Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Starting at the Top (Ending at the Bottom)

After reading the entry on Delgo's failure, Paul Teolis pointed me to this 2005 article from Fast Company on the "Baby Pixars." The companies profiled are Threshold (Food Fight), Vanguard (Happily N'Ever After, Space Chimps), IDT (Yankee Irving - renamed Everyone's Hero), and Laika (Coraline).

The success of the Pixar and DreamWorks cgi feature started something of a gold rush into feature animation, but as the above list shows, the success rate was disappointing. Food Fight has yet to be released. Happily N'Ever After and Space Chimps opened but neither set the box office on fire. Happily earned approximately $16 million and Space Chimps earned approximately $30 million in North America. Everyone's Hero earned approximately $14 million and IDT sold off their animation business to Liberty Media. Coraline has yet to be released.

While everyone tries to be the new Pixar, not enough people remember that Pixar started off making shorts and TV commercials before their first feature. For reasons that can only be described as pure ego, producers think that they can enter the market at the top. This is the equivalent of a newbie golfer assuming that he can challenge Tiger Woods the first time he tees up or an expansion team in a league sport assuming that it will make the playoffs in its first year. Nobody in professional sports would take either of those situations seriously, yet somehow, people with more money than brains think they can make huge profits the first time they make an animated movie.

The producers of Delgo, Everyone's Hero and Food Fight fall into that category. While John Williams has more experience than they do, he moves to a new studio for each successive feature, never allowing expertise to accumulate. In sports terms, that's the equivalent of firing the entire team at the end of the season and starting from scratch the next year. How many times has that produced a winner?

Of the four companies mentioned in the article, Laika has the best chance of success. Laika is the former Will Vinton Productions. That company made features, TV specials, series and commercials, so the crew has experience working together on large projects. They're also starting with a story by best-selling author Neil Gaiman and it's directed by Henry Selick, who has directed three features.

Within the sports analogy, they're doing it right. You can hire great players, but it's still going to take time to meld them into a team. Along the way, there will be losses and missteps. The problem with hiring a fresh crew to make an animated feature is that those losses and missteps become part of the movie. Happily N'Ever After ended up using multiple studios to finish the film, and there we have a case where the players were never on the field at the same time. That makes it tough to execute plays.

The economics of maintaining an animation crew have always been daunting and they've gotten worse. But we now have evidence that when it comes to animation, you can't start at the top. Few, if any, of the "Baby Pixars" will grow to adulthood. If we see a new large studio emerge (and we may not), most likely it will be a studio that started on small projects, built an organization, and made its mistakes on low risk projects before attempting to compete in features. In other words, an expansion team that loses a lot of games while figuring out how to win.


Anonymous said...

I find this analogy so great. After Walt himself set the expectations, the "top" is almost as bad as Mount Everest: getting to the top in a 24-hour trip is in all ways IMPOSSIBLE.

And while the more sensible pioneers who don't view animation as a profit centre build up their necessary equipment to climb toward the summit, the big-ego show-biz executives that Mark Mayerson describes practically fling themselves at the mountain with oblivious contempt for others at the bottom.

Floyd Norman said...

If you've been in the business as long as I have you've already met these guys. Totally well heeled business types with ego and ambition. Yet, for all their business expertise, they're clueless when it comes to animation.

They'll continue to throw their money down the rat hole because making cartoons is easy.

Will Finn said...

well, yes and no, to some extent. while it is indeed quite difficult to go from zero to 160 in ten seconds, the time honored route of doing commercials has its pitfalls too.

look at richard williams. he became so successful at arresting attention in 30 to 60 second bursts that he wound up utterly unable to tell a cohesive long form story. and in the meantime the pipeline of earning money from the commercials diverted valuable time and energy away from the feature enterprise. it became utterly impossible to do both.

don bluth used to like to say "you can't serve two masters" and he was at least to some extent right. many people urged him to start a commercials division but he was smart to keep his attention focused on doing what he set out to do, and that was features. granted, he did a single "short" (BANJO) prior to starting feature work but he was also careful to not get too diverted into making a string of these just to keep his doors open.

while your tiger woods analogy is well taken, life is short and feature projects take a hell of a long time to do, even under optimum circumstances. in the words of mel brooks: "don't tiptoe into show business--jump in!"

Anonymous said...

Comment 1 to Will Finn: Richard Williams wasn't THAT hopeless in storytelling. Think of "Thief and the Cobbler" as one of those artsy independent live-action films, and Richard Williams as Wes Anderson (who, by the way, has taken up commercials in recent times). On second thought, "Thief & the Cobbler" is like an artsy independent film with blockbuster special effects, so the closest comparison you can make (and very slim) is to "The Life Aquatic" where above-mentioned Anderson utilized Henry Selick's stop-motion sea creatures in a sparse number of scenes.
Getting back to the point ...
The cobbler, the thief and Zig-Zag the wizard each have 33% of the story's spotlight. "Indie" films, according to my understanding, rarely have one main plot, instead having a variety of subplots to keep the members of an ensemble equal. "Royal Tennenbaums" and Little Miss Sunshine" don't have a main plot, but neither of them suffer.

In my mind, "Thief and the Cobbler" is not only a spectacular piece of craftsmanship but a spectacular piece of entertainment (if slow in a few places; no filmmaker is perfect).

Comment 2 to Will Finn: I don't know whether or not you jumped ship to Disney before production started on "An American Tail", but din't Don Bluth himself serve 'two masters' in the form of Steven Spielberg and Universal? Didn't he also serve three masters on "Land Before Time" in the form of Universal, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas? Didn't those two films turn out okay? My favorite Don Bluth film is "American Tail" mostly because of its historical wit (like the Punch Magazine of the 19th century), but partly because tensions (if there were any) that happened between Bluth vs. Spielberg and Universal (or Bluth and Spielberg vs. Universal) simply don't show up onscreen.

Jason Scott said...

Of course, I must disclaim my comment that neither I nor anybody else has seen Richard Williams' final edit of The Thief and the Cobbler - like many I watched the Recobbled version to see some idea of what was planned.

That said, I have to say that I enjoyed the movie, but it suffers, greatly, from being a team of craftsmen led by a craftsmen - there are sequences that go on (I'm thinking of the stopping-of-the-army sequence at the end) for what is well past storytelling, well past example: it's someone being left loose to work on what I assume was years of animation, with no end in sight. Left without constraint, without a set of limits, the project ends up so bloated with good work piled on top of good work that has no meaning, like the end of Citizen Kane.