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Fox’s toon high noon

PHOENIX — On Nov. 21, with the release of the animated feature “Anastasia,” 20th Century Fox will unveil the fruits of its $100 million animation studio here.

Armed with its most aggressive marketing campaign ever, Fox can pretty much ensure that “Anastasia” will receive more attention than the studio’s decision to establish the toonery in the desert.

While 20th Century Fox’s declaration three years ago did inspire some snickering in the animation community, for the most part, the declaration had all the impact of one hand clapping.

Didn’t they know the rules? You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. And you don’t mess around with Disney toons.

But Fox wants to break those rules.

With the support of its highly competitive parent News Corp. — with full backing from News Corp. topper Rupert Murdoch and Fox studio chairman Bill Mechanic — and its vast international distribution and marketing machine, Fox feels confident that not only is there room for more than one animation label in town, but with its inaugural film, “Anastasia,” that it has put in place the foundation for the long run.

In just three years, under the guidance of Chris Meledandri’s Fox Family Films (which oversees all animation) and toon veterans Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, Fox has managed to set up the 66,000-square-foot facility; equip it with state-of-the art digital animation equipment; staff it with experienced animators; and develop and produce “Anastasia” without getting caught up in the rampant competition of the L.A.-based animation market.

Facing the skeptics

“The idea was not to build the greatest facility, but to make good movies with great stories,” Mechanic said. “I think we will have proved skeptics wrong — this movie will stand on its own with all animated movies.”

For its release of “Anastasia,” Fox has launched the studio’s most aggressive marketing campaign ever — estimated to be as much as $50 million. Fox has lined up cross-promotion agreements with Burger King, Dole Foods, Hershey, Chesebrough Ponds, Shell Oil and the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, to be broadcast on ABC during the November sweeps.

“Anastasia” also will have a heavy presence on the Fox Kids Network, and there are three planned “Anastasia” TV specials as well as a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Mechanic admits that the studio is spending more to market and promote “Anastasia” than it did on “Independence Day” — 35% more, in fact.

To Fox, “Anastasia” and the Arizona facility send a signal that Burbank is not the only stop on the animation express.

Significantly, since production setbacks bumped Warner Bros.’ toon feature, “Quest for Camelot,” from its original fall date to next year, “Anastasia” will be the only new animated feature in theaters during the holiday season.

Disney rivalry

However, the film will have to go head-to-head with Disney’s re-release of “The Little Mermaid.”

This follows Disney’s long-running strategy of re-releasing one of its hit animated titles to kill the box office hopes of rivals. Its 1995 re-release of “The Lion King” eviscerated the theatrical runs of animated upstarts like the Turner-Fox co-venture “The Pagemaster” and New Line/Nest’s “The Swan Princess.”

The release of Fox’s first animated film comes at a time when many are bemoaning a downturn in the animated biz, signaled by the less-than-“Lion King”-size numbers rung up by Disney’s last two releases, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Hercules.”

Many analysts and studio execs use “The Lion King” — which roared to a $772 million box office around the world — as their economic model for animated films. But others, including Fox, point out that a “Lion King” happens once a generation, just as “Forrest Gump” and “Independence Day” happen once in a blue moon.

One animation insider says that “to predicate a business model on such a rare, once-in-a-generation event is bad, short-sighted business.”

But in Fox’s case, it was able to establish and staff a studio and make its first movie for a combined capital investment that is less than the studio’s cost to make and distribute “Speed 2: Cruise Control.”

If the $53 million “Anastasia” becomes a hit, Fox will be able to re-release the film every seven or so years and earn considerable revenue from video sales and from distribution via the various News Corp.-owned broadcast, satellite and cable outlets. Those revenues, plus the overall benefit to the entire company of establishing a family-friendly brand, make Fox’s investment in the feature animation arena appear to be a good long-term investment.

Taking the long view

“Animation is a timeless entertainment, so if you take the long view, then these first movies from Fox should be looked upon as capital investment in building a brand that can be amortized over the life of the franchise, whether it’s Fox Family or Fox Animation Studios,” says Aaron Berger, an attorney and partner in Animanagement, an agency for animation pros.

Loosely based on the legend of the sole surviving member of Russia’s last royal family, the Romanovs, “Anastasia” features the voices of Meg Ryan as the title character, John Cusack, Angela Lansbury, Kelsey Grammer, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Lloyd and Hank Azaria.

Some observers feel “Anastasia” is a risky outing because the story is told through realistically drawn characters from a tragic point in Russian history — an execution of a royal family — a departure from the films that rely on cutesy, talking animals and doe-eyed, anthropomorphic heroes and heroines.

But with this story, Fox presents a host of contemporary and historical issues and emotions — a girl’s search for love, identity and family — that have proven to be timeless elements of successful films in the past, animated (“Snow White”) and live action (“Little Women”).

While Fox pulls off an animated film that has a more direct appeal to adults, it doesn’t ignore the value of evil villains and merchandisable side-kicks that often prove effective in attracting children.

In Rasputin (voiced by Lloyd), Bluth has created a villain whose manic mood swings and inability to keep his body parts attached should prove a particular attraction for boys — who have always been the primary audience for toons. Comic — and merchandising — relief comes in the guise of Bartok, Rasputin’s wise-cracking, albino bat sidekick (voiced by Azaria).

However, the gloss of the new venture and Fox’s role as the underdog are sure to fade after “Anastasia.” As the studio puts the finishing touches on “Anastasia,” it has one film in production (“Planet Ice”) and is in development on a third, the next project for Bluth and Goldman to produce-direct.

Big plans

The studio has plans to make a live-action/stop-motion animation film based on the comic novella “Dark Town,” to be written by Sam Hamm, produced by Chris Columbus and directed by Henry Selick (“James and the Giant Peach”). Fox also is developing a computer-animated version of William Joyce’s “Santa Calls,” with Massachusetts-based Blue Sky Studios. Fox Family Films has cut back on the amount of live-action it will develop and concentrate almost exclusively on animated fare.

But the success of Fox’s toon town rests on Bluth and Goldman. About the decision to hire the pair, Mechanic said they were the only choice. The duo is one of the most experienced set of directors-producers in the business.

Bluth and Goldman, who first teamed in the early ’70s on the Disney films “The Rescuers” and “Pete’s Dragon,” are known for work such as “The Secret of NIMH,” “An American Tail,” “The Land Before Time” and “All Dogs Go to Heaven.” Those four pix have generated nearly $600 million in total gross revenue.

But while Bluth’s skills as an animator and director have been widely praised, his independent production entities have had a bumpier existence.

The duo left Hollywood for Ireland in the late ’80s to take advantage of that country’s lower labor costs, but the enterprise was finally folded in ’93.

Bluth has admitted that the shortcomings of his indie endeavors have been “a lack of expertise to market and distribute the films to their utmost potential.”

Fox, which has been lauded for the strength of a marketing department run by Robert Harper, offers Bluth and Goldman what they’ve always lacked in previous ventures.

While the road ahead may be as cloudy as Anastasia’s true identity, Fox feels it has the right mix of economic and creative resources to compete with Disney from now on.

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