Wednesday, June 25, 2008

One More Animation Studio Dives Into the Pool

And the deep end of the pool at that. Theatrical Animated Features.

Not long ago, I talked to a staff artist at Sony Pictures Animation (where a lot of house-cleaning has been going on). She told me that the head of production at Sony wanted opinions about why SPA movies hadn't been ... ah ... blockbusters.

"Amy Pascal asked animation executives why Pixar movies were doing so well and Sony Pictures Animation's weren't. This was a few months ago. A couple of the story artists who'd worked at other studios wrote up a little paper about what some other feature studios did, how they approached things. They passed it on to Penny and Sandy before those two left. Whether the paper got into Amy Pascal's hands or not, I've got no idea ...

The animated feature universe is crowded these days. The kings of the roost are, of course, Pixar and DreamWorks, but another studio, bankrolled by a running shoe billionaire, is jumping into the animation business with ... ahm ... both feet. Hard to say what kind of success it might have, but Daily Variety and the Portland Oregonian, the studio's hometown paper, speculate on the 'toon factory's prospects:

Laika slate impresses, but market is fickle

Animated feature films have become hot commodities at the box office. But some ("Kung Fu Panda") are hotter than others ("Surf's Up"). Whether any of Laika's announced projects end up in the hit category depends on everything from execution to audience taste.

"It's a very impressive slate," says Ramin Zahed, editor in chief of the Southern California-based Animation Magazine. "When you look at the story lines, these are stories that will be best told in animation. Lots of properties fail when they don't use the magic of the medium."

The Oregonian found people outside the studio who spouted the usual worn wisdom: "It's the story" ... "They'll do good if they come up with something fresh and original ...." (I'm holding out for a cartoon that's stale and derivative ... although that area's been pretty well covered.)

Variety went straight to the source to get a prediction of Laika's success. A Laika production exec gave her own anaylsis about the studio's prospects ...

"There's a lot of people moving into animation, and what they do is copycat," [said Fiona Kenshole, V.P. of development]. "The world isn't waiting for another Pixar and another DreamWorks. We want a slate that's uniquely ours, that hits the four quadrants and is commercial, but is really, really strong, based on good storytelling."

"We're to the left of Pixar and to the right of 'Nightmare Before Christmas,'..."

Laika rose out of the ashes of the Will Vinton studio, when Nike owner Phil Knight bought Will's failing production facility and began work to turn the place into what he hopes will become an animation power house.

Over the last couple of years, a steady stream of Los Angeles animation talent has journeyed to Portland, from director Henry Selick to Disney Televsion Animation board artists. There's been rumblings of getting Laika into the TAG family, but so far it remains a non-signator studio.

Laika's chances of becoming an Oregonian DreamWorks? That depends on the power of its upcoming product. "There's a very Portland feel to the kinds of things that we are doing," says Fiona Kenshole, and maybe if I were from Portland I would know what that statement means.

Being L.A. born and bred, all I understand is that you have to create pictures the general public wants to see, then partner with a distributor that will be muscular enough, adept enough to get the population to embrace features like Coraline and Here Be Monsters the way Finding Nemo, Shrek or Ice Age have been embraced.

Good luck with those aspirations. Because we wouldn't want Phil Knight to ask for a memo three years down the pike detailing what went wrong ... and how the studio should change to achieve some of Pixar's or DreamWork's success.


Unknown said...

Okay, I'm seriously waiting to see what this new guy has got. My only question is what their main animation style will be: 2D animation or CGI?

Anonymous said...

And my only question is, how does Laika expect to attract the kind of talent they need without offering benefits?

Tim Rauch said...

I'm really looking forward to seeing what Laika will do. They seem to have a real drive to be a unique studio and with someone as mercurial as Henry Selick running around, they should make some interesting work. Box office success? Dunno. But I'll pay to see it.

Anonymous said...

I've heard that many people who went up there have since bailed and come back to L.A.

Some have said that Selick is trying to make it his place and this makes it hard for other filmmakers with their own visions to succeed there.

Anonymous said...

I seriously doubt that. Selick is only one of many people that run Laika. If you aren't still at Laika, chances are you couldn't cut it.

Anonymous said...

I seriously doubt that. Selick is only one of many people that run Laika. If you aren't still at Laika, chances are you couldn't cut it.

Or, maybe there's a hitch in the executive setup over there. It may not be Selick, but as you point out, there are other people running the place. Maybe one of them is a dink who's not listening to the experienced artists.

I know, a shocking idea.

Anonymous said...

And just as often the artist isn't as experienced as they like to think.

Anonymous said...

Or a guy comes to them with one of their movies and is promptly shown the door. oh yeah, they now magically have custody of that movie.

Anonymous said...

Rumor has it, Selick isn't sticking around after Coraline.

Michael Wong said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Why didn't SPA films do as well as Pixar?

Pixar films are original. Surf's Up was probably one of the most original ideas in SPA's slate of films. The execution of the film was nearly flawless. Many people at Imageworks have said it was one of the best run shows in a long time.

So why did it fail? The script for Surf's Up sat in the execs closet waiting to be green lit. That changed when March of the Penguins came out. Then everybody was green lighting penguin movies. How many millions more would Surf's Up have made if it was released before Happy Feet? Probably alot. How many millions were lossed by releasing the film between Ratatouille and Shrek 3? Probably alot.

The failure of Surf's Up (which even got an best anim nom) is a microcosm of the problem with Sony, Spa, and Imageworks. Too many chiefs and not enough indians. The internal structure of Sony pits various factions and shows against each other.

Execs won't bother to solve that problem anytime soon. Instead, they out of nowhere come up with the idea of building a facility in New Mexico without even asking the workers beforehand. Would you buy New Mexico real estate in this market? Cus I got some Enron stock too while you're at it.

Anonymous said...

Actually New Mexico has a sweet deal for companies willing to film there and I assume this is what they were looking to take advantage of - all though it's not clear how animation could benefit from these tax breaks since they were created with the idea of luring live-action shoots.

The REAL problem with SPA? They were trying to be Dreamworks. Once they hired Rabins and Cox their fates were sealed. They only knew how to be DW and didn't have any idea how to be a new studio. DW would've failed if they had tried to be Pixar or Pixar. They succeeded when they found their own identity. SPA never found their own identity - they were too busy trying to be DW and all they became was DW lite.
They made some good films, but thye were films that JK probably would never had greenlit (I assume), but they were all made as if he had greenlit them.
Hopefully whoever they put in charge to replace those two will have a fresher vision for SPA...

Anonymous said...

Surf's Up was a beautiful looking film but I know many parents that did not care for it because of some of the dialogue. They probably lost family ticket sales by word of mouth.

Pixar is ALWAYS family friendly, the day that changes the profits will change too.

LAIKA i hope doesn't go even worse. I saw that creepy trailer for Caroline and I dont know too many families that will be willing to rush to a theatre and pay 10 bucks a pop to see a dead kids animated film. (I know animation geeks, myself included will probably go see it)

Selick is very talented but the vision of some of those films up there is very niche and hopefully they wont shut the place down when they get only niche receipts.

Anonymous said...

Surf's Up wasn't a failure because of it's language - that's utter ninsense. DW does pretty good with a little racier language.
If the BO had dropped off significantly the second week your reasoning might have some substance, but since they couldn't get people into the theaters on week one means no one wanted to see it.
So you're suggesting that animation only pander to the little kiddies - God help us. Pizar's cornered that market and I'm guessing they're getting a little tired of it by now otherwise you can start burying John Carter of Mars now.

Surf's up was actually, for my money, a much better film then ratatouille. The story tracked better, you kneew what the conflict was and it was clear what the resolution was. It suffered from bad timing and a bad jdea to jump on the Penguin bandwagon.
I doubt anyone is mourning the loss of Cox and Rabins.

Anonymous said...

Surf's Up was a failure because of MY pet theory--too much sand. Nobody likes to see sand in animated movies. Too grimey, and reminds people of Islamic terrorists. No parent would take their child to see s pro-Islamofascist, sandy movie. I could've told Sony that a long time ago, and saved them a lot of money.

Anonymous said...

too much sand, naughty words and a lot of peeing in an animated film for the family adds up to a bomb.

But it sure looked cool.

Anonymous said...

How about they change their name. LAIKA. Ugh! Dreamworks and Pixar are memorable...but Laika...yeesh. Sounds like a damn carpet cleaner.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Laika was the first dog rocketed into orbit, by the Soviets. You know, the one who died of fright upon liftoff.

/Actually true.

Anonymous said...

>>Hey, Laika was the first dog rocketed into orbit, by the Soviets. You know, the one who died of fright upon liftoff.

/Actually true.<<

Actually that isn't true.

Come on.

The dog died in space because the Soviets didn't ever design the space craft to come back. They basically killed her. She died a few days after entering orbit.

Anonymous said...

Good name for a company...?

Anonymous said...

Actually you're both wrong.... but both kinda right.

Yes, Laika died a few hours after lift off but that's because the air-conditioning unit aboard her capsule failed. It quickly began to heat up and she basically roasted in there.

And yes, the Soviets designed the the rocket without any way to return, but they also designed it with a unit to gas her a week after lift off, so she would die in a fairly humane way. Of course, they never got a chance to use it.

So, in summary, as long as LAIKA's air conditioning unit doesn't fail, they'll be fine. However, I must add that I'm unsure if they have a unit designed to gas the employees.

Anonymous said...

Well, they've already metaphorically gassed one of the directors.

(By most accounts I've heard, it was entirely the right thing to do. Gotta be able to articulate and define your vision--ya know, direct.)

Anonymous said...

Laika studio lays off 75, halts CG feature project

Portland, Oregon-based animation studio Laika Entertainment laid off about 75 people Wednesday, halting production on what would have been its second feature film.

The studio has decided to shelve computer-generated Jack & Ben's Animated Adventure and proceed instead on other projects, The Oregonian quoted a studio spokeswoman as saying Wednesday. She added that the company expects to make a series of announcements after New Year's Day.

The move is normal in the animation industry, said the company.

Laika attributed the layoffs "to the normal expansion and retrenchment of the employee roster that occurs in the animated film production process," the Portland Business Journal quoted Maggie Begley, a spokeswoman for Venice, California-based Laika, as saying.

"Basically, we lost some people on the development side for a project we’re not working on any more, which is a natural part of the animation process because it takes so long to make these films and market them," Begley said. "The layoffs were the result of the project being shelved and Coraline being no longer in production.”

About 280 people are still with the company.

Its first feature film, the 3D stop-motion Coraline, is scheduled to reach theaters February 6. Teen star Dakota Fanning has the title voice role.

The layoffs don't point to financial trouble for Laika, Begley said. Laika has at least 20 projects in development and will announce several during the first quarter of next year, added the spokeswoman, who would not disclose the company's revenue,

Anonymous said...

Let's see... The CEO said he wouldn't know a Finding Nemo if it hit him in the head, the board members have NO previous experience making animated features (with the exception of HS), the producers and managers have been ignoring good advice from seasoned veterans - people who were ridiculed and dismissed, and now they have let the entire crew go to join the masses already looking for work - the week before Christmas. What a mean spirited group! Even Scrooge was more charming.

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