Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Sequels cost how much?!?

There have been a couple of mentions lately of the high cost of CG feature sequels. This article and this report both cite the info that sequels cost $20-40 million more than the originals. Here's the relevant quote:

DreamWorks President Lew Coleman says: . . . While sequels are more expensive than the originals, they are less risky and usually more successful, he says. Because of the higher costs involved in luring back the talent, sequels can cost anywhere from $150 million to $170 million, versus $130 million for an original movie.

This information seems to have hardly raised a rustle, but it boggles my mind. . .

We all know CG features were touted to be cheaper than hand-drawn ones, and we know that was so much nonsense. But one place a CG feature should be loads cheaper is on a sequel. Let's see how many ways money should be saved: most of the characters are designed, modeled, and rigged -- that's a huge cost savings, since this is one area where CG costs lots more than 2D. Most of the character's personalities are fully developed, so the story work and writing is easier. The hard part of the art direction is done.

The animation crew knows how to move the characters, and footage per animator is going to be higher. The story crew knows what kinds of situations work, what kind of dialogue is appropriate, what rhythm their sequences should have. Virtually every production department has figured out the hard parts of their job, and will be more efficient. Even with the need to design and model and rig some new characters, and some new settings, a huge amount of work is already done.

Okay, what about the technical side? Will new workstations cost more than the original workstations from the first film? Will the software licenses and and software development costs be higher than for the first film? It's hard for me to see how. Maybe about the same, maybe a little cheaper, unless someone decides the sequel needs some huge advancement in fur or water, which would be pretty bad planning.

So if the technical sides of the filmmaking are about the same or cheaper, then it must be, as the quote above indicates, the cost of "luring back the talent." We're part of "the talent," right?

I guess not, because as we know, animation labor costs have been pretty flat for the last six years. Wages took a tumble at the end of the 2D boom, and haven't grown significantly since. So if the crew is being paid about the same as before, and a lot of that crew's work will be eliminated (less to design, model, and rig) or easier (because they've learned how to animate, light, etc. the characters), then where is this $20-40 million going?!?

Possibly there are more talented execs glommed onto the project, and the writers of the sequels may get bigger paychecks, but I don't see how both those groups together could add more than a few extra millions in production cost. So where's that huge increase going?

Apparently, it's going to the voice actors. Who else in Hollywood gets those kinds of paychecks? Is it possible the easiest acting job in the world has now become the most lucrative?

I've long been of the opinion that the use of celebrity actors in voice roles wasn't a horrible sin. There are big name celebs with fantastic voices, who can really bring something special to a voice role. And, in the days when most voice actors got SAG minimum, the celebs brought something invaluable -- lots of free publicity.* Every entertainment show and magazine and talk show does interviews with the celeb voice stars when their animated movies open, leading to millions in free advertising.

What a lot of people didn't realize is, celebs used to take animation voice roles because they were easy, because they wanted to impress their kids or their nieces and nephews, or because they owed the studio a favor. Not for the money, because there wasn't much money to be had. They did them for cheap. I've seen some of the rates big name actors were getting in the recent past -- literally SAG minimum. So it cost the studio the same as for a no-name voice actor. Why not get the star?

But all that seems to have changed recently. We're hearing of stars getting astronomical rates, especially if it's for a sequel of a successful hit. We're hearing of celebs being given huge paychecks, even when their voices don't work out and aren't even used in the final film! It seems to have gotten a little crazy.

Given how many millions of dollars a movie has to gross to make back just one extra million in production costs, one wonders when this trend will become an impediment to the health of our industry . . .

*[Here's a nice article by Mark Evanier that confirms the celeb voice talent used to cost the same as any other voice talent, and an AWN article from a few years ago by Joe Bevilacqua with an excellent summary of the subject.]


Anonymous said...

Although you can re-use a lot of the old stuff from the previous movie. There are things that a studio *may* want to do over. Take for instance, character rigging. There may be enough advances between the time to make the two movies that the software has advanced enough that it makes sense to re-rig the characters. Not that this adds a significant cost to the sequel, it shouldn't be assumed that character rigging wont change between projects.

But yeah, that extra cost is going to the voice actors. Wasn't that already known?

Anonymous said...

and execs ragged about the high cost of drawn movies...$170 million, that is obscene.

so when CG flicks begin to tank...I can't wait to hear the spin their excuses...

Kevin Koch said...

Was already known? No, I don't think so. Virtually everyone in the industry I've talked to has assumed for years that voice talent gets huge money. Until recently, they haven't, even if they were celebrities. And I don't think anyone would have guessed that, in literally a few years, the costs of these films have exploded by $20-40 million, just to get voice talent to do a repeat gig.

As for rigging and whatnot, I didn't imply that it was free in the sequel. Just that the total rigging and modeling costs should be cheaper, or at worst about the same, compared to the original.

The point is, a CG feature sequel should be no more expensive, and if thoughtfully done, significantly cheaper than the original. But they're not, not by a wide, wide margin.

Anonymous said...

I agree, until I read this article I was unsure what the Dreamwork's president was talking about when he said that sometime back. "Lure the talent back?" What the hell, out of all the things that it takes to make an actual promising animated feature, voice acting would be on one of the lowest parts of my list...publicity or not.

Ah well, as long as we keep getting animated features with jungle creatures led by lions and penguins making political statements, the industry looks good, no?

Anonymous said...

Kevin, i think you misunderstood my comment. Or else I dont understand your reply.

I was trying to say that most everyone (at least the ones I've dealt with) has known for a while that celebrities are getting big paychecks for their voices when doing sequels.. (imo, it is because they realize they have the studio on the hook the second time around and then also see what kind of money animated films can make these days.)

The studios have no one to blame but themselves. Let them pay it and then pay the price later when the film underperforms.

Kevin Koch said...

I think we're mostly on the same page, but when you say it's been happening "for a while," that's the part that isn't really true. Voice talent getting huge paychecks for animation is very much a recent phenomenon.

And I don't think we can be so sanguine about it. Saying "let the studios pay the price later..." could mean those studios will get the hell out of the business. Or it could mean they'll try to keep costs down not by being better negotiators with actors, but by squeezing rank and file animation professionals even harder than they already have been the last 5-6 years.

The studios may have no one to blame but themselves, but when studios "pay the price," it really means the studio's employees will pay the price.

Steve K. said...

Here's a solution - STOP MAKING SEQUELS!!

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit concerned that the president of our union is so shocked, shocked I tell you, that big name actors have leverage when negotiating sequel paydays. You better run if you want to catch up to your turnip truck Kevin.

Since when is the pay scale in any field of entertainment fair? Once the movies started getting promoted with the actors names writ large on the posters, the die was cast. Don't forget, they are getting paid not only for the job they are doing but also for the studio's right to use their "brand" to promote the movie. Remember what happened when Robin Williams did Aladdin for scale, then Disney tried to promote it with his name?

Kevin Koch said...

Wow, a sarcastic, anonymous commenterer who didn't understand my post. Will wonders never cease?

Let me try again to explain why this development is both shocking and potentially dangerous for our industry.

Celeb voices have been used for many decades in animation. It's nothing new. And those celebs being catered to, and used in the advertising, is also something that goes back a ways. But the deals those celebs got in live action (like HUGE up-front paychecks PLUS back-end percentages of the grosses) have never been part of the animation industry.

Those practices have helped turned live-action filmmaking into a financial crapshoot, where tentpole films that appeal to virtually every possible demographic (and therefore the lowest common denominator) have become the norm.

From what I can tell, the live-action celebs venturing into animation weren't the ones insisting on these new, massive paychecks. The system that was in place worked fine. Voice actors got good money (SAG scale, plus standard residuals) for easy work, the studio got a crucial part of the film at a resonable price. And suddenly, in just the last few years, studios started making crazy deals with a wide variety of celeb actors.

Animated feature films are already more expensive than live-action films on average, and they already take much, much longer to complete. It's a precarious business, with a lot of failure. Now that many of these films will suddenly have a much higher bar to reach before they can become profitable is something that, frankly, endangers our industry. It's not business as usual, and it's something that's worth calling attention to.

Oh, and Steve K. -- it's not just the sequels that have voice talent suddenly getting much bigger paychecks. And if we never had sequels, we'd never have The Godfather 2 and Toy Story 2. Sequels aren't the issue. It's about the financial viability of major animated feature films, now that many of these films are suddenly 30% more expensive to make with zero added value.

C.Edwards said...

Celebrity voices may have always been used, but it seems like they were at a lower frequency. I mean, most of these CG films are FULL of celebrity names. It seems like ten, fifteen years ago, you had one B-list celebrity and a crew of theatrical people and voice over talent.

Anonymous said...

A few thoughts -

In the golden age, the actors lending their voices were radio people and the like. It wasn't like Gable and Bogard were going in to do Dumbo. So you really can't look to that era as any comparison.

In the 60's and 70's, more well know people were doing voices, but again, Phil Harris and Louis Prima we're not exactly the top box office draw.

For awhile, under the new Eisner/Katzenberg regime, actors with actual box office clout could be persuaded to "do it for thier kids" for some minimum (though well over scale) amount.

Then, with Aladdin, Williams did it for his kids and little money, but saw his name expoited for promotion without his consent.

Mosr importnantly, with Aladdin, the town saw that these movies were making a boatload of cash. Of course the rules started changing.

By the time Dreamworks started, Katzenberg embraced the idea of celebrity voices and paying them handsomely so they would play ball and go on Oprah to promote it. Of course, they were also luring some lucky artists over with relatively rich deals, so it was all relative, I guess.

Once animated features started to become the top grossing movies of the year, the "do it for fun" era was officially over as far as actors go. Sadly, we live in an era where Paris Hilton can get a quater of a million dollars to show up at a club opening for 15 minutes. Even sadder, artists seem to be considered "below the line" in animated movies, even though they are the line. I would think changing that perception from management would be the job of this guild, would it not?

Kevin Koch said...

The statement that by the time DW formed, Katzenberg was paying celebs huge salaries for voicework is false. I've seen some of the contract offers to big name voice talent for those films, and they were SAG scale.

It's also false that the DW artists were given rich deals. The pay at Disney (and when the company formed, at Warner Bros. Feature Animation) was significantly higher. I know, because I was there.

Now, about changing the perception of management . . . do you have some mind control techniques you can help us implement?

Anonymous said...

As a kid, I don't remember ever caring about who did what voice.

I wonder if today, the children get exited about actors doing voices for animated features or not.

My 5 year old niece couldn't care less about this. She's happy to go see the movie, and see the characters animated.

And most of the time, it's not the same artists working on the sequels, as studios get rid of artists a soon as a project's done.


Kevin Koch said...

Not sure which sequels you're talking about, but so far the only major CG animation sequels that have been done or are being done have stayed with their original studios, so much of the crews is the same (Toy Story 2 and 3, Shrek 2 and 3, Ice Age 2, Madagascar 2).

The Disney DTV sequels are a whole 'nother kettle of fish, and I don't think the mega-paydays for voice talent will ever apply in those cases.

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