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Budget toons prove biggest winners

'Barnyard,' 'Ant Bully' among pix that followed a different model

For decades, the feature animation biz has consisted of just one model: studio-run animation houses that employ a roughly consistent number of animators who move from project to project.

That model continues today at Disney’s Pixar and Walt Disney Feature Animation, DreamWorks Animation, Fox’s Blue Sky Studios and Sony Pictures Animation. Because they bear the cost of staying active on an ongoing basis and try to push the envelope on technology and artistry, they typically spend well over $100 million on each project.

But this year, for the first time, saw several toons with a different model: animators hired on a contract basis to work on a single project while using off-the-shelf technology. The results of this effort to get a piece of the hot CG market are films like Paramount’s “Barnyard” and WB’s “The Ant Bully,” which cost roughly $50 million.

Studio pics with nine-figure budgets — such as this year’s “Cars” from Pixar, DWA’s “Over the Hedge” and “Flushed Away,” Sony’s “Open Season” and Fox’s “Ice Age: The Meltdown” — need to be worldwide hits with the potential to sell huge numbers of DVDs and licensed products. In 2006, only “Cars” and “Ice Age” qualify, grossing $461 million and $647 million worldwide, respectively.

Even “Hedge,” which made $331 million worldwide, ended up only a so-so performer for its studio, while “Open Season’s” $165 million makes it a disappointment. DWA has already taken a writedown on “Flushed,” which looks likely to end up with a cume similar to that of “Season.”

However, toons made by outside teams with smaller budgets, such as Disney’s “The Wild” and Fox’s “Everyone’s Hero,” just need to gross around $100 million or higher to qualify as hits.

By that reckoning, “Barnyard’s” $103 million made it the best of the bunch, while “Ant Bully” is a miss with $55 million worldwide and “Everyone’s Hero” flopped with a cume of just $16 million.

Just a few pics broke the model of costing either $50 million or more than $100 million.

“Hoodwinked” was produced overseas with an ultra-low budget under $20 million. While no one would mistake it for a Pixar release, the Weinstein Co. can be very pleased with its $101 million worldwide gross.

Sony’s “Monster House” and WB’s “Happy Feet” ended up costing just under $100 million each. Not coincidentally, both used motion-capture technology for character performances, giving them entirely different production models than typical CG films.

“Monster House” did a so-so $136 million while “Feet” is on its way to being a smash hit, having already taken in more than $130 million in the U.S. alone.