... Back in 2004, I spoke with former Disney animator and director Tony Bancroft, whose company Toonacious sought to be one of those plucky little indies. “You don’t have to have these large, big-budget kind of blockbusters,” he told me, adding:
“I really feel like the days of the large studio overhead, like Disney and DreamWorks and Warner Bros. have had in the past with their animated features, is pretty much past, and I don’t foresee that coming back in a large way. I foresee that large studios will go to smaller companies like my own and hire or rent out the facilities, or sub-contract the work out to those smaller studios, so they don’t have the overhead. I really foresee that that’s a more workable model in the near, and probably the long future of animation. What people have been doing in Europe and Asia and has been really interesting, that have a little bit lower budget and are driven by the production company that makes it, and have a very unique vision. While the U.S. market might seem a little behind on that, I think we’re quickly catching up.” ...
Okay, we're ten years further along the Great Highway of Life, so how is that "small studios shall rise and do feature work" prediction working out?
The current animated movie that's near the top of the Big Ten is Big Hero 6, created by Walt Disney Animation Studios on a high budget with high studio overhead.
Not an indie. Not sending out work to a low-cost provider.
And the next high-profile cartoon (now rolling out in selected overseas markets) is The Penguins of Madagascar from DreamWorks Animation.
Is DWA an indie? You bet. But not a sub-contractor, not by a long shot.
And not exactly small. Also not trying to remain an indie, what with all the attempts to merge/get bought by some larger company. Some weeks, it seems, any larger company.
(Interesting factoid about the oncoming Penguins: DreamWorkers tell me that most of it was slated to be produced at DreamWorks Animation's Indian studio ... an overseas sub-contract job? But the bulk of the picture was ultimately created at PDI-DreamWorks in Redwood City.)
Then there's Illumination Entertainment, producer of the Despicable Me franchise, attached to NBC-Universal, and Illumination actually implemented the sub-contracting strategy quoted above.
For twenty-five minutes.
It sub-contracted MacGuff studios to create the first Despicable movie, liked the results, and then bought MacGuff, making it a subsidiary of Universal-I.E.
Same thing applies to Blue Sky Studios, proud owner of the Ice Age money machine. Blue Sky is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fox-News Corp., and has been since before the first Ice Age. The place hasn't been independent since it was struggling along by itself some years ago, making shorts and commercials. It doesn't struggle anymore, and it doesn't send work out.
In Feature Animation Land, there are few independent studios sub-contracting feature work from the majors. And those that start out independent? They soon get gobbled up (witness Pixar, Blue Sky, MacGuff, etc.) by one of our fine entertainment conglomerates.
So what studios fulfill the "Rise of the Independents" part of the prophecy (if not the sub-contracting part)? Well, there's Laika studios in Portland, Oregon that's owned by a billionaire sports shoe maker, and Laika is indisputably independent. And making features. It's current release is Boxtrolls, which to date has taken in $105,568,767 around the globe. It's not yet in Coraline territory ($124,596,398 in worldwide grosses), but it's close.
One problem though. Both Coraline and Boxtrolls clocked in with budgets of $60 million, and in today's movie world, filmmakers have to make significantly more than double their budgets to edge into profits, since there are advertising costs, distributors costs, and theater owners' percentages to account for.
Basic math: plan to earn triple your production cost before you roll into the black. Merchandise sales aren't a guaranteed profit stream (though they might be) and the little silver disks that Mom and Dad used to gobble up for the kids don't move nearly as briskly as they once did.
So how long will Laika stay in business, given that its products (to date) haven't made much money? Maybe a long time, since the studio is underwritten by a bajillionaire.
But Laika is a corporate outlier. How about companies that need to make money to remain viable? Reel FX Creative Studios' (of Dallas and Santa Monica) recently released The Book of Life. The picture received strong reviews from critics, but that (unfortunately) didn't translate into strong box office from the general public. On a budget of $50 million, the movie has collected $86.3 million to date, so we're not close to break-even here.
How long can Reel FX continue to do this? Certainly not forever.
While it's true that some niche, low-budget animated features produced in Europe, South America and other continents not containing the U.S. and Canada have made tidy profits, few independent, long-form cartoons earn significant coin. Over the past twenty-five years, not one independent (other than DreamWorks Animation and Film Roman/Rough Draft with The Simpsons Movie) has cracked feature animation's Top Earner List.
There's a reason that high-grossing animated features are produced by entertainment conglomerates or their wholly-owned subsidiaries, and not by sub-contractors. The majors have never experienced much commercial success farming feature work to independent studios so, by and large, they don't do it*.
I've been watching a majority of independent cartoon makers fail to sustain themselves in the feature animation business for over thirty years; I don't anticipate that reality to change any time soon. It takes deep pockets to build a viable, competitive animation studio without the support of a bigger company, and almost no independent (save perhaps the well-funded Laika) has the dollars to do it.
* On the other hand, entertainment conglomerates farm out piles of television animation work to sub-contractors, and have for decades. Production work is shipped to Canada, Asia, South America and Europe. Pre-production work is shipped to a wide variety of sub-contractors in Los Angeles and Canada.