Sony’s cartoon unit faces uphill battle

Animation division looks past theatrical numbers

Sony Pictures Animation arrived in the movie wars with a formidable arsenal: the full backing of a global conglomerate, the talent and technology of Sony Pictures Imageworks, and executive leadership with a proven nose for hits.

When Sony’s first animated feature, “Open Season,” did a more-than-respectable $191 million in worldwide gross, everything seemed to be going according to plan, even if its numbers were well short of the heights attained by the most successful CGI releases from Disney/Pixar, Fox/Blue Sky and DreamWorks Animation.

Then came a clear setback. Sony’s sophomore effort, “Surf’s Up,” has garnered just $83 million worldwide to date, a particularly disappointing total compared with those other studios’ hits.

But Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton says flatly, “It’s not really a big concern.”

There is reason to see that statement as more than simply studio spin. Lynton notes he was at Disney when it released the disastrous “The Black Cauldron.” Instead of shuttering its animation division, as some thought it should, the Mouse House hung on and entered a new golden age with “The Little Mermaid” and the hits that followed.

So Lynton is taking the long view. In fact, Sony has set up three distinct pipelines for animated product.

There are Sony Pictures Animation’s internally developed projects, like “Open Season” and “Surf’s Up.” In addition there are projects conceived or developed elsewhere at Sony. “Monster House” (which earned an Oscar nomination and a solid $140 million take worldwide) and “Beowulf,” which arose out of Sony’s relationship with Robert Zemeckis, fall into this group, as does “Maximum Ride,” now in development from producer Avi Arad.

Sony also will distribute films from Aardman Studios in England, whose collaboration with DreamWorks soured after just one film, “Flushed Away.” Aardman will work separately from SPA.

That sets up the theoretical possibility that the studio could have as many as three animated releases in a year, but given the long development cycles both SPA and Aardman have, Sony Digital topper Yair Landau says, “I don’t envision us being fortunate enough to have that happen.”

Sony’s animation numbers look weak compared with the competition, but they haven’t had an out-and-out B.O. flop like Warner Bros.’ “The Ant Bully.” Furthermore, toon pros inside and outside Sony caution not to judge animation grosses, especially Sony’s grosses, by the same standards as a live-action release.

Landau explains: “With family product, and particularly with animation family product, DVD sell-through is a much bigger piece of the economic pie. And the continuing life of the movie and the characters in the movie is much greater.”

Landau claims to have statistics showing that “Open Season” was the third-bestselling title at Wal-Mart year to date. (Wal-Mart doesn’t publish DVD sales figures, so this figure can’t be confirmed.) “Based on purchases at Wal-Mart alone,” he says, “there’s over 10 million people who were exposed to ‘Open Season’ that way.”

Sony has already announced a direct-to-DVD sequel, “Open Season 2.” Landau says there is nothing definite yet on spinoffs or sequels for the “Surf’s Up” characters.

Sony also gets a break on costs because Imageworks is both a visual effects shop and an animation house. With the two revenue streams, Sony execs say, Imageworks is able to spread its overhead across more projects and therefore charge less for its animation work.

“On the whole, it’s much less expensive than if we were just in the animation business,” Lynton says.

If the direct involvement of Lynton and SPE co-chair Amy Pascal is an indication of support for toons, Sony Animation can boast that as well.

“They are very passionately engaged in basically helping our product and in shaping story and character and commerciality,” Landau says. “There are moments and components of both ‘Open Season’ and ‘Surf’s Up’ that are directly driven by Amy and Michael.”

Pascal, he says, focuses on making sure the stories and characters are strong, while Lynton “is really good as a detached observer who can come in and opine about what he thinks works and doesn’t work from a less emotional standpoint, which is always really helpful.”

Landau remembers an early pencil-sketch screening of “Surf’s Up” in which one character burst into song with “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

“Amy came out and said to me, ‘More poop, less Ethel Merman.’ Which was just a statement of commerciality and humor, but well phrased and genuine, and in a very Amy-like way, not highfalutin. From a producer standpoint, I find them a real joy to work with.”

Landau says SPA is proud of both “Open Season” and “Surf’s Up,” while conceding, “Do we aspire to a higher level of commercial success with the next one? Absolutely.”

And on that point of pride, Lynton echoes him: “It’s not like they weren’t good movies.”

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