Why Sony Pictures Animation Still Needs a Big Hit – and Where It Might Come From

SPA chief Kristine Belson delivers a sometimes frank and freewheeling masterclass at France’s Annecy Festival

Kristine Belson
John Salangsang/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

ANNECY, France — Having sprinted to deliver toon movies this year in near record time, Sony Pictures Animation has a brace of new animated feature originals on deck for potential 2020/21 release, Kristine Belson, Sony Pictures Animation president announced at France’s Annecy Festival Thursday night, delivering a masterclass on Re-Shaping Sony Pictures Animation.

Four of the five projects which Belson went on to talk about in some detail, without implying they will be SPA’s only releases over 2020/21, are from first-time directors.

In contrast, SPA looks set not to release any movie at all in 2019, she added.

That may seem like an original move by a new Hollywood animation studio head, but it’s one way of confronting SPA’s major challenge. Producing animated features since 2006’s “Open Season,” Sony Pictures Animation has still to fire up a “Despicable Me” size franchise which can, as Belson out, provide a transformational moment, defining a studio’s style.

That said, “Hotel Transylvania 2” was one of Sony’s biggest hits of 2015, earning $473 million worldwide.

Maybe that transformational moment will come with “Hotel Transylvania 3,” playing off the most successful of SPA’s franchises. But from Belson’s masterclass, it looks questionable whether the SPA chief even wants to brand her studio with a hallmark animation style.

“I hope we can stay as all over the map stylistically as we are now,” she reflected.

Certainly, Belson is on track to set SPA apart, as she explained, teasing out new upcoming originals, three of which are hardly known.

SPA has had to run before it can walk. “The Emoji Movie,” released July 28;  “The Star,” a first-of-its-kind faith-based toon that retells the Nativity story from the POV of the animals, due out Nov. 10, and an Untitled Spider-Man Film, replacing Peter Parker by Miles Morales. It now has time to catch its breath, and plan a mid-term future, Belson said.

One of the minds behind “Gravity Falls,” Michael Rianda will direct a semi-autobiographical tale about a family road trip – that’s the autobiographical bit – during the robot uprising. “He has as clear a vision of his movie and the tone as anyone I have ever encountered,” Belson enthused at Annecy.

Short-film and commercials director Jon Saunders will helm the “story of the greatest love-affair in the history of our planet,” set in deep pre-history, about the first-ever bonding between a man and a dog.

“It’s all about heart, about comedy, especially non-verbal comedy: There are long stretches of the movie where, because it’s not a talking dog, they are playing silently,” Belson added.

A relative veteran, working for 15 years on films such as “Coraline” and “The Croods,” most recently Shannon Tindle created, designed and co-wrote “Kubo and the Two Strings.” “He brought us an idea for a movie we immediately fell in love which is action-packed but also a deeply-emotional comedy about a cocky billionaire superhero who must grow up when he is forced to raise the orphan of his greatest foe.”

The new titles join a slate of films which includes one of SPA’s biggest plays, “Vivo,” which Belson described as “about the magic of music.” Plot turns on a monkey with a thirst for adventure and a deep passion for music who suffers a treacherous passage from Havana to Miami to fulfill his destiny, Belson said.

Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Moana”), the creator of the groundbreaking musical “Hamilton,” has now written 11 songs for “Vivo,” from a screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes, with whom Miranda’s worked on “In The Heights.” “The Croods” helmer Kirk De Micco set to direct. Lisa Stewart (“Monsters vs Aliens”) is producing. SPA has reportedly set a Dec. 18, 2020 release date

Also announced, and already set-up at SPA when Belson joined, the story of Greece’s most celebrated monster hunter who is transformed into the Gorgon, becomes [the tale of] Greece’s most hunted monster,” Belson said.

She added: “Like ‘Wicked’ or ‘Malificent,’ this time the story is from the villain’s point of view. Songwriters are Pasek and Paul, they won an Oscar and a Golden Globe recently for their work on “La La Land.”

The five new originals, as well as returning franchise installments, should set Sony somewhere on its path to meeting the first of its four goals set out in a mission statement drawn up after Belson joined SPA in February 2015: “Grow to a consistent impactful animation studio, generate more content and more varied content.”

Other goals are “to create global franchises, be global savvy”; “work closely with marketing and distribution consumer products to support and build the franchises”; and: “Be in the digital space, be ahead of the curve as traditional distribution models change.”

Animated movies made for the digital space, which Belson dubbed “alt-content,” will target adult audiences, she said.

That’s one move which could set SPA apart. In development, SPA is attempting a 1:1 development-to-production. That’s in large contrast to Illumination and especially Fox, which put far more films int development than end up un production, Belson commented.

“We have other projects further out but not many. Everybody tries to do this, but we keep our ratio as close to 1:1 as possible, every thing you develop getting released. We obviously can’t do it exactly, but we are close,” Belson said.

Above all, perhaps, SPA is turning to new talent: Four out of the five directors of the upcoming 2020/2021 project are first time animated feature helmers.

“What I truly, truly, truly believe matters the most more than any other thing: Don’t be guided by fear. Fear is the enemy of creativity. Failure is essential, be guided by passion and love,” Belson concluded, before diving into an onstage Q & A with Variety’s chief film critic Peter Debruge