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Creative Impact Honoree Kristine Belson Has Turned Sony Animation Into an Innovation Hub

Kristine Belson made her first trip to the Annecy Animated Film Festival as president of Sony Pictures Animation three years ago, not long after taking control of the studio. In a speech there, she sketched out a new philosophical direction for the division: In an animation landscape dominated by longtime juggernauts and franchises, Belson wanted to make Sony Animation a filmmaker-driven studio, one without a house style, which could take chances on projects other companies might struggle to fit into their more tried-and-true pipelines.

“It was well-received at the time, but it was all theoretical,” she says of her inaugural Annecy address. “Everyone says they want to be filmmaker-driven, and I believe all of us at the various animation studios believe it, but there’s a difference between talking the talk and walking the walk.”

When Belson, who is receiving Variety’s Creative Impact in Animation award on July 9, went back to the festival last month, she had already gone a long way toward putting that theory into practice. In 2018, Sony released the $528 million-grossing “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” and the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” — two films that couldn’t be more different, and each the product of a distinct creative vision. (In the case of the former, that’s Genndy Tartakovsky; for the latter, it’s producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, all of whom are overseeing yet more projects at studio.) And Belson promises more of that to come, from an ambitious 2020 slate, to her recent hiring coup recruiting “Zootopia” helmer Rich Moore from Disney to direct, produce and advise on Sony projects.

Before Sony, Belson worked at DreamWorks, where she executive-produced “How to Train Your Dragon” and earned her first Oscar nomination as a producer of “The Croods.” When she was recruited to the studio by then-chair Amy Pascal, Belson recalls that Sony Animation had become “mysteriously lackluster” in its quantity of releases, after starting out strong with films like “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and “Surf’s Up.”

“The main thing that we did when I kind of rolled up my sleeves in early 2015, was to compare ourselves to the other studios,” she says of her beginnings at Sony. “And if you compare yourself to Disney and Pixar and Illumination and DreamWorks, you quickly start to feel like, ‘wow, all those people have historical success that we don’t have.’ But with all that success comes a lot of expectation, and sometimes those expectations can actually be limiting. The idea that SPA is a relatively new studio that isn’t super strongly identified in the mind of the public was kind of liberating for us.”

Besides, she says, “we knew we would never win — creatively, critically or financially — by trying to replicate what those studios do. They’re so good at it, they do it perfectly. We’re never gonna beat them at their game, so let’s not try. And at the same time, we were also noticing the sort of sameness that has permeated animated movies wasn’t really compelling audiences anymore. So it wasn’t just that we knew we could never out-Pixar Pixar, we also honestly felt that audiences were looking for something different.”

While “Transylvania” was a proven quantity — albeit one that she helped shepherd into a franchise, with a fourth due in 2021 — “Spider-Verse” was a far riskier bet, and it’s one that Belson decided to place her chips on from the start. Under the auspices of Lord and Miller, the film’s trio of directors worked slowly, using techniques that were as time-consuming as they were relatively untested. There were any number of things that could have gone wrong, but the film struck a powerful chord, eventually becoming Sony Animation’s highest-grossing domestic hit, as well as winning the division its first Oscar.

“The way that film has lived on and connected, I’ve been doing this for a while in both live action and animation, and I’ve never seen anything like that happen,” Belson says. She credits the film’s creative team, as well as her boss, Tom Rothman, with staying the course through an unusually long, complicated development process. “We were trying so many new and different things, that it was much harder than it usually is to project forward exactly what it would look like. There were moments when we all had to hold hands and say, ‘this is absolutely scary, but we’re in pursuit of something that we hope can be great, so let’s hold hands and all jump together.’ ”

After its smash 2018, Sony is catching its breath a bit this year, with only “Angry Birds 2,” due in August, on its theatrical slate. But next year will see the studio bow three wide releases, all from original stories. On tap: the Lord and Miller-produced “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” a family-centered sci-fi film from first-time director Michael Rianda; the China-set “Wish Dragon,” directed by Chris Appelhans (the first project from Sony Animation’s international initiative headed by Aaron Warner); and perhaps boldest of all, Sony’s first animated musical, “Vivo,” directed by Kirk DeMicco and shot by legendary DP Roger Deakins, featuring songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“Musicals are so much work, so many elements to juggle and get right,” Belson says, “so having our first musical come from Lin-Manuel is a gift from heaven.” But she acknowledges that making sure three films without familiar or pre-sold concepts get the breathing space they need will present a challenge.
“In world where Disney has been allowed to control so much of the theatrical space, how do the rest of us sort of find our way? I think we all know what the challenges are,” she says, going on to note: “You can’t just give people movies that are fresh and different, you also have to give them something they relate to, and that’s always the challenge: to balance the freshness and the familiar.”

Sony also has a wealth of TV projects in the works aimed at adults, including “Hungry Ghosts,” based on a graphic novel written by Anthony Bourdain, and a revival of Aaron McGruder’s beloved cult toon “The Boondocks.” (“Aaron McGruder is a genius,” Belson says, “and when he raised his hand and said, ‘I’ve been waiting for the right moment when I had something to say, and I have a lot to say right now,’ we and our partners at Sony Pictures TV couldn’t have been more excited.”) Belson also says the studio has a cache of too-soon-to-announce projects in the works that will put a focus on elevating homegrown talent, including more women, into director positions, and she expects Moore to be key in nurturing the studio’s developing filmmakers.

Asked what she sees on the horizon that could help shake up studio animation the way “Spider-Verse” did last winter, Belson points to the importance of
allowing creative voices to stand out, even in the ever-collaborative world of studio animation.

“Animated movies these days are mostly made by people operating machines, and I think something started to happen where you were feeling the machine part too much. What seems to be happening across the industry — and we’re very proud to be leaders in that — is an emphasis on more movies where you really feel the hand of the artist. Where you can feel the people behind the screen. I do think that’s the most important and exciting thing that’s happening in animation.”

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