Laika Stalks Elusive Prey: The Blockbuster

Quirky, dark tales won’t define the studio's future slate, promise its leaders

paranorman Laika Animation Studio
Courtesy of Focus Features

Over its first decade, all of Laika’s features — “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” (pictured) and “The Boxtrolls” — have been nominated for the animated feature Oscar. The company’s insiders say it is making money. It is planning to double its output from one film every other year to one release a year.

It’s seemingly flourishing as a scrappy indie, making films for about two-thirds of what its CG-animation rivals like to spend and focusing on eccentric, slightly scary stories. Each of its releases would have made a good Halloween release, and its next picture, “Kubo and the Two Strings,” is a fantasy epic with a sprinkling of monsters.

However “The Boxtrolls,” wasn’t as well received as the company’s first two films, and Laika hasn’t had the kind of near-billion-dollar grosser that marks the histories of Pixar, DreamWorks Animation and Illumination Entertainment. It seemingly hasn’t even really tried. As it develops projects, is the company even aiming for such a four-quadrant smash?

“Absolutely,” says Matt Fried, Laika’s executive director, acquisitions and development. He says part of his brief from president and CEO Travis Knight was: “Build out the richest and most diverse slate that we possibly can, so that we don’t get pigeonholed as a studio that makes those dark, creepy, little esoteric films.”

Laika is looking at a wide range of genres going forward, from high-concept comedies to Westerns to heist movies, he says.

Fried says while Laika listens to notes from Focus Features, its distributor, its development process is more protected than those of some other studios. Laika doesn’t have a large corporate governance structure, he notes, and it doesn’t take a lot of input from stars or marketing.

“Of course if there’s any big name talent associated we’ll always listen, but not in a way that we compromise the integrity of the stories,” Fried says.

Focus recently renewed its distribution deal with Laika for three more pictures, starting with “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Focus CEO Peter Schlessel says his marketing, publicity and distribution departments see the early Laika scripts and get peeks at footage, but Knight has final say. Laika has presented concepts it’s developing and invited Focus’s feedback, “but ultimately, like any great filmmaker, they have to feel it’s a story they want to tell, and they can tell it extremely well,” says Schlessel. He adds that Focus, whose mandate now includes wide releases, is prepared to handle a potential blockbuster should Laika deliver one.

Knight says the company’s future titles — not yet announced — will prove the company is serious about branching out, not sticking to macabre, quirky stories. “Rather than a taste for the macabre,” he says, “I like the full range of human emotion in a story, which means darkness and light. It means warmth, but it also potentially means scares. Within a safe environment, the theater, you can have a big ride, big ups and downs, intensity, warmth, humanity, laughs, tears — you want that full range of emotion.”


Laika Films by the Numbers:

“Coraline” (2009)

Director: Henry Selick

Review: “Eerily inhabiting the netherworld where a young girl’s wildest dreams become her cruelest nightmares, “Coraline” is a dark delight. … This eccentric and deliriously inventive fantasy finds stop-motion auteur Henry Selick scaling new heights of ghoulish whimsy.”
Justin Chang, Variety

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 90%

Metacritic Score: 80

Worldwide Gross: $126 million

Major Awards: Nominated for Oscar; AFI Movie of the Year; Annie Awards for character design, music and production design


“ParaNorman” (2012)

Directors: Sam Fell and Chris Butler

Review: “Few movies so taken with death have felt so rudely alive as ‘ParaNorman.’ … Evinces a sly, sophisticated wit and an easy familiarity with the sort of old-school creature-features that once defined the reputation of Focus’ parent studio, Universal.”
Justin Chang, Variety

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 87%

Metacritic Score: 72

Worldwide Gross: $107 million

Major Awards: Nominated for Oscar; Annie Awards for character animation, character design.


The Boxtrolls” (2014)

Directors: Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable

Review: “The meticulously crafted world is stunning to behold, imagined to the minutest detail and photographed with the sort of dramatic lighting and dynamic camera movement rarely seen in stop-motion.” Peter Debruge, Variety

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 75%

Metacritic Score: 61

Worldwide Gross: $109M

Major Awards: Nominated for Oscar. Annie Awards for voice acting, production design

Source for grosses: BoxOfficeMojo.com