the same time, Times reviewer Glenn Whipp sees sunshine and food:

For the big musical montage number in the wildly enjoyable Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, the filmmakers chose Lesley Gore's giddy "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows", but they could just as well have taken a page from Oliver! and gone with "Food, Glorious Food."

Transferring the popular children's book to the big screen, first-time writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller conjure up a veritable blizzard of ways of channeling chow, carrying it off with enough brio to send audiences into a food coma. Really, between the animated rainstorms of Flintstones-sized steaks and the creation of a translucent Jell-O palace, the movie's loopy use of food puts it in the hall of fame between Big Night and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory ...

Variety's Peter Debruge is at odds with the Times's dour b.o. forecast:

Tut tut, it looks like a hit for Sony Pictures Animation. Eye-popping and mouth-watering in one, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs spins a 30-page children's book into a 90-minute all-you-can-laugh buffet, expanding the premise of a town where it rains ketchup and hot dogs to disaster-movie proportions. With drooling tongues in cheek, tyro helmers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ... bring a fresh, irreverent sensibility to bigscreen computer animation, using 3D projection to maximize their sky-is-falling scenario. This box office and concession-stand draw should make exhibitors very happy.
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The Links of Friday

Your end-of-week linkage.

The directors of Cloudy With Meatballs hold forth on their movie (which opens today):

We had actually come in on a meeting for a different project at Sony, and found out they had the rights to this book. It was our favorite kids book, both of us. We basically just grabbed them by the lapels and forced them to let us make this movie because we loved it so much ...

We kind of approached it like, what if this story were a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. How would a big Hollywood studio approach this thing. That's why, OK. If you're going to follow the disaster movie paradigm, they always have the scientist, they always have the reporter and the cop ...

(How did it work out? The New York Times reviews Cloudy ... and the Hollywood Reporter handicaps Sony's animated feature here. "An opening of $25 million-$30 million looks likely based on prerelease tracking surveys.")

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times provides an overview of Sony's hopes and strategies for its animation division:

... Seven years after launching its animation unit, Sony Pictures is still trying to find its footing in a fiercely competitive environment dominated by more established studios in family entertainment, notably Walt Disney Co.'s Pixar Animation Studios, DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. and News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox.

It's a segment of the movie business in which Sony, with rare exceptions, has never been much of a player. But in recent years computer-animated movies have become gold mines for the studios because they frequently attract broad-based audiences both in the U.S. and overseas. Interest in the genre has been spurred further by the potential upside from 3-D screenings.

Fred Seibert showcases Dave Levy's new book on animation development.

Dave has researched the development process completely, much of it with his own blood and sweat on the floor, and shares his findings with us ... [H]e covers the pitch, legalities, money, pilots, creative notes. Importantly, he also goes into detail about the roller coasters of ups and downs of the entire process. Personally, I relate to this most of all, having been around the business of creative for over 35 years, most of it in abject failure, only selling my first animated show 25 years into the biz.

The ASIFA-Hollywood animation archive gives us Mel Blanc on Mel Blanc.

The Wilmington Star News is clued in to the fact that "Animation is spared the wrath of the worldwide film slump".

Apparently I'm going to have to rearrange my 2010 holiday calendar:

Pulling out "Smurfs" from the crowded December 17, 2010 schedule, Sony pushed back the movie for about seven months to the July 29, 2011 release. With the new date given, this 3-D movie will be available in theaters a week after Marvel Studios releases "The First Avenger: Captain America" on July 22, 2011. ...

We hit on this subject before, but National Public Radio does a nice audio story of Walt Disney's South American adventure .. and the documentary which recounts it.

One last blast of sunny optimism from Jeffrey K. While the rest of Tinsel Town frets about the Red Kiosks renting flicks for a dollar, Mr. Katzenberg is jaunty:

For DreamWorks, Mr. Katzenberg said Redbox displays a “sharply higher conversion rate from rental to purchase” than other rental companies (Blockbuster, Netflix). In other words, Redbox is actually serving as a sales agent for the studio’s animated titles: People are renting films like “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” for $1 and deciding they want to own them. DreamWorks can also rest easier about Redbox, Mr. Katzenberg said, because most consumers, even in a struggling economy, want to buy animated movies rather than rent them – the babysitting power is just too great.

He has a big test of these theories coming up: “Monsters vs. Aliens” arrives on DVD on Sept. 29.

Have yourself a fantabulous weekend.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Top Salesmanship

Jeffrey K. sells live-action 3-D.


Katzenberg: I talked till I was blue in the face last year and at the beginning of this year, and then I just felt the results will speak louder than anything I have to say. Hopefully, be more meaningful and more impactful on people that are in a place to make these decisions. You only have to see the results to realize what's going on. That's why I think Jim Cameron's "Avatar" will be the watershed moment; it will break the dam. It will show the live-action side of the business that it has the same value and opportunity we've seen with results on a worldwide basis for our product ...

I believe "Avatar" will be to 3-D what "The Wizard of Oz " was to color. It was a seminal moment. If you go back and look, not only did "The Wizard of Oz" use color, it used it in such an exciting and compelling way, that's where the floodgates opened.

I think that Jeffrey is doing a masterful job here pushing the cause of 3-D.

He's a little wrong in his comparison, however. The Wizard of Oz was certainly a swell color film. And it was a big presence in the national psyche when Mr. Katzenberg and I were growing up, because it was an annual event on television that drew huge ratings on those early, round-tube RCA color sets.

But it was a semi-flop when it came out in 1939. losing money for M-G-M. (Of course, years later during the television age, it became a dandy money-maker.)

So, "opening the floodgates" for color movies? Don't think so. That honor would no doubt go to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Gone With the Wind (1939) two films that had monster grosses in those long-ago times of three-strip Technicolor. (Of course, Snow White isn't much of an example for live-action color movies, is it?)

But for anybody who doesn't know the original box office history of The Wizard of Oz, it's a perfect film to tout when making a 3-D/color comparison. Because Wizard is now an icon. A wowser. A filmic touchstone.

It just isn't the movie that opened any floodgates.

(The actual floodgate opener, not to be too much of a nudge about it ...)

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In memoriam

We've had a number of deaths in the animation community these last few months. We thought it would be appropriate to note them here.

Animator BILL BROWNE passed away on January 23. Bill worked for many studios both on the East and West Coasts. Among others, he worked on the Tom & Jerry Kids as well as Hanna-Barbera’s feature animation unit on Once Upon a Forest.

Not only was he an animator but also an accomplished watercolorist. Bill’s nephew David is in the process of creating a website at, that will be updated over the next few months for everyone to enjoy Bill’s artwork. — Ivan Camilli

Painter, checker and supervisor ALLA MARSHALL, who worked for Hanna-Barbera and Filmation from 1966 until 1983, died on July 2 at the age of eighty-seven. From 1979 until her retirement she was Filmation’s ink-and-paint supervisor. She was the widow of animator John Marshall, who passed away in 2007.

SERGE MICHAELS, who worked as a background artist, writer and designer for Film Roman, Disney, Rich Animation, Frederator and Nickelodeon since 1989, died on September 10.

ANN NEALE, who worked as a cel painter, opaquer and paint lab technician for Hanna-Barbera, Filmation, Kroyer and Disney from 1977 until 2002, died on August 7 at the age of seventy-seven.

Lastly, we just received word that FLAVIA MITMAN has passed away. Flavia was an industry veteran who ended her career as the Ink and Paint supervisor at Filmation ... so the two final i & p supes at what was the largest animation studio in Los Angeles (circa 1985) have died within months of each other.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What I've Learned About the Animation Biz

And now, a brief re-recitation of the obvious.

Politics is a permanent part of studio life.

Empire building. Back-biting. Maneuvering for position. I figured out a while ago that in the workplace, the higher the perceived rewards, the more vicious the infighting. (I saw it when I worked at the studios, I see it -- though at more of a distance -- when walking around now. And I've been disabused over the years that it was different in the Good Old Days.

Joe Grant: Are studio politics different now? Not really. The people are different [than when I was at Disney in the thirties], the buildings are different, but the same stuff goes on.

Old Assistant Animator: Frank Thomas wasn't the mellow guy you knew when you were at Disney's. I was in his wing. I remember him coming back from meetings and drinking Maalox. He kept a bottle on his shelf ...

Uncompensated Overtime is Forever.

When I started this job, there were production managers pressuring artists to work free overtime.

Now, there are production managers pressuring artists to work free overtime. ("We need it Tuesday and we don't have any money in the budget for overtime.")

Most of the overtime comes from tight schedules and fear. The fast and efficient have less uncompensated o.t. (if any) because they know how to accelerate and beat the deadline; everyone else puts in extra hours on their own dime .

Some folks put in the extra hours because they have a love of craft and want to create at the highest level. For others it's more basic: a fear of $450 unemployment checks.

Nobody complains or files grievances; in this economy, nobody wants to rock the boat. But then, nobody wanted to rock the boat in the go-go nineties, either.

Unequal treatment of employees is a given.

The stars and key personnel of a studio get way more slack than the the people down in the trenches working production. They can come in late. Take long lunches. Cut out early. It's always been this way and always will. Mere mortals will just have to learn to deal with it.

Animatics are a waste of money. And considered essential.

Today a veteran teevee director told me (again):

"Animatics are there for the executives who can't read boards and don't want to learn. They've tried to get rid of exposure sheets and just go with animatics, but they always come back to exposure sheets. The thousands they spend on animatics never show up on the screen, but they'll never get rid of them. They're like management security blankets. You have to do 'inbetweens' so that the animatic keeps moving.

"They could spend the money better someplace else."

There are animation professionals who disagree with me on this, but I don't care. The things are black holes into which money is poured without a hell of a lot of results. I've seen a studio that puts animatics in color, uses music and sound effects, goes the whole nine yards making the thing as close to a produced cartoon as possible ... without it actually being a cartoon.

Ludicrous. And these clowns whine about wanting to save money. What they want is a video they can show to little kids in their always-popular focus groups.

When people begin making a lot of money, they tend to spend it.

Most animation artists have never made huge pay checks. Except in the middle 1990s. Then, through a confluence of happy events (blockbuster Disney animated features, new studios springing up like mushrooms after a spring rain to imitate Disney, and animation artists finding themselves in high demand) wages skyrocketed.

And many people made a fatal miscalculation:

Heey now. This is the way it was always supposed to be! And this is the way it will be forever!

Sadly, no.

But many animation employees began buying bigger houses and fancier cars and generally increasing the size of their lifestyles. And after a few years, when the supply of talent caught up with demand, and several of the studio closed their doors and Disney laid off staff, the big paychecks went back to being much smaller paychecks. And many were in deep financial trouble (although there were a few who rode the wave frugally and ended up financially independent).

What I learned from living through these fat times is it is always useful to live below your means. (It's why I drive a used Saturn Vue. I'm too old to dig out and start from scratch.)

When animation employees hit their mid-fifties, they also hit a wall called "less employment."

It doesn't happen to everyone, and it happens less in animation than it does in live action, but somewhere between their fifty-third and fifty-ninth birthdays, many will be enjoying way longer stretches of vacation.

I've thought about why this is. I don't believe it's simply ageism. It's also that most artists have a support network of people who are somewhat older; by the time 'toon employees reach fifty-five, the people in the network on which they relied are retired. (And yeah, there are the thirty-two-year-old animation producers who are uncomfortable with storyboard artists who remind them of their dads.)

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