Sunday, April 03, 2011

A New Animation Paradigm

We know what it is, don't we?

... Mr. Meledandri will tell you, his is not a typical animation operation. He wants to prove that strict cost controls and hit animated films are not mutually exclusive, that these pictures do not have to cost $150 million, which is about what Paramount Pictures and its partners spent on “Rango.” They can cost $69 million, the budget for “Despicable Me.” ...

As the New York Times reports, Illumination Entertainment has a small headquarters in Santa Monica, with thirty employees. Bureaucracy is lean. Production is subbed out to France's MacGuff, California's Rhythm and Hues, and other places.

Which helps production budgets stay in the $60-$70 million range.

Many Hollywood power brokers are amazed at this, but here's my take: Almost every studio that I waltz through has a bloated bureaucracy. Most have more production assistants, accountants, production managers, executive vice-presidents, coordinators, than they do artists. Empire building is the order of the day, 365 days per year.

Some time back, a producer/ show runner of an animated series told me how eight executives sat in his office one Monday, each giving notes. By the time the last two execs got to their reams of suggestions, the first one decided he needed to add a few talking points to his first go-round so that he could, you know, keep up with the competition.

This isn't a real fine way to keep costs down on animated product. In fact, it's kind of ludicrous, but it's the way a lot of business gets done in Tinsel Town: When a nice, productive little division has some success, pile on the bureaucracy and self-important egos. It's a great way to run that division into the ground fast*.

After rambling around animation for thirty-odd years, I've come to the conclusion that doubling and then quintupling the size of administrative staff and attendant managers is a bigger threat to a studio's well-being than unions, rampant nepotism or storyboard artists coming in late. Because once a lot of coordinators and production assistants are in place, they become self-perpetuating, creating non-essential paper-flow and new rules attached to lengthy meetings that clog production pipelines and bog down the creative process. As C. Northcote Parkinson warned decades ago about bureaucracies:

"Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

"The smaller the function, the greater the management."

"A committee is organic rather than mechanical in its nature: it is not a structure but a plant. It takes root and grows, it flowers, wilts, and dies, scattering the seed from which other committees will bloom in their turn."

"Delay is the deadliest form of denial."

"Expenditures rise to meet income."

"When any organizational entity expands beyond 21 members, the real power will be in some smaller body." ...

Here's hoping that Mr. Meledandri avoids all that, but as the Times notes:

... Universal has urged Illumination to hire more executives and double output to two pictures a year by 2013. ...

More executives, I'm afraid, aren't the point. More high-quality creators are.

* Case in point: Disney's feature animation division. In its small, quiet period, it had four production people. By the late 1990s, it had 23 corporate vice-presidents, a swollen bureaucracy that held lots of lengthy meetings, and pictures that weren't making much money.


Anonymous said...

rango cost more--around $180 million. The technicality showed what they spent the money on--they sure didn't spend much on the weak, rehashed story or awful design.

Anonymous said...

And while Despicable Me was made fairly cheaply, Meledandri chose an indecisive and not terribly talented director for his second outing. As a result, Hop cost much more than it should have.

Steve is right on. It's not in hiring more executives, it's all in hiring the right creatives, and letting them do their work.

Anonymous said...

Another article about Illumination that doesn't even mention MacGuff or Rhythm & Hues by name. In a piece about their cost-saving business model, no less.

Blink and you might miss this sole reference: "Illumination largely relies on an overseas rendering shop (which accounts for the spare headquarters in Santa Monica)." MacGuff and R&H were a lot more than rendering houses on Despicable Me and Hop.

This happens often enough in articles that it seems Illumination is trying to downplay the fact that they don't do their own CG production. They're not giving their partner studios enough credit.

Anonymous said...

BLOATED prod. ;)

Anonymous said...

More Rango bashing(10:33). Somebody has a major bug up his ass about Rango. What's that really about? Nobody promised it would be Citizen Kane. It was a quality CG movie, and it's making money. Isn't that enough? Get off it, already.

Anonymous said...

Was producing at a 'smaller' studio. When working on budgets for outside clients, I always had to add an extra 30% to the final cost of production for "management and faciities". This was on top of the costs for employees, equipment, supplies and production. The studio was constantly baffled how they lost series and features.

At one point, the head of the studio asked me why our artists were so much more expensive than studios we farmed work to. I told him my budget per minute was equal to every outside vendor we used. He looked at the figure and asked if the added cost was due to waste. I withheld a smile and simply said, "no, we need to add an extra 30 percent for upper management." He thought a moment and then said, "well of course! How are we expected to make any money?"

Anonymous said...

rango was a fairly decent kid's cartoon--even if it is one of the ugliest cartoons ever made. It's done OK at the box office, although it's got a ways to go to pay for itself and it's marketing. It won't have much of an afterlife, though.

Anonymous said...

FINALLY somebody figured out you dont need levels and levels of *useless* executives.

If places like Dreamworks would take note of this, maybe they'd make better, more consistent movies, and at a cheaper cost.
That will never happen though.

Once you bloat a studio with excessive management, they're there for life.

Hats off to Mr. Meledandri for figuring out who is actually needed to make an animated film, and more importantly.....who is *not*.

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