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?


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