Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Real Animation Domination


For many decades, it seemed that Disney would remain unchallenged in the world of animated feature-length film production... Times certainly have changed!

Disney and Competition
Over the Years...

During the 1st Golden Age of Animation, the competing studios didn't have the budgets nor the ambitions of the Disney studio. Instead they broke new ground with short subjects (i.e. Warner Bros.' cartoons, Tex Avery's films and Hanna/Barbera's Tom and Jerry series), redefining animation in their own ways without making 80-minute films. A few studios gave the animated feature-length film business a try, most notably the Fleischer Brothers with their rotoscoped Gulliver's Travels in 1939 and the box office disaster that was Mr. Bug Goes to Town (which had opened just two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor).

In the early 1970s, Ralph Bakshi produced more than two animated feature length films. A good number of them did well and were praised, such as Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic. He was famously the anti-Disney, as most of his films were aimed at adults only (Fritz was infamously the first animated film to get an X rating from the MPAA) and had art styles that were far removed from the lavish and cute productions coming from Burbank. But Bakshi began to wind down by the 1980s, as he started producing less raunchy fare such as Wizards and The Lord of the Rings.

Ex-Disney animator Don Bluth entered the ring in the 1980s. He was an ardent admirer of the Golden Age Disney films, and he was frustrated when he was at Disney in the 1970s since the company had become rather conservative and weren't willing to take any risks with the animation studio. He left Disney in 1979, took 14 animators with him and started his own studio. The results? The well-made The Secret of NIMH and the record-breaking An American Tail.

An American Tail was released by Universal Pictures in the fall of 1986, backed by an aggressive marketing campaign that played up Steven Spielberg's producer credit. For the first time, a major animated film had taken the throne... The highest-grossing animated feature film on initial release. The film's success was what got a then-declining (all due to the new faces at the studio who initially saw no future in feature animation) Disney to get back into the game. The results? Well there was the highly successful Oliver & Company in 1988, which famously opened the same day as Don Bluth's next big film The Land Before Time. It was quite a box office battle, as both films did very, very well. Oliver ended up winning in North America, grossing a record amount and beating An American Tail.

But then after that came The Little Mermaid in 1989 and the rest is history... Don Bluth on the other hand squandered his potential, breaking away from Steven Spielberg (though to be fair, Spielberg and George Lucas had butchered The Land Before Time) and scoring a disappointment with All Dogs Go To Heaven. The films that followed were very problematic and a good number of them went through the ringer before getting a suitable theatrical release.

The Second Golden Age really fired up after Disney's successes with Oliver and Mermaid, alongside the Touchstone-released Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Other studios wanted in: Fox, Warner Bros. and many others. But they screwed up... None of their films did well, and many of them were critical duds. Many of them are essentially Disney clones, as suits thought you'd could beat Disney by copying their formula. The only film that prevailed was Don Bluth's critical and commercial comeback Anastasia (released by Fox, who were then gung ho about going head to head with Disney) in 1997, which many non-animation fans usually call a Disney film. If only executives had let writers, directors and animators try something different, the Second Golden Age would not have ended.

DreamWorks positioned themselves as the anti-Disney when their Antz and The Prince of Egypt hit cinemas in 1998, which did change the industry somewhat. They were the first successful rival to Disney in a long time, and to this day they're one of the heavy hitters. The other distributors' plans failed... Fox killed their animation studio with the teen-centric Titan A.E., Warner Bros. invested in turkeys and Universal put out a slew of unremarkable films.

But nowadays, all the distributors are releasing competent films that also make a lot of money. Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks do have some legitimate competition in the form of Blue Sky, Illumination and Sony Pictures Animation. On an artistic level, Disney and Pixar have very impressive rivals in Aardman, LAIKA and several small studios whose films are independently released.

Let's just say that this Third Golden Age of Animation is a big one... It may not reach the level of near-perfectness of the 1st Golden Age, but animation is booming. More than one big budget animated feature-length film hits the silver screen every couple of months. Some years have more films than others, but we're at a point where animation has become so lucrative that there's a lot of it out there. If anything, that's something to celebrate even though there's a good amount of subpar work out there. There's a few studios I can point the fingers to...

But now the competition looks like it's going to get hairier... Very much so...

Disney vs. Fox

At the end of May, Disney announced their upcoming slate that focused on their own animation studio and Pixar. They secured dates for eight - four from Pixar, four from Disney Animation - currently untitled/mystery productions (though going by the tidbits we get, we could assume what these films will be) that ranged from March 2016 to November 2018. Now this seemed a bit crazy to some, considering that November 2018 is over five years away. It certainly showed that they were ready, and they also implied that they got the spots to warn the competition from taking such dates. When's the last time a Walt Disney Animation Studios film opened in late winter/early spring? November is usually shared by both Disney and DreamWorks nowadays, sometimes they swap positions. For instance, in 2010, DreamWorks' Megamind opened at the beginning of the month and Tangled came out the day before Thanksgiving. But in 2012, Disney got the early spot for their Wreck-It Ralph while DreamWorks' Rise of the Guardians arrived a few days before Thanksgiving.

Interestingly enough, one of the dates that Disney picked was the 17th of June in 2016. That spot was picked for an untitled Pixar film, presumably Lee Unkrich's "Dia De Los Muertos" film. Last autumn, DreamWorks had announced that this was the day their How To Train Your Dragon 3 was scheduled to arrive. (It was mistakenly announced for June 18th, that's a Saturday in 2016!) So now Pixar's film and the DreamWorks three-quel are currently set to open on the same day... They are apparently going head-to-head.

Before Fox made their move earlier this week, I had assumed that one of the studios was going end up moving their film. My money was on DreamWorks, since they have occupied the first Friday of June before with 2008's Kung Fu Panda and the upcoming B.O.O., which is slated to open on the 5th in 2015. But moving Dragon 3 would be weird because the second Dragon is hitting theaters on the 20th of June next year. But where else could they have it open? Sony is releasing an animated Angry Birds film on July 1, 2016 so crunching Dragon 3 between Pixar's film and Angry Birds would be unwise... Fox didn't move it and it seems like they won't...

Not too long after Disney announced their upcoming slate, Fox announced that they had claimed dates for Blue Sky films and DreamWorks films. Their slate ended a month after Disney's! In addition to not moving Dragon 3 (Disney has not moved Pixar's film), Fox struck back... Peanuts, which is being made by Blue Sky, was originally pegged for a November 6th release in 2015. Now, it's been moved to November 25th. What else comes out that day? Finding Dory!


That's right, the long-anticipated sequel to one of Pixar's most popular and beloved films. Fox apparently thinks that Peanuts will put up a good fight. True, the film is based on the quintessential American comic strip, but the question is: Will the film do the strip and the iconic characters any justice? Or will it be an insulting dud that's no different from the other "retro revivals" that have been coming out? (i.e. Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Smurfs...)

This will be the first time since 1989 where two big high-profile studios will go head-to-head at the box office. (No, Anastasia opening against The Little Mermaid's re-release in 1997 does not count!) In the recent years, we've seen studios distance their films away from others. With today's ticket prices, 3D and families being choosy, releasing two animated films so close to each other could be a big risk that yields small rewards. Fox also plans on having an animated film from one of their studios open on June 16, 2017 as well, the same day as Pixar's summer 2017 film. Fox is gung ho about taking the Mouse House head on. I can see why they are so confident, they have two animation hit machines.

Finding Dory, from where I stand, will easily clear $100 million on its opening weekend and will go on to gross more than $300 million domestically. Peanuts? I honestly can't see it making a big splash on opening weekend, though we have no idea what the film will be like at the moment. If it's worthy of the original comic strip, the specials and the animated features, then it could possibly do very well on opening weekend. $40 million is the floor for it, so it won't flop, but I can't see it doing too, too good against the Pixar sequel. The legs and momentum might be cut off. It doesn't help that Fox will be releasing the fourth Alvin and the Chipmunks and Kung Fu Panda 3 a few weeks after Thanksgiving.

This leads me to ask another question...

Box Office Brawls

With so many big animated films opening so close to each other in the far future, what will the results be? Well, next month, we'll get a good idea. And no, I don't think this battle will be a brutal war or anything...

Monsters University opens this coming Friday, and shortly afterwards Despicable Me 2 will hit theaters, kicking off July's animation line-up. One film is from a beloved and generally trusted studio, it's a prequel to a film that lots of people love and families haven't had an animated film to go see since Epic, nor a "must-see" one since The Croods. Pixar also has adult appeal given their track record.

The other is a sequel to a film that lots of people loved, and kids will be begging their parents to see it again and again. The first film successfully appealed to adults as well, plus the film's Minion characters are everywhere. The marketing, as usual, is aggressive and all over the place. It's a new big franchise!

Both will clear $200 million at the domestic box office, $300 million is also very possible for both... But...

Turbo is in a bit of trouble. Now coming out after these two films isn't enough, but two big family-friendly animated films open right after it debuts. Unlike the two before it and the two coming after it, Turbo is not a sequel nor is it based on a brand that people are familiar with. The film isn't really appealing to adults either but Fox's marketing isn't lazy, they want this to be a hit since The Croods pulled in close to $600 million for them! I will be shocked if it makes more than $150 million domestically. The marketing is kind of passing it off as a family-friendly Fast & Furious, something that could either work in its favor or backfire miserably.

The Smurfs 2 is a guaranteed hit much like Monsters University and Despicable Me 2, since the first was a big hit and also, it's one of those franchises that kids seem to go gaga over. Adults probably won't be there for the sequel, not sure why the original even took in $140 million+ to begin with. Films that only kids and parents go to see don't gross that much!

Then there's Planes, which Disney probably gave a theatrical release due to two things: The popularity of the Cars franchise amongst kids and the fact that they wanted to give DreamWorks' racing-themed snail flick a run for its money... Well, maybe. Anyways, this one is a bit tricky to predict but kids and their parents will be there on opening weekend... Anyone else? Who knows, but a gross of over $50 million is certainly in the cards. If the film turns out to be decent-to-good, like the early reactions imply, then $100 million is very possible. If it goes that far, then I'll also be surprised.

Now if all these films perform well (as in meeting expectations and/or not underperforming), then it'll indicate that audiences are willing to see many animated films in theaters at once. Also, these films have all of August and September to make their dough. Will any get left out? Or will all four of them do well?

In short, this summer will basically answer that question: How will audiences respond to four big, heavily-marketed animated films opening so close to each other?

More and More...

Usually, we get more than eight wide release animated features (not counting indie releases or US dubs of foreign language films) every year. But with these studios ramping up their schedules and planning to release 2-3 films in a single year, imagine how massive 2016, 2017 and 2018 will be!

- Walt Disney Animation Studios will start offering two films a year starting in 2016.
- Pixar will begin readying two films a year in 2015.
- DreamWorks normally releases 2-3 films a year. They may even try to bang four out in a single year! They've tried!
- Blue Sky may start releasing two films a year by 2017.
- Sony Pictures Animation normally has two films ready for a given year, though at other times they have just one.
- Illumination may do two a year, since their development slate is jam-packed.

On top of that, you have your occasional Aardman and LAIKA films coming out every 2-3 years. Reel FX is also entering the ring, hoping to have one film out every year starting this autumn with their questionable Free Birds, which Relativity Media is releasing. If that's a hit, Relativity may want to invest in more animated features since Fox will be releasing the studio's second film, the much more interesting Book of Life.

DisneyToon's Planes franchise is a theatrical thing now, so Disney is taking major league advantage of that regardless of how it affects Pixar's image. Lucasfilm Animation has a film in the works, their second overall and their first non-Star Wars project. Of course, Disney will release it and might promote the heck out of it... Will Lucasfilm Animation be Disney's third feature animation hit-maker? (DisneyToon shouldn't be their third, because aside from Planes, they've got nothing else that's suitable for a theatrical release. Heck, Planes isn't suitable for theaters!)

Maybe in the next 2 years, we'll see more small studios and stop motion houses successfully getting their work released nationwide. Maybe a small hand-drawn revolution will be sparked by small animation studios, perhaps from the animators Disney recently laid off. Maybe it'll motivate the big studios to invest in hand-drawn films that don't cost as much as the computer animated films.

With all these studios' plans, it's possible that animation will really dominate towards the end of the decade. The reason why we don't see more than 20 or so big studio animated films is obvious, animated films take longer to make and there's only six big studios in the American animation industry, though more are on the rise. It's amazing that a studio like DreamWorks can have three films ready for release in a single year, and they all look good... Story and screenplay is another issue, but still!

So if more and more come, what could possibly happen? Here are two theories of mine...

A Negative Effect
Glut and Potential Collapse

Now there is a negative side to all of this... There may be a ton of animated films coming, but quality... Quality! What if we get, say 20 big studio animated films in 2020? What if 6-8 are good, a few more are decent but the rest are mediocre-to-bad? Films that scream "Yeah... We're just trying to make money"? I've been saying this for a while, but distributors need to give independent animated films a chance too. A lot of them don't cost too much and you could make a good profit off of them if you promote them right. A lot of those films are hard sells, but a lot of distributors screw up with the marketing (Fantastic Mr. Fox for example), making these relatively low budget films fail at the box office.

With a lot of bad/mediocre animated films coming and going, people will start complaining "There are too many animated films these days!" Of course, no one bats an eye at the amount of terrible-to-unremarkable live action films that come out every week. Animation is still seen as that "annoying kiddie stuff" to most people, so more and more animated films may scare them away from the good stuff because ignorance speaks volumes. So much saturation in the market could produce a negative effect.

Let's say a good number of films don't do well at the box office and audiences avoid a good number of animated films from the big studios. What will the distributors and studios resort to? Look at DreamWorks. Rise of the Guardians lost quite a lot of money (that was the fault of the marketing, not the movie), grossing $303 million worldwide against a $145 million budget and presumably sky high marketing costs. Look what happened: A project that was already in production was scrapped ($40 million loss there) and over 350 members of the staff were laid off! Imagine if Sony Pictures Animation or Blue Sky were to score a disappointment on that level. It doesn't seem to matter if the next film saves them, DreamWorks still did what they did not knowing that their next film would be a smash hit. If anything, the suits should've waited to see how The Croods did in addition to taking note of Rise of the Guardians' home media sales. (Which were reportedly very good!)

But these studios are unpredictable. Focus Features seemed to be fine with LAIKA's ParaNorman failing to double its small budget, their next film is already being fired up. DreamWorks on the other hand fretted over Guardians, which still did okay enough. To their credit, they have several films planned and they know what films will be on their ever-changing slates. Someone like Sony Animation doesn't, evidenced by their announcement that two untitled films are coming in 2016 and 2017. Disney does that with Disney Animation and Pixar. Illumination's 2015 release is also untitled at the moment. Still, how would one of those studios (minus Disney and Pixar) react to a flop or money-loser?

Since I don't know too much about how the business works with each of these studios, I can only assume that the studios have different expectations. Some may be a little less demanding, while others are hoping for big profits.

A Positive Effect
The More the Merrier

Despite what attitude Americans may currently have towards animation, more and more animated films coming out (and perhaps a renaissance for indie animation) could change audiences' perceptions of animated features and animation in general. Maybe it'll be the "thing" in the coming years, since there will be more of it.

More and more people are slowly warming up to the stuff that used to be shunned as kids stuff or whatever. Audiences will show up for good animation, and more people are checking these films out. People without kids. Maybe a diverse range of films - and many to choose from - could only strengthen this current Golden Age. Animation will be more commonplace, but in a good way. We're so used to live action films and big budget blockbusters coming every week or so, the American people could damn well get used to several animated films coming in a single year.

Things could go over very well if studios keep trying with different films and not always spewing out family-friendly stuff. People will get sick of that, and they'll continue to associate the art form with family-friendly fare and kids stuff. I've been saying this for a while: The American animation industry seriously needs to invest in lower budget adults-only fare and rocket the medium to new heights. In order to make a successful thing even more successful, you have to take a risk or two. Paramount tried with Rango and it paid off, other studios should give it a try. Fox is releasing Reel FX's seemingly unconventional and perhaps not-so-family-friendly Book of Life next autumn, so that could help the medium.

I mean, I think if all 15-20 of the big studio films are only family films (G and PG), audiences will get tired of the medium and will stick with a few studios or whatever piques their interest. Studios also have to up the quality on their product, because some of them churn out clunkers. How much more Smurfs and Ice Age-type stuff can audiences take, really? Audiences are okay with bad live action films oozing out of every pore, but the amount of animated films released a year is tiny compared to the amount of live action films. Also, everyone pretty much accepts live action easily, but not everyone accepts... You know... Cartoons. Tough reality, but the medium continues to struggle in some ways.

However, if the batch of films every year is generally good, animation might just become more and more commonplace. That would be great, because it wouldn't be that once-a-month or once-in-a-while thing... That is, if studios put out a lot of stuff to choose from. A wide variety... But is the industry up to that challenge? It seems like it'll take a while before they get there, if they ever get there at all...


Theatrical animation has now become a growing empire, one that continues to grow with more studios launching and distributors seeing the opportunities in the medium. Many years ago, Disney dominated for the most part. Nowadays, everyone dominates. The industry is huge... But it'll be become mammoth... What the outcome will be, who knows. What do you think the future of animation has in store for us? What do you think of multiple films opening a year? Animated films opening so close to each other and/or on the same day as other animated films? What's your take on all of this?

Sound off below!

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