Friday, June 09, 2006

Animation? On the Way Down?

I hear talk in the studios (and also in Jim Hill Media) that animated features are losing some of their box office lustre... Really? Izzatso? That must be why "Ice Age 2" performed better than "Ice Age" (and far better than Fox's "Robots"), why "Madagascar" grossed more than "Shark Tale" and on and on. Maybe there are other reasons why one flick does bigger business than another flick. JMH runs theatrical totals of Pixar films that show the pictures have peaked. Sort of like Disney hand-drawn features peaked in the mid-nineties. For instance, after "Lion King" a decade ago, there was a steady decline of grosses for animated features, right? Nobody wanted to see hand-drawn features anymore, CGI was coming in and hand-drawn was old-fashioned and moldy fig, right? Except, then Disney released "Tarzan" and...gee...the grosses were higher than the hand-drawn feature that had preceded it. How could THAT happen? I would submit that "Tarzan" connected more strongly with audiences, got better buzz, maybe got a more effective ad campaign (whatever.) Some movies are simply liked more than other movies. Some movies strike a chord, some don't. Some movies open on better weekends, competition-wise, than other movies. Everybody remembers "Casablanca"; everyone draws a blank on "Passage to Marseilles," even though "Marseilles" has everything "Blanca" has: same cast, same writers, same director, same everything. Oh. Except story, chemistry and magic. How could that happen? "Cars" opens today, and JMH quotes unnamed Wall Street analysts as saying that the film needs to open at $75 million or it will be viewed as underperforming. Like, as compared to what? Let's go back a few weeks. "Over the Hedge" opened with $38.5 million its first weekend; soon thereafter, "The Breakup" debuted with $39.1 million. And that $600,000 made all the difference, because the Anniston-Vaughn picture was (we're told) a surprise number one and "Hedge" was number two. But wait. "Hedge" was EXPECTED to be number two, since the conventional wisdom declared that "Da Vinci Code" was going to top the charts, which it did. But no matter. "The Breakup" is a surprise smasheroo and "OTH" hurts DreamWorks Animation's bottom line because if fell below the magic $40 million opening weekend. (At least, that's the media story line as I discern it.) And "Curious George"? The old-hat "traditional" animated feature that didn't do much? Well, Universal expected it do to $50 million and it ended up at $60 mill, and Universal was pleasantly surprised (or so a Universal exec told me) and anticipates nice returns when the DVD comes out in the Fall. Remember, "George" was at one time a CGI picture, but Universal decided the film's demographics were such that they could do it cheaper...and get pretty much the same returns... if they made it as a hand-drawn film. "Curious George," I'm informed, will end up making money. Sitting here in the early morning, my brain still half asleep, I can think of two animated features -- "OTH" and "IA2" -- that are well over $100 million domestic. "Hedge" hasn't rolled out internationally, but "Ice Age: The Meltdown" has delighted News Corp. with the $400 million its taken in. So here's MY received wisdom. "Cars" is going to do better than some movies and less well than others. It will achieve grosses that are south of "Titanic" and north of "Billy Jack." And when the take is counted, Disney will not have to take out a second on its Burbank lot and civilization -- such as it is -- will remain intact. And the boom in animation will continue. And employment will go up. Until that point, some years hence, when it dips, but then rises once more. Exactly like it's done for seventy years.


Anonymous said...

If I were a big shot producer choosing between animation and live-action, My investment return would be assured if I went with animation. That's why we have so many animation projects currently in development.

Yes, the boom will continue because there's money to be made. And, "Cars" will make a bundle.

Robiscus said...

i have a personal conviction that adding Rosie O'Donnell to the voice cast of "Tarzan" cost it $20 million in ticket sales...

Anonymous said...

Ah, "Ishtar"...I was a theater usher when that beauty came out. Still have the claw mark scars from movie patrons demanding their money back. Never saw that happen when an animated feature hit our screens.

C.Edwards said...

Despite its popularity among critics and fans, I believe that "The Lion King" caused major damage to the animation industry. Its too bad that once an animated film hits record grosses every animated film after that is compared to it. I think it's incredibly unfortunate that the concentration that Pixar puts on creating good stories with memorable characters could be overshadowed by claims that "Cars" is a failure because it made $5m less than "Finding Nemo".

If history is any indication (The Lion King), most of these new CG studios that sprung up to jump on the Pixar bandwagon will be gone in eight years. And they'll be claiming that audiences don't care about any animation at all.

Steve Hulett said...

I, too, am driven crazy by the "animated films have lost their allure" claptrap. Here's a quick story:

When I started at Disney in '76, one of the first things they had me do was look at "Robin Hood," then look at the soon-to-be-released "Rescuers."

It was kind of like getting whiplashed. "Robin Hood" has some moments, but it's not a very good film. "Rescuers," on the other hand, fires on all cylinders, delivers heart, delivers comedy, INVOLVES you. (Both were made by pretty much the identical team, so go figure. But as I noted above, so were "Casablanca" and "Passage to Marseilles." So figure there, too.)

The studio brass had no idea they had a nifty little gem on their hands, but six months later when its release started, they quickly figured it out, because grosses were big. (The company had a bad release pattern for "The Rescuers" in the States -- a few hundred prints that unspooled in one half of the country while a "Herbie" sequel ran in the other. Then the movies were flipped. Problem was, just as "Rescuers" got some word-of-mouth momentum, it got yanked for "Love Bug 3" or whatever it was. By contrast, "Rescuers" had HUGE grosses in Europe, where it had a chance to percolate.)

But my point is, who would have thunk that "The Rescuers" would set turnstiles spinning? None of the Disney bean counters did, I can tell you. But sitting there in the dark in early '77, it was real clear that the picture was good, and that people would respond to it. I responded to it, and I was prepared not to, since I had just sat through "Robin Hood," which left me cold.

Here's the deal: If you create a movie that connects -- be it live action, hand-drawn animation, or the computer-generated variety -- people will seek it out.

And if the film is a dead fish stinking up the theater, people will stay away in droves.

Anonymous said...

Claptrap indeed, Steve. I worked on "Robin Hood" way back then and couldn't believe how badly that film sucked. Lucky for me I was fired off the movie.

I'm continually amazed at how the people who run film studios cannot distinguish a good film from a bad one.

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