Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Editorial: Keep It A Mystery!

I've been thinking about this particular topic for a little while...

Why is it good for big mainstream animation studios to be secretive about what's to come?

Is it because it's smart to keep your ideas under wraps in order to keep others from taking them and making them old news before your movie even comes out? Possibly. Or, what if someone just happened to beat you to the punch? For example, a lot of people assume that Pixar's Newt was abandoned due to another big studio animated film that had a very similar plot. Newt was first announced in April 2008, whereas Rio was announced afterwards though it was in development for a long long while. Pixar did the unthinkable back in 2008 when they announced Newt, along with Brave and Cars 2, even giving us the plot synopses of those films.

That contrasts heavily with the Pixar of 2004, when we only knew about Cars and Ratatouille. The earliest hints of WALL-E came about in 2006, two years before its release, and Ratatouille's plot synopsis at the time wasn't even the real deal. (To be fair, when that plot was announced, Jan Pinkava was still the director of the film and his version of the story was different.) Up? That was known by no one other than Pixarians or anyone who happened to be in the studio at the time. Toy Story 3 wasn't on the cards just yet, for Disney was still run by Michael Eisner at the time and they were going to go through with their own Toy Story 3 had Pixar left them.

Pixar was like that up until 2008, when they announced their tentative 2009-2012 slate. We were told what Newt was going to be about, and some concept art surfaced until its cancellation was officially announced in May 2010. The animation community was saddened, big time...

Many assume that the plot similarities of Rio were the main reason why Pixar called it quits with the amphibian tale. That's most likely untrue, as their former president Ed Catmull told us a different story that certainly sounds far more plausible than "Another movie stole our thunder first!" Newt, like most animated films, hit that stage where there were lots of story problems. Gary Rydstrom, the brass felt, wasn't fit to direct it. Pixar doesn't hesitate to remove directors from films.

Rydstrom was off the film around late 2009/early 2010, so they turned to Pete Docter, fresh off of Up. He was asked to take over Newt and turn it around, he said he'd "do it" but he had another idea he wanted to go with first. Inside Out pretty much replaced Newt, end of that story.

What if Pixar never told us about Newt? What if they simply said back in 2008, "We have an untitled film coming out in summer 2011"? Many people wouldn't even know that a really cool-sounding movie about newts was going to happen, but then ended up getting canceled. No disappointment, because you don't know about it in the first place!

Heck, even the delaying of The Good Dinosaur upset a good chunk of the animation community. "A year without a Pixar film? How will I cope?!"

DreamWorks has a similar case. Me and My Shadow, which they openly said was a 2D/CG hybrid film, was penciled in for a fall 2013 release a while back. Then it was moved to spring 2014 due to the usual slate shifts that happened there prior to the meltdown. They told us the plot and everything, we all thought it sounded amazing! Then in early 2013, it was removed from the slate. Many assumed it was cancelled, a ton of boos followed. It's apparently back on track now, but still... What if DreamWorks never told us about the film in the first place?

Then of course there's the big one... Disney...

My Peoples shuttered in early 2004? Nooooooo! Chris Sanders removed from American Dog and the film is reimagined completely? Nooooooo! The Snow Queen dies a cold death? Noooooooo! King of the Elves pushed back yet again? Nooooooo!

Walt Disney Animation Studios is pretty secretive these days, though they can't keep secrets thanks to others out there.

Big Hero 6 may have been officially announced by Disney in May 2013, but Honor Hunter of Blue Sky Disney slyly hinted at it as far as back 2011, saying that a "marvelous" project was in the works. Then he told us that it was going to be an adaptation of Big Hero 6 in June 2012. Disney apparently didn't feel the need to get on him, or the sites that spread the news.

Spring 2016 release Zootopia was officially announced by Disney themselves in August 2013, but we heard rumblings of the picture as far back as 2011. Then Honor Hunter over at Blue Sky Disney gave us the title and told us Jason Bateman was voicing Nick Wilde, that was in June 2013.

HH also mentioned that Nathan Greno was directing his own film back in 2012, and then told us in summer 2013 that the film in question was Giants and that the studio was aiming for a fall 2016 release. HH hinted at Moana several times, and Disney announced in summer 2012 that Ron Clements and John Musker's project would be set in the South Pacific. HH then said in summer 2013 that Moana was going to be the spring 2018 WDAS film.

Disney officially announced Moana last autumn and told us it's coming in fall 2016, NOT spring 2018. They have yet to announce Giants, though John Lasseter reportedly let that one slip at last autumn's Tokyo International Film Festival.

Now I had also heard last summer that Giants had sort of hit the wall, the "story problems" phase. All animated films hit that phase, pretty much. It's never easy, because sometimes you'll see that the story isn't coming together despite the ideas and heart.

So it's possible that WDAS initially though back in mid-2013 that Giants would precede Moana on their big slate. Well, they didn't officially announce that... That way, the general public has no idea that the films exist, let alone know that they played musical chairs with them. Suppose Disney DID tell us back in summer 2013 that Zootopia, Giants, Moana and Cosmic 3000 (whatever that Dean Wellins film is actually called, that's a rumored title) were going to come out in that order... Only to rearrange the slate a few months down the road? People would groan "Awwww".

Pixar did just that in 2008, and now they are not doing that again. We don't know what their 11/22/2017 and 6/15/2018 releases are. Toy Story 4 was officially unveiled last year and given that 6/16/2017 release date, two years after the movie was conceived at the studio. We don't know what Disney Animation will release on 3/9/2018 and 11/21/2018 respectively, we might have an idea based on theories and rumblings, but truth is... We don't know.

Contrast all of this with some live-action outlets.

Marvel Studios, and certainly president Kevin Feige, had no problem with announcing the entirety of Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe last autumn... And they held an event at El Capitan Theater for that! All for a slate of titles and release dates! Phase 3 ends in summer 2019, no less!

They did this because they know it's all going to happen, it's set in stone. In animation-land, nothing seems definite unless it's a sequel. Again, a movie like Newt could be canned just like that. In the case of the MCU, every film is an entry in a very successful series, and each film is a piece to the puzzle, any given film will still happen regardless of the bumps in the road. Ant-Man is the most infamous case, losing director Edgar Wright during pre-production. Now if only Marvel didn't say that Wright was directing in the first place, we could've been saved the disappointment... And the backlash and the panic button-slamming...

Warner Bros./DC's case is similar but weird. Technically, the only films that have concrete release dates are Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. The other dates remain vacant, because the slate that WB put out during a shareholder conference was like this...

Wonder Woman (2017)
Justice League Part One (2017)
The Flash (2018)
Aquaman (2018)
Shazam (2019)
Justice League Part Two (2019)
Cyborg (2020)
Green Lantern (2020)

We know, however, what their release dates will be. Why they didn't give us the exact dates, I don't know. Maybe they're not willing to count their chickens before they hatch? After all, they are hinging on Batman v Superman, big time! Man of Steel, despite grossing $668 million worldwide, was considered a disappointment to them. It's also the first film in this series. I can see why they were let down, given the Nolan stamp, the marketing, the hype, and that huge opening, it should've cleared $300 million stateside with ease while bursting past $700-800 million worldwide. Well, a lot of audiences didn't like the movie...

Fox is playing that way to some extent. An untitled film is set for summer 2018, which could either be another X-Men film or an X-Men/Fantastic Four crossover, or X-Force. Something.

Paramount seemingly has no idea when the next Transformers film will hit, but they have already inked the release dates for the two sequels to Terminator: Genisys, which isn't even out yet. G.I. Joe 3 has a director and writer, but no date has been inked either. WB penciled in Godzilla 2 after the first film made quite a splash, yet they don't have too many films slated for 2017 or 2018 outside of DC and WAG films. On the other hand, Universal hasn't told us what Universal Monster pic will be opening in spring 2017 while telling us when Pacific Rim 2 and Kong: Skull Island will come out, and despite what WB said at that shareholder conference, the release dates for the Fantastic Beasts sequels are not official. Untitled WB Event Film...

It's good to see live-action studios beginning to follow a model that animation arguably could've invented. Marvel arguably made that model even more popular, as that kind of "announce the release date" things get fans craving for more information...

But let's focus on the films themselves...

Locking a bunch of release dates is super-smart. Get them before others do, ya know? It's like being in college and getting classes you want for the next semester before the tons of other students who attend get them first.

However, should studios unveil the films themselves so early on?

No, not really.

Look at the Mouse House right now. Zootopia began development as far back as early 2011, not too long after director Byron Howard's Tangled was completed. (Tangled's other director, Nathan Greno, was initially set to helm alongside Howard.) It was hinted at by various outlets, Disney didn't say a word about it until August 2013. By that time, it was probably past all those pesky "story problems" phases and was now definitely going to happen. Well, it's apparently entering production as we speak. It opens in less than a year from now, so I bet some scenes are already finalized.

Moana was also pitched in early 2011, after Ron Clements and John Musker's Mort project fell through, which they had been working on after completing The Princess and the Frog in 2009. They immediately sought out a new project, pitched three ideas to Lasseter, Moana was the winner. It was certainly hinted at prior to Blue Sky Disney leaking the info to us in summer 2013. Disney officially announced the film, even though a good chunk of the public knew of its existence many months prior, in October 2014. Nearly four years after it entered development, no less!

Now look at Pixar in early 2008. Where was Newt when Pixar announced its existence to the world? When did that film enter development? That same year? 2007? 2006? I doubt it was any time before that, but you never know. I'd assume it began development around 2006 or 2007. In 2008, it was probably still in its infancy, meaning it was nowhere near ready to walk. It didn't grow, and it was ultimately canned. Maybe Pixar should've held off any announcements until early 2010, which is when the film was shelved. That way, they didn't disappoint a ton of people.

As much as I'd love to see Disney Animation announce "We're hard at work on Giants, an exciting story inspired by Jack and the Beanstalk!" without giving a release date, it's better that they don't. The same applies to any non-sequel that's in development there, whether it's Dean Wellins' film or the one that Lorelay Bove/Brittney Lee are heavily involved with...

After The Good Dinosaur, Pixar won't release an original film until possibly fall 2017. It all depends on what's going on with Toy Story 4, and if that moves out of its current summer 2017 slot. What is the next original after the dino pic? Is it Mark Andrews' film? Is it Teddy Newton's film if he's still there? Is it something we've never even heard of? Well, it's better we don't know, because what if that film ends up going the way of Newt?

DreamWorks ought to do this for the films they intend to release after 2018. Sony Animation is tight-lipped right now on their untitled 2016 and 2017 releases, Illumination's hush-hush on their Christmas 2016 release since it's not a sequel or a Dr. Seuss reimagining. Reel FX announces concepts before release dates. Blue Sky knows what they have in store over the next three years.

Better to keep it under wraps, and reveal it when it's ready. Don't show a meal that hasn't even been thought out yet, you wouldn't really show the ingredients to your customers now would you?

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