It looks like Hollywood has chipmunk envy.
The surprise success of 20th Century Fox’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks” last Christmas has studios sifting through their vaults looking for classic characters to bring to life.
Already, plans are under way to turn “Tom & Jerry,” “Yogi Bear” and “The Smurfs,” among others, into similar family-friendly franchises — with the titular characters recreated as computer-generated creatures running around in live action settings.
Prior attempts at bigscreen nostalgia usually meant making a completely animated pic. Improvements in creating CGI characters (even if they’re still meant to look a bit cartoony) and pairing up them with live actors have encouraged producers to find familiar properties to adapt.
That’s especially the case now that it looks like audiences are eager for such fare.
Despite doubts before its release, “Alvin and the Chipmunks” earned a whopping $360 million worldwide, besting even Fox’s predictions for the $60 million-budgeted pic. A sequel was quickly greenlit, skedding the singing rodents to hit the screen again in 2010.
The studio also found success with “Garfield: The Movie” and “Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties,” starring the snarky fat cat, which earned a combined $342 million worldwide.
Producers of similar projects say the worldwide box office, DVD, games and merchandise sales, as well as the potential for sequels and earnings from TV and homevid spinoffs are getting the films quickly greenlit.
The built-in familiarity of the characters also has studio bosses feeling they’re not taking a risk by creating a new property marketing mavens mustpromote from scratch.
“These movies keep the characters alive, and doing so gives people the chance to sell a lot of DVDs and toys,” says one studio exec. “It’s just good business.”
Make that big business.
In 2007, Fox’s licensing arm is said to have collected $1.8 billion in coin from such properties as “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “Alvin & the Chipmunks,” according to License Global.
Fox could have made more, however, from its chipmunks. The studio wasn’t prepared for the fan frenzy, and as a result, didn’t have enough merchandise ready in time for the film’s release. Expect an onslaught of goodies for the sequel.
While the new CGI-live action hybrids are set up at several studios, many of them can be found at Warner Bros.
Warners owns the rights to Hanna-Barbera’s slate of popular animated properties, and the studio sees them as franchise-worthy. It’s already begun developing films based on “Tom & Jerry” and “Yogi Bear.” “The Jetsons” will also get the hybrid treatment.
The live action/animated combo has worked for Warners before.
The studio successfully turned “Scooby-Doo” into a live-action franchise with two films that earned a combined $457 million theatrically, and is now being spun off as a direct-to-DVD feature. It cast the Looney Tunes characters opposite Michael Jordan in “Space Jam” long before that.
Other projects in the works include:
- Warners is developing “Yogi Bear” with Donald De Line for Ash Brannon (“Surf’s Up”) to direct a digital Yogi and Boo Boo in a real life Yellowstone, er Jellystone.
- Imagi Entertainment and Warner Bros. are considering a new live-action version of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” after a feature-length toon in 2007 earned $95 million worldwide. The turtles and other characters would be CG, rather than men in suits, as seen in three previous pics during the 1990s.
- Sony Pictures Animation is looking to turn “The Smurfs” into its first hybrid pic.
- Nickelodeon Movies intends to feature Kidrobot’s collectible Munny, Dunny and Labit figures, with the creatures running around live-action settings as CGI characters.
- Even Jerry Bruckheimer is getting in on the act with “G-Force,” an actioner featuring a hamster and guinea pig as spies, that Disney will distrib next year.
Yet some producers are still going the traditional animated route.
Nickelodeon is producing a feature-length toon around superhero rodent “Mighty Mouse,” with views to spin it off as a weekly series on the cabler.
Meanwhile, Summit will distrib “Astro Boy,” a feature toon based on the popular Japanese property.
One reason to go all-animated is that CGI characters don’t always look natural in live environments, creating a jarring visual for viewers.
“You’re taking a risk,” one animator says. “The characters can either turn out cute or look kind of creepy. You have to get it right.”