Saturday, July 29, 2006

The CGI Crystal Ball

Since President Koch is off to SIGGRAPH, here is the way various industry execs foretell animation's future... The HOLLYWOOD REPORTER article makes some good points, but also (I think) some silly ones: The profusion of CG-animated features has an upside, according to Janet Healy, president of animation production at IDT Entertainment, a Newark, N.J.-based firm acquired by Liberty Media for $186 million in May. "When you're making a movie for $100 million, plus overhead, that movie has to be all things to all people," says Healy, a former technology executive at Disney and DreamWorks. "When you're making movies for $25 million or $30 million, as we are, you can tell stories about characters who are inspiring or heroic or entertaining, not just joke-filled roller-coaster rides." Hopeful words, but let's get down to brass tacks. You've got to have three things for a successful animated flick. The first is decent distribution. The second is a viable ad campaign. The third -- and equally important -- elements is a picture that CONNECTS with its audience. I think we're seeing with "Ant Bully" the first animated feature melt-down since "The Wild," and for much the same reasons. If you jump into the marketplace with a product that's perceived as a lacklustre copy of animated features that have gone before, you have big problems. "Antz" and "A Bug's Life" have already plowed the ground through which "Ant Bully" now burrows. And if early reports are accurate, the public appears to be staying away in droves. Three months ago the same thing happened to "The Wild." It wasn't a bad feature, exactly, but the audience believed it had perused this real estate before. This is not, by the way, a new pheonomenom. When Warner Bros. and Fox attempted to ape Disney's late eightes/early nineties successes ("Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin") with offerings like "Anastasia" and "Quest For Camelot," they fell flat on their faces. Same thing, sixty-eight years ago, with the Fleischers chasing Walt Disney. It seems like a no-brainer, but the public wants what it wants, and rejects what it doesn't. This seems to us closer to present realities: While the first decade of computer-animated features, beginning with "Toy Story," was ruled by three major players that cranked out successful big-budget movies, some animation executives expect their field to look more like the realm of live-action movies during its second decade, with diverse budgets, stories, characters and visual styles. Williamson compares the surge in CG features to "the indie film phenomenon of the late 1980s and early 1990s, where you had a huge volume spike in independently made live-action movies. Only the good ones stand out." We are swimming in the middle of the latest animation tidal wave. The last one crashed onto shore in the center of the 1990s. This one looks to be considerably bigger. But it's driven by a similar dynamic. Executives see the tall piles of money being made by DreamWorks, Pixar, and Blue Sky Animation, and assume that the best way to start raking in cash is to produce ninety minutes of brightly colored pixels that bear a passing resemblance to the films of the successful players. But it never works that way. You don't succeed (at least, not very much or for very long) by copying last year's hits. You break box office records by taking an audience where it hasn't travelled before. Unfortunately, most studio front offices get very nervous when film makers try to do that. Oh, they TALK about films that are "new and original," but they actually WANT what John Lasseter made his last time or two at bat. Why? Because it's safe.


Anonymous said...

Wait a minute... a silly comment from Janet Healy? No way! :-)

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