Thursday, March 06, 2014

FilmL.A. Report

Darkly grim, with a few rays of light.

A new report from FilmL.A. provides a further signal that California is rapidly losing its share of big budget features films to rival states and countries.

Last year, only two of the top 25 big-budget movies, whose combined budgets totaled more than $3.5 billion, filmed primarily in California: "The Hangover Part III" and "Star Trek: Into Darkness," according to a report released Thursday morning. ...

Louisiana ranked first with 18 movies. Canada and California tied with 15 movies apiece, followed closely by the United Kingdom, which hosted 12. Rounding out the top five locations was the state of Georgia, which hosted nine films.

The report did identify some bright spots. When it comes to commercially successful big-budget films, California-produced animated films outnumber California-produced live-action films by more than 2 to 1.

So it turns out that animation is the good news in California's entertainment industry. Even as big budget live-action films move to Georgia, New York, and various foreign locales with big tax subsidies, large-scale animated features appear to be staying put.

We've seen this phenomenon before.

In the middle 1990s, when Disney was tearing up the box office with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Lion King, most of the major conglomerates tried to replicate the Mouse's success by building animation studios of their own. Even then, there were Asian and European cartoon studios turning out lower-priced animated features, but Disney's rivals ignored these foreign models and strove to replicate Walt Disney Feature Animation by setting up studios in California.

There was a logical reason for this: Disney Feature Animation had been explosively successful making high-grossing animated features over the previous five years, while overseas cartoon shops had turned out films that had died at the global box office. (Anybody remember Hanna-Barbera's foreign-made "Once Up a Forest? Me neither.)

If there is a constant theme in Hollywood it is: "Emulate success, not failure." This simple rule explains when comedies are big grossers, studio make comedies. And when action-adventure movies are in vogue, those get made. Whatever train seems most lucrative, you will lose no money betting that Hollywood filmmakers will clamber aboard, because studio executives, bent on survival, are far more comfortable riding winners than taking risks with possible losers.

Which explains, I think, why California animation studios are still standing. In 2014, after DWA's The Croods makes $600 million, Pixar's Monster University clears $700 million, and Disney's Frozen takes in over a billion dollars, what are the odds that the studios that created them will be dismantled and reassembled elsewhere? What Hollywood CEO wants to roll those particular dice?

"Don't fix what ain't broke" isn't merely a philosophy with our fine, entertainment conglomerates, it's a mantra. You can shoot a live-action movie anywhere. Just fly your Hollywood keys in, set up cameras and lights, place the actors in front of them, and away you go. The time spent on the ground is months not years, and all those grips, makeup artists, and set builders get their wages offset by subsidies.

But setting up an animation studio in a different state of country is somewhat harder. Talent has to be persuaded to sell their houses and relocate, new local talent has to be recruited. Pipelines need to be reconstituted, and there is a large, long-term investment in time and money. Chris Meledandri did a different business model with Illumination Entertainment, but he was starting from scratch. (And he has a lot of his story crew ... still ... in L.A.) Warner Animation Group (WAG) has got development in Burbank and production in Sydney, but it remains to be seen how that setup will do over time.

There is, of course, always the possibility that the animated features now done in Emeryville and the east San Fernando Valley will be created in Montreal or London at some point in the future. But with the success California animation studios are now having, what cartoon company will be willing to move production?

Guess we'll have to wait and see.


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