Saturday, February 28, 2009

Rockin' Box Office

Now with vitamin-enriched Add On.

The Jonas Brothers go where Miley Cyrus went: to 3-D concert movie land!.

1. Jonas Brothers: 3-D Concert Experience (Disney) OPENER $4.8M Fri, Wkd $20M

2. Madea Goes To Jail (Lionsgate) $4.5M Fri (-69%), Wkd $16M, Cume $64.5M

3. Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight) $2.9M Fri, Wkd $11M, Cume $113.5M

4. Taken (20th Century Fox) $2.8M Fri, Wkd $10M, Cume $107.5M

5. Coraline 3-D (Focus Features) $1.8M Fri, Wkd $8M, Cume $63.6M

6. He's Just Not That Into You (NL/Warner Bros) $1.8M Fri, Wkd $5.5M, Cume $78M

7. Confessions Of A Shopaholic (Disney) $1.4M Fri, Wkd $4M, Cume $33.2M

8. Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chun Li (Fox) OPENER $1.4M Fri, Wkd $4M

9. Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Columbia/Sony) $1.3M Fri, Wkd $5M, Cume $127.4M

10. Fired Up (Sony) $1.3M Fri (-40M), Wkd $4M, Cume $9M

And I'm confused. The Nikkster has Coraline cruising along at #5 and a $63 million total, while Mojo (linked above) shows the little girl at #10 and tracking $57 million. Weird.

Add On: When all the ticket stubs fluttered back to earth, Tyler Perry was still on top of the box office heap and the Jonas Brothers were just another blow-dried, rock-and-roll band:

1. Madea Goes To Jail (Lionsgate) [2,052 Thtrs] $16.5M Wkd (-60%), Cume $64.8M

2. Jonas Brothers: 3-D Concert Experience (Disney) [1,271] OPENER $12.7 Wkd

3. Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight) [2,943] $12.1M Wkd, Cume $115.1M

4. Taken (20th Century Fox) [3,089] $9.9 Wkd, Cume $107.8M

5. He's Just Not That Into You (NL/Warner Bros) [2,858] $5.8M Wkd, Cume $78.5M

6. Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Columbia/Sony) [2,698] $5.6M Wkd, Cume $128.1M

7. Coraline 3-D (Focus Features) [2,063] $5.2M Wkd, Cume $61.1M

8. Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chun Li (Fox) [1,136] OPENER $4.6M Wkd

9. Confessions Of A Shopaholic (Disney) [2,534] $4.4M Wkd, Cume $33.6M

10. Fired Up (Sony) [1,811] $3.8M (-31%) Wkd, Cume $10.1M

Coraline takes a sizable percentage drop for the first time, sliding to seventh. The little girl now has a cume of $61,145,000*.

* Now corrected.

Click here to read entire post

Jobs and the Economy

We're in a world of pain ... and we're going to be in that world for a while. Calculated Risk shows exactly how Ouchy it is. For many right now, it's sort of like being in an iron maiden, with thumb screws attached to all of their digits.

Four months ago, a member and participant in the 401(k) called to ask about pulling her money out of her 401(k) retirement account and buying a house with it. I said:

"Uh, it's a little early to do that. Houses aren't through losing value ..."

Of course, there's the issue of her 401(k) losing value, but if most folks aren't mainly in fixed interest accounts by now ... well, they're a lot braver than I am ...

The animation industry's overall job numbers -- at least the unionized totals we track -- have held up reasonably well over the past year. But last night I ran into a lead who's departing one of our major employers for a job in the game industry. With a shake of the head he told me:

"I don't think the bigger layoffs have hit yet. I think that my almost former employer will be cutting back at the end of the year. I think some of the people working there will be surprised, and not in a good way."

As always, how animation performs in the marketplace is going to have a lot to do with animation's future employment levels. It always does. But entertainment company stock prices are in currently the toilet. On Thursday a Disney TVA employee remarked to me in sorrow: "I've been with the company fifteen years, buying shares every week with the employee purchase program. The stock's lower now than when I started, fifteen years ago."

We are thirteen months into the current recession, and probably have twice that to go. But don't count on me as a prognosticator. Read the linked graphs at Calculated Risk and draw your own conclusions.

And keep most of your extra earnings in cash and cash equivalents. No point in taking a flyer in Tech stocks quite yet.

Click here to read entire post

Warm Animated Links

Late in the week linkage just for Y-O-U.

Zemeckis's IM Digital, part of the Disney empire, has really cranked up production over the last year. IMD has an IATSE contract, we represent a lot of the employees up in San Rafael, and the projects just keep on coming:

Seth Green will star in Walt Disney Pictures' "Mars Needs Moms," an adaptation of the children's novel by Berkeley Breathed.

Simon Wells is directing the performance-capture movie, which follows a boy named Milo who stows away aboard a spaceship to rescue his mom after she's kidnapped by aliens. Green will play Milo.

The project, from Disney and filmmaker Robert Zemeckis' ImageMovers, reunites Green with his "Austin Powers" mom, Mindy Sterling, who will play the alien leader of Mars ...

The New York Times points out that this year's New York International Children's Film Festival isn't really ... uh ... geared at kids.

This year’s programs include the American animated feature “Sita Sings the Blues,” Nina Paley’s interweaving of the Indian epic Ramayana with the autobiographical story of a female filmmaker’s marital collapse ...

Films specifically for children also often explore serious themes. Friday night’s opening gala features the American premiere of the French and Italian animated feature “Mia and the Migoo” (age 7 and older), directed by Jacques-Rémy Girerd. It follows a girl’s quest to save her father, a laborer trapped at a construction site that also threatens the Tree of Life. “Battle for Terra” (7 and older), an American animated feature (sold out), focuses on the peaceful beings of Terra, who are threatened by human survivors fleeing a destroyed Earth ...

But there are a lot of animated features.

The Daily Telegraph gives us yet another list of the best. toons. evah. It should start fights among aficionados ... because everybody will have a different roster of favorites:

Shrek (2001)

The grumpy green giant was the first winner of the Animated Feature Oscar and deservedly so, although another charming Lasseter movie, Monsters Inc, was also a nominee that year ...

Slash Film brings up the question, "Does Pixar Have a Problem Creating Good Female Characters?"

... Caitlin GD Hopkins claims that most of Pixar’s female characters are “helpers, love interests, and moral compasses to the male characters whose problems, feelings, and desires drive the narratives.”

Ms. Hopkoms goes on -- in a separate link -- to dissect the various Pixar films (let the disagreements begin) ...

And while on the subject of Pixar, let's note that everyone is a sequelist now.

Despite what Brad Bird said on stage at WonderCon two years ago, Pixar is now in the sequel business. Cars 2, Toy Story 3, but what about a sequel to Monsters, Inc? At Comic-Con 2008, director Pete Docter responded to an audience question about the prospects of a sequel by admitting that “We’ve thought about it… We’ve got a couple ideas.” MTV later prodded the filmmaker trying to get more information, Docter nervously replied “I can neither confirm nor deny” ...

Cars Deux, Toy Story III, why not another Monsters? In this time of economic turbulence, our corporate masters lurch toward the sure bets.

Lastly, as The Simpsons becomes the longest running series in television history, Mr. Groening reflects on Homer S:

"He doesn't have feelings of guilt. He has some remorse, but he really wants what he wants in the moment. And for the rest of us who do feel guilt, there's something to envy about that. To be able to just do what you want in the moment. I look at YouTube videos all the time of buffoonish Americans, and I see Homer in a lot of them."

Have a soothing weekend.

Click here to read entire post

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Back and Forth on Writers of Cartoons

I'm late to the party on this from ASIFA's Animation Archives:

The other day, a discussion on cartoon writing erupted in response to recent posts on the subject in John Kricfalusi's blog. One of John's main points is that the golden age cartoons that we all regard as the greatest cartoons ever created were written by cartoonists as storyboards, not written in words as scripts.

John K. is more or less correct, that classic shorts were mostly created on storyboards, howsoever ...

They were also written. All those words under the drawings? Some artist ... or a writer working with an artist, wrote those.

But of course, the driving force of most cartoon shorts was the visual, because more often than not. the little square drawings of thosee funny little cartoon character were the locomotives that pulled all the trains.

Today, most shorts start with the written word rather than the drawing. (And most shorts are done, obviously, for television.)

The same applies to features. Where once features were pulled along by storyboards, now the initial blueprints are fat, live-action style scripts. Sometimes the scripts are good, other times not so good. But the drawings are not the prime movers the way they used to be. When I walk into a board artist's room these days, the artist is likely to say (as one said to me last week):

"I don't have much to do right now. The script is being reworked by the new writers on the project before our next pass, so I'm just sitting here waiting."

In the days of Walt, it was the story artist who sat in the cab driving the train. Outline boards, then sequence boards dominated, and the guys with the pencils had lots of input.

But board artists are no longer in the driver's seat, because in 2009 ... as in 1999 and 1989 the live-action model predominates: script, then boards, and finally full-blown production. One isn't "wrong" and another isn't "right", they are simply different.

But the debate is a little silly anyway. There are many ways to skin the creative cat, and artists make solid writers far more often than the other way around. Ron Clements and John Musker, who both began their animation careers as animators and board artists, have written fine animation scripts. Mike Maltese wrote classic Warner Bros. shorts and trend-setting television product at Hanna-Barbera.

And story artist Bill Peet (as I've noted before), wrote one of the great post-war Disney features with "101 Dalmations," even if he did closely follow the novel on which it was based. Peet wasn't a "writer" in today's use of the term, but a gifted Renaissance man, who began his professional life as a visual artist. He ended it, of course, as a writer of children's books.

So who has the best chops? Who is the most important? There is no final answer. But I know a lot of board artists who are double threats: they write and they draw. A pretty compelling combination, when studios execs deign to notice.

Click here to read entire post

Separate and Way Not Equal

Here's a big flash of non-news from the L.A. Times:

Animated films have never had it easy when it comes to the Academy Awards ...

Here, for the first time anywhere, is a complete list of all of the primarily animated films that have been nominated for Oscars outside of the best animated short film and best animated feature film categories, from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in 1937 through "WALL-E" and "Waltz With Bashir" in 2008. As you can see, these 54 films have collectively garnered only 106 such nominations over the 81 years of the Academy Awards, and have won just 22 of them (and only two since the creation of the best animated feature category).

Does this confirm the widely held view that the separate-but-equal best animated feature category was created out of a form of "genre bias" in order to segregate animated films from all others?

Like, this is a shock to anybody?

Animation has generally been treated like a leprous niece or nephew by mainstream Hollywood from the very beginning.

Cartoons are an embarassment for most "real" movie makers. For years, when animation was a small, semi-pathetic ghetto that made money for Disney and nobody else, it was ignored. Now that box office grosses for cartoon features outstrip 90% of the live-action variety and therefore can't be ignored, the Important Players -- those wonderful folks whose films don't make as much money but get all the good restaurant tables anyway -- have outfitted a brightly painted room down in the basement labeled "Animated Feature."

So now they can ignore animation with a totally clear conscience. Yippee.

Click here to read entire post

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Official Word -- Simpsons Renewed

We've heard unofficial reports on this -- rumors, innuendo and Harry Shearer shooting off his mouth on MSNBC, but as a Simpsons director told me a week ago:

"There's been lots of talk, but we haven't gotten any notice from Fox or Gracie. So we're still hoping, but don't actually know."

But now everyone can stop speculating ...

FOX has ordered two additional seasons of THE SIMPSONS, which will bring the longest-running series in primetime television history through its 22nd season. The 44-episode pickup ensures the series will reach an astounding 493 episodes. THE SIMPSONS airs Sundays (8:00-8:30 PM ET/PT) on FOX ...

Two seasons should make the crew happy. Having the ability to plan out your professional life for two freaking years in a row is a nice thing to have in your back pocket.

Click here to read entire post

At Sony Pictures Animation

A big swath of my Wednesday occurred in Culver City, where I ambled through the ImageWorks facility, saying howdy to the staff of Sony Picture Animation ...

The place is relatively quiet just now, with production winding down on Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, development work happening on Hotel Transylvania and artists awaiting the script on the animation/live-action combo feature that revives the Smurfs' franchise.

The Smurf feature is allegedly set for December, 2010, so production will have to move forward briskly. As an artist told me:

"They just wrapped up an\c.g.i. animation test on some of the little blue people, and management was happy with the way it looked. Now it's got to be figured out how photo-realistic the Smurfs will be, or how cartoony.

An informal polling of the animation staff points to a preference for cartoony, but various Sony power players might have other ideas.

If schedules hold, we'll know by late 2010 who wins that particular battle.

Click here to read entire post

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Big Nyet

The Disney Co.'s global reach as just been stunted a bit:

Walt Disney has been refused permission to go ahead with a $233 million deal to set up a national free-to-air TV network in Russia.

Russia’s powerful Federal Anti-Monopoly Commission (FAS) said the deal for a 49% stake in a joint venture with regional commercial network Media One TV, which runs channels in 30 of the country’s 89 regions, was not in the interests of free competition.

This "free competition" enthusiasm by the Russians is kind of a new wrinkle for them, since until 1990, they weren't real big proponents of free competition. Of course, there might be some other motivation besides free market idealism:

In a country where TV is a politically sensitive strategic industry, there could be more to [the] decision than meets the eye.

“It’s not business, but politics,” one unidentified local TV exec told business daily Kommersant.

You think?

Click here to read entire post

The Extra-Hours WorkWeek Explained

Kevin Koch explains the reality and dynamics of the 45 hour workweek (I've excised it from "comments" down below.) ...

Commenter: The 45 hour week (40 hours of straight time and 5 hours of "guaranteed overtime") doesn't mean you have to work 45 hours to get full pay. It only means that in an overtime situation, you have to work 45 hours of straight time before you start earning time and a half.

President Koch: This is incorrect. The 45 hour work week means you are working 40 straight-time hours and 5 hours of guaranteed overtime. This is the baseline.

...and I may be wrong but that is only in effect during a 5 day week.

This part is correct. You work your 45 hours M-F, and if you need to come in Saturday, those OT hours are on top of the 45.

It basically saves the studio a few bucks because they ALWAYS get themselves into an overtime situation but that's usually during the last few months of production.

More than that, it gets them 5 extra hours of work each week BEFORE that OT situation hits.

...oh, and what it ultimately is designed to do is reduce your hourly rate which means that, again, in an overtime situation, they actually pay you time and a half based upon that reduced rate. For example: if you make $2000 per week on a "45 hour week", your rate is not $50 per hour, it's actually $44 per hour.

Nope. The situation is worse than you've calculated. That $2000/week is now divided by 40 straight-time hours, and 5 OT hours, equivalent to a total of 47.5 straight-time hours. So the hourly rate drops from $50/hour to $42.10/hour. Your additional overtime hours are now worth $63.16.

(The thing about 45 or 50-hour work weeks -- as it's been explained to me by people with law degrees -- is that Federal regulations require that the "45 hours with 5 hours of pre-paid overtime" be worked most of the time. Otherwise, individuals who mostly work 40 hours of their stipulated 45-hour week are actually earning their salaries on a 40 hour week, and their weekly $2000 would then be divided by 40 hours, not 47.5.

This is why Disney requires the 45-hours to be worked each week. (A "hard" 45-hour work week vs. a "soft" 45-hour work week.) Otherwise, the company collides with Federal regulations.

-- Steve Hulett)

Click here to read entire post

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Circular Imitation Inspiration

The wonderful thing about the entertainment industry? If somebody hits on a winning formula, a large bunch imitations are sure to follow.

Like for instance, as there was Beauty and the Beast, so was there Quest for Camelot. And Bugs Life and Antz coming out at the same time, just an amazing coincidence, right?

Uh, probably not.

But the search for the next genius show or (better yet) genius executive is pretty much unending ... and seems to go in big, looping circles ...

Early in his tenure as chairman of the Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner said he became so frustrated with the competitive advantage that Nickelodeon held over the Disney Channel among young cable viewers that he set about poaching a cadre of Nickelodeon executives, including Rich Ross, who now oversees the Disney Channel ...

This summer, in its prime-time Nick at Nite program block, Nickelodeon will introduce “Glenn Martin DDS,” an animated series about the dysfunctional family of an eccentric dentist that was presented to Ms. Zarghami by Mr. Eisner, who left Disney in 2005 and now works part time as an independent producer ...

Next month Nickelodeon will introduce “Penguins of Madagascar,” a Saturday-morning animated series featuring some of the characters of the “Madagascar” movies, which was brought to Nickelodeon by Jeffrey Katzenberg ...

Let's see. Jeffrey used to reside at the Disney address, didn't he? One more nice, circular highway.

Long ago in the 1970s, animation was simple, well-defined, and irrelevant to most of mainstream Hollywood. Hanna-Barbera produced the lion's share of animation that went on the teevee, and Disney created the small amount of theatrical product that was made. Everybody else stayed away from it. ("Small profits, big headaches, who cares?" ...)

But thirty-plus years later, animation is a big money generator, so the congloms fall all over themselves to produce cartoons. In particular, cartoons that create maximum bucks. (The first try at this, when Disney's rivals tried to replicate the Mouse's nineties' success with hand-drawn features, fell flat. The second wave of C.G.I. features has seen Fox, Disney, DreamWorks and others share success that eluded many of them earlier.)

So it's hardly surprising that, with the allure of big bucks, the competition among the multi-nationals for high octane animation talent and properties has become ferocious. John Lasseter and Ed Catmull aren't in a stand-alone studio named Pixar anymore. Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks Animation are in strategic alliance with Viacom. And any successful feature or small screen show that gains traction in the marketplace finds an imitation (or three) a couple of eye-blinks later. (Shrek Goes Fourth is in development ... just ahead of Toy Story III and Cars II. And as there was a film full of fuzzy animals called Ice Age, so was there a film about fuzzy animals named Madagascar ... just like television's Sponge Bob Square Pants was followed by Chowder. Funny how those dynamics work.)

Animation is long past the point where congloms can ignore it. The art form has become so valuable, in fact, that the Big Boys treat it like live action: Steal creatives who are good at the medium; borrow ideas that have made other animation producers large fortunes.

But then, the power of money has always been magical, hasn't it?

Click here to read entire post

Moving On Up ...

Now that the weekend dust has settled and the actual box office numbers are in, Coraline ends up at #2.

The number of times a feature film rises from fifth to second in the box office ballgame can be counted on the pitching hand of three-finger Brown ... or maybe the right foot of a double-toed sloth. Like it hardly ever happens ...

In the third week of release, Coraline has collected $53,766,834.

Moving down to the White Doggie, Disney's pet continues to pile up foreign box office:

"Bolt" has generated $155.2 million outside the U.S., $42 million more than the domestic total, and should have plenty of gas in the tank thanks to its staggered release; Japan won't open until August ...

Combined with with the $114,053,579 domestic take, the pooch now stands at $269.25 million, somewhat less than the Box Office Mojo cume, but still within hailing distance of $300 million.

As for the other two animated features listed as breathing on the Mojo list, Madagascar 2 (#43) is within an eyelash of $180 million domestic, while 39th place The Tale of Despereaux stands at $50,653,875. Tres bien.

Click here to read entire post

Monday, February 23, 2009

Analysts Project the Health of DreamWorks Animation

Now with flouride-enriched Add On:

As the market goes on melting, DreamWorks Animation gets ready to roll out its latest financials. The smart-money crowd (via A.P.) offers a teaser:

DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. ... reports its fourth-quarter earnings Tuesday ... The slumping DVD market is likely to weigh on the company, which releases two movies a year and relies on the home video market to keep its coffers full between releases.

However, it is banking on a transition to an all 3-D film slate going forward to help offset some of the pain. 3-D movies earn better revenue than their 2-D counterparts, but the credit crunch has slowed the deployment of the digital projectors that enable their viewing.

DreamWorks Animation is set to release "Monsters vs. Aliens," its first 3-D release, on March 27 ...

Analysts, on average, expect DreamWorks Animation to see revenue fall 20 percent to $233 million, with earnings per share down 39 percent to 60 cents per share, according to a survey by Thomson Reuters ...

We'll know how accurate the estimates are tomorrow. Kind of important to know these things, because the viability of a major player in animation impacts the viability and health of the industry. So knowledge, for people in the biz, aids informed planning. And planning enhances survival.

Or so it seems to me.

Add On: Yeowp.

DreamWorks Animation SKG (DWA.N) posted lower profit for the fourth quarter, which fell short of expectations, as the company faced a tough comparison to the year-ago quarter which was bolstered by its "Shrek the Third" DVD release.,/p>

DreamWorks Animation posted fourth-quarter net income of $51.6 million, or 58 cents per share, compared with $94.1 million or 98 cents per share, in the year-earlier period. Revenue fell to $199.8 million from $290.2 million.

Shares of DreamWorks fell 0.8 percent in after-hours trade to $19.61 a share from a close of $19.76 a share.

Okay, so maybe DWA will outperform expectations next quarter.

Click here to read entire post

Imagi Update - Again

I spent the afternoon at Imagi in Sherman Oaks, and to keep folks up to date, about 40-50% of the staff is back at work as of today. As one of the freshly returned artists said to me:

"The company seems to be working to make things right, but if it doesn't come through on its promises, I won't be around here long ..."

I met with Imagi administration for an hour, and here's what they related:

* Checks for "pay in lieu of notice" came in late Friday, and the company has been issuing them to employees who haven't been recalled, with other staff to follow.

* The company, though it isn't required to do so under the TAG contract, says it will be paying laid-off employees through February 14th. Vacation pay will also be paid out.

* Dismissal pay that's due under the TAG contract will be paid to individuals who haven't been rehired 110 days after layoff. (Assuming employees are paid wages through February 14th, the clock starts running on February 15th.)

* Employees being brought back include 1) Crew working on Astro Boy. 2) Individuals who have term Personal Service Agreements (with those agreements honored). 3) Some board artists working on Tusker and Gochaman, to help get these projects up on reels.

A SAD NOTE: Since individuals have been flamed in previous "Imagi" comments, we simplify matters here by shutting down the comments section.

It's a shame we have to do this, but life is too flipping short to have to police for virulent bullcrap. We find it, we delete it. And if that means closing comments, or pre-screening comments, we'll do it.

As your fifth grade teacher once said: "A few bad apples are ruining it for everybody else."

If anybody has questions about Imagi that aren't answered above, feel free to call the TAG office (818-766-7151) ... or e-mail me at ...

Click here to read entire post

Spreading the Gold Statues Around

I always find it, I donno, aesthetically pleasing when somebody besides a monster conglomerate wins a little gold man.

The 12-minute film, which means "House of Small Cubes," centers on an old man reflecting upon his life as floodwaters slowly rise at his home. It marked the first Academy Award nomination and win for Kato, who wrote and directed the piece.

"It's so heavy," said Kato of the award. A native of Japan, he struggled with his English in good humor before a star-studded audience. "Thank you very much. Thank you, my supporters. Thank you, all my staff. Thank you, academy ... Thank you, my company. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.".

Three cheers for Kunio Kato.

Click here to read entire post

Fifty-ninth Anniversary of a Toonish Fork in the Road

Close to six decades back, Walt Disney Productions released Cinderella, the first full-length animated feature since Bambi. The company had released plenty of toonage in the interim, but none that told an eighty-five minute story with a beginning, middle and end.

Disney was not then in terrific financial shape. I remember my mentor Larry Clemmons telling me:

"I visited the lot in the late forties. I was writing Bing Crosby's radio show then, and Bing came to the studio to record Ichabod, and I drove over to visit old friends I hadn't seen since leaving in '41.

"And the reaction of the guys in the story department, guys I'd known, was 'Gee, you're working for Bing Crosby on network radio. Must be great. And here we are, stuck in Burbank.'

"Back then, after the war, the studio was seen as a sleepy little place that made kids' cartoons, far away from the Hollywood action. A couple of the story writers wondered if the studio would even be around that much longer." ...

In the late forties, it was pretty common knowledge that Walt Disney Prods. was living hand to mouth. It was going through a lean and mean period, working to conserve cash, releasing cost-efficient "compilation" features that, while less expensive too produce, we're not bringing in huge amounts of cash at the box office. The company was also using bottled-up profits in Great Britain to make low-rent live-action films, using relatively unknown actors in the leads.

Somewhere along in here, Cinderella was greenlit, Peter Pan was reactivated, and Alice in Wonderland moved into development. Because Walt had big plans, and to make them happen he needed to take bigger swings at the plate, aiming for the fences.

And Cinderella, the first animated feature out of the on-deck circle, turned out to be a hit, giving the studio financial breathing room. While Alice in Wonderland the following year misfired, Peter Pan did not, and Disney suddenly had the economic muscle to make an amusement park down in Anaheim happen. Which gave the company a whole lot of leverage and cash flow.

The rest, as they say, is the corporate collosus we know and love today.

Oversimplification? No doubt. But the point is that Walt Disney, starting with Cinderella in 1950, drove down the right roads at the right intersections and thereby set his smallish cartoon studio on a route to ginormous prosperity ... instead of say, the historical deadend (and footnote) occupied by U.P.A.

So. Happy Birthday, Cindy! You made a difference!

Click here to read entire post

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Animation Italiano

As there are French animation studios, so are there Italian animation studios, and here's one that's prospering.

Six trendy teenage fairies collectively called the Winx, created by Italo animation mogul Iginio Straffi, have been busy fluttering their wings over the past four years bewitching millions of tween girls in more than 130 countries.

In the U.S. the MTV-generation pixies air on FoxBox and Cartoon Network.

Now the former comicbook artist, dubbed "Italy's Walt Disney" by the local press, is spawning more seductive kiddie concoctions, for small- and bigscreen distribution, with the ambition of sparring with kiddie fare churned out by the likes of Disney and Nickelodeon.

As John L. has the Tink franchise, so Iginio S. has Winx.

Apparently you don't have to hang out in Emeryville or the eastern San Fernando valley to make a go of the animation business.

... A CGI feature "Winx Club: The Secret of the Lost Kingdom" has been released to solid returns in 20 territories, and counting. The pic pulled $6 million in Italy and more than $5 million in France and Germany. ...

"Obviously it's not easy to make it in the global entertainment industry starting out in a small Italian town in the Marches," says Straffi, referring to his native region on the Adriatic coast.

Maybe. But Igninio appears to have made a pretty good run at it. Bully for him.

Click here to read entire post

Hand-Drawn Land

For those who long for the days of hand-drawn features (you can find some of them in the contentious comment thread here) there is a place, on this very planet, where the pencil-and-paper cartoon is alive and thriving:

A new crop of ambitious Gallic 2-D toons are now aiming for mainstream auds, helped by the international response to such arthouse pics as last year's "Persepolis" and 2003's "Triplets of Belleville."

With lower production costs than 3-D features, the 2-D films enable French producers to get into the toon biz with less risk while bringing Gallic subjects and sensibilities to their projects.

"There is a growing trend towards traditionally animated films that can be considered auteur films, with audacious universes and storylines that cater to family audiences and not merely children," says Didier Brunner, producer at Paris-based animation shingle Les Armateurs ("Triplets of Belleville").

Of course, Disney Feature is producing the hand-drawn Princess and the Frog at a lower price than many of its recent offerings, but over in the land of the croissant, they're working with even lower production costs:

... French 2-D toons have been solid performers on the homefront and abroad. Last year, "Persepolis" grossed $4.4 million in the U.S. and $18 million worldwide; pic was budgeted around $7 million. Michel Ocelot's "Azur et Asmar," with a $9 million budget, grossed $16 million in Gaul. "Triplets of Belleville" parlayed its animated Oscar nom into more than $7 million in the U.S., with nearly $15 million worldwide ...

What American congloms, chasing after the half-billion dollar payday, overlook is that hand-drawn features are viable at the right price-point, and there's no good reason that point couldn't be in the $20-$30 million range in current dollars.

(According to the esteemed inflation calculator, The Rescuers' $7.5 million production cost would be a mere $25.4 million today.)

I think the reason that hand-drawn features have disappeared from American landscape isn't due to cgi being more sexy or "with it", but because the last crop of hand-drawn features (1998-2004) were lacklustre compared to their c.g. competition. (One quick example: Sinbad vs. Toy Story 2? They were released a month apart at the turn of the century, and one did way better than the other. Maybe I'm a Luddite, but I don't think Sinbad crashed and burned because it was hand-drawn ...)

It isn't that hand-drawn features aren't viable. It's that they are perceived by the conglomerates as less bankable than c.g.i. Execs don't stop to consider much of the lack of viability links directly to lousier content, so until that aspect of traditional features climbs to higher elevations (and box office grosses ascend with it), the pencil-and-paper art form will continue to take a back seat to c.g.i.

Might not be fair, but it's the way, sadly, it is. You want to work the hand-drawn side of the divide, wait for the next traditional Disney feature ... or the sequel to The Simpsons Movie.

Or go to France.

Click here to read entire post

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Box Office of Perry

Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail hits your neighborhood Bijou and consumes most of the box office oxygen with a $14,850,000 Friday opening ....

Meantime, Coraline rides along in the fourth position, with a Friday take of $2,750,000, the second highest per-screen average for any talkie in the Top Ten.

(While we're on the subject of animation, today is the 59th anniversary of the release of Cinderella, the cartoon feature that put Disney back into the long-form game after a lapse of eight years.)

Add On: The weekend cume is in, and Mr. Perry can now officially open his own Fort Knox:

... This latest (and, in terms of racial stereotyping, perhaps the worst) from Tyler Perry was the largest opening weekend gross on the fewest amount of screens ever (2,032) and the highest grossing weekend opening in Lionsgate history ...

And the winners, front to back:

1. Tyler Perry's Madea Goes To Jail (Lionsgate) OPENER $41.1M Wkd [2,032 Theaters]

2. Taken (20th Century Fox) $11.4M Wkd [3,102], Cume $95.1M

3. Coraline 3-D (Focus Features) $11M Wkd [2,155], Cume $53.3M

4. He's Just Not That Into You (NL/Warner Bros) $8.5M Wkd [3,050], Cume $70M

5. Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight) $8M Wkd [2,244], Cume $98M

6. Friday The 13th (NL/Warner Bros) $7.8M (-81%) Wkd [3,105], Cume $55M

7. Confessions Of A Shopaholic (Disney) $7M Wkd (-53%) [2,507], Cume $27.6M

8. Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Columbia/Sony) $7M Wkd [2,835], Cume $121.3M

9. Fired Up (Screen Gems/Sony) OPENER $6M Wkd [1,810]

10. The International (Sony) $4.4M (-52%) Wkd [2,364], Cume $17M

You will kindly note how Coraline, outside of the Oscar-bound Slumdog Millionaire, had the smallest percentage drop of any Top Ten feature as it moved from #5 to #3. Quite clearly, the little girl has legs.

Click here to read entire post

Friday, February 20, 2009


The second floor coffee bistro in the Disney Hat Building, Disney knick knacks on display ...

I spent a lengthy morning at Disney Animation Studios. But before I get into that, lookee here:

Bolt Worldwide Grosses

Domestic: $113,643,011

Foreign: $172,601,478

Total: $286,244,489

The delusional among us cling to the fantasy that a $300 million cume is "optimistic" for the White Doggie.

But at this point, it's more like wildly short of the mark, because the pup is going to end up way over my original estimate of $300 mill. (Hell, it's only $6.3 million under where I thought it would end up for the U.S. and Canada ... even after its awful opening against teenage bloodsuckers.) ...

And what's going on at the Mouse House? The big recurring question I get from many of the employees I meet is:

"So ... what's with the 45-hour week?"

My answer is simple. I tell them, "It's a pay cut."

Then we get into the usual back and forth that I've been through with Disney employees before.

I think that some of the unhappy rumbling stems from the top spin that Disney and other companies often put on bad news. It's not like they're denying there's bad news, they're just under-emphasizing it, as in: "Hey, you're working more hours, but you'll still be taking home the same money."

That's sort of like the doctor telling you, "There's some emphysema in your lungs, but your complexion is really nice."

Beyond that, one artist said to me:

"I've always gotten my work done efficiently, always gotten it in on schedule. This mandatory 45-hour workweek seems like punishment to me ..."

Actually, it's a cost-saving item. And of course, there's a lot of cost-savings at Disney (and elsewhere) going on just now.

But it's always better, IMO, for companies to roll out the bad tidings with a straight-forward explanation of why the tidings are bad. People appreciate the candor, even as they hate the news.

Elsewhere in the building, work on The Princess and the Frog continues at a steady clip. I saw a few backgrounds from the picture up ona various computer screens, and they look nice.

Click here to read entire post

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Links of Toonage

The Secret of Kells

Now with Add On.

Now that the Oscars are upon us, Creative Loafing runs down the animated shorts that decorate the ceremonies:

...[T]he 2009 animation nominees handily outshine the live action shorts, some of which prove to be shamelessly manipulative ...

... Japan offers a fascinating, melancholy entry, “Le Maison en Petits Cubes,” which involves a village of homes constantly built up to avoid Waterworld-like rising flood levels. An old man uses scuba gear to dive into his house and retrieve his pipe, and flashes further back into his past the further he goes in a haunting metaphor for memory ...

Mouse Planet offers an interview with Uncle Walt, circa 1933:

... “I’m not interested in money, except for what I can do with it to advance my work. The idea of piling up a fortune for the sake of wealth seems silly to me. Work is the real adventure in life. Money is merely a means to make more work possible.

“The average cost of a cartoon in black and white is $18,000. In color this runs to about $20,000. These figures represent only the actual production cost and don’t include cost of prints" ...

“It takes a Mickey Mouse comedy 12 months to pay for itself, while the average Silly Symphony doesn’t crawl out of the red for 18 months" ....

(See? Costs haven't come down much in the last 75 years. An outrage, truly.)

To be less U.S.-centric for a couple of moments, across the Atlantic non-American cartoon features are unspooling ... at a non-American cartoon festival:

Sneak previews of "A Town Called Panic" and "Gaston Lagaffe" are promised at the Anima toon festival ... in Brussels...

"Panic" is a feature-length treatment of the stop-motion series created by Vincent Patar and Stephane Aubier ... "Gaston Lagaffe" is the first animated adaptation of the cult comic series created in 1957 by Andre Franquin, featuring accident-prone slacker Gaston.

Moment Number Two: The EAAF has rolled out a gaggle of animated nominees for its latest awards gathering. And what is the EEAF? I'm so glad you asked.

The European Association of Animation Film has announced the nominees selected for the Cartoon Movie Tributes 2009 .. [T]he awards for best director, distributor and producer of the year seek to reward companies and personalities who have contributed to the development of European animation over the last year.

The nominees are for Best European Director of the Year are Thorbjørn Christoffersen, Craig Frank and Kresten Vestbjerg Andersen from Denmark for Journey to Saturn; Jacques-Rémy Girerd from France for Mia and the Migoo, and Tomm Moore from Ireland for The Secret of Kells ...

See? There's a universe of toonage out there beyond Massachussetts. You just have to look for it.

And so like, what is this Secret of Kells at all?

Made by Cartoon Saloon as a co-production with Les Armateurs in France and Vivi Film in Belgium, the film follows the adventures, action and danger that await 12-year-old Brendan (newcomer Evan McGuire) who must fight Vikings and a serpent god to find a crystal and complete the legendary Book of Kells

Add On: The L.A. Times profiles animation wizard James Baxter:

[For the simpler sequences of the Kung Fu Panda opening] ... when it came time to render complicated kung fu spins, Baxter shut down his computer and broke out his trusty HP pencil. "Computers have a hard time just looking at a flat picture and turning it around dimensionally," he explains. "[It looks] like a cardboard cutout. So things which are really moving dimensionally I would animate in the traditional manner.

"We use animation paper, which is the same kind of paper they've used since 'Snow White.' It's just slightly see-through, so you can shine the light through it, and you can see all the drawings in sequence that you're working on. You stack them up, and they've all got peg holes in them so you can put them on these pegs to register them to each other every time. It's basically like making a flip book, page by page." ...

Have a fine weekend.

Click here to read entire post

Imagi - Another Update

Now with Add On.

Imagi, the animation studio that earlier ran into some choppy seas, has now paid most of the employees for the unpaid week of work they did back toward the end of January ...

This is good news, and we commend Imagi for making good on one of its commitments.

Howsoever. There is still money owed to a lot of employees for other things, but we will cling to the old adage, "A journey begins with the first step" and hope for the best.

Add On: I talked this afternoon with the company. They represent that they want to do right by their recently laid-off employee, and make them whole in the pay department. I'm all for that, but we'll see if it happens. And when.

Click here to read entire post

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Vanishing "Hill"

I spent a part of the day wandering among the empty cubicles at the King of the Hill sector of Film Roman, snuggled up against the Bob Hope Airport.

The are a few artists left, a couple of timers and animation checkers, but the office space is quiet.

"I'm gone Friday, everybody else is out in a couple of weeks" ... "All we know is the show hasn't been officially cancelled. But it hasn't been picked up for more episodes either." ... "People hope that if a show on Fox falls out, King of the Hill will come back. Again." ...

And so it goes. Goode Family, the KOTH spin off, doesn't roll out on ABC until Spring, and its first crop of episodes is done, the crew dispersed. As a director told me as he packed up his personal knick-knacks: "Goode may or may not have more half-hours done later. But it's going to be a while before any renewal happens, and I need a job now."

Up on The Simpsons, artists and directors are still working away on the twentieth season; most of them seemed to have heard about Harry Shearer saying on MSNBC the twenty-first had been picked up. But one cycnic related:

"Fine of Shearer to say that, but we haven't heard anything official. Producers say its looks good for another season, but an actor saying so doesn't make it for sure. Not as far as we're concerned."

I find this dour outlook sad. If you can't trust Harry Shearer, who can you trust?

Click here to read entire post

DreamWorks Animation Watch

Yesterday, in between running around like the proverbial headless rooster, I bopped over to the DreamWorks Animation campus. The place is humming. And it's not just inside the studio's vine-covered walls:

Dreamworks Animation (DWA) was upgraded today by analysts at Wedbush Morgan ... The analysts upped DWA to "Buy" from "Hold." Over the last 52 weeks the stock has ranged from a low of $20.39 to a high of $32.73.

The stock getting a greenlight, particularly in this market (see below) is a good thing, yes? On the other hand:

DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. is teaming up with Cerelink Digital Media Group of New Mexico to use the resources of the Computing Applications Center so DreamWorks can render its three-dimensional films in New Mexico.

As part of the project, an ultra high-speed link now connects New Mexico to Hollywood. That was done by the Computing Applications Center in collaboration with the University of New Mexico, the New Mexico Department of Information Technology, National LambdaRail and Cerelink DMG ...

More jobs in New Mexico, fewer jobs in Glendale. And yet again On the other hand:

Goldman downgraded Dreamworks (NYSE: DWA) to Neutral from Buy and lowered its target to $25 from $35 citing high expectations for "Monsters vs. Aliens" and DVD market softness ...

DreamWorks Animation steady hiring of new personnel has now leveled off. Even when you're a cartoon studio with a hot hand, you play it cautious when 1) the stock market's having conniption fits, 2) you only have one film coming out in 2009, and 3) you don't have a great roadmap for what lies around the next corner.

Cost containment is the order of the day, and while nobody is thrilled with wage levels not rising, nobody is complaining (at least, not to me).

The sentence I hear over and over ... and let me know if you've heard this before ... is:

"I'm happy to have a job ..."

It's rapidly becoming 1936, all over again.

Click here to read entire post

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Stocks Melt

Another ugly day at the equities purchasing parlor, so it's appropriate to display this:

The chart comes from Bronson Capital Market Research (via Barry Ritholtz's "The Big Picture"). BCMR explains:

"The stock market Price/Earnings ratio (the solide blue line) is the S and P 500 Index ... divided by earnings ..."

Bronson graphs the ups and downs of the ratio, and predicts that the bottom of the market will come somewhere around October 2014.

It's as good a forecast as other predictions out there. Maybe better. We'll know how it holds up when the autumn leaves fall in 2014. (Click on the chart for readable text and more detail.)

Click here to read entire post

Boltish Box Office

This from comments:

How do you figure that BOLT's worldwide B.O. is going north of 300 million when it currently stands at 220 mil. That means its going to make another 80 mil ...

I realize that you are trying to be optimistic but don't you think that's a little unrealistic[?] ...

Fine. I'm unrealistic. And here's a little more of my unrealism right here:

Disney animated movie Bolt has fetched a whopping £2.8m in its first weekend in UK cinemas.

The film, about a dog who stars in a TV show and thinks its powers are real, proved a big hit with film fans in its first three days.

The White Doggie, in case you don't know, landed at the top of the U.K. box office during its opening three days.

See, here's the way it works with me. I'm not dealing with aesthetics here, not arguing whether Bolt is better than Wall-E or Mr. Bug Goes to Town or Cinderella III. I'm looking at numbers and multipliers and releasing patterns.

Because what counts with studios is not that a majority of movie critics went into spasms of orgiastic delight when they viewed the movie, but how the movie performed at the AMC, Edwards Cinemas, and all the other movie houses around the globe. Did the turnstiles twirl? Or did they stand idle?

Say it with me now: It's all about the M-O-N-E-Y.


And as another commenter ... who's apparently headquartered in the reality-based community ... said:

... Japan, which Bolt has not yet been released in, could alone very likely rack up at least $60 million or more, since that is one of the biggest international markets for Disney animation ...

The trades have endlessly repeated how Bolt is being rolled out in foreign markets slowly and carefully, so maybe the Mouse learned something from its oafish domestic release. But whatever the reason, Bolt is doing fine in foreign lands.

So the White Doggie undershot my $120 million prediction for domestic gross (but not by much), and will outperform box office forecasts everywhere else.

How much will it ultimately make? More than $300 million.

Click here to read entire post

Monday, February 16, 2009

Laying Odds on Best Screenplay

The L.A. Times profiles Oscar nominee Wall-E in the screenplay category:

... As a page of "Wall-E's" nominated screenplay dramatizes, an animated script can be a complex document, particularly when you don't have nouns and verbs to help explain a character's feelings. The beeps in "Wall-E," particularly, are not random sounds -- in fact, a look at the script shows that each beep can be translated into a specific line of dialogue. "Every sound he makes carries some meaning," says Ben Burtt, who provided Wall-E's voice design and was the film's supervising sound editor ...

Setting aside the criticism of Wall-E's second and especially third act, any animated feature screenplay has hurdles to jump over on its way to Academy gold.

First, it isn't under the Writers Guild's jurisdiction. That's a major impediment. Second, there's the inbred snobbishness about the legitimacy of animation. For many Academy members, it's a second-tier art form, particularly when Oscars are handed out,.

Lastly, any animated feature worth its weight in gold-plated statuettes isn't just created on the written page. Script is important, but storyboard work is crucial; it's where character, plot and dialogue are worked and reworked the way a baker gneads warm dough.

If you don't have talented storyboard artists on an animated feature, you don't have a film with life or snap. Because as much as writers are needed on any feature-length motion picture -- and they are needed -- writers are a smaller part of the total movie equation in the animated universe.

Sitting here in my dull, late-night stupor, I can think of only one cartoon feature where a single individual wrote and storyboarded the entire project, front to back. The film was One Hundred and One Dalmations, and the individual was Bill Peet.

Click here to read entire post

"The Simpsons" Renewal

Today I ran into a veteran Simpsons artist who told me:

"We know that they're writing new Simpsons scripts, but nobody on staff has been told that we're doing another season. Everyone is just waiting ..."

But if Harry Shearer on MSNBC can be believed, there will be a 21st season of the Yellow Family, so move over Gunsmoke ...

What's made the artistic crew at Film Roman/Starz increasingly nervous has been the cutting of staff and the replacement of producers. The layout department has been streamlined and the art has gone digital, even as the show shifted to high def.

So now The Simpsons (allegedly) launches into another season, and the artists who make the visuals happen will have additional employment. At a time of financial turmoil and meltdown, this is a good thing. But as an artist at Family Guy said last week:

"Most of Fox Television's successful franchises are built around animation. Why would they give that up now? It's what keeps the company afloat."

Click here to read entire post

Sunday, February 15, 2009

White Doggie Frolics in Foreign Lands

While Bolt has pretty much run out its string in the States, it continues to collect significant coin overseas:

Disney's "Bolt" finished a distant but decent second to "Button," fetching $16.5 million at 3,696 playdates -- most of that from its U.K. launch of $7.8 million (including previews) and its second French frame, which saw grosses edge up 2% to $4.3 million.

"Bolt" has cumed $131.8 million outside the United States as the Mouse House opted for a staggered release pattern aimed at individual markets. The toon should stay a player as both the U.K. and France are entering school holiday periods ...

So Bolt has now outpaced its domestic totals in overseas markets (updated from the mojo numbers immediately below in Presidential Box Office.)

It appears to me that the picture will double its domestic accumulation before all the tickets are sold, earning it a total worldwide take somewhere north of $300 million.

Not a monster blockbuster. But not an embarrassment either.

Click here to read entire post

Visa Abuse

TAG sees a lot of immigration visas, writes a lot of letters to the INS about immigration visa. There's abuse and corner cutting here and there, but this will warm your heart:

Federal agents on Thursday said they arrested 11 people in six states in a crackdown on H-1B visa fraud and unsealed documents that detail how the visa process was used to undercut the salaries of U.S. workers.

Federal authorities allege that in some cases, H-1B workers were paid the prevailing wages of low-cost regions and not necessarily the higher salaries paid in the locations where they worked. By doing this, the companies were "displacing qualified American workers and violating prevailing wage laws," said federal authorities in a statement announcing the indictments.

H1-B immigration visas are not a type that TAG gets to review and write approve/disapprove letters for. But we do get info on them from time to time, and speed that info along.

But from visas we've reviewed, I can say that the larger companies are pretty straight-arrow about following the regs. (Disney especially follows them, because they have a tyro attorney who insists on it.)

But some of the smaller companies? Not so much.

The biggest problem with visas is that the INS tends to wave lots of applications through. If the application and supporting documents appear to be more or less in order, the Feds bless it and the immigrant comes in to work.

Perhaps this is changing ...

Click here to read entire post

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Presidential B. O.

Now with enzyme-rich Add On:

The extended holiday weekend generates robust box office numbers.

So Friday the 13th '09 scores big despite bad reviews, but that's to be expected, since it's one of those typical Valntine Day, feel-good movies to which young lovers flock. $19.3 million on Friday, and no doubt gangbuster numbers for the balance of the weekend. (Flowers, a box of chocolates, and two tickets to F13, what could be finer?) ...

On the animated front, Coraline is tracking along at #5, earning $3,000,000 on Friday. Of the top ten films, the little girl is number nine in terms of total number of theatres in which she's showing.

Add On:The preliminary weekend totals are in, and Coraline ends up at #5 with the second highest per-screen average ($6,605) for a $15.3 million weekend and $35.6 million cume.

Among other animated features in the marketplace: Madagascar Deux is at number 32, just shy of the $180 million mark. #33 The Tale of Despereaux is stalled at $50,403,000, while Waltz with Bashir is playing a few art houses at the fortieth position and has so far earned $1,407,000.

Disney's White Doggie has eaten $113,143,000 domestically, and has $220,093,937 packed away in its worldwide grosses. Before the pooch is through, it should come within wagging distance of $300 million.

Click here to read entire post

DreamWorks Animation's Bankroller Bows Out

One of the big players that helped launch DreamWorks back in the heady, boom-boom nineties -- has carried the last of his DWA chips to the cashiers window:

Paul Allen, [co-founder of Microsoft] has cashed out of DreamWorks Animation, the latest move in the billionaire's reshuffling of his media assets.

According to a regulatory filing, Allen had no stake in DWA as of Dec. 31, whereas he owned more than 18% of the company a year before ...

As for Allen, he is ending an equity arrangement with DreamWorks that began with its launch in 1994 with $500 million of Allen's money along with $100 million combined from Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.

One reason DWA was carved out of the live-action studio and taken public was in order to allow Allen a more lucrative and efficient way to reap the benefits of his investment.

In this time of turmoil and trouble, it's nice to see somebody actually make a profit on an equity deal.

Of course, Mr. Allen would likely have made more money if he had exited before the big meltdown. Happily, he still has several billion dollars to see him through the current tough times.

It's good to know he has a cushion.

Click here to read entire post

Friday, February 13, 2009

Animate Your Linkomatic

Now with Artsy Add On!

Henry Selick talks of a Nightmare B4 Christmas sequel:

“A few years back, Disney spoke to me and the sad thing was at the time, they said, ‘If we do a sequel, it will have to be CG.’ I was really disappointed. I asked why and they didn’t think stop-motion was a viable way to make movies. I don’t think they would say that now and I don’t think Tim would allow a CG sequel ...

When Disney XD thinks teenage boys, it must be thinking this:

Cartoon Network said Monday it would carry a second season of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" from LucasFilm Animation. The new season will begin in the fall.

The computer-animated series has been a ratings blockbuster for the cable channel ...

Then there is new media, with all that portends for the animation community:

Marvel Entertainment announced this week at the Digital Media Panel at New York Comic Con that it is to begin selling motion comics via Apple's iTunes Store.

Called In-Motion comic books, Marvel is currently working with legendary artist Neal Adams and Continuity Studios to develop the series of graphic novels ...

"It's more than just taking the images and moving them around the screen. There's a new storytelling language that's emerging every time we work on it and we're really excited for where that takes us," [says Comic-book writer Brian Michael Bendis] ...

Warners Animation biggie Bruce Timm sings the praises of Wonder Woman director/designer/board artist Lauren Montgomery:

“Lauren really took the lead on the design of Wonder Woman herself, and I think she came up with a very unique approach. It's not like anything you've seen from the comics, though we did look at a lot of the comics for inspiration. We liked the George Perez version and Adam Hughes' version, and all points in between" ...

Jenny Lerew's Blackwing Diaries features Shane Prigmore's artwok for Coraline (and since this is the little girl's first full week of release, why not link to it?)

And ASIFA Hollywood's Animation Archives shares the contents of its Coraline mystery box. (One of many.) ...

The President of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios won the first Oscar of the season (like you didn't know already):

[Ed} Catmull was the first person to get an Oscar this year, presented at the motion picture academy's recent Scientific and Technical Awards ceremony.

Catmull says technology is central to the movie industry, which was born in a technological revolution.

"And we forget that because it happened a while ago, and so we don't think of it as technology," said Ed Catmull. "But the creation of film and then of color, sound, each one of them opened the doors to new things. And we don't leave them behind. We add them to our tools. But the fact that we bring in something new inspires directors and writers and creators to be able to make new kinds of stories."

Animated features keep on trucking in foreign lands (which is why they keep getting produced):

Disney’s “Bolt” fetched $9.6 million at 3,150 in 31 territories, including a $3.9 million launch in France, for a $111 million foreign cume midway through its international run ... U posted a first-place $1.3 million launch for “Coraline” in Mexico, including a record $400,000 at 60 3-D venues ...

Add On: We offer this artwork from Hampa Studios, because what the Linkomatic needs on a Friday morning is a little extra eye candy.

And so forth and so on. May your weekend be shiny and bright.

Click here to read entire post

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Never Ending Story

In the recent by and by, a production person says to me:

"I get artists stopping me in the hall, pissing and moaning about the workload and unpaid overtime. They don't want to go to the animation guild because they think it's 'useless ...'"

The artists are right, the guild is useless. Because TAG is only as effective as its members allow it to be. And if the members don't want to tell the guild representative to institute a grievance for unpaid overtime, the rep can't stop them.

And I can't blame them for keeping their heads down, for not wanting to rock the canoe when the economy is in a death spiral. For being, you know, cautious.

But I can't make things right without an aggrieved person to shine a light on a contract violation. When I go cubicle to cubicle, asking artists if there are problems, if they have issues, and get smiles and testimony that things are peachy, I have to conclude (legally) that everything is exactly as they say.

Even if I know what they say is bullshit.

So what's the solution? Well, here's my short wish list:

1) Communicate problems. Talk to peers. Talk to the Animation Guild. (The Guild policy is to not file grievances without member consent, so it never hurts to brainstorm ideas to try and solve the dilemna.)

2) Work to build a culture where nobody works overtime without management okay. (Which involves that pesky communication idea again.)

3) Fill out time cards accurately. Eight hours, ten hours, whatever. See what develops.

The idea here is that without pushback from employees ever, working conditions deteriorate. If artists work ten extra hours for free in order to hit the tight schedule, management gets a false impression of the actual amount of labor it takes to do the work. Which causes it to raise the bar some more.

So. What are some legal type solutions?

* File a grievance through the Animation Guild.

* File a complaint with the California Labor Commissioner.

Despite the fear that taking action means losing a job, there's often some tipping point where it becomes the best thing to do. Because at some point artists need to stop cutting their own throats. Otherwise the workplace gets awful bloody.

Click here to read entire post

The IATSE discusses the Basic Agreement

Relevant to Steve's post about the IATSE Basic Agreement, here is a PDF with the IA's FAQ on the subject. (Post comments on the previous thread).

Click here to read entire post

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Mid-Week Studio Walkabout

Now that the rains have temporarily tailed off, I'm out in the studios again.

DreamWorks Animation has finished the refurbishing of the first two floors of the Lakeside Building. Now, instead of plaster dust and the sounds of power tools, there's a new-paint smell, nifty cubicles and dark wood floors, plus story artists and modelers. One of the story artists said to me:

We're working on a new feature with a small crew. Management wants to keep it streamlined, see if having a smaller group works for the picture. So far, we like the way it's going ...

Since the opus I'm talking about hasn't been announced, I give no details about it. (Easy to do, since I don't know anything about the feature. Except the title. And all I'm going to say regarding that is it isn't Willy the Wacky Wombat. I believe John Musker is still developing that one, over at Disney.)

At Cartoon Network in Burbank, most of the execs have departed the original CN building and moved into refurbished offices in the skyscraper on Glenoaks Boulevard.

CN execs don't live here no more. They've moved next door.

Also up in the 'scraper, early development occurs on a new adventure show that will (I'm told) start staffing in the next month or two. And flash animators have moved from the CN building, where they've spent years working on Foster's, to an upper floor of the high rise to work on shorts.

Click here to read entire post

Ratification of the IA-AMPTP Basic Agreement

Remember that big union-management umbrella contract called "The Basic Agreement"? How the IA and the Alliance of Producers thrashed out a new deal for a three-year agreement back in November? When the American economy was going to hell in a rusty hand-cart?

If it's slipped your mind, here's a brief refresher of the results:

Wage increases for the IA Basic Agreement consist of 3% effective 8/2/09; another 3% effective 8/1/10, and another 3% effective 7/31/11 ... The AMPTP believes the cost of its deal with IATSE amounts to an increase of about 3.8% a year for the next three years ...

The reason I bring it up now is the IA had a gathering of union business agents over at its offices this morning, and they got detailed information about the oncoming ratification vote for the new contract. Ballots designating a Yes or No vote will be mailed to IA members the end of this month.

Fine and dandy, but since the Animation Guild isn't in the Basic Agreement group of unions anymore, what does this mean to TAG members? ...

Quite a lot, actually. While the TAG contract is not bound to the Basic Agreement the way it was twenty-plus years ago, the Animation Guild's agreements are still yoked pretty tightly to the Basic's deal points.

Like, the pension and health package found in the bigger contract is our pension and health package. And the Basic's wage increases are (in my experience) TAG's wage increases. The two agreements are negotiated separately, but there is little daylight between the two deals.

Because of that, a lot of Animation Guild artists have a keen interest about how the latest Basic Agreement deal got to where it is. Like for instance, why didn't our bargaining reps go for more, go for better, go for different?

It's the three talking points union members ask their union leaders. The subtext is: "Are you f*cking kidding me? This is the best you can do?"

A lot of the questions here and elsewhere centered on how the new agreement calls for a higher number of contribution hours to qualify for health coverage, rising from 300 hours now to 400 hours in August, 2011 (the final year of the next contract):

Q: If the number of qualifying hours go up, why didn't participants' bank of hours (the account of extra hours worked) get raised to more than the 450 hour cap?

A: Increasing the Bank of Hours would increase the cost to the Motion Picture Industry Health Plan.

And remember, in 2000 the Bank of Hours was increased from a cap of 300 hours to 450 hours, without any changes to the Plan's eligibility. For over 90% of Health Plan participants, that 450 hours will still be enough to bridge shortfalls in contribution hours that happen after 2011 ...

There's a little bile out in union land regarding some of the changes in the Basic Agreement. Many of the 15 IA locals in the Bargaining Unit have had internal discussions about upcoming changes, some fairly hot. (For example, here's a Q&A from the Cinematographers' Guild.)

My take on all this (and yeah, I'm a labor thug, so I'm prejudiced) is that the IA did a more than credible job negotiating the new contract, 3.8% gains compounded annually, right in line with the other unions and guilds. (Unlike commenters at Deadline Hollywood, I've actually sat in the negotiations and read the damn deal points. The IA locked down a serious New Media deal, complaints to the contrary.)

But face it. When you're sitting at a negotiating table in the middle of an economic meltdown -- and that's what was happening back in November -- you're not going to make gigantic, heroic strides toward the bright and shiny future that is everyone's dream. You're going to be lucky to hold onto your posterior.

Well, we held onto our posteriors. But it wasn't a joyous occasion while we did it.

My sense of all this, based on my lengthy battle-scarred history, is that the Basic Agreement will pass with 75-85% approval, and that TAG will negotiate its contracts in the next few months and achieve similar results.

But I left my seeing crystal at the vacation home in the Hamptons. So we'll just have to wait for the final scorecard.

In the next few days, assuming I can puzzle out how to put up a balky pdf file, I'll be posting a question-and-answer fact sheet about the new contract.

Click here to read entire post

Imagi Update II

I have now -- finally -- talked to a couple of Imagi officials, and they tell me the following:

* Funds for the studio to restart and restaff are expected in momentarily. (Yes, I know. We've heard this before.)

* Back pay owed to employees will be paid.

* Pay in lieu of notice of layoff will be paid. (This means that folk who were phoned on the weekend of January 24-25 will be paid for the following week, since the collective bargaining agreement requires it.)

* Personal Service Contracts will be honored.

All this is fine news, but of course it may not happen if money doesn't begin flowing ... and soon. In the meantime, TAG has mailed and faxed grievance letters to the company.

Per the officials, the top priority for the officials is to get Astro Boy back on track, as that's their priority. I was told that snark from various furloughed employees is beginning to bubble up on Facebook and other places on the internets, and the honchos (who said they weren't getting paid either) don't consider it helpful to getting pictures back into production.

They would like to get all Imagi's projects back in work, but Astro Boy is the priority.

More info as we get it.

Click here to read entire post

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

In Defense of Jeffrey

The L.A. Times does kind of a tap dance on Jeffrey Katzenberg's head:.

When it comes to promoting his company, his causes or himself, Jeffrey Katzenberg has no peer. Surely Hollywood's greatest salesman, the man could sell ice to the Eskimos and oil to T. Boone Pickens. But it's been a rocky month for the DreamWorks Animation chief, who has been taking it on the chin at almost every turn ...

What really strikes me as strange is that Katzenberg is unable to resist the urge to engage in hyperbole, even when it seems to undercut a quieter, more logical argument. Bragging to the New York Times about DreamWorks' recent box-office successes, he boasted: "This company is a flower that is just begining to blossom," prompting the reporter to add, "Cut to Hollywood rolling its eyes."

Probably the L.A. Times staff is new to the ways of Hollywood, what with recent Times' turnover and all. But here's the skinny. Hyperbole and exaggerated claims have been the coin of the realm inside the movie industry for like the better part of a century.

"Never in the History of Film!" ... "A cast of THOUSANDS!" ... "Seven Years in the Making!" ... "We were thrilled when Joe Slavich came aboard!" "The Greatest love story of all time ..."

And the negative? That is also over the top, as studio head Darryl Zanuck's long-ago memo makes clear:

I have just finished reading Irving Bucher's screenplay for The Prize Fighter and the Lady. It made me vomit.

I've been in a few meetings with Jeffrey over the years, and he's cut from the mogul's cloth. Something is either great or it stinks. The storyboard is fantastic, or the sequence needs work, the film isn't coming together.

I've never witnessed subdued or pastel reactions from Mr. Katzenberg, and I've never heard a Disney or DreamWorks employee give testimony to any. Jeffrey is a guy who burns bright with enthusiasm for projects, or is dark with indifference.

Is he always right? Hell no. But there is never any doubt where he stands. He likes something, really likes something, or he doesn't.

Which is probably a good way to go when you're running a cartoon studio (or any other kind of creative enterprise). Because I've seen studio execs who shrug and smile weakly when shown outline boards or third acts on which a crew has worked its collective ass off for months, who say "Yeah, well, it's okay ... I guess." Who are, in a word, lukewarm.

Those execs usually don't end up running a studio, because wading around in the gray, muddled middle inspires neither confidence nor employees who are beig paid good salaries to create magic. And it certainly doesn't motivate chairmen of various corporate boards into promoting these gray-flannel excecs to positions of full-bore leadership.

Jeffrey Katzenberg (did I mention?) is anything but gray in his opinions. I've certainly met any number of people who don't agree with them. I haven't agreed with all of them myself. (What did they used to say about uber-chairman Jack Welsh of General Electric? Often wrong but never in doubt.) Jeffrey is a studio head who is very seldom in doubt.

In the movie business, energy, enthusiasm and decisiveness are pretty much prerequisites for ruling a Hollywood roost. You don't have them, it's unlikely you're going to be anything other than Middle Management, second-guessing yourself every other week while nervously looking over both shoulders.

Whether you like DreamWorks' animated output or hate it, there's no denying the company's success. And it's hard to deny that Jeffrey Katzenberg's personality -- including the energy, brash enthusiasm, and forceful superlatives -- has played a big part in that success.

If the essence of who Jeffrey is was different, I seriously wonder if DreamWorks' success would be close to what it is. I wonder if DreamWorks Animation would today even exist at all.

Click here to read entire post

Imagi Update

Imagi the California Studio is still hanging fire. By that I mean, nobody's working at the Sherman Oaks facility, the studio is pretty much non-communicative about when and if people will be returning to work, and employees I've talked to have no serious clue about what's going on.

Meanwhile, at Comic-Con in New York City, the fragment of Astro Boy that was screened for an eager public met with positive response ...

... [T]he animation is absolutely flawless (despite the insistence of the moderator that the clip was still “rough”) but to Astro Boy fans out there who were skeptical of this type of treatment, rest assured that you will not be disappointed with Imagi’s vision of the character. Personally, I’m counting down the days until the film’s debut in October ...!

But there might be more days to count than Comic-Con spectators bargained for, since nobody seems to know if the movie has enough funding to get itself completed. Some (now former) Imagi employees represent that "Animation on the picture is about half done," and "The crew in Hong Kong is working without pay ..."

Speaking personally, I'm really hoping that this "working without pay" thing doesn't catch on. Also, that it isn't true.

In the meantime, TAG has over the past three days called: 1) the company lawyer, 2) the company CEO, and 3) the company's Sherman Oaks, California switchboard, all without result. On the other hand, we've bumped up against some fine voice messages.

We're now in the process of drafting grievances against Imagi for employees' unpaid salaries and vacation money, which amount to some heavy coin. With luck, there will be heavy coin to actually retrieve.

More details as they develop.

Click here to read entire post

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Oscar Derby

The Hollywood Reporter handicaps the Academy Awards as regards 'Toons:

And then there were three -- though there could have been five. Just three animated feature films have made the Oscar nomination grade, though 17 of them were released in 2008, enough to reach the threshold required for five nominations. But, for various reasons, only a relative handful of features were submitted for consideration.

... But perhaps the most interesting nomination this year for an animated feature was Israel's "Waltz With Bashir," which earned an Oscar nom in the best foreign-language film category. That's eloquent proof of what animators have been saying for years: Animated films are films first.

Gee, you think? Actual films?

The problem for animated features is that they don't have the political clout that live-action films possess, and never will.

On-camera actors will always trump thespians in front of a microphone, and they'll vote for awards accordingly.

Live-action directors will forever outrank their animated counterparts.

Directors of photography will pull more weight than than layout artists or animation art directors.

I'm not saying it's right, or just, or the American way. But it's the way it is, and short of industry-wide religious conversions (highly doubtful), it's how it will continue to be.

Click here to read entire post

Wage Surveys!

Fourteen years ago, a background artist at Warner Bros. Feature Animation in Glendale (now, sadly, kaput) said to me:

"Why don't you like, do a wage survey of all the employees working in the union? Give us a chance to know what the going rates for different jobs are? I mean, the studios know, but we don't. And it would be way helpful ..."

My thought bubble when he said the above? "Why the hell didn't I think of that?"

And from that day to this, we have collected and published animation industry wage surveys (the most recent one here), so that the playing field is a little more level when employees negotiate pay with studios around town.

This is important because studios are well aware of pay rates, and studios really, really don't want employees to have the same information, to the point of threatening those employees who are uppity enough to actually share wage info with their peers. (Retaliating against workers for sharing happens to be illegal, but in my experience, large companies are often not always concerned about trifling things like laws protecting their employees.)

Within the next week, we'll be shipping out 2009 surveys to TAG members. It's incredibly important to fill these surveys out and get them back to us. Our crack staff will compile and collate the data, and publish it as widely as possible (in other words, put it on the internets.)

Expect me to flog this subject a bit over the coming weeks. The more response we get, the more accurate the information will be and the more useful it will be for you.

Click here to read entire post

Another Afternoon of Remembrance

Afternoon of Remembrance

Over a hundred people showed up for our annual Afternoon of Remembrance at the Lasky-DeMille Barn on Saturday.

Tom Sito

Tom Sito (left), our President Emeritus, hosted the festivities, as he has for the last fourteen years.

Memorial committee member Martha Sigall (right) honored the late Gus Arriola (below), who worked as a story sketch artist for Mintz and MGM but is best remembered for the Gordo comic strip.

The latest Afternoon of Remembrance had a large turnout ... but then we were eulogizing fifty-four individuals from all parts of the cartoon industry ... and the rain was kind enough to stop during the time we honored them.

(I've been attending these Remembrances since the beginning, and what always impresses me is the humanity that shines through as friends get up to tell stories about those who've departed. Added to which, a lot of great industry history gets shared ... -- Steve Hulett)

Gus Arriola
Click here to read entire post

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Disney XD

Say goodbye to Toon Disney, invented long ago to compete with Cartoon Network and Nick. Poor old TD was shut away in a closet filled with mothballs on Friday, and Disney XD rolled out to replace it.

You can also say goodbye to all those musty, old cartoons.

...Unlike Toon Disney, which was driven by its cartoon genre, Disney XD will be driven more by themes to create a brand. "This notion of the boy who is evolving, who is achieving, who is leveling up to the next stage, this is a dynamic that boys really fundamentally understand. It's how they live their lives. It's how they approach their future."

Disney XD's first original series, "Aaron Stone" (7 p.m. Friday), follows the adventures of teen-ager Charlie Landers (Kelly Blatz), who has mastered the online game "Hero Rising." Charlie is enlisted by the game's creator to become a real-life crime fighter. He's assisted in his tasks by the android S.T.A.N. (J.P. Manoux), whose name stands for Sentient Tactical Assisting Neo-Human. Other characters include Charlie's brother, Jason (David Lambert), and his friend, Emma (Tania Gunadi).

"The notion that you could target boys particularly and give them a destination for themselves is something that seemed absolutely like virgin real estate in the cable community," [Disney Channels Worldwide entertainment president Gary] Marsh said at a Disney XD press conference last month.

Well, I'm a long way from being a teenaged boy, but I'm raising one at home, and trust me. This isn't "virgin real estate" that Disney XD is plowing. There's Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim", and big chunks of Nick's lineup, also the Fox Sunday night animated block that's already locked in the eyeballs of lots of teenaged males.

Disney seems to think that live-action shows about boy gamers and the robots who love them are going to turn the trick. But I'm here to tell the boys and girls at the Mouse House, teenagers of the male persuasion are much more interested in animated fat guys who do lots of fart, sex and vomit jokes. And Seth McFarlane has a hammer-lock on those things, not Disney XD.

But good luck to them. And we'll see how the kid live-action shows pan out.

Click here to read entire post
Site Meter