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‘Tooning up or ‘tooning out?

Big bets on animation stir angst in biz

This article was corrected June 2, 2003.

This summer may mark the resurgence of the R-rated pic, but don’t think the entertainment biz has lost interest in playing in G-rated waters.

“Finding Nemo’s” big splash at the multiplexes this weekend points up the fact that there have never been so many feature-length toons in the works at one time.

Most boast big budgets, big stars voicing the characters, and hopes of millions in revenues from ticket sales, DVDs, toys and other merchandise.

But they also come at a moment when the animation biz seems confused as to which stories to tell and which technology to embrace.

And there are plenty of shuttered animation studios and unemployed animators to demonstrate it. Their dilemma stems from costly misfires such as Disney’s “Treasure Planet,” “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” and “The Emperor’s New Groove”; Warner Bros.’ “Iron Giant,” DreamWorks’ “The Road to El Dorado” and Fox’s “Titan A.E.”

This year, six animated pics will hit movie screens. Next year there’ll be 11, and dozens more are being readied for 2005 and 2006 and beyond.

All this animated activity is guaranteed to give studio distribution and marketing toppers headaches as they jockey for position on release skeds and rollout campaigns.

DreamWorks and Paramount already had one such back-and-forth this spring over the June and July dates for “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” and “Rugrats Go Wild.”

Among the projects on the drawing board:

  • “Nemo” is Pixar’s fifth back-to-back hit with Disney, and its first in the summer. Now releasing one pic per year, Pixar has two more pics with Disney in superhero laffer “The Incredibles” and the Route 66 comedy “Cars.”

The looming question is whether the two partners re-up their distribution pact, since Pixar chairman Steve Jobs says he wants a George Lucas-like deal at the Mouse House.

  • Disney has “Brother Bear” bowing at the end of this year, “Home on the Range” lined up for next year and its first all-CGI entry “Chicken Little” for 2005, and continues to release lower-budgeted toons from its TV animation unit during the President’s Day holiday. Through a Pixar-like relationship, it will release Vanguard’s first CGI pic “Valiant” in 2005.

One major goal is to find another fairy tale to adapt, considering the last one was 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

  • DreamWorks ships “Sinbad” into theaters July 2. In 2004, the studio releases the fairy tale sequel “Shrek 2,” underwater mob pic “Sharkslayer,” and its first foray into TV, the NBC series “Father of the Pride.” Starting in 2005, its pipeline will enable it to release three pics per year.

  • Blue Sky Studios, which created last year’s CGI hit “Ice Age” for Fox and is now prepping a sequel for 2006, is working on “Robots” for the studio for 2004, with “Ice Age’s” Chris Wedge directing.

  • One year after being formed, Sony Pictures Animation has recruited writers and directors of “The Lion King,” “Fantasia 2000” and producers of Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.” for six projects, including a feature version of the Oscar-winning short “The ChubbChubbs.” Sony also releases Revolution’s “Lil’ Pimp” next year.

  • At Paramount, John Woo is producing a CGI “Mighty Mouse” adventure, but the studio continues to release feature-length versions of its popular TV properties, with Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats Go Wild,” “SpongeBob SquarePants” and a “Jimmy Neutron” sequel hitting screens.

  • Among heavyweight producers, Tom Hanks has set up “The Spider and the Fly” as an animated musical about insects at U, and “The Ant Bully” at Warner Bros. through his Playtone shingle.

The company’s also developing a CGI pic based on Maurice Sendak’s kids book “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Also at U, Brian Grazer’s Imagine is in pre-production on a hand-drawn version of H.A. Rey’s book series “Curious George.”

  • Finally, producer George Lucas is mobilizing his considerable resources to take on CGI storytelling, launching Lucasfilm Animation. Blame much of this toon-up on Pixar.

click here to skip chart


Finding Nemo

Brother Bear

The Jungle Book II

Sinbad: The Legend
of the Seven Seas

Piglets Big Movie

Rugrats Go Wild

Shrek 2

The Teacher’s Pet

Home on the Range


The Incredibles

Fox/Blue Sky

The Polar Express
WB/Sony I’works
Clifford the Big
Red Dog



Lil’ Pimp

Jimmy Neutron 2


Chicken Little

Over the Hedge


The Wallace &
Gromit Movie


Curious George


“At the end of the day, it’s all about money,” says new Walt Disney Animation prexy David Stainton. Combined, Pixar’s last four B.O. outings — the “Toy Story” pics, “A Bug’s Life” and “Monsters, Inc.” — have generated $1.73 billion worldwide.

Add to that millions more collected from DVDs and toys, and you’ve got an enviable powerhouse — and a Mouse House increasingly anxious to keep the company in its fold.

It’s not as if Hollywood wasn’t interested in animation before.

The runaway success of Disney’s “The Lion King” fueled a flurry of animated productions in 1994, with Fox spending $100 million to build an animation studio in Phoenix, and MGM and Warner Bros. investing heavily in toons.

But when studios couldn’t rein in costs, and worse yet, when their pics — “Anastasia,” “Quest for Camelot,” “The Pagemaster,” “The Swan Princess,” “Thumbelina,” — failed, the biz lost interest.

“There were a lot of failures and the movies became too expensive, so the studios left,” says Sony Pictures Animation exec VP Sandra Rabins. “They lost their appetite for animation.”

Fox shuttered its Phoenix studio. The Lion hasn’t had an animated pic on its slate in years. Warners is still trying to find its footing, having scored only with the TV-based “Pokemon” pics.

This fall Warners releases the live action-animated combo “Looney Tunes.” And Disney has undergone rounds of job and salary cuts, and shaken up its animation unit by replacing toon chief Tom Schumacher with Stainton.

“There are no guarantees,” says DreamWorks co-topper Jeffrey Katzenberg. “The best stories do very, very well. As we’ve seen recently, when you miss the mark, it’s very painful.”

But Hollywood has made a comeback, thanks in large part to advancements and cost reductions in CGI technology.

“We don’t worry about technology anymore,” says Sony Pictures Animation exec VP Penney Finkelman Cox. “It’s no longer a question of ‘can they?’ It’s ‘will they?’ ”

But technological advancement has not always brought the oft-promised cost savings.

“Developments in technology continue to have significant effects on what we can do,” says Fox Animation prexy Chris Meledandri. “While technology allows us to produce more, the appetites of filmmakers grow and they strive to put more spectacular imagery on the screen. Budgets aren’t coming down, but the films are getting visually richer.”

Stresses Stainton: “People make a mistake in thinking that animation is a genre, instead of thinking that animation is just a technique. If you don’t have a compelling story and characters you’re not going to have a great movie. Just because it’s CGI, doesn’t mean it’s going to be good.”

Recent stumbles haven’t dissuaded Hollywood’s interest in toons. That’s because there’s too much money at stake not to get animated.

Disney has raked in nearly $500 million in profits from Pixar’s pics — at the B.O. and through DVDs, vidgames and other licenses. The Mouse House also enjoyed $146 million in domestic receipts from “Lilo & Stitch,” a pic budgeted at $80 million. Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” is said to have cost more than $100 million.

Across town, DreamWorks’ “Shrek,” the highest-grossing pic of 2001, generated $268 million in the U.S. alone. Last year’s $60 million-budgeted “Ice Age,” returned Fox to animation with $176 million at the domestic B.O., and pic made another $115 million during its first week on DVD.

And there are now kudos to be won, now that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is handing out Oscars to animated features. DreamWork’s “Shrek” won the first.

“Animated features are becoming successful financially and creatively,” Rabins says. “The entertainment industry is certainly taking animation more seriously.”

Just how seriously?

As a way to appeal to a younger demo, or at least to their own kids, A-list thesps are lining up to lend their voices to toons getting the greenlight (spending on average 10 days in a recording studio, three hours per day).

DreamWorks has become known for stressing the use of celebrity voices in its marketing efforts, with its latest campaign for “Sinbad” boasting Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michelle Pfeiffer. It also richly compensated “Shrek” voices Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz to return for a sequel.

“The actors we have for ‘Sinbad’ is a dream cast if you try to put a movie like this together in the live-action business,” Katzenberg says. “So why shouldn’t we have them for animation? Selfishly, we want the best talent in the world for our animated movies. It’s not an accident that the best happen to be the biggest stars. They have made our movies better.”

Either way, given animation’s still small universe, more pics means more work for those looking to break into the biz (typically 200 staffers are hired to work on a CGI pic).

“It’s good for the business,” Finkelman Cox says. “It grows the talent pool. ”

And keeps them working for some time.

Toons still take on average four years to produce from start to finish. Choosing which projects to produce is “very challenging,” Meledandri says. “The projects we’re looking at today won’t be out until 2007 and 2008. You have to really be committed to those stories. It’s a significant investment.”

Yet with Hollywood ramping up its level of CGI storytelling, could there actually be too many animated features pouring out of the production pipeline?

“It’s all about whether the movies are any good,” Stainton says. “It doesn’t matter how many there are. If the movies are great, people are going to go. People will go to things that appeal to them. There is no limit to what animation can do in terms of the technique in movie making and in terms of the marketplace.”

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