A week ago at one of our fine signator studios, an artist came up to me and asked, "You think there's too much animation out there? You know, like too many animated features that are over-saturating the market? You think people are tired of cartoons?"
I replied, with a jauntiness I did not feel, "Of course not! You ever hear a main-stream movie maker say that the big problem with his live-action masterpiece is there's too many live-action movies, and people are overdosed on the things? That that's the reason his feature isn't doing well? No live-action guy ever says that. Because he knows he'd be labeled an idiot." ...
I'll let you in on a secret. At that moment, I didn't completely buy what was coming out of my mouth, but now I do. This weekend blew away the last shreds of doubt ...
Gnomeo and Juliet scor[ed] the best February opening for an animated pic (not a primetime month for toons). Rivals credit a strong marketing campaign for the film's success, as well as great reviews. ...
Actually it's something other than "great reviews." It's a viewing public that has a growing thirst for animation and product that connects with the people sitting out in the darkened auditoriums of their local AMCs. Two decades back, there was only one major player in the feature animation, and that was Disney. (Don Bluth, a serious rival to the Mouse in the 1980s. was fading by the early nineties.)
But what a difference twenty years makes. In 2011, the playing field has vastly expanded. There is now Pixar, there is Blue Sky Animation, there is DreamWorks Animation and Walt Disney Animation Studios. And since last summer, there is Illumination Entertainment. Even the under-powered Sony Pictures Animation has had minor hits with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Open Season, and SPA is now partnered with Aardman Animation for the upcoming Arthur Christmas.
None of this could have come about if people weren't flocking to animated features. In the past eleven months alone, the following non-live-action movies have opened with $25 million or more on their opening weekends:
Then of course there are the "hybrid" animated features. You know, the live-action/ animation combos that usually get tepid reviews and loud raspberries at cartoon blog sites? Specimens like Yogi Bear, Alvin and the Chipmunks and the oncoming Hop? Nobody likes these but general audiences. Consider that the much-panned Yogi Bear, after a so-so opening weekend, went on to gross five times what it collected during its initial three days. Whether you like the picture or not, this means that even with an initial "want-to-see" factor that was lukewarm at best, the picture's resulting word-of-mouth was remarkably hot.
Little wonder then that your friendly neighborhood entertainment conglomerates and visual effects studios now scramble all over themselves to get into the feature animation business. The trouble is, as sure-fire as the genre appears, it usually takes a sure and knowing touch to execute it well ... and profitably. (The landscape is littered with Planet 51s, Alpha and Omegas, Astroboys, and Space Chimps.). Too many would-be producers think that a script from a mid-list screenwriter, some presentation boards from freelance story artists, and six months of production work from a contract studio in Mumbai will bring them a quick distribution deal and hefty profits.
Sadly, more often than not it takes more than that. It takes creators who know that animated features are visual rather than aural, and that audiences won't sit still for plots that are hackneyed reworkings of 80s television cartoons, populated by characters that have the dynamism and resonance of Clutch Cargo. As Woolie Reitherman said in a Disney sweat box long ago: "Those animals moving around on the screen aren't real, they aren't actors, so we've got to make the audience think they're real by showing them think and react and breathe."
Animation, because it's currently so profitable, is a seductive corner of the movie business. But it takes skill and more than a little knowledge to make it work well, and there are only so many Ed Gomberts, Mark Kennedys, Eric Goldbergs and Dean DeBloises* to go around. If aspiring cartoon moguls don't understand that, they will end up complaining the animation market is "over-saturated" after their $80 million feature about wacky wombats crashes and burns.
In point of fact, it will be a case of their "sure-fire" project not connecting with movie audiences because they don't understand the dynamics and disciplines of the art form.
* These folks are some of the (relatively) unheralded masters of animation. There are a number of others.