Sunday, February 13, 2011


A week ago at one of our fine signator studios, an artist came up to me and asked, "You think there's too much animation out there? You know, like too many animated features that are over-saturating the market? You think people are tired of cartoons?"

I replied, with a jauntiness I did not feel, "Of course not! You ever hear a main-stream movie maker say that the big problem with his live-action masterpiece is there's too many live-action movies, and people are overdosed on the things? That that's the reason his feature isn't doing well? No live-action guy ever says that. Because he knows he'd be labeled an idiot." ...

I'll let you in on a secret. At that moment, I didn't completely buy what was coming out of my mouth, but now I do. This weekend blew away the last shreds of doubt ...

Gnomeo and Juliet scor[ed] the best February opening for an animated pic (not a primetime month for toons). Rivals credit a strong marketing campaign for the film's success, as well as great reviews. ...

Actually it's something other than "great reviews." It's a viewing public that has a growing thirst for animation and product that connects with the people sitting out in the darkened auditoriums of their local AMCs. Two decades back, there was only one major player in the feature animation, and that was Disney. (Don Bluth, a serious rival to the Mouse in the 1980s. was fading by the early nineties.)

But what a difference twenty years makes. In 2011, the playing field has vastly expanded. There is now Pixar, there is Blue Sky Animation, there is DreamWorks Animation and Walt Disney Animation Studios. And since last summer, there is Illumination Entertainment. Even the under-powered Sony Pictures Animation has had minor hits with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Open Season, and SPA is now partnered with Aardman Animation for the upcoming Arthur Christmas.

None of this could have come about if people weren't flocking to animated features. In the past eleven months alone, the following non-live-action movies have opened with $25 million or more on their opening weekends:

How to Train Your Dragon

Shrek Forever After

Toy Story 3

Despicable Me



Gnomeo and Juliet

Then of course there are the "hybrid" animated features. You know, the live-action/ animation combos that usually get tepid reviews and loud raspberries at cartoon blog sites? Specimens like Yogi Bear, Alvin and the Chipmunks and the oncoming Hop? Nobody likes these but general audiences. Consider that the much-panned Yogi Bear, after a so-so opening weekend, went on to gross five times what it collected during its initial three days. Whether you like the picture or not, this means that even with an initial "want-to-see" factor that was lukewarm at best, the picture's resulting word-of-mouth was remarkably hot.

Little wonder then that your friendly neighborhood entertainment conglomerates and visual effects studios now scramble all over themselves to get into the feature animation business. The trouble is, as sure-fire as the genre appears, it usually takes a sure and knowing touch to execute it well ... and profitably. (The landscape is littered with Planet 51s, Alpha and Omegas, Astroboys, and Space Chimps.). Too many would-be producers think that a script from a mid-list screenwriter, some presentation boards from freelance story artists, and six months of production work from a contract studio in Mumbai will bring them a quick distribution deal and hefty profits.

Sadly, more often than not it takes more than that. It takes creators who know that animated features are visual rather than aural, and that audiences won't sit still for plots that are hackneyed reworkings of 80s television cartoons, populated by characters that have the dynamism and resonance of Clutch Cargo. As Woolie Reitherman said in a Disney sweat box long ago: "Those animals moving around on the screen aren't real, they aren't actors, so we've got to make the audience think they're real by showing them think and react and breathe."

Animation, because it's currently so profitable, is a seductive corner of the movie business. But it takes skill and more than a little knowledge to make it work well, and there are only so many Ed Gomberts, Mark Kennedys, Eric Goldbergs and Dean DeBloises* to go around. If aspiring cartoon moguls don't understand that, they will end up complaining the animation market is "over-saturated" after their $80 million feature about wacky wombats crashes and burns.

In point of fact, it will be a case of their "sure-fire" project not connecting with movie audiences because they don't understand the dynamics and disciplines of the art form.

* These folks are some of the (relatively) unheralded masters of animation. There are a number of others.


Anonymous said...

One very big reason for recent animated box office that you forgot to mention: 3D.

Gnomeo took in 58% of its business through 3D engagements, which added ~$5 million to what it would've made if it was only shown flat. Spread that out over the course of the film's run, it could accumulate to a full 20% of the gross.

Take a look at those recent animated hits listed above--all of which were released in 3D--and subtract 20% from their grosses. Changes the picture somewhat, doesn't it?

3D is a VERY good thing for the animation industry.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned the Disney advertising campaign, and how it helped Gnomeo. That campaign was the exact opposite of how Summit handled Astro Boy, and THAT'S why it failed. 3D would have helped that film too - in fact, it would have been an excellent choice for 3D, with all of the flying and fighting scenes.

Lest the Astro Boy haters jump in here again, get this: I have an Apple TV that streams movies and TV shows from Netflix. The Astro Boy movie gets 5 stars out of 5 from Netflix users, and that's one more star than even The Wizard of Oz gets. 'Nuff said.

As for Gnomoe, yeah, it did a lot better than many people expected. But is it such a great opening? Bolt got 27 million its first weekend, and it was considered a disappointment. What was Gnomeo's budget, does anyone know? (I'm not dissing Gnomeo, BTW - haven't seen it yet).

Anonymous said...

The 3D angle is only partly true regarding ticket sales. A lot of people go to the 3D screenings because that is the only option available. The 3D screenings cost more, artificially driving up the gross. If they had the choice, many would go for the cheaper 2D version.

I like 3D, but I know a lot of people who either are indifferent or outright hate it!

Anonymous said...

On normal Netflix, Astroboy only has three and a half stars.

The hipster community with an affection for 80s anime probably likes it a lot.

But most people just didn't like it that much.

Anonymous said...

gnomeo will fade fast... there is an onslaught of larger pictures and sequels. Rango, Hoodwinked 2 and Rio just a few that open week after week almost. And dont count Hoodwink 2 out if the writing is as good as the first and better than the trailer it could make as much or more than the original.

Anonymous said...

The Astro Boy movie gets 5 stars out of 5 from Netflix users, and that's one more star than even The Wizard of Oz gets. 'Nuff said.

Nice anecdotal evidence.

Im sticking with Rotten Tomatoes which gave it 49% critics and 53% viewers, and imdb which users gave it a 6.4

And my own personal opinion, which was, it was meh. Stop comparing it to Wizard of Oz caliber films. You just make yourself look stupid.

But Im sure you're proud of it, seeing how you worked on it, so I understand. Just stop embarrassing yourself and move on. It came out 2 years ago for crissakes.

Steve Hulett said...

I'm not here to argue Astroboy's artistic merits or demerits. I only cited it because it failed commercially.

On that point, there won't be a lot of debate, I don't think. It's failure took down Imagi. You can't fail much bigger than that.

Anonymous said...

Very few realize 'Gnomeo' started at Disney Feature about a decade ago. The first look dev boards where up on the hallways for a while. Then Lasseter decided to can it...

Anonymous said...

One very big reason for recent animated box office that you forgot to mention: 3D.

An even bigger reason not taken into account--It's February, and no other "real" mainstream movies were opening that month.

(Not saying that audiences rushed out to the theaters just for that, but when they did have the urge to see a movie, and it's been a long dry January, even Justin Bieber can look like a "real" movie.
Animateds are safer mall-audience common-denominator movies during the droughts, though, which's why we get the March Easter rush...This one just jumped the gun to avoid competition and grab the empty theater space. And given its history, we can't blame Disney much for that.)

Anonymous said...

Astro Boy just wasn't very good. I wanted to like it, hoped I'd like it, rooted for it even as I watched it, but when the credits rolled, I was disappointed. Apparently I'm not the only one.

Anonymous said...

*Im sticking with Rotten Tomatoes which gave it 49% critics and 53% viewers, and imdb which users gave it a 6.4*

And Yahoo users gave it a B+. As for Rotten Tomatoes, it gave a rotten rating to Gnomeo & Juliet as well. Yet that movie did much better at the box office, at least on opening weekend.

Don't tell me lousy promotion can't kill a film. Summit does it to its movies a LOT. (Astro Boy, Hurt Locker/best picture Oscar/flop at the box office). The only movies Summit can't kill are the unkillables, like Twilight.

Anonymous said...

The Astro DVD gets a 4 out of 5 star rating from customers at, which is why I bought it. Watched it, liked it. *shrug* As for G & J, good marketing AND timing by Disney helped it a lot. Less helpful, perhaps, were the interviews Elton John gave on morning shows. He's terribly full of himself, isn't he?

Anonymous said...

So what was Gnomeo and Juliet's budget?

Anonymous said...

Yahoo based their score from 1429 users. IMDB from 6,565. Amazon was 54 reviewers. Not trying to be combative, just looking at the numbers.

And I agree that lousy promotion kills a film, even good films. But Astro Boy was neither good, nor did it have good promotion.

Gnomeo had a good weekend despite being just okay.

Anonymous said...

As for G & J, good marketing AND timing by Disney helped it a lot.

It looks like good timing when it works. If it failed, then the conventional wisdom would be that Feb. is a terrible month to release an animated film, that all the kids are in school, that families are still worn out from the recent holidays, that Feb. is a traditionally down time for movies, etc., etc.

As for marketing, my observation is people tend to credit marketing too much when a movie succeeds, and blame it too much when a movie fails. It's hard to argue either way, since the logic becomes circular.

Ultimately, after the fact it's easy to speak with glib confidence. A week ago I don't know anyone who thought the marketing for Gnomio was so hot, and I don't know anyone who thought releasing the film in early Feb. was a stroke of genius.

Anonymous said...

Very few realize 'Gnomeo' started at Disney Feature about a decade ago.

And what got released in theaters doesn't have too much to do with that version, as detailed below in another thread.

Anonymous said...

"animated features are visual rather than aural"

ALL films are visual. AND aural. Even animation.

And astroboy is a horrible kiddie cartoon.

Steve Hulett said...

ALL films are visual. AND aural. Even animation.

A long time ago, I was shown a cutting continuity for Snow White. Minimal dialogue.

But then, the guys making it had all grown up with silent films. So minimal dialogue wouldn't be surprising.

Anonymous said...

And Iron Giant, which also flopped, was a horrible kiddie cartoon.

(Watch the Astro haters get all foamy)

Anonymous said...

The Iron Giant gets 5 stars on Apple TV Netflix too. Also beating the Wizard of Oz. Wow, Apple TV users ARE morons.

Anonymous said...

"A long time ago, I was shown a cutting continuity for Snow White. Minimal dialogue.

It was a cost saving (and money making" decision--less dialogue meant less dialogue to translate--and broader understanding in foriegn markets.

There are just as many (percentage wise) blabby cartoons (CareBears, astroboy, Megamind) as there are live action films.

But ALL films are, by definition--visual. And aural.

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