Friday, November 01, 2013

Lower Budgets

From the New Yorker:

... The low-cost “Metegol,” [produced in Argentina], arrives as Hollywood animators are desperate to cut spending. Budgets have ballooned because of labor and development costs, and the survival of studios like DreamWorks Animation and Pixar increasingly depends on every one of their few films becoming international blockbusters.

According to Edmund Helmer, whose Web site, BoxOfficeQuant, tracks Hollywood economic statistics, the average budget for a major animated feature in 2009 was $101.4 million; blockbusters like “Cars 2” and “Toy Story 3” have had budgets of two hundred million dollars. Many of these make back what they spend. But when films fall short, it can cause financial catastrophe. After DreamWorks Animation’s hundred-and-forty-five-million-dollar “Rise of the Guardians” flopped domestically, the studio, which releases two or three films a year, took an $86.9 million write-down and laid off three hundred and fifty of its twenty-two hundred employees.

One animated film that successfully broke the Hollywood big-budget cycle was Illumination Entertainment’s “Despicable Me” (2010), budgeted at sixty-nine million dollars. Christopher Meledandri, C.E.O. of Illumination Entertainment, saved money by hiring few executives, outsourcing animation work to France, and adopting more stylized animation than that of hyper-detailed movies like “How to Train Your Dragon” or “The Croods.”

Meledandri told me that smaller budgets are not only more prudent; they also allow for more movies with character that can succeed without appealing to everyone.

The strategy seems to be working. “Despicable Me” earned more than five hundred million dollars worldwide in 2010, paving the way for its recent sequel, which cost an estimated seventy-six million dollars and has earned more than eight hundred and forty million dollars.

Campanella, with “Metegol,” hoped to go a step beyond “Despicable Me,” which had been made by a Hollywood studio and with Hollywood money. He would produce a Hollywood-quality animated feature without Hollywood involvement—and at a price that would allow it to turn a profit even if it never sold a single ticket in the United States. ...

This isn't complicated, though "analysts" and commentators sometimes try to make it seem as if it is.

Most animation studios that I know about, union or otherwise, could produce theatrical animated features for under $100 million. But they would have to do a few things differently, like for instance:

1) Stop hiring big name stars for voice roles that could be better done by professional voice actors. Disney used this business model for years. Outside of Bing Crosby on "Ichabod Crane," I can't think of many super stars Walt employed on his cartoons. Radio and character actors filled the parts better, so they were the ones who got the gigs.

2) Tie the movie down in story. Work the whole thing out before heavy duty production. Get the character and production design set. Then put the animated feature into work. (I know of one big budget cartoon feature, fortunately a hit, that kept morphing and changing and running up a bigger and bigger tab as sequences were put into animation, pulled out of animation, then put into animation. Note to management: This gets expensive.)

3) Rely more on top-notch board artists and less on A-list, live-action screen writers who don't know the medium and often produce expensive, unsuitable screenplays that either have to be heavily revised or thrown out and replaced with something else.

4) Stop overgilding the lily. "Ultra realistic" isn't always the best solution. Because computers can render every feather on a bird or blade of grass on a rolling hillside doesn't mean all that rendering has to be done. Illumination Entertainment designs films that work well for the story being told but don't cost a jillion dollars in fancy visuals. More expensive doesn't necessarily make for a better movie. More expensive sometimes gets in the way.

5) Strive for a lean administrative staff. Administration is a needed component inside a studio, but it doesn't add artistic value. So it's wise to make admin as large as it needs to be, but no larger. (When administrators are calling lots of meetings that accomplish little beyond slowing down the creation of the picture, that means there are too many of them.)

Twenty-one years ago, Disney's Aladdin was released. It cost $28 million and grossed over $217 million in the U.S. and Canada. Adjusted for inflation, the Arabian Nights tale would cost $46,729,665.00 today. So what was the crew -- many of whom are still working in the biz two decades later -- doing right?

* The screenwriters were young, energetic, and loved animation. And because they were not yet big names, they didn't cost an arm and a leg.

* The story director was one of the best board artists in the business.

* The directors were experienced veterans with multiple quality features under their belts.

* The animators and designers and technical staff were all seasoned professionals.

* Disney Feature Animation was on a roll, racking up hit after hit. The department's chops were up, and the staff had a lot of self-confidence.

There is no hard and fast formula for creating successful animated features. It's art, after all, not science. But running up unnecessary costs adds nothing.


Alex Dudley said...

I notice Sony Pictures Animation has its animation done by a non-union studio, Imageworks.
And Blue Sky and Reel FX got their movies done under 100 million as well.
Does being a union studio might have something to do with higher production costs?

Stefan Ellison said...

Not necessarily. Pixar is non-union and they produce the most expensive animated films in the world. Though I guess their consistent box-office success means Disney has no problem letting them splurge a little more.

Steve Hulett said...

Union has only a little to do with it.

SPI (Sony Pictures Imageworks) had similar benefit and pay packages when it was doing the work in Culver City. It's now moved much of the animation to Vancouver, not so much to cut labor costs (although there's a wee bit of that) but to get big government subsidies.

As Stefan says, the most expensive animated features come out of non-union Pixar.

Big drivers today are 1) management decisions 2) tax subsidies 3) lengths of productions.

Disney's Tangled, if B.O. Mojo is to be believed, cost a quarter billion dollars. And it wasn't union costs that jacked costs up, but the fact it was in development and procution for close to a dozen years.

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