Friday, August 11, 2017

Recap: Paramount Updates and Disney Streaming

Two big studios and their big plans...

Paramount Animation is still slowly bubbling to the surface...

The mountain distributor had actually been kind of behind on the whole animation game, though for a long while they were distributing DreamWorks' films. The first of which in the line-up was the spring 2006 release, Over the Hedge. Though Paramount's logo and name were mostly downplayed in the marketing and not shown at the beginnings of those movies. 20th Century Fox? Different story, and I'm sure we'll see the Universal globe before How To Train Your Dragon 3 in March 2019.

Anyways, Paramount was under the radar for quite a while. At the start of animation's 2nd Golden Age in the late 80s/early 90s, the distributor tried on somewhat riskier fare like Hyperion's Bebe's Kids and Ralph Bakshi's Cool World, but both of them ended up being critical and commercial losses. They then mostly turned their attention to TV show-based movies, scoring successes with both kid-friendly and adult-oriented stuff. On the former side was a handful of Nickelodeon show-based movies (The Rugrats Movie was the first non-Disney/Pixar animated film to gross $100 million at the domestic box office), and movies that started shows. On the latter side was Beavis and Butt-head Do America and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.

Before distributing DreamWorks films, Paramount had trouble with animated features that weren't Nick properties. They continued to stay quiet on the animation front after inking their deal with the moon boy studio in 2006. Outside of the mo-capped Beowulf and the Nick show launcher Barnyard, Paramount didn't widen their field. That was, until 2011, when they unleashed the eccentric Gore Verbinski-directed Rango and the Steven Spielberg-directed adaptation of The Adventures of Tintin. For a while, I was really digging Paramount because of that, and because of how strong some of their DreamWorks releases were.

Rango may not have been a box office smash, but Paramount was seemingly very proud of it no matter how much it ended up making. They gave Verbinski and the production companies a $100 million+ budget and let them make their offbeat, wild movie that was loaded with a lot of "kids movie" no-nos: Smoking, mild cussing, Wild West violence, innuendos, scary imagery, the whole nine yards. It was wonderful, it got them an Oscar, it got them critical raves, and apparently the film's performance gave them confidence in launching their own animation wing...

Except that didn't quite begin as well as one would've hoped. Right out of the gate were management changes, trouble from the parent company, a last-minute abandoning of an acclaimed European production, and some movie about monsters living in trucks that was meant to start a Hasbro-sized franchise. Right now, they seem very reliant on Nickelodeon-based properties and animated movies that seem like pilots for Nick shows. Like they were in the late 90/early aughts. One of them happens to be a romp called Amusement Park, which is about a kid and a bunch of animals discovering a lost talisman that will take them to the gods- I mean, a lost amusement park.

A co-production with the Spanish animation studio Ilion, it was originally projected for late 2016, then it was revealed that the film was Amusement Park and that it was going to open on March 22, 2019. Long afterwards, Paramount seemed to have some confidence, and moved the film up to July 13, 2018... Then pushed it back a bit to August 10, 2018. Now, the movie has gone back to where it came from... Sort of. The movie is now set for March 15, 2019. The untitled Paramount/Nick pic that was then in the 3/22/2019 slot is now off the schedule.

Now, they're beefing up.

Remember how Skydance announced that they too were going to partner with Ilion? Well, as I suspected all along, those co-productions will be Paramount releases. It should come as no surprise, because Paramount and Skydance have a history together, though anything was possible. Skydance did, after all, make a couple movies for other distributors: Sony's alien survival movie Life, and the upcoming (literal) disaster, Geostorm.

Anyways, Luck is one of them, a high concept picture that's being directed by Kung Fu Panda 3's co-director Alessandro Carloni. The other one is a fantasy picture about a teenage girl using her magical powers to stop an evil force from dividing her kingdom. That film is being directed animation veteran and Shrek co-director Vicki Jensen, and now has a baffling title... Split.

No, I'm not kidding. The movie is going to be called Split.

This isn't a Frozen situation. What do I mean by that? Well, Frozen was a 2010 horror movie about a ski lift. Three years later, Disney Animation unleashed their fairy tale musical Frozen. Does anyone remember the 2010 horror movie Frozen? Anyone?

Whereas M. Night Shyamalan's Split, on top of being regarded by some as a comeback movie for the long-struggling director, was a box office hit. It's also getting a sequel, called Glass. I don't know if it's smart to call this one Split. Plus, I'm a little tired of these one-word, sometimes past-participle animated movie titles. Some are fine, Pixar's excelled at them. Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up are excellent movie titles. I don't mind one-word titles that use the protagonist names, like Bolt, Coraline, and Moana. Or ones that use a location, like Zootopia. A good title, no matter how many words is in it, describes something major about the movie in a catchy way.

I never liked titles like Tangled, Brave, Epic, Home, Leap! (Ballerina, I know), Underdogs (Foosball, I know), this, that. Split, I feel for the time being, is one of those titles.

I hope the movies themselves, even if they're family films like nearly everything else, are noteworthy. Carloni directing Luck makes me excited, and it's cool to see another female spearhead an animated feature. Show me what you got, Skydance.

Moving on...

Disney plans on removing all of its titles - possibly sans Marvel and Lucasfilm content - from Netflix and intends to compete with all the streaming services with their own.

Does this remind you of anything?

Disney Studios All Access is one of many failed Disney home media-related projects of this very decade, but unlike its brethren (such as Disney Second Screen, Disney BD-Live, and Virtual Vault) it was eventually saved... It became Disney Movies Anywhere, and I have it, it's quite useful if you're on a trip or if you need an in-flight movie. Bring your iPad, watch movies, maybe even special features while you're at it! So far, I actually quite like DMA despite some little setbacks here and there.

Disney Movies Anywhere isn't necessarily like a Netflix-type thing you subscribe to, though. It's free, but the movies cost. If your DVDs and Blu-rays contain digital copies of the movies, DMA will be your locker for them, not dissimilar to things like Ultraviolet. You can port them over to iTunes, Amazon Video, this, that. All Access was going to be that, and reportedly would have on-demand streaming.

I feel that in the recent years, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment has kind of been at the crossroads. Blu-ray and DVD sales are okay at best these days, it's not like it used to be. The Lion King is a fine example, as that film is coming back to Blu-ray in a few weeks. The previous edition - the Diamond Edition from 2011 - went back in the vault in 2014, and sold roughly 6 million units, DVD and Blu-ray combined.

Now compare that to the original video release in 1995, which broke industry records that hadn't been broken since. 30 million units+, I don't even think the Titanic VHS release in 1998 beat that. The Lion King had also done incredibly well when the 2003 Platinum Edition DVD hit the racks, selling 2 million units in its first day alone. 6 million units overall isn't bad, but the Diamond Edition clearly didn't sell like hotcakes, and The Lion King is a beloved film. What went wrong?

Well, it's a combination of things... The outdated Vault strategy that only breeds scalpers, and the sort of "why buy it again?" mentality. The idea of something being locked away for so long is an annoyance for many, and some parents want their kids to see these classics at a young age, but are frustrated when they can't find a decent DVD or Blu-ray copy. If anything, they could settle for a VHS copy at their local yard sale or at Goodwill. That is, if they're aware that they can find them there for a buck instead of scouring eBay, where misinformed people sell the VHS releases for thousands and thousands of dollars because some 90s nostalgiaholic site like BuzzFeed said so. All for VHS releases of Disney films that may be collectible (ahem!), but are as common as NES cartridges of Super Mario Bros. or CD copies of Jagged Little Pill.

On the other side is folks who own the films in some way. Disney drilled it into your head, even as far as back the mid-1980s, that when they were gone, they were "gone." The tactic was used ever since Disney launched their first line for the animated classics on home video. The second video releases of these titles would be picked up by those who missed out the first time who weren't willing to pay scalpers $300+ for the previously-released, in-the-vault edition.

Yes, that actually was a problem back in the 90s as well. Other people would settle for taping a film off of The Disney Channel, and that wasn't a common occurrence. My mother, in the early 90s, went as far as having a co-worker of hers use a machine to copy the near-entirety of the 1990 VHS of The Little Mermaid to a blank recordable VHS tape. For years, that was our way of watching The Little Mermaid, and I still have it! After the movie's over, an airing - complete with commercials - of a David Letterman show takes over!

Anyhoo, I think it's Disney's loss. People sell Lion King DVDs and Blu-rays on Amazon and eBay inbetween releases, and they get big bucks off of them. Some people are willing to shell out that much to have the movie in good quality, because I suspect a lot of the population doesn't use VCRs anymore or do care about the quality of the presentation. That, or they worry the VHS copy will wear out after repeat viewings. If available all the time, Disney could perhaps get the sales they're not really getting anymore. Ironically, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner once said something along the lines of, "Pinocchio is making nothing sitting in the vault." That was in 1985. (My copy pictured below.)

Eisner was actually something of a huge proponent of the video releases of Disney animated films, but kept the Vault system alive in order to appeal to the side of the company that wasn't keen on giving those films any sort of home media release. The "What Would Walt Do?" people that assumed a man who was dead for nearly two decades would've objected to releasing his films on home video, all because of his refusal to show them (with some exceptions) on television. You see, the Vault system is a variation of something Walt Disney needed decades ago. Three of Walt Disney's first five animated features lost money at the box office, a lot of this was due to World War II cutting off the European market and audience disinterest for other titles. Snow White hit it big and was released internationally, a year before World War II broke out. Dumbo was a shoestring budget movie, so it was all set from the get-go. Pinocchio and Bambi's grosses failed to cover their massive costs, Fantasia was mishandled by distributor RKO and audiences were indifferent to Walt's concert feature. Theatrical re-releases over the decades made all of those films profitable, and they found new audiences over time.

At first, the strategy proved effective. Disney slowly ascended to the home video throne in the mid-to-late 1980s, and ultimately started holding all the records. Lady and the Tramp, Fantasia, 101 Dalmatians, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin were all at one point - individually - the highest-selling video releases of all-time, beating out popular contemporary blockbusters from Top Gun to Terminator 2. It seemed like the Vault would still work, for DVD releases of the classics performed very well. Pixar's films never really were part of the Vault system, and they sold millions upon millions of home video units. Some of Pixar's films just quietly vault, and then the new edition comes a year or two later. They seem to stay on the racks for a while, they don't do the limited time thing. Finding Nemo, for instance, sold well over 25 million units by the mid-2000s. The DVD was pulled in 2010, two years before the 3D re-release and subsequent Blu-ray edition came out. The 2012 release - DVD and Blu sales combined - sold around 5 million units. Night and day difference. Finding Dory moved about 6 million physical units.

So yes, the home media market isn't the same, and you can see why Disney has been disappointing with most of their Blu-ray releases. At the same time, they are seemingly skittish about digital... All of their popular non-vault movies are readily available on DMA and other platforms, but here's our beef...

Where are all of Disney's classic animated shorts? Where are all of the television programs and episodes of Walt Disney's anthology program? Where are all of the episodes of various Disney television shows? What about all the contents of those great Walt Disney Treasures sets? Some of them might be on YouTube. Sometimes on Netflix, seasons of a classic Disney show will pop up, but that's about it. What would get me to subscribe to a Disney streaming service is all of this aforementioned stuff... If they have all of that, I'd be in. $8-10 a month for all of this? Unlimited access? All in one place? Sweet! To me, it'd be pointless to launch a Netflix-esque service and only provide the common movies... Give us the real stuff!

About that... Recent reports now imply that Disney will leave the Marvel and Lucasfilm movies to Netflix, while bringing everything else (read: actual Disney stuff) to their little platform. I'm fine with that. Marvel and Lucasfilm may be owned by Disney, but Disney wisely treats them as arms. Star Wars movies don't open with the Walt Disney Pictures logo (though it'd be cool to see a Star Wars-ized Disney logo), Marvel movies as well. Disney treats them as standalone brands, the names can sell them, the Disney name does not. You'll see Disney's name on various Star Wars merchandise items, but that's about it.

Like I said, Disney has been kind of slagging in the home media world. With the Vault seemingly coming to an end, they're re-releasing the once-limited animated classics faster than ever before. This year, we have gotten three Signature Editions - Pinocchio, Bambi, and The Lion King - and it's not even September yet! All of those films were already given major Blu-ray releases not too long ago, yet we still haven't gotten anything for the package features, The Black Cauldron, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and multiple films that don't fall under the "bestsellers" category. Some films, such as The Sword in the Stone, were given awful video transfers. Other films' Blu-rays failed to port over scores of bonus features from earlier releases. Disney skimped on 3D for two big animation titles, and other countries get barebones releases, sometimes they don't get the films on Blu-ray at all!

Maybe a streaming service filled to the brim with everything could be the ticket. Perhaps it could end the diminishing sales of the classics, or if they just do away with the Vault altogether and offer all of the classics on all platforms, making them readily available.

Who knows, but I'll be keeping an eye on this...

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