Saturday, April 30, 2011

Merger Time ... Again

It must be the season.

SAG National Board Unanimously Moves Towards Merger with AFTRA

The Board establishes a Merger Taskforce to work with AFTRA on developing a formal plan for merger.

After at least two failed attempts, decades of discussion, recent year marked by acrimony and then reconciliation, the game is once again afoot ... SAG and AFTRA are moving decisively closer to merger. The move today was SAG’s, whose national board has now unanimously established a merger taskforce to work with AFTRA to develop “a formal plan to unite SAG and AFTRA members in one union” ...

This river dance we've seen before. A dozen or so years ago, SAG was this close to getting through its wedding vows with AFTRA, then many of the old guard said: "Eeew. We're not getting into bed with those icky radio and television people, we're act-ORS."

And the final vote tally for joining together was negative, and the nuptials never happened.

Then, of course, the more moderate AFTRA commenced gobbling up SAG's work, and after awhile there was anger mixed with remorse on the part of the Screen Actors Guild. (I think some of the more mule-headed players on SAG's executive board started waking up to the fact that actors ... like most other entertainment employees ... follow the work, not the union. And the labor organization repping act-ORS wasn't quite as wonderful and inviolate as they had earlier imagined. Sometimes it's a hard lesson to learn.)

My hunch is, now that the dinosaurs blocking earlier mergers are out of the picture, and it's obvious that there is more strength in being one union, that the marriage so long delayed will finally happen.

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The Final April Weekend Derby

Now with hot, buttered Add On.

As we stagger into the summer season, cluttered with all the summer-time tent poles, we have the last b.o. of spring. And Universal has an actual live-action hit!

1. Fast Five (Universal) NEW [3,643 Theaters] Friday $33.2M, Estimated Weekend $80M

2. Rio (Blue Sky/Fox) Week 3 [3,842 Theaters] Friday $3.2M, Estimated Weekend $12.5M, Estimated Cume $101.8M

3. Madea's Big Happy Family (Tyler Perry/Lionsgate) Week 2 [2,288 Theaters] Friday $3.1M (-70%), Estimated Weekend $10.5M, Estimated Cume $41.5M

4. Water For Elephants (Fox 2000/Fox) Week 2 [2,817 Theaters] Friday $2.7M (-61%), Estimated Weekend $9.1M, Estimated Cume $32M

5. Prom (Disney) NEW [2,730 Theaters] Friday $2M, Estimated Weekend $5.5M ...

Rio gets pushed down to #2 by the car movie, but you do you stop the power of Vin Diesel? Meanwhile the parrot movie has an accumulation of $320 million, which is climbing nicely.

Add On: The Reporter reports:

... The Fast Five glow didn’t extend to the weekend’s other new films, Disney’s tween-driven Prom and the Weinstein Co.’s Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil. ...

Hoodwinked Too! grossed an estimated $4.1 million from 2,505 theaters, although the companies had hoped for a $6 million to $9 million debut. The first Hoodwinked opened to $12.4 million. ... Hoodwinked Too! received a B+ CinemaScore. ...

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Friday, April 29, 2011

Bad Timing

Now and again, things just don't work out.

The much-hyped Animation Domination crossover event that was to see a hurricane sweep through Fox's Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show on Sunday has been pulled from the schedule ...

Useful idea, slotting the shows for later. People probably won't be in the mood for hurricane comedy after the disasters in Alabama and elsewhere.

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The End-of-April Linkorama

As April spins to an end, here are a few stories of animation.

SPA acquires a karmic tale:

Sony Pictures Animation has picked up the rights to Instant Karma, a comedy fantasy from Paul Hernandez, who wrote the script and is attached to direct what would be a live-action/CGI hybrid.

SPA is picking up the project out of turnaround from New Line ... [the story of] a misguided safecracker from New Orleans [who] finds himself reincarnated as a fly, where it has been set up since 2003. ...

No synergy here, folks. Move it along, nothing to see.

Disney’s $4-billion purchase of Marvel in 2009 almost immediately sparked speculation that Pixar Animation might develop lesser-known comic properties like Ant-Man, Power Pack and even Doctor Strange.

When the deal was announced, Disney CEO Robert Iger conceded that possibility had been discussed. “Pixar boss John Lasseter talked to the Marvel guys about this and they all got excited about it,” he said in a conference call. “We think there’s ultimately some exciting product that come of that. Sparks will fly!”

But fast-forward two and a half years, and it appears any thought of an on-screen collaboration between Pixar and Marvel has been rejected. ...

(Of course, there's always the other division in Burbank? The one across Riverside Drive? Maybe somebody there could develop something? A story person? Some director? Somebody?)

DreamWorks Animation continues to branch out:

... DreamWorks Animation on Wednesday said it was partnering with Gaylord Entertainment to create themed programming and activities for patrons staying at Gaylord’s four U.S. hotels. The “DreamWorks Experience,” as the venture is being called, will integrate popular DreamWorks franchises ...

Viz Effx Soldier discusses the highs and lows of visual effects houses here and abroad:

... Warner Bros. [paid] 20% over budget for vfx done in Los Angeles. When they brought on Pixomondo to do the extra work where did that go? There was quite a bit of hiring at Pixomondo here in Los Angeles.

It’s true some vfx work has gone to India and China but I think the only company that really has utilized India is Rhythm & Hues. Imageworks has opened a division there a few years ago yet a huge bulk of their work gets done in Los Angeles. ...

(The word is out and about that Imageworks could be shuttering its facility in Albuquerque. We've no idea if this is true, we just traffic in rumors.)

Here's a fine summary of the performance of television cartoons:

...US kids are still hitting the boob tube in growing numbers. Read on for the most recent ratings from The Hub, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney. ...

The little elephant that could really fly goes high-def this Fall.

... "Dumbo: 70th Anniversary Edition" will be available for purchase as a 2-Disc Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack (with the suggested retail price of $39.99 U.S./$44.99 Canada), a 1-Disc DVD (with the suggested retail price of $29.99 U.S./$35.99 Canada) ...

(It's a lousy press release, but still worth knowing, yes?)

Lastly. To remind us that we live in a global cartoon world ...

The Amazing World of Gumball, the first U.K.-produced full-length animated series to come from Cartoon Network's development studio in Europe, is set to make its U.S. debut on May 9, joining the Monday night animated comedy lineup. The series combines 2D and 3D animation in a live-action setting. ...

Have yourselves a glorious weekend.

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Marriage Dance Continues

Mr. Katzenberg notes that Rango didn't really burn up the turnstile all that much, and Viacom/Paramount rejoins:

Viacom's Paramount Pictures "would be pleased" to extend a film distribution deal with DreamWorks Animation, which expires next year, but both sides could live without it, Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman said Thursday. ...

Viacom and DreamWorks Animation have a lot of joint projects happening. There's Penguins of Madagascar, there's the coming Kung Fu Panda (t.v. version) which will roll out after the movie. But yeah, I suppose it's true that the two companies don't need each other for survival purposes; nevertheless it's certainly been a profitable partnership for both until now, and Viacom might be anxious to stay partnered if Kung Fu Panda II goes through the roof as predicted.

Paramount has the longest history of any of the majors being partnered with an outside cartoon studio. In the thirties and forties it was the Fleischer brothers. Now it's DreamWorks Animation. In the future it might be Industrial Light and Magic. Push away all the love and hugs at press events, and all these things are business arrangements, marriages of convenience. As soon as it stops working for either party, the relationship ends.

Because it ain't a marriage in a church. It's business.

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Retiring on Your Nest Egg

I get a number of fifty and sixty-something animation veterans through my office who wonder aloud if they're going to be able to retire with enough cash flow to avoid living in a trailer in Barstow. This article by financial advisor Rick Ferri might offer a bit of comfort.

A well-diversified, passively managed portfolio of low-cost index funds has fared well for retirees over the years despite volatile market conditions. Modest annual withdrawals from conservatively managed portfolios should not have caused retirees any concern about running out of money. For most portfolios used in this analysis, accounts ended with higher values than their starting point in 1999 even with withdrawals and difficult markets. ...

A moderately-aggressive retiree who maintained a 50 percent stock and 50 percent bond portfolio and took out $3,333 per month ($40,000 annually) [from a $1,000,000 portfolio] over the past 12 years ended with a March 31, 2011 balance of $1,114,947. The monthly low point occurred in February 2009 at $783,174 and the monthly high point occurred on October 31, 2007 at $1,169,803. ...

The question many will have is, Who the hell is going to be able to scrape together a million freaking dollars? but it can be done, especially if you start early and tuck money into stocks and bonds year by year. I know a bunch of TAG members who, between the Individual Account Plan, the TAG 401(k) Plan and personal investments, have managed to squirrel away several hundred thousand dollars. A few put the bonuses they received during the nineties into investments (resisting the temptation to leap into bigger houses and high-end cars) and are now happily retired, though they are still in their fifties.

This is a topsy-turvy business, and lucrative employment is often followed by stretches of unemployment, so it's not always easy to save for your sunset years. But if you don't have a roadmap to retirement and the discipline to follow it, you'll be kicking yourself later.

Attached to the top-most link, you will find a spreadsheet listing different withdrawal rates for different asset allocations for a million bucks. Take a look at it. You'll find that it's eye opening.

Add On: Here's a boglehead discussion thread for the article above.

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VFX Organization "State of the Union"

As we've mentioned before, TAG is actively assisting IATSE VFX Organizer Jim Goodman in his pursuit of facilitating the organization of visual effects in the Los Angeles area. Jim has included us in an email message he sent out to all parties that have contacted him.

With his permission, I'm posting that message here for all to read.

In light of all of the recent discussion about unionization of the visual effects industry, here's is a "state of the union" status report straight from the horse's mouth:

Since last november, I have attempted to meet with every interested vfx artist possible. I've met with several hundred so far, and I only wish more would come forward to ask questions and hear directly what we have to offer. I can be reached at Those in-person meetings have allowed me to get valuable input from a wide variety of artists; visual effects supervisors, producers, roto artists, colorists, compositors, and 3D artists. Some of these individuals work for Major and Independent Studios, others at shops bidding and performing subcontractor-type work for movies and television shows and commercials and an occasional video-game.

Initially, I heard artists express interest in participating in the "Industry Health Plan". Some wanted legal representation so that they would not be subjected to "independent contractor status" and the dreaded 1099 (and resulting shift of tax burdens from the employer to the employee.) (We can help with that, by the way.) We heard horror stories of bounced paychecks. (We can help with that, too.) While most employers honor a "going rate" for certain categories of work, oftentimes employees are pressured to accept much less. We learned the industry is often engaged in a "race to the bottom" where one company attempts to underbid its competittors by squeezing lower pay, longer hours and unpaid overtime out of workers, with the threat of foreign competition and outsourcing. We met people who were promised medical insurance, only to be told those benefits are only extended to "permanent" employees, not "project" workers.

We know that long hours and six-day weeks are the norm in this industry, especially as the race to meet a theatrical release date approaches. But the one message that we heard repeated from every direction was the concern that a union contract might be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Add just one penny to the employer's costs, and the whole project would crumble. Work would be shipped to faraway places and ALL Los Angeles based employment would disappear. FOREVER.

Frankly, we've heard similar doom and gloom projections from industry-employers for years. How has the IATSE responded? We created a low-budget film agreement that allows independent filmmakers to get extremely competitive rates and conditions; to keep that work here in town. We negotiated rates and conditions for television pilots and movies-for-television that recognize the unique economics that apply. We've recently come up with accommodations for projects made for the internet, the "new-media-sideletter". A commercials agreement. An agreement specifically tailored for HBO and Showtime. Just to name a few examples.

We've recently and repeatedly been asked if an IATSE visual effects agreement might actually save an employer some money? You know, it just might!! We'll sit down with our new members and meet with Major Studios, Large studio-owned effects houses and post-production facilities, and independents. We'll analyze what those companies are currently spending for medical insurance and other benefits. And then we'll come up with a benefits package that won't put them out of business, but that protects our new members when they and their families need to visit a doctor.

When we begin negotiations with these employers, we will also conduct an exhaustive survey of prevailing wages. We're not being nosy, we just need to know what the going rate is so we can protect against that "race-to-the-bottom" mentality. That won't end the practice of paying "overscale" for many jobs. Heaven knows that tradition is firmly ensconced in our industry. We have no intention of discouraging that from happening.

So, we're hoping the community will meet us halfway. Give us a call. Send us an email. Then sign an authorization card. Come to a meeting. Let your coworkers know that if we stick together we can achieve some modest objectives like overtime, insurance, and a pension, without one more job being lost to outsourcing.

Thanks for listening.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

That Leverage Thing

On the labor front, the L.A. Times gives us this:

... Members of the Writers Guild of America voted by a 91% margin to approve a recently negotiated contract that provides increases in contributions to the guild's pension plan, higher residual payments in pay TV and a bump in minimum pay levels ...

But the ever militant Nikkster has a different tale to tell:

DEADLINE: What was your biggest obstacle to getting a better deal than this one?

WGA NEGOTIATIONS INSIDERS: We had no credible strike threat, not even vaguely; and we had no effective alliance with either SAG/AFTRA or the DGA. Hence: no leverage. Regardless of contract expiration dates, the AMPTP negotiates first where it can get the best deal, then tries to impose the pattern on everyone else.

It's a hell of a lot simpler than that: Back in 1960-61, when the unions and guilds battled for residuals and won, the studios weren't fragments of monster conglomerates but whole companies unto themselves. And labor and management had a kind of rough parity. (You might have noticed that, half a century on, organized labor is relatively weak and that the few unions who have any strength -- teachers, police, firefighters -- are under heavy attack. I find it kind of a wonder that unions in the entertainment industry have as much muscle and resiliency as they do.) Back in that progressive time, labor had the ability to secure residuals for its members across the board, also good health benefits and decent pensions.

Today, even in unionized Hollywood, unions and guilds are on the defensive. The militancy of three years ago is gone. When I go out to studios, nobody is pumping their fists and militating for higher this or that. People are hunkered down and clinging by their fingernails.

(I'll share one example I encountered just recently. I was in a studio where staff that is slammed with tight deadlines month after month, had nothing but smiles this time around ... until I came to an artist who has unloaded to me continually. He asked if anyone was bellyaching, and I said no. He said:

"Well they're still stressed out. But nobody's going to file a grievance or take on the show supervisor. They don't want to stick their necks out."

And so it is on a more global basis with SAG/AFTRA, with the DGA, and now the WGA. The conglomerates are raking in sizable profits, but there is no trickle down. The majors use the economic uncertainty to advance their agendas while retarding those of employees. And the employees, knowing who's got the upper hand, keep their heads down and strive to survive.

We live in a corporatist age. Most everybody knows that, like the situation or not, they have to deal with the iron reality of it.

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The Zestful Riskiness of High Wire Acts

Yesterday, DreamWorks Animation reported that profits were down a little bit:

For the three months ended March 31, 2011, our revenue was $108.0 million, a decrease of $54.1 million, or 33.4%, as compared to $162.1 million for the three months ended March 31, 2010. The lack of a theatrical release in the first quarter of 2011 led to lower revenues in the first quarter of 2011 when compared to the same period of the prior year, which benefited from revenues resulting from our first quarter 2010 release, How to Train Your Dragon. ...

The L.A. Times has its own ideas of causes for the decline:

... "Megamind," which was released in November and misfired at the box office, contributed $18.1 million in the quarter, mostly from home video sales. ...

I've got my own thoughts on the subject. When you're a stand-alone company, it's not enough to have two hit animated features during a twelve-month. You need to hammer all three out of the park. I found Megamind enjoyable, but I don't think that stylized super hero comedies in American settings travel well outside U.S. borders these days. (Truth to tell, this one under-performed stateside.)

Regardless, when a picture doesn't fully connect with audiences, there's not much you can do about it except ride the thin theatrical grosses to the next theatrical presentation. Mr. Katzenberg says the feature will end in profits, even as he wonders aloud about others.

... Katzenberg remarked that some animated movies released this year have performed poorly, even though their studios' publicity departments would have you believe otherwise. He particularly referred to Paramount's Rango, which has so far earned $237 million worldwide. ...

I understand that there's gamesmanship going on here, since DreamWorks Animation also releases through Paramount, and the company's contract with Viacom is up in a couple of years, and jockeying for advantage by pointing out an oppenent's weakness is a long-time -- and honored -- Hollywood custom.

As I've noted before, smaller, stand-alone entertainment companies thrive by having hits. A couple of clunkers and you're on life-support. Pixar never faced the problem of making a bomb, and now that the Emeryville studio is part of the Mouse's Mother ship, the question of survival is off the table. DreamWorks Animation is the only larger animation house that is not part of one of our fine, entertainment conglomerates. It faces threats not only from under-performers at the world box office, but declining DVD sales and revenues. On the bright side, DWA sits atop a valuable and growing library of successful films, but it will need to keep turning out the hits and expanding its markets if it wants to stay clear of Time-Warner, Viacom, or some other voracious multi-national*.

* I think that DreamWorks Animation would be just fine with the right kind of buyout, but that's the classical cynic in me talking. Jeffrey K. says he wants to stay independent, and I take him at his word.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Here comes the POP!!

In today's Variety, David Cohen writes of an impending "tipping point" in the film making biz.

A link to the article is here.

In the effort to try to organize visual effects, many have said that the addition of the union will be the harbinger of doom for vfx studios in Los Angeles. The argument continues that the addition of the costs of unions will be the straw that breaks the VFX Camel.

From what Mr. Cohen writes, it seems that camel's back is breaking just fine on its own. My heart reaches for the artists who have to toil without the benefit of a collectively bargained set of workplace standards or portable health benefits. It still seems to me those benefits would be well appreciated.

Note:Following a request from Daily Variety we have replaced the quote from the David Cohen article with a link.

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Changes to MPI Eligibility

Notification has been sent out from the MPI Plan offices regarding the change in eligibility requirements that will take place in August of this year. Steve Hulett noted the change in his post some sixteen months back.

The short of it:

Starting in late August, the amount of hours required to remain eligible in the MPI Health Plan will rise from 300 to 400. ...

The long of it:

* Eligibility into the Health Plans is established by working at Guild signatory studios. Qualifying for eligibility takes more hours (600) to front-load a Bank of Hours as well.

* The Bank of Hours will remain capped at 450 hours per participant.

* The rise in eligibility requirements will help offset the rising cost of healthcare. Employer contributions to the plan will increase as members work more hours to stay eligible.

* The IATSE has been working feverishly to battle the rising costs of health care while maintaining the low-cost plan options for its members. Jeff Massie copied an article written in the IATSE Organizer for our blog back in August of last year. Called The (not-so) Perfect Storm, it describes the reasons for the change and the steps the IATSE and the board of the MPI Health and Pension plans have taken. Of note:

While the IATSE has gone the extra mile in protecting our MPIHP Health Plan, the storm is just too intense to weather by such methods alone. [M]ulti-employer plans like MPIHP are working extra hard to ensure Plan dollars are spent as efficiently as possible.

You can find more information on MPI Health and Pension plans at the MPI's website. You can find the revised Qualification and Eligibility chart on their site by clicking this link. A copy of the letter sent to participating members can be found at this link.

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A Conversation with Bob Givens -- Part II

Mr. Givens believes (as do other animation vets) that it's important to get the unvarnished history of animation out, no matter how much it conflicts with the accepted story ...

TAG Interview with Bob Givens

*Click to listen in your browser. Right-Click and Save to download to your computer to listen later.

Find all TAG Interviews on the TAG website at this link
Above: Art Leonardi and Bob Givens.

Bob points out, for example, that three individuals were responsible for the birth of Bugs Bunny, and Chuck Jones was not one of them. He also notes Bugs was not lifted from Disney's Tortoise and the Hare, despite stories to the contrary. "I was there," he says. "I ought to know."

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Monday, April 25, 2011

The Grandfather of "Adult" Animation

IGN celebrates a cartoon veteran:

... South Park will begin Season 15 this week, with no sign of slowing down or losing its edge [Click Here for our preview of the South Park season premiere, "HUMANCENTiPAD"]. While most series of its kind are gradually winding down and losing the luster that made them famous, Trey and Matt are still controversial, still true to themselves, and still making boatloads of money.

South Park is still relevant; in fact it may be the most important comedy on air today. ...

Of course, there was adult animation before South Park. (The Simpsons? Maybe even The Flintstones?) But the ribald, smart ass, break-the-old-barriers cartoon pretty much starts with South Park. It kicked Comedy Central into a higher gear, and served as a fine model for Cartoon Networks' "Adult Swim."

What I like about South Park is that it gleefully skewers sacred cows of both the Left and the Right. It mocks celebrities. It sneers at entertainment conglomerates. If there's something high-profile in the news cycle, the odds are good that with a week or two, will be on the air lampooning it.

The other thing I like about it? The show has broadened the kinds of animation that networks are willing to do, thereby broadening the animation that is being done. Anytime there's more cartoons on t.v., the better I like it.

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A Conversation with Bob Givens -- Part I

Bob Givens' long and storied career began at Walt Disney Productions, where Bob found himself (right out of high school), assisting on a long-form cartoon entitled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ...

TAG Interview with Bob Givens

*Click to listen in your browser. Right-Click and Save to download to your computer to listen later.

Find all TAG Interviews on the TAG website at this link

Mr. Givens departed assistant animation work for design, storyboards, and layout at Leon Schlesinger's studio in Hollywood. After World War II interrupted his cartoon career, he returned to Warner Bros. and resumed what became more than a half-century of television and theatrical cartooning. Bob not only worked on the first animated television commercial (in 1947) but thousands more afterward.

Our conversation took place in the Guild's conference room. (Animation veteran Art Leonardi, whose TAG Blog interview was posted on March 21 and March 22, was also in attendance. The "Snow White party" that Bob talks about is this one.)

You can find Bob's video interviews with ASIFA here.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

"Hoodwinked Deux"

I misspoke.

Kung Fu Panda 2 isn't the next animated feature out.

Looks like Hoodwinked II is ...

"There's inherent drama and a female protaganist and woods and wolves. I think that describes like 80-percent of the movies that most teenagers are into these days." ...

The second installment of the Weinstein brothers original animated hit was produced in Canada and directed by Mike Disa. I'm told it's been sitting on the shelf for a goodly amount of time because the brothers Weinstein, not exactly dripping with excess cash when it was finished, didn't have sufficient funds for a full-bore campaign.

But the Weinsteins have now (apparently) assembled enough greenbacks for a release, and the picture comes out next week. As to the original picture's quality, Samuel Hoelker of Box Office Prophets observes:

... Hoodwinked! has its limitations in terms of box office potential (and, y’know, isn’t as good as Shrek), but it’s obvious from watching the film that it’s not deterred at all by Shrek. It neither attempts to distance itself from Shrek nor become too much like it – it confidently stands its own ground. ...

While I won’t stand by the concept of the sequel, I’ll still see it because I have faith that if Hoodwinked! can turn out really good, why not the sequel?

Maybe all the hit animated movies bouncing around the globe made Harvey W. and his brother to (at last) get their own new cartoon epic to the marketplace.

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Animation on the International Front

The Reporter reports:

... 20th Century Fox’s Rio, meanwhile, claimed the weekend’s No. 1 box office spot overseas for the third consecutive round, pushing in the process its foreign gross total past the $200-million mark. ...

Finishing third on the weekend was Universal’s Hop, which landed $10.7 million from 4,400 venues in 53 territories ... Foreign gross total for the Easter bunny title blending animation with live action comes to $47.2 million. ...

When you have a higher quality, animated feature with lovable fuzzy (or feathered) animals, you can open your own mint.

This is good news for Fox and Fox alumni, yes? And Rupert's minions are no doubt pleased that even though Chris Medadandri decamped from News Corp to go make NBC-ComCast-Universal some money, the Blue Sky facility there in the tri-state area goes merrily on without him.

Kung Fu Panda 2 launches on May 24th. With the roll that animated features on on, Paramount and DreamWorks Animation must be expecting Big Things when the second installment of the franchise rolls out.

Add On: Somebody asked how Winnie the Pooh was doing in Britain. The answer is anemically, if this news clip is any indication:

... "Winnie The Pooh" came in at eight ...

Box Office Mojo doesn't yet have any grosses showing for the Silly Old Bear.

It grieves me to say it, but I think the days of $800 million worldwide grosses for hand-drawn animated features is over. The action is on the CG side of the fence.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Studio Roundabouts

I've kept up my normal pace of studio visits over the past few weeks. Last week was DreamWorks Animation, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Film Roman. In a moment of idiocy I started to drive to Fox Animation Wilshire the day the President was on the west side of town, but reversed field quickly when I encountered heavy traffic in Hollywood. (Stupid is as stupid does. I should have known better.)

Here's a broad-brush look at a few of our signator studios ...

At Walt Disney Animation Studios the morale is better, but then, the people with bad outlooks were cut loose a while back so it's not surprising. There are several projects in development, and directors will be pitching new movie ideas to Mr. Lasseter when he comes down from Emeryville.

A staffer informed me that my speculation about Reboot Ralph going into production earlier because its release got moved up was wrong. I was told that Reboot's production schedule and production start dates (with attendant hiring) are pretty much the same as before.

At Warner Bros. Animation, staffing is steady and creeping up, and the optimism of studio employees isn't bad. As one said to me the end of last week:

"I've been here now almost a year, and I'm happy with Warners. I think my project will go on for awhile, so I'm okay with the direction we're going. It's good to be working ..."

DreamWorks Animation is pretty much status quo: Many ongoing projects, although people have been moved around to accommodate some schedule changes. No big layoffs and morale continues strong.

Film Roman works on The Simpsons, Beavis and butthead, Dan Vs. ... and Spider Man (for Disney/Marvel). Staffers voice some frustration over tighter budgets on Yellow Family episodes, but Fox has to make up thos big paydays for its above-the-line crew somewhere. (Sarcasm showing.)

Bento Box continues work on Bob's Burgers and multiple episodes of new series Allen Gregory.

As I told an IA person several days ago, it appears that union animation production is on a steady ... and even gently rising ... course. Certainly it's doing gangbusters commercially, so that's a good sign. Whether hiring in Southern California accelerates, we'll just have to wait and see.

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Your Weekend Reading

A few animation pieces for the Easter Weekend:

NHK hopes for a home run with new anime:

... "Drucker in the Dug-Out," a 10-part animated series showing weeknights on NHK starting April 25 ... The TV series is based on Natsumi Iwasaki's 2009 fictional book ... "Moshidora." ... The book has sold more than 2 million copies thus far, making it Japan's best-selling book last year. ...

Lucasfilm to house its Singapore arm in "Sandcrawler Building"

It is all systems go for the construction of Lucasfilm's first overseas production facility at Singapore's Fusionopolis. ... The "Sandcrawler Building" is an eight-storey complex that will house the local arm of the recognised film and entertainment company. ...

Taiwan's young artists cool to Next Media animation

When Next Media Animation's (NMA) content and business development manager Michael Logan spoke to Taipei film and arts students recently, their initial resentment against the company's notorious computer-animated news stories was perceivable. ... [T]he audience's comments focused on the ethical aspects rather than on NMA's success, let alone on artistic value. What became apparent at this punk-rock style venue was that Taiwan has not yet come to terms with its most famous exporter of creativity. ...

At Gaumont in France When All Was Possible

TWO years ago Kino International offered “Gaumont Treasures: 1897-1913,” a three-disc set adapted from a superb seven-disc collection, “Gaumont: Le Cinéma Premier,” issued by the French studio ... Gaumont struck again with a second volume, and ... [f]or anyone interested in how the movies came to be what they are, it’s essential viewing. ...

The French-American rivalry is already apparent in the first disc in this new collection, devoted to the work of the pioneering animator Émile Cohl. ...

Bob's Burgers - 'Season 1' DVDs are 'Coming Soon', According to 'Dad'

This past Tuesday, American Dad - Volume 6 DVD sets were released by Fox Home Entertainment. Fans have found that inside of these packages there's an insert by the studio ... [A]t the bottom of this insert. On the bottom right corner, it simply tells us that Bob's Burgers - Season 1 is "coming soon" ... [Rupert's minions waste little time cross collateralizing product -- Hulett]

Adult Swim Triumphs

Adult Swim once again swept all young adult and young male demos for the week, ranking #1 on basic cable for Total Day Delivery of adults and men 18-34 and 18-49. Among the standouts, men 18-34 delivery (324,000) grew by 8% and men 18-49 (454,000) grew by 9%. ...

Cartoon Network’s Monday night line-up of original animated comedies—Adventure Time (8 p.m.), MAD (8:15 p.m.), Regular Show (8:30 p.m.) and Problem Solverz (8:45 p.m.)—each ranked #1 in their timeslots on all television among all boy demos: 2-11, 6-11 and 9-14. ...

‘Tron’ team reflects on ‘Legacy,’ technology and spirituality

The “Tron” filmmakers took the stage and engaged the audience with stories of the context and challenging history of how the movie was brought to fruition — and often shared humorous anecdotes. ...

Here now is your “front row seat” via exclusive Hero Complex footage of the filmmakers’ panel at the Aero Theatre event: ... [T]he inspiration for the story of “Tron”; the limitations of the technology the filmmakers had to deal with — including the use of only one computer on the Disney lot; the reaction by one of Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men” to a screening of the film; the spiritual components of the movie; and how the movie predicted much of the technology that is used today. ...

Now go dress up, hunt some easter eggs, and worship the God of your choice.

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Friday, April 22, 2011

Extended Holiday B.O.

Now with fresh-baked Add On.

As per usual, the Nikkster allows no grass to grow 'neath her feet:

... [V]ery early numbers show "[Rio] is holding like a rock," a studio exec just emailed me. ... It's also a good day for Universal's holdover Hop from Illumination Entertainment which will pop on Saturday and Sunday ...

1. Rio 3D (Blue Sky Studio/Fox) Week 2 [3,842 Theaters] Friday $11M ...

4. Hop (Illumination Entertainment/Universal) Week 4 [3,616 Theaters] Friday $5.5M ...

The animation, she seems to be maintaining herself pretty good, eh?

Add On: The Hollywood trade paper gives us updates:

... Rio has become the top grossing 2011 release, ending Easter weekend with a new worldwide cume of $286 million. That easily bests Paramount’s Rango, which has earned just under $240 million globally.

Placing No. 4 was Universal’s Easter bunny hit Hop. The CGI/live-action pic jumped the $100 million mark at the domestic box office, grossing an estimated $12.5 million for a new cume of $100.5 million. ...

Add On Too: The L.A. Times tells us that animation has propelled U.S. box office back to health:

If there's been one hopeful Hollywood story at the box office this year, it's that of the animated family film.

Three movies about cartoon animals — "Rango," "Hop" and "Rio" — have been some of the only releases to draw moviegoers into theaters in large numbers. Domestically, "Rango" is the highest-grossing film of 2011. "Hop" passed $100 million this weekend. And "Rio," which centers on a bunch of birds on a journey to Brazil, just topped the box office for the second consecutive weekend with $26.8 million ...

Animation, the savior of Hollywood.

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Immigrant Animation

As long as I've been doing this job, there's been animation talent coming into Southern California from lands across the Atlantic and Pacific at a regular clip.

In the 1990s, most of the talent was in the hand-drawn area. Whole studios filled with artists from Ireland, Britain and northern Europe relocated to Los Angeles and Phoenix. Spielberg's Amblimation Studio (London) shut down and re-merged on the Universal lot as DreamWorks Animation. Bluth-Sullivan studios (Dublin) came to an end, but most of the staff quickly found its way to Fox Feature Animation in Arizona ...

The hand-drawn boom, of course, faded away near the turn of the century, but foreign-born animation talent has continued to flow to Southern California and other parts of the U.S. of A. I know this because the Animation Guild reviews O-1 immigration visas (documents for entertainment talent entering the country as leads with special abilities), and we've gotten a steady stream of O-1 visas over the past few years. Of late, the stream has grown to a small river, with one to three O-1s coming daily across my desk.

The people attached to these visas come to work in visual effects houses, game companies, and animation studios. They end up working at Pixar, DreamWorks, Disney, PDI, and any number of smaller, non-conglomerate facilities.

So what does it take for a foreign-born animator, designer, or compositor to qualify for the visa? He or she needs to be working as a lead. Her or she needs to have won awards or garnered articles in various publications. She or he needs to have letters of recommendation from peers in the field, credits on high-profile productions, and work experience with a credible studio. It's also important that the individual's salary be commensurate with her/his standing in the industry.

Now, applicants don't need to fulfill all of these requirements, but only half of them. But even then, candidates mostly get in. Over the years we have written negative letters on a number of O-1 applicants, but as far as we know, most of these folks ultimately end up working at the places who've applied to engage them *.

* This is the way the O-1 visa system has worked over the sixteen years we've been writing letters. Applicants generally have two bites at the apple, reworking their application or refiling if TAG generates a "thumbs down" letter. (Understand that most letters are positive -- when there's a problem, we contact the attorney preparing the documents and detail what our objections are. Sometimes applications are withdrawn, More often, they are reworked.)

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mainstream Media Keeps Noticing the Cartoons

USA Today catalogues the animated features being made by six different studios.

... Blue Sky/Fox ... has two movies are in the works: next year's Ice Age: Continental Drift and The Legend of the Leaf Man ...

Disney/Pixar ... has Cars 2, Monsters University and Brave ... Disney proper is still redefining itself in the computer age. ...

DreamWorks/Paramount: No fewer than 24 features are in various stages of production, including everything from a racing snail (Turbo) to a full-length film based on that TV golden oldie Mr. Peabody & Sherman. ...

Illumination Entertainment/Universal: Addams Family, Hotel Transylvania, Arthur Christmas, Popeye, and Band of Misfits. ...

Twenty-four features in development at DWA. Explains why they don't lay a lot of people off.

Everybody else? They use different business models.

(I was talking to an IA person to day who wanted to know how TAG was doing. I said: "Television animation has come back, theatrical projects seem to be holding their own, and animation is more commercially viable all the time. So it looks as though ... fingers crossed ... the Animation GUild is doing all right."

Meanwhile on the live-action side, theatrical films are worldwide now rather than mostly in L.A., reality t.v. takes a bigger bite out of network schedules, and Southern California film-making is less than it was.)

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The Message Remains the Same

... Even if some realities in the wider world have changed. Film Journal International notes:

... [A]ward-winning animator Hayao Miyazaki announced there was no need to change the studio’s upcoming movie Kokurikozaka Kara (From the Kokuriko Hill) despite Japan’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami. Hayao is credited with writing the script directed by his son Goro.

The animated feature, based on a 30-year-old comic series for girls, depicts the life of a high-school girl and a boy from the sea in Yokohama around 1963, a period when Japan experienced spectacular economic growth.

“The biggest concern for the animated movie was whether the film to be released July 16 across Japan would be able to withstand changes to the world as time goes by,” Miyazaki said at a press conference in Tokyo. “But the heroine's desire and the boy's will to live in the film are definitely needed in our time from now on.” ...

Things from the sea might be a trifle unsettling right now, but a will to live is definitely helpful. Especially with what's happening to the waters of northeastern Japan.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011


A commenter observes:

"Particularly if those artists have the right skill sets." [quoting Hulett]

Ah, the old meritocracy canard. I wonder what your reaction would have been if someone had said that to you during the period of your career that you were out of work.

What do skill sets have to do with union signatory studios sending skilled work overseas that had previously been done in house, or "laundering" their work through boutique studios as piecework to evade paying full CBA contract wages.

Funny, but I was replaced by a twenty-two-year-old novice when I was thirty-seven. What did I say? Not much. But I wasted way too much time being ticked about it, when I should have gotten off my butt and moved on with my life.

I don't for a minute think that jobs in animation ... or Planet Earth ... rest on merit and ability. Sometimes they do, but many times they don't. Everybody knows the director's buddy who gets hired with thin resume and thinner talent, the relative who gets brought on, the production assistant the boss takes a shine to (or is sleeping with) who gets promoted overnight to production manager. Nepotism, cronyism and plain old raw politics have been around since the court eunuchs were currying the emperor's favor and double-crossing each other in Mesopotamia in 20,000 B.C. I'm not anticipating that those three pillars will be crumbling much before 20,000 A.D.

Anybody who thinks the workplace is some kind of pristine meritocracy is a fool. But the person believing that merit counts for nothing is a bigger fool. The lessons I learned long ago are:

1) There is seldom "what's fair," but always "what is."

2) Over time, studios continue and expand those business practices they believe enhance their profits and cash flow. (And sometimes they're wrong. And sometimes they lie about what they're doing, even as they're being wrong.)

3) In the work place (as in other locations), individuals get those things they have the energy and leverage to get.

Please don't think for a minute that I like the above. God knows I have walked plenty of precincts and voted for plenty of losing candidates, being a little too starry-eyed for my own good. It's good to have a dash of idealism, but even better to have a healthy dose of classical cynicism. Otherwise you will cry yourself to sleep an awful lot of nights when things don't go the way you hope and anticipate. One of the certainties you can expect from your future is that the career you dreamed of at twenty-four will not be the work history you'll look back on when you're baby-sitting the grandchildren.

I wish that everyone could have the jobs they believe they deserve, truly I do. I also wish that conglomerates were more charitable, that peace reigned in all corners of the globe, and every upright mammal hooked up with his or her soul-mate. Unfortunately, wishing ain't getting. (I and a lot of other TAG members learned that life lesson when we picketed against runaway production during a ten-week strike and came away empty-handed. Sometimes life is less than ideal. We still have to learn how to deal with it.)

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Super Heroes in Animation

It all started with the Fleischer brothers' "Man of Steel" shorts, just before their Florida studio crashed and burned on the front edge of World War II. But the legacy and sagas continue:

An animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s genre-defining Batman story The Dark Knight Returns is rumored to be in the works. This comes just months after it was announced that another Miller work, Batman: Year One, is also set to head straight to DVD courtesy of Warner Bros. Animation. ...

[Batman: Year One], the 12th animated feature in the successful series from Warner Premiere, DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Animation will be directed by Lauren Montgomery and Sam Liu, who previously collaborated on Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. ...

Disney and Time-Warner, of course, are now the keepers of every Super Hero franchise worth having. Disney has the Marvel treasure chest; Time-Warner has the gold mine known as D.C. Comics.

The Bruce Timm team over at Warner Bros. Animation has been doing direct-to-little-silver-disk features for various caped crusaders for years and years, with fine financial results. Unfortunately, the silver disk business has passed it's peak, although animated titles continue to pull down large amounts of money.

I think the time will come when Time-Warner and Disney will wake up to the idea that CGI super-hero movies, cloaked with 3-D, generous production budgets and animation in the style and quality of, say, Tangled, could well make our friendly entertainment conglomerates potfuls of cash.

The franchises, production elements, and copyright ownerships are all in place. We'll see if it ever happens.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Zemeckis Has Moved On, BUT ...

The Beatles have other suitors.

Harry Potter Producer David Heyman: I’ve got the rights to this book called The Curious Instance of the Dog and the Night Time, which I’m gonna do with [Steve] Kloves (screenwriter of Harry Potter). I just closed the deal on some Beatles songs, and we’re gonna do an animated film, a musical animated film using Beatles songs, with a love story between a dung beetle and a lady bug. ...

Dung beetle? I was hoping for a potato bug.

You will note that live-action producers -- even ones with billion dollar franchises -- are moving into the animation biz. This begins to look like a trend.

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Effects of Animation -- (Part II)

Per Mr. Kierscey, Art Palmer was the principle animator for water in the Monstro sequence of "Pinocchio." This was the gold standard for ocean effects work, referenced by effects animators during the making of "The Little Mermaid." ...

TAG Interview with Ted Kierscey

*Click to listen in your browser. Right-Click and Save to download to your computer to listen later.

Find all TAG Interviews on the TAG website at this link

The second half of the Ted Kierscey interview, wherein Ted talks about Disney in the digital age and the ongoing challenges of effects animation ...

Mr. Kierscey and Jim George, back in the fabulous seventies. (That's a "Small One" storyboard behind them.)

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Monday, April 18, 2011

L.A. Times Catches On

... but it's sort of hard not to.

... Animation has been increasing as a part of our movie-going diet for a while now. In 2010, animated movies made up fully half of the box-office top 10, the first time that's ever happened. So far this year, the above trio of animated releases opened stronger than movies featuring Justin Bieber, Adam Sandler and a superhero. ... At this point, it's more notable when a new animated movie doesn't win the box office than when it does. ...

What's most striking is that c.g. animated features have a higher success rate than any other genre of film out there.

Take for instance Megamind. This was DreamWorks Animation's underperformer in 2010, taking in $321.5 million around the world. (How to Train Your Dragon took in $494.9 million, and Shrek Forever After made $752.6 million.) These days, if your garden variety live action feature pulls down $300-plus million, sky-rockets go up.

The Times wonders aloud why Hollywood, given the box office performance of feature-length cartoons, isn't making more cartoons than it already is. The largest reason might be that animation has always been the bastard step-child of the movie industry. The power structure is vested in live-action, not fuzzy animals that begin life on storyboards. High-powered agents represent A-list actors, directors and screen-writers, dammit, not board artists and animators.

Given current cash flows, the status quo in Tinseltown could be slowly changing. But it's not going to change without a fight. Keep watching.

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Effects of Animation -- The Ted Kierscey Interview (Part I)

TAG Interview with Ted Kierscey

*Click to listen in your browser. Right-Click and Save to download to your computer to listen later.

Find all TAG Interviews on the TAG website at this link

Ted Kierscey won an art contest and a scholarship, met Walt Disney, and ... after a stint with Uncle Sam ... gained a job at Walt Disney Productions ....

Mr. Kierscey was the first of the new wave of Disney animation artists to be hired in the 1970s. (Above you will see a picture of Ted near the beginning of his tenure at the Mouse.) Animator Dale Baer remembers Ted doing a personal test for Goofy back in the day, but Ted's heart was in effects animation. He's spent most of his forty-plus years at Walt Disney Animation Studios as a master of that art.

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

No Roof Rupturing?

Down below a commenter asks:

[W]hy haven't animator wages exploded through the roof?? The successes we're seeing today vastly, vastly exceed the "2nd Golden Age" of the early 90s. Disney, Dreamworks, Fox, and Universal have all seen big profits from animated movies.

We know there have been collusion agreements between the studios in the past. Do we know there aren't still going on now? According to the free market, folks working in animation should be among the highest paid in the industry. ...

I rattled off an answer in comments, but allow me to expand here.

1) The early to middle nineties ("The Second Golden Age") saw an explosion of animated features getting produced. Fox, Turner, Warner Bros., DreamWorks were all jumping into the game. Sadly, most fell on their large, corporate backsides in a very compact period of time: Less than a half dozen years.

2) During that happy but now far-away decade, there were a few things that caused wages to explode. A) A small number of animation artists with production experience were pursued by multiple (and eager) bidders for their services -- Warner Bros. Feature Animation, Turner Feature Animation, DreamWorks SKG, Fox Feature Animation (Phoenix), etc., etc. B) There was a feud between Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, and Mr. Eisner gave Disney Feature marching orders to do "whatever it took" to prevent Disney artists from defecting to DreamWorks (or other places).

As a result, wages at the Mouse House (and elsewhere) skyrocketed.

But that "high wage window" turned out to be unsustainable. Production costs climbed dramatically, and many of the resulting hand-drawn pictures didn't perform well. Several of the newer feature divisions closed their doors, and suddenly there was a surplus of animation labor. And we all know Adam Smith's axium regarding supply and demand.

What goes up, also goes down. Pay rates tumbled.

Of course, now there are far more successful CGI animated features than there were hand-drawn specimens in the nineties, so why haven't wages shot up again? I would submit it's largely due (once more) to good old supply and demand. CGI features have been ramping up for fifteen years, and universities and colleges have had lots of time to turn out CG animators and technicians. So a far larger pool of animation talent exists in 2011 than sixteen or seventeen years ago.

Lastly, you don't have studios actively bidding against each other the way they did in the middle nineties. Today you have the reverse, as evidenced by the recent track records of some of our fine entertainment companies. Cartoon factories now work diligently to make sure the go-go nineties don't repeat themselves. And if a few (alleged) illegalities occur, kindly note that we live in a corporatist age where the only consequences for companies' misbehavior are a few gently-rapped knuckles, after which we all take a deep breath and move on. ("Nothing to see here, people! Let's continue with the tour!")

So there are more jobs, but also more people to fill them. And there are lots of eagle-eyed execs to make certain nobody's pay packet becomes overly weighty.

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Animation Golf Invitational, May 14 at Elkins Ranch

Contact Lyn Mantta immediately at (818) 845-7500 x105 ... places are going fast!

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The Derby on Far Shores (April Edition)

As goes the steeple chase here ... so goes the steeple chase there.

... [N]ew market openings boost Universal's "Hop" to the weekend's No. 3 spot with $10.3 million.

... 3D animation title Rio flew high on the foreign theatrical circuit on the weekend with a No. 1 box office draw of $53.9 million drawn from 13,705 screens in 62 territories. ... Rio finished No. 1 overseas for the second straight weekend. ...

Universal’s Hop grossed $10.3 million overall from 5,200 playdates in 45 territories for a foreign gross cume to date of $29.4 million. It ranks No. 3 on the weekend. ...

The interesting wrinkle here is that the Easter Bunny saga, even though its tied to North American culture, is still doing brisk business overseas. (Not in the Rio category, but still earning a nice piece of change.)

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Your Weekend Linkorama (April edition)

Once again, we catch you up on some of the animation tidbits floating across the Web.

Comic Book Resources asks:

Will Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns return in a new DC animated feature? ...

The answer is known to Bruce Timm and a chosen few ...

The Anime News Network shares a religious animated short in which Disney director Barry Cook at a hand:

... Japan's Studio 4°C (Genius Party, Tekkonkinkreet, segments of The Animatrix) animated a nine-minute adaptation of Jesus, the 1979 live-action film version of Jesus Christ's story ... [Mr.] Cook wrote the short's screenplay for CCC's Jesus Film Project ministry. ...

Bleeding Cool reviews and reports on a new movie release in Great Britain:

With considerably less fanfare than greeted The Princess and the Frog, Disney are today releasing another, hand-drawn animation. Indeed, as Winnie The Pooh rolls out in British cinemas, it’s the second feature length Disney toon of 2011 to screen in the UK, where Tangled was released just this January.

What have we Brits done to deserve this? Surely it’s not just that Pooh is “ours”, based as it is on classic English nursery books by AA Milne and EH Shepherd? (I’m suddenly feeling the closest to patriotic that I have in some time.) ...

The Los Angeles Times notes the 100th anniversary of Winsor McCay's plunge into animation. (Anybody know where Winsor is working now?)

This month marks the 100th anniversary of Winsor McCay’s short film “Little Nemo.” It was not the first drawn animated film — J. Stuart Blackton’s “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces” preceded it by five years — but it was the film that demonstrated the potential of animation as art form. ...

The Globe highlights cartoons from foreign lands.

“Nine Nation Animation," is the exception that proves the rule: a traveling road-show of (duh) nine shorts from nine countries that gets points for both style and content. Curated and distributed by the World According to Shorts, an initiative of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the program concentrates primarily on Europe with one side trip to South Africa. ...

Brad Bird speaks ... about the Incredibles, Mission Impossible, and other things.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Looking back, what are you most proud of accomplishing with The Incredibles?

BRAD BIRD: I think we changed a little bit what people thought these [animated] films should be about. There are a number of things that were considered against the grain at the time. First of all, the last time anybody spent money on an animated superhero [movie] was the very first superhero movie — the animated Superman [shorts] done by the Fleischers [Fleischer Studios released 17 shorts from 1941-43]. Every bit of animation on superheroes done since then has been on television kind of budgets, and nobody had really thought about doing a feature animated film about superheroes, so that was thing No. 1. ...

Lastly and bestly: The generosity of the animation community is a good thing:

Save the Children today announced that it has received $400,000 from employees of DreamWorks Animation SKG, Inc. (Nasdaq: DWA) to provide relief to children and families affected by the disaster in Japan and earthquake in New Zealand.

"The generosity of the Dream Works Animation employees is much appreciated," said Charles MacCormack, the President and CEO of Save the Children. "This money is going to help thousands of Japanese children return to school and their families rebuild their lives in the months and years to come." ...

Have a zestful yet restful weekend.

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The April 15th thru 17th Horse Race

Now with extra rich Add On.

The early numbers per the Nikkster:

1. Rio 3D (Fox) NEW [3,826 Theaters] Friday $10M, Estimated Weekend $38M ...

2. Scream 4 (Miramax/Dimension/Weinstein Co) NEW [3,305 Theaters] Friday: $8.7M, Estimated Weekend $22M

3. Insidious (FilmDistrict) Week 3 [2,233 Theaters] Friday $2.3M, Estimated Weekend $7.1M, Estimated Cume $36M

4. Hop (Universal) Week 3 [3,608 Theaters] Friday $2.2M, Estimated Weekend $9M, Estimated Cume $90M

5. Soul Surfer (FilmDistrict/Sony) Week 2 [2,214 Theaters] Friday $2.2M, Estimated Weekend $6.3M, Estimated Cume $19M

6. Arthur (Warner Bros) Week 2 [3,276 Theaters] Friday $2.1M, Estimated Weekend $6.4M (-48%), Estimated Cume $22M

7. Hanna (Focus Features) Week 2 [2,545 Theaters] Friday $2M (-53%), Estimated Weekend $6.5M (-48%), Estimated Cume $22.2M

8. Source Code (Summit) Week 3 [2,557 Theaters] Friday $1.8M, Estimated Weekend $5.7M, Estimated Cume $36.4M

9. Your Highness (Universal) Week 2 [2,772 Theaters] Friday $1.3M (-66%), Estimated Weekend $4M, Estimated Cume $16M

10. The Conspirator (Roadside Attractions) NEW [707 Theaters] Friday $1.1M, Estimated Weekend $3M

Add On: Sayeth the Nikkster:

Rio 3D opened in the U.S. and Canada Friday and earned a top "A" CinemaScore. [T]he bird flew past the studio's mid-$30s target and even Hollywood's $38M projections. With not many schools out Friday, Saturday's kiddie matinees overperformed.

1. Rio 3D (Fox) NEW [3,826 Theaters] Friday $10.2M, Saturday $19M, Weekend $41M

I will go out on a limb here and say the market for CG animated features will keep getting hotter and hotter. And our fine entertainment conglomerates will want to make themselves even more animated movies to help them rake in the gold.

Add On Too: And the Reporter tells us:

Rio, a sizeable victory for Vanessa Morrison’s Fox Animation Studios and Blue Sky Studios, received an A CinemaScore in North America and is the biggest opening of the year. It’s also the best opening for a G-rated toon since Toy Story 3. On Saturday, Rio was up 65%. The movie is poised to do great midweek business, since kids are out of school for spring break. ...

Add On the 3rd: Box Office Mojo has Rio pulling down $40 million while third place Hop makes do with $11.1 million ... and an $82.6 million total. (The bunny rabbit pic takes a sizable hit, what with Rio coming into the marketplace.)

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Friday, April 15, 2011

At Bento Box

Friday was Bento Box day. (Not the Japanese lunch plate, the studio.) Crew is working on multiple episodes of new series Allen Gregory, and waiting for new installments of Bob's Burgers to get out of the writers' room and onto various Cintiqs ...

The studio, located on Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank, is developing various new projects and looking to expand. A staffer mentioned:

"We don't have enough room to handle two series, so one of them will be moving to new offices on Lankershim Boulevard. Bento will be working out of two locations." ...

BB is typical of the medium-sized animation shops sprinkled across the east San Fernando Valley and elsewhere. They flourish (or don't) at the whim and will of our fine, entertainment conglomerates.

Happily, cartoons continue to be a big part of cable and Fox broadcasting. Fox, in fact, looks to be breaking cartoons out of their longtime Sunday-night box canyon and into different days and time slots, expanding the realm. And if the newer product is successful, other networks could attempt to match the network's broadcast strategy, and we could be looking at more cartoon production.

But of course, a lot depends on how the new crop of animated hilarity performs at the t.v. marketplace. If it sinks, various animation crews will sink with it. And the reverse.

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SPA and Zemeckis Make a Hybrid?

Variety reports Sony Pictures Animation, having optioned the book "How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack," intends to have Robert Zemekis produce a live action-animation hybrid feature from the story.

Zemeckis' ImageMovers banner will produce with the Gotham Group. Pic is being developed as an R-rated live-action/CG-hybrid budgeted in the $20 million-$30 million range.

Zemeckis has not committed to direct. He's weighing several options in the wake of "Mars Needs Moms" bombing at the box office and Disney's decision to pull the plug on his planned "Yellow Submarine" remake.

We enjoyed representing the artists who toiled and achieved at ImageMover's Digital. And we get the unyielding march of technology. Like them or not, the films of ImageMover's Digital pushed the technological envelope. IMD was, in our view, a progressive animation studio making "cutting-edge technology" films.

We hope to see Robert and the Imagemover moniker at SPA. We look forward to representing artists bring more of his brand of entertainment to a theater near you.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Move to the Starting Gate ...

And the L.A. Times makes its prognostication:

... Rio, with feathered protagonists voiced by Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway, is expected to gross between $35 million and $40 million in its first weekend, according to people who have seen pre-release audience surveys. ...

The New York Times loves the movie ...

... Maybe it was because this animated feature effort is a significant step forward from the studio’s “Ice Age” films, in the richness of its cast, the exuberance of its music and the vibrance of its palette. Or maybe it was because the director, Carlos Saldanha, ... brings a wealth of affection to it. Whichever. It works ...

The New York Post, not so much.

... [O]lder audience members will, like me, be getting restless during this celebrity-voice-driven, generically plotted variation on "Madagascar."

It's a mild disappointment coming from Blue Sky, the animation studio that's had enormous success in the entertaining middle ground between Pixar's masterpieces and the increasingly crass 'toons from DreamWorks. ...

(So okay. The feature borrows from the horrid DreamWorks, but its studio occupies a niche above DWA yet below Pixar. Got it.)

Meanwhile, Rotten Tomatoes gives Rio a mid-seventies rating. Guess we'll have to go see it and make up our own minds.

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"Where's the Work?"

Here's where it is today ...

... and here's where it was a year ago -- pretty the same places it's at today.

(The close similarity of the raw numbers is remarkable, understanding, of course, that just because the employees count is the same at Disney as it was a year ago doesn't mean they haven't been layoffs and hires -- only that the numbers at the various divisions -- Walt Disney Animation Studios, Disney TVA, Disney Toon Studios -- have cancelled each other out.)

Add On: TAG lost a lot of employment when Image Movers Digital went away in northern California, but the guild has recovered -- as you can see above -- in other areas. What I've noticed is that television work has been steadily improving over the past twelve months, and theatrical employment has held up well.

Then there is the larger context of total animation work in Southern California: video games, visual effects work, television graphics, non-signator animation shops, internet animation, etc. Taken altogether, Southern California is host to more animation work than at any time in its history. The global pie has continuously grown and California (north and south) has gotten its share.

-- Steve Hulett

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

In and Around the Hat

Part of the morning was spent ambling through Walt Disney Animation Studios. Had occasion to talk to several supes who pointed out that the studio has a bunch of different projects in development, and a bunch more are being pitched to Lasseter in the not-distant future. (Various commenters have also mentioned this ...)

One supervisor asked me, since I ricochet about to different workplaces, about the animation community's perceptions of WDAS at the present time.

I said that few gripe about Disney product (at least not to me) but many complain about the hire-layoff-rehire routine. I said I believed some of the negative reaction comes from studio management saying one thing and doing another. Better, I said, if they just give the crew the straight skinny. They'll get points for honesty.

But the good news now appears to be that projects are in various stages of work, more are being pitched, and (with luck) this will mean that there will be a steady flow of production in the future so that assembled crews won't get handed pink slips when their productions wrap.

And there is also glad tidings for WDAS in the marketplace of cartoons.

... [T]here were five new releases to chart, one of them, Tangled, dominated selling 3.46 million units while generating $51.92 million in sales. It is already the biggest selling DVD of 2011. ...

Tangled was just as dominant on the Blu-ray chart, selling close to 1.7 million units ...

You never know, the long-haired girl might turn a profit yet. And of course, there were some other animation titles doing a bit of business:

Megamind climbed into third place with 175,000 units sold for the week and now has running tallies of 2.69 million units and $37.56 million ... Yogi Bear fell from first to fourth with 170,000 units / $2.54 million for the week and 834,000 units / $12.50 million ... Bambi plac[ed] third in Blu-ray with 60,000 units sold ....

You'll be pleased to note that animation is one of the last places where our fine entertainment conglomerates are selling a goodly number of little silver disks. This is a fine thing, yes?

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Rebranding and Proprietary Productions

Starz Toronto, now that Starz doesn't own it, is changing its name to Arc Productions. (There's a surprise.) And the facility will continue being a job shop.

But the managers know that's a self-limiting role in Cartoonland: You do the work, and some other entity makes the money. Sooo ...

Arc Productions is ... looking to do more proprietary production, where it holds rights to projects it completes. The studio has just unveiled plans for a stereoscopic CG animated movie with the working title OZ3D ...

Smart move, producing your own stuff. And if Disney can make a mint producing cartoons from old, public domain fairy tales, others have a shot at reaping profits from old public domain Frank L. Baum books.

The stampede of VFX shops and animation sub-contractors doing their own movies has only just started. And if a few of them are successful, the stampede will get bigger. After all, there's only so much wire removal, water effects, and compositing needed in any given live-action film, and there isn't a lot of money in it. So making your own hit long-form cartoon -- assuming you can figure out how to do it -- is a natural and obvious way to go.

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Financial Advisors

To remount a well-ridden horse, a constant reader writes:

I thought I'd send you an email about what ended up happening with the financial advisor a friend recommended. I finally asked that he close my account after a few red flags:

The website for tracking the investments was dated and confusing. They failed to mail me documentation disclosing a 1.3% wrap fee. The funds recommended already had a 1.5% expense ratio which he implied was how he was paid. The website for tracking the investments was dated and confusing.

I'm not eligible for a roth ira anymore because of income limits. He suggested Variable Life Insurance instead.

I've decided to go back to Vanguard and follow the bogleheads forums implementing the coward portfolio you suggested on your blog.

Here's a few dirty little secrets that I've learned the hard way.

Brokers and Financial Advisors are not putting clients into load funds because it's necessarily best for the client. They're doing it because they're in business to make a living.

I'm not saying these folks are evil. They're not. But they have divided interests. If they put people who come through their door into funds without loads (think "commissions") and 12b-1 fees -- which are generally from .25% up -- then there's no cash going into their pockets. (Financial advisors who are strictly fee-based are, of course, different.)

As I wrote back to CR:

My advice: Build an investment account at Vanguard with 40% tax exempt bonds (limited term and intermediate) and 60% stocks (split equally four ways: total stock market, total international stock market, small cap value -- or just small cap -- and international small cap.) Six funds and done. (Vanguard's Tax-managed stuff is okay, but you gotta keep the money in them for several years or you get stung.)

You don't need a Financial Advisor, in my opinion. You need a plan and discipline.

What I've concluded after years of doing it differently: The answers to building wealth are simplicity, diversification, low costs, tax efficiency (index funds that have low turnover) and sticking with it. ...

The above sounds simple, but is difficult to execute. Most people get caught up in the hot investment of the moment, and end up regretting it. Most people freak when things start going south. And start making mistakes. ...

Note: Steve is not a licensed financial anything. Steve is merely a grizzled, scarred veteran of the investing game.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Movie Market in the Middle Kingdom

Guild member Kevin Geiger -- presently running an animation company in China -- sends us factoids on the Chinese movie business.

* [China] comprises the fastest-growing animation market in the world. With a total population exceeding 1.3 billion individuals, potentially 500 million people in mainland China can be identified as animation consumers ...

* Mainland China’s total 2010 box office is estimated at more than 10 billion RMB (approximately $1.5 billion USD), up over 60% from 2009 (which itself saw a 44% growth rate) ...

* There are currently just over 6,200 movie screens on the Chinese mainland, compared with more than 42,000 in the United States. Mainland China produced over 500 films in 2010, but few of these make it to theaters and China’s box office is still relatively small compared to North America’s. At present, 31 cities – each with at least 1 million residents – are without commercial movie theaters ...

* China’s current 6,000+ screen total includes more than 1,000 3D screens, making it the second-largest 3D market in the world ...

* Mainland China is currently the world’s largest internet market by user, and poised to be one of the world’s largest VOD markets. Legitimate DVD is a sparse revenue stream due to piracy ...

Mr. Geiger, who has been in China for a few years now, reports that the growth rate of the country's entertainment industry has been "astonishing." He thinks that the more it opens itself to outside competition, the stronger and larger it will become. (At present, China only shares revenues with 20 foreign film imports per year.)

We sometimes get a little insular back here on the fruited plain, thinking that the movie business revolves around our fine American entertainment conglomerates, and that cartoons begin and end with Pixar-Disney-DreamWorks. Such, as the numbers above indicate, is not necessarily the case.

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Tales of D Wing -- Part II

From the retirement dinner for Bob Youngquist at Disney, December 15, 1970. From left to right: Phil Meador, Ruth Tompson, Jim Swain, Fred Hellmich, Dick Lucas, Chuck Williams, Pat Lestina, Sylvia Niday, Barbara Orum, Bud Hester. More here, here and here.

Mr. Hester spent most of his creative life with the Mouse, but he spent one year away from the Burbank studio, working for Bob Clampett ...

TAG Interview with Bud Hester

*Click to listen in your browser. Right-Click and Save to download to your computer to listen later.

Find all TAG Interviews on the TAG website at this link

"Clampett ran a great studio," Bud remembers. "We had to produce seventy-five feet of animation a week, but we had fun doing it. Bob had a fire bell that went off at every break, and a lot of the guys had toy pistols strapped to their belts, creeping around corners and drawing down on other artists also wearing pistols ..."

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Manhattan Beach?

We used to set off boxes of fireworks on the sand there when I was eleven.

... Director James Cameron and 20th Century Fox have signed a lease for studio and office space at MBS Media Campus in Manhattan Beach and will use the facility for the motion capture photography and high-tech production on two highly-anticipated sequels to Avatar ...

But what you bet most of the effects work gets done in New Zealand?

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A Good If Angry Omen?

USA Today marvels at the popularity of a game for mobile devices:

... Angry Birds demonstrates the huge potential for the perfect mobile game in a global marketplace that Juniper Research expects to rise from $6 billion in 2009 to $11 billion in 2015. ... And last month, the developer released a new version, in which you free caged exotic birds — a tie-in to the Fox animated film Rio, out Friday. Angry Birds: Rio, which comes in free and paid versions on iPhone (99 cents) and iPad ($2.99) and free for Android devices, had 10 million downloads in its first 10 days. ...

We already know Rio has done gangbusters with openings overseas. This handy little app is, I think, a fine forward-looking indicator about how the movie will roll out domestically.

It's reasonably clear that all systems are go. Reviews have been good. Awareness is up. Animation rides a cresting wave of popularity. So all the tea leaves at the bottom of the Big Cup indicate that Rupert's Minions have themselves a winner.

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Help Extend the Seamless Cloak

"At the Animation Guild, our goal is to extend the seamless cloak of health and pension benefits to all animation artists in the Los Angeles area."

That's a favorite sentence we add to material we create for organization drives. It invokes feelings of comfort that you get from a warm blanket or a parental embrace when describing the employer-funded protections that come with working at Guild signator facilities. It's also easier to understand compared to describing the power of collective bargaining in a few sentences.

When asking folks to sign representation cards, it helps to understand what benefits could be coming your way. I always thought the biggest challenge in getting signed cards would be from the artists who haven't experienced the benefits of membership. Imagine my surprise when I found out I was wrong.

In the Organization Process, gathering signed representation cards is essential. Its the yardstick with which we measure the level of support within a group. Once we have received enough cards, we're able to move closer to reaching an agreement with an employer. Without enough cards, we continue to work with the artists who have shown interest to reach out to the rest of the group.

In our attempts to identify and organize animation companies in Los Angeles, we've talked to plenty of TAG members working non-union jobs. Its always nice to speak to an artist who has experience with the benefits of union membership. What deflates the sails is hearing how they'd love to see the studio they're working at "go union" but they don't want to tip the canoe and are unwilling to sign and return a representation card. The reasons for this vary (fear of being identified as pro-union, the job won't last much longer, they don't want to jeopardize the small shop at which they work, etc.)

Understandable. It's tough out there and sticking your neck out isn't the wisest move. But, as Steve Hulett likes to point out, small shops are paid by bigger ones named The Disney Co,, Time Warner, Viacom and News Corp. Follow the money up stream, and you'll land at one of the Hollywood Conglomerates. So, the job you're working now is being paid by the giant you worked for before. Except now, you're without the health and pension contributions.

Signing a representation card is a quick and confidential matter. We do not share the names of those who have signed representation cards with other employees in the group, or the employer. It shows your desire to maintain the ability to have a voice in the workplace. It also helps to restore your eligibility in the Motion Picture Health and Pension plans by starting the process of bringing the employer to contract negotiations with us.

We at the Animation Guild are dedicated to extending the Seamless Cloak of health and pension benefits to all animation artists in the Los Angeles area. We need your help in doing it.

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