Is the toon biz over-drawn?

CGI pix used to seem invincible, but the glut is proving to be a headache

For the feature animation business, it’s possible that more could be less.

In 2004, the average box office for an animated pic was $149 million. This year, it’s $88 million. But then, there are 50% more toons in release this year than in ’04. Three toons have bowed in the past three weeks: Sony’s “Monster House,” Warner Bros.’ “Ant Bully” and Paramount’s “Barnyard.”

The bullish spirit of several years ago, when all these projects began production, has given way to introspection: How much is too much?

CGI-animated pics once were seen as the safe, flop-proof arm of the biz, but the 2006 box office is upending that optimistic view. Before this year, the only CGI failure ever was last summer’s “Valiant,” but this year has already seen three: “Doogal,” “The Wild” and “The Ant Bully.” One or two more are likely before the year is out.

The news is not entirely glum: Animation box office is on track to beat the $1.2 billion record set in 2004.

But that record year was largely due to just two movies, “Shrek 2” and “The Incredibles,” which together grossed $702 million. This year, the only unqualified hit is “Ice Age: the Meltdown,” with a solid $195 million at home and an astounding $461 million overseas.

The Weinstein Co.’s “Hoodwinked” nabbed $51 million, making it a success considering its tiny budget.

Otherwise, the picture is less jubilant for the seven other toons released to date (six of them CG).

“Cars” purred to an animated $235 million in domestic B.O. But pic is Pixar’s lowest grosser since “A Bug’s Life” in 1998. Disney had pushed back the original November release date to summer, emulating the release pattern of its top pic, “Finding Nemo,” which had a domestic cume of $339 million. But “Cars” ended up doing worse than “The Incredibles” and “Monsters, Inc.,” the animation studio’s last two November openers.

Similarly, “Over the Hedge,” while certainly not a flop with $152 million, is DreamWorks Animation’s second lowest-grossing CGI pic and its lowest-ever summer CGI release.

The industry has been through this kind of cycle before. After Disney toons like “The Lion King” started making big bucks in the early ’90s, both Fox and Warner Bros. entered the market, only to pull back after costly flops like “Titan A.E.” and “The Iron Giant.” The one animation newbie of the ’90s who stuck with it was DreamWorks, led by former Mouse House animation topper Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Tightly bunched release dates certainly have played a part in the downward trend. “The Wild” came out just two weeks after “Ice Age,” while “Over the Hedge” and “Cars” were three weeks apart.

By contrast, last year “Robots,” “Madagascar” and “Chicken Little” all had a two-month buffer on either side with no CG toons.

“You don’t have the luxury of just grabbing those key beginning-of-summer or traditional Disney November release dates,” notes Sony Pictures Animation exec VP Penney Finkelman Cox.

Next year won’t offer much relief. While the number of toons will decline somewhat, there are still numerous key releases bunched closely together. WB’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and Disney’s “Meet the Robinsons” currently are skedded for the same day in March. Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” Sony’s “Surf’s Up” and DWA’s “Shrek the Third” all come out in a six-week span during the summer.

The real challenge may not just be getting auds to go to a CGI toon when there are others already in theaters. It’s making each one stand out in people’s minds, especially when so many of them feature wisecracking talking animals.

“I don’t know that it’s so much the medium as whether you have something truly compelling that can stand out from a pack of films that, by and large, look the same,” observes one distribution exec.

The fall brings similar challenges for the industry, as “Everyone’s Hero” and “Open Season” open two weeks apart in September and “Happy Feet” hits theaters two weeks after “Flushed Away” in November.

IDT’s “Hero” (which Fox is distributing) and Sony Pictures Animation’s “Season” represent the first foray for those studios into the CG space, while “Happy Feet” is only the second for Warner, after the disappointing “Ant Bully.” All three are important for studios hoping they can compete in animation.

And with its stock currently hovering near an all-time low, DreamWorks Animation is hoping “Flushed Away” will exceed expectations, rather than prove a mild disappointment like its last two releases “Hedge” and “Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.”

Summer is, of course, the prime playing time for animated family pics, as kids are out of school. For the $100 million-plus “Open Season” and “Flushed,” coming out of the fray with more than $150 million will have to be considered a success, while the less expensive “Happy Feet” and “Hero” have a more modest bar to pass.

In addition, three of the four include talking animals — “Everyone’s Hero” has a talking baseball bat and ball — meaning execs face the same challenges.

Just a year ago, overseeing animation seemed like one of the most comfortable places for a Hollywood exec to be sitting. But 2006 is proving that toons take just as much intestinal fortitude as the rest of the biz.

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