Animation a sensation at '09 box office

When it comes to the box office, animated films couldn’t be a bigger draw.

This year alone, toon fans helped five pics earn more than $100 million in the U.S., with Disney’s “Up” floating close to the $300 million mark and DreamWorks Animation’s “Monsters vs. Aliens” and Fox’s “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” scaring up nearly $200 million each.

That kind of coin has encouraged producers to as many animated projects as they can afford into production. Many of those films aren’t being made in the U.S., but overseas, in territories where much of the physical work on Hollywood’s animated films already takes place.

A toon boom is underway in Europe and Asia, with studios there ponying up big bucks to produce animated family fare that’s carefully crafted for American audiences — boasting appealing characters, high-end computer-generated visuals and packed with pop culture references.

Yet despite recent disappointments like “Astro Boy” and “Planet 51,” and “Igor” and “Valiant” before that, foreign toon shops are continuing their attempts to break into the U.S. market.

In the past, toons produced in those territories were expected to play only for local audiences, and were made for around $20 million to $40 million, with budgets financed with state funding.

But a greater focus on making animated films that can attract attention from U.S. distributors is upping pricetags considerably, and luring outside financing.

“Planet 51,” a CG-animated toon made in Spain and released by Sony on an impressive 3,500 screens, was produced for $70 million, while “Astro Boy,” from Japanese toon shop Imagi Studios, and distribbed by Summit Entertainment, was backed by more than $60 million in financing.

“Normally in Europe, we make a movie which succeeds there, and then jumps to the U.S.,” says “Planet 51″ producer Ignacio Perez Dolset.

Yet on “Planet 51,” producers always had the U.S. in mind, with Handmade Films, which handles international sales, locking down distribution in the U.S. before its home territory, Spain, sold.

Funding for that film came from deep-pocketed Zed, a Madrid-based developer of entertainment for mobile phone operators around the world. “Planet 51″-helmer Jorge Blanco and Dolset had cut their teeth on creating videogames at Pyro Studios before moving over to Ilion Studios to make their alien tale.

The distribution rights for films like “Planet 51″ aren’t considered too risky for studios.

If the films find an audience, that’s a boost to the bottomline of a distributor looking to fill their slates with B.O.-friendly family fare. If they don’t, the production entity takes most of the hit.

“Hollywood financing and production levels are hurting,” Perez Dolset says. “Cost consciousness means Hollywood will be far readier in the future to look around the world looking for films which offer larger value for money.”

Looking for that kind of return, Universal Music Group struck a partnership with StudioCanal at the Cannes Film Festival to pick up the U.S. theatrical, DVD, TV and non-theatrical rights to the $25 million pic “Around the World in 50 Years,” the second 3-D feature from Belgium’s Ben Stassen (“Fly Me to the Moon”).

But what’s also gotten Hollywood increasingly interested in foreign-made and financed toons is the fact that more studio titles are already being drawn by animators in other countries, with Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” produced from Paris and lensed at East London’s Three Mills Studios, where Tim Burton made “The Corpse Bride.”

Elsewhere, Paris-based Mac Guff is currently working on Chris Meledandri’s “Despicable Me,” his first animated feature for Universal Pictures, meanwhile Relativity Media’s “The Tale of Despereaux” was created at Framestore’s London premises.

The more high-profile toons made abroad also boast talent studios already work with:

n While Perez Dolset and Blanco came up with the idea for “Planet 51,” they drafted “Shrek” co-scribe Joe Stillman to develop the film and give it an American pop culture sensibility.

n Antonio Banderas is producing “Goleor, the Scale and the Sword,” a $33 million-fantasy epic, in pre-production at Granada’s Kandor Moon in Spain.

n Italy’s Rainbow Studios is behind the $30 million gladiator spoof “Versus Roma,” for which it has recruited “Shark Tale” and “Ice Age” scribe Michael J. Wilson. The 3-D toon is touted as Italy’s first full-fledged attempt to craft a global hit toon.

n In France, John Boorman is directing the $25 million-budgeted “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” produced by Laurent Rodon and Claude Gorsky of Films Action, and Boorman’s longtime associate Kieran Corrigan. Pic is co-financed by SND.

n And France’s EuropaCorp, owned by Luc Besson, has also ponied up $42 million for “A Monster in Paris,” skedded for a 2011 release, that “Shark Tale” co-director Bibo Bergeron is helming.

EuropaCorp, like the U.K.’s Aardman, is investing more than $40 million per pic after recent B.O. successes.

After earning $108 million worldwide from “Arthur and the Invisibles,” in 2006, EuropaCorp committed to release at least one toon per year around the world. The company has the second part of its “Arthur” trilogy, helmed by Besson, out this month, backed by a sizeable $95 million budget. The $102 million “Arthur and the Two World Wars” opens next year.

Whether those will appeal to U.S. auds is still up in the air. The first “Arthur” earned just $15 million in the U.S.

Producers are still trying to figure out what gets lost in translation when foreign toons unspool Stateside.

Despite their big budgets, “Planet 51,” has earned $30 million since Nov. 20, while “Astro Boy” has earned just $19 million domestically since its release Oct. 23.

That’s despite a built-in nostalgia factor for “Astro Boy,” with the TV show from the 1960s, Happy Meal toys at McDonald’s and heavy promotion at Comic-Con over the last two years.

Both pics are now starting to roll out overseas, which could help them recoup some, if not all of their production costs, but the fact that they failed to strike it big at the box office is vexing to distributors, who thought that the combination of ambitious production values and American tastes would boost their prospects.

Not all Stateside firms produce animated blockbusters either. Independent animated films can be challenging, like “Delgo,” distributed by Freestyle Releasing last year, which earned just $695,000. Focus Features’ “9” has fared better, with nearly $32 million.

However, “Delgo,” was maligned by critics, and “9” was darker than most other family toons, and marketed more to an adult audience who wanted to see an edgier take on traditional toons produced by Tim Burton.

But in the case of “Planet 51″ and “Astro Boy,” the films were marketed to younger kids. They were sold as big-budget studio films boasting well-known voice talent like Dwayne (formerly The Rock) Johnson, Nicolas Cage, Jessica Biel and Kristen Bell.

More importantly for moviegoers, they featured impressive visuals, with the rubbery looking aliens in “Planet 51″ looking like they’d fit easily within DreamWorks’ “Monsters vs. Aliens” and “Astro Boy’s” stunning visuals coming as close to a Pixar production as you can get.

While both of their campaigns were clear to keep the films’ foreign origins to themselves — “Planet 51″ even got the backing of NASA in order to help hide that fact — something obviously got lost in translation.

Previous films like “Valiant” or “Igor” didn’t attract audiences because they were considered too “European” or “fell short in production values,” says “Planet 51″ producer Perez Dolset. Others attribute their disappointing performances to the size of their marketing efforts in the U.S.

In the case of “Planet 51,” the look of the character and the film overall may have been creatively crafted to reference other pics that have worked before like “Star Wars,” “E.T.,” “Alien,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and “2001,” making it difficult for it to stand out on its own. It was hard for review
ers not to mention the resemblances to those films.

As for “Astro Boy,” the disinterest in the kid robot can be chalked up to the same reason “Speed Racer” didn’t take off with moviegoers: Just because a property was popular in the ’60s doesn’t mean it’s still cool with consumers today. Nostalgia doesn’t always mint money in the U.S., especially when the aging property was originally born overseas.

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