Raft of new animated offerings enter the fray

It’s hard enough maintaining an animation franchise. Launching a new one is nearly impossible.

Risk-averse Hollywood has become increasingly loath to invest in films without built-in character recognition that can be exploited in ancillary markets — thus the proliferation of sequels, spinoffs and films based on superheroes, toys, best-selling children’s books, comicbooks and videogames. Animation is no exception.

Take the case of this year’s breakout hit and Oscar animation hopeful “Despicable Me,” which nearly never was, given the level of skepticism within Universal about backing an unknown entity. In fact, the studio’s marketing ranks were able to secure just one significant tie-in partner: the IHOP restaurant chain.

Still, the gamble — championed by ani veteran Chris Meledandri — paid off. The film, which features the voice of Steve Carell, helped launch Meledandri’s new Illumination animation shingle with worldwide grosses totaling $479 million. As a result, the film’s marketing-friendly “minions” will return for a second outing, planned for a 2013 bow. Meledandri is currently putting together the same core team for the sequel, including Carell, directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin and scribes Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio.

“This film was one of the most compelling pitches I’ve ever received,” recalls Meledandri, a 20th Century Fox defector who was behind that studio’s lucrative “Ice Age” franchise, of his first month on the job. “Sergio (Pablos, who exec produced “Despicable Me” and received “story by” credit), came and saw me with 15-20 hand-drawn images that told the whole story. It captured the essence of character and tone of the film. I was completely captivated. I was in the intensive development phase of building a slate, and this film declared itself as the movie I was going to go with first just because of the clarity of what it was.”

These days, virtually no major animated film gets made without the prospect of sequels and merchandising built in. Prior to taking on “The Illusionist,” director Sylvain Chomet had been hired by Universal to direct “The Tale of Despereaux,” but as the scale of the production grew, the studio decided to try a director more amenable to the Hollywood way. As wife and business partner Sally Chomet told the London Times, “We had barely finished a character sketch, and its potential as a plastic toy was being assessed.”

Such considerations may seem anathema to independent animators, but they’re not uncommon in the big-budget world of studio animation, as evidenced by changes made to Disney’s Rapunzel project, redubbed “Tangled” in a hope to lure young male audiences after the studio’s hand-drawn “The Princess and the Frog” was deemed too girl-centric at the box office.

Under Walt, Disney operated exclusively in the realm of quality one-off projects, but in recent years, the Mouse House looked to sequels to bolster its bottom line, originally ordering “Toy Story 2″ as an hour-long straight-to-DVD project from Pixar (which the sequel-averse studio expanded into its most critically acclaimed feature) and looting its library for homevid follow-ups to pics such as “Cinderella,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.” This year saw the release of Disney’s third feature based on its most popular “Peter Pan” character, “Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue.”

Where Disney has an entire pantheon of brand-level animated properties, newer toon studios endeavor to create similarly beloved franchises and characters if they hope to survive. “Ice Age” keeps Blue Sky/Fox Animation comfortably in the black, while Sony Pictures Animation desperately needs a franchise to keep their operations going (they’ve got a lot riding on next year’s “Smurfs” movie, with only “Open Season” DVD sequels to show for their first three features).

Across town, DreamWorks Animation could fairly be described as “the house that Shrek built.” After a string of semi-successful stabs at different formats, including CG (“Antz”), hand-drawn (“Prince of Egypt”) and stop-motion animation (“Chicken Run”), DWA hit it big with “Shrek,” using the almost $3 billion the film series has generated so far to support the rest of its operations and slate, including 2010 originals “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Megamind.”

“Over the summer, Jeffrey (Katzenberg) made a decision that we’re interested in pursuing a sequel to ‘Dragon,’?” says producer Bonnie Arnold, who oversaw the first installment. She’d fallen in love with Cressida Cowell’s young-adult series and asked Katzenberg specifically to work on the project, which became the studio’s best domestic performer ever outside of the “Shrek” franchise with a $218 million stateside haul en route to a $493 million global total. (A far better fate than that met by Warner and Animal Logic with their own YA adaptation, “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole,” whose underperformance leaves both entities relying on “Happy Feet 2″ rather than “Guardians” sequels going forward.)

With co-helmer Dean DeBlois returning to write and direct, the “How to Train Your Dragon” sequel is scheduled to begin production in the new year. Though DeBlois ultimately envisions a three-chapter franchise that would carry the character through old age, Arnold insists, “The only one for sure right now is No. 2,” explaining, “There are nine books, and I feel like there are all sorts of elements that we could pull from.”

Also on tap for “Dragon” is an upcoming Cartoon Network series, which poses its own challenges for the filmmakers.

“We have to figure out what direction they’re going in so it doesn’t step on any of the territory of the sequel,” adds Arnold. “We have to be careful that (the property) doesn’t get overexposed.”

In the case of “Megamind” — which features the voices of Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and Brad Pitt — the project was carefully developed so as not to get lost amid the onslaught of late-2010 3D kid pics and underwent several title and cast changes (the film was originally dubbed “Oobermind” and boasted Ben Stiller and later Robert Downey Jr. as voices). The resulting superhero sendup, which opened with a $47.7 million domestic bow, is almost certain to receive sequel treatment.

“I think it’s a little early to anticipate what will happen, being only one weekend into the run with a long way to go both domestically and internationally,” says Anne Globe, head of worldwide marketing for DWA. Globe admitted, however, that the studio will be revisiting the possibility of a “Megamind” franchise in the coming weeks. “At DreamWorks Animation, our mission always has been to create franchises,” she adds. “We always look at every story with the potential for some ongoing storytelling, whether it’s in a sequel or in a TV show.”

(Peter Debruge and Andrew Stewart contributed to this report.)

More Eye on the Oscars: Animation Preview articles:
New toons seek to establish fresh franchises | Veteran toon franchises wrap it up | Toons vie for Oscar nom

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