Cartoon Gluts?

For as long as I’ve been in the industry, I’ve heard people grumble about the number of animated features being made.  This conventional wisdom posits that animated features must be rare and ‘special’ to be successful. The corrollary is that an abundance of animated films will destroy the market.  For some people, more than two major animated releases a year is too many, and any more would spell doom.

The boom that followed The Lion King lead to a lot of worrying about animation gluts, as I was reminded by a Daily Variety article from July 15, 1997 (my first year in the industry).  Is it high noon for toon boom?, written by Andrew Hindes, starts with this tired cliché: “There may be trouble brewing in toon town.” (Really Andrew?  Was that priceless wit the best you could do?)  After noting the relatively disappointing performance of Disney’s Hercules, the article continues:

In the next 18 months, no less than five new big-budget feature cartoons, plus Disney’s reissue of its 1989 hit “The Little Mermaid,” will be released [Anastasia, Quest for Camelot, Mulan, A Prince of Egypt, and A Bug’s Life].  As those pictures begin competing for promotional partners, toy licensees and audiences, one analyst predicts, “It’s going to be a bloodbath.”

Hindes didn’t know that the Antz release would be moved up to October 1998, and that The Rugrats Movie would be released that Thanksgiving, so there were actually seven major animated releases in the next 18 months. And it was a bloodbath.  Money lost on Anastasia and Quest damaged Fox’s and Warner Bros.’ new feature animation divisions, and they never recovered.  A Prince of Egypt was a financial disappointment, and it was only the deep pockets of initial investors that kept DreamWorks going until Shrek and the CG films proved huge hits.  Only A Bugs Life was a major hit, while Mulan and The Rugrats Movie did okay for their budgets. 

One big hit out of seven films released within an 18-month period. So were the purveyors of conventional wisdom correct?  Had a glut damaged the field for everyone?

I also found another Daily Variety article, by Anita Busch, written July 23, 1997, just 8 days after the Hindes article, and well before any of those seven films were released.  This one was titled ‘Anastasia,’ anesthesia.  Fox had been publicly complaining that Disney wouldn’t accept advertising for Anastasia during “The Wonderful World of Disney” on ABC.  Anastasia was still months away from it’s November release, but Fox was banging the drum loudly about a film they expected to compete with Disney, and thought Disney was playing dirty pool.  Busch didn’t see it that way, and saw no problem with Disney not wanting the public to potentially confuse their audience. She wrote:

A Don Bluth film has never been able to compete with – let alone be confused with – the quality of a Disney film.  And the box office track record tells the tale. … the Disney name equates with quality. The Bluth name equates with flat images that sends audiences scurrying the other way. The question Fox should be asking itself is why it got into business with Bluth in the first place? Why did it sink multimillions into an animation facility in Phoenix, when the Bluth name has the reputation it has?

You can argue about the success and audience reaction to a couple of Bluth’s early features, long before his association with Fox, but the fact is, Busch had it right: Fox bet big on a director with a terrible track record, a record that had gotten worse with every film he made. But Busch didn’t stop there.  She went on to write:

Also, why did Fox – and for that matter DreamWorks and Warner Bros. – choose as their big forays into animation subjects that are extremely difficult to market? Why pick stories that have little to no merchandising potential?

“Anastasia” is targeted to that vast audience of what?  Teenage girls? A Fox marketing exec says it’s actually targeted to families: “It’s a very adult story, and that’s why kids like it.”  The exec said that from a marketing standpoint, “Anastasia” has a broader campaign than “Independence Day.”

DreamWorks is hoping to pull in the “Toy Story” and “The Lion King” family of moviegoers with “Prince of Egypt,” a story about Moses …  Think of the merchandising potential.  A Moses doll whose hair parts when you pull the string?

And Warner Bros. is hoping little boys and girls will flock to “Quest for Camelot,” a tried-and-true snoozer story even for adult audiences.  So WB is banking its animation business on little boys wanting to run around in tights and mesh tunics brandishing swords?

Busch could have also mentioned Turner Animation’s first (and last) fully-animated feature, Cat’s Don’t Dance, which opened and promptly tanked earlier in 1997, as another ill-conceived debut film in the same time period. And she could have questioned having Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, and Sly Stallone provide the voices in the less-than-vibrant Antz.

So was it the ‘glut’ phenomenon that made 1997-1998 a tough couple of years for animated features? Or was it the choice to make ill-conceived, difficult-to-market (and sometimes kinda ugly) films? I think a quick look at what’s happened this year makes the case for the latter:

 How to Train Your Dragon (3/26/2010 release) $217.6 million

Shrek Forever After (5/21/2010 release) $238.4 million

Toy Story 3 (6/18/2010 release) $414.3 million

Despicable Me (7/9/2010 release) $248.3 million

Four of the top 8 films of the year, all huge successes, all released within months of each other.  Those are just the domestic grosses I’ve listed; Toy Story 3 has a world wide theatrical gross of over a billion dollars, while the other three are also doing very well outside of north America. In fact, the three films released within a 7-week period (S4, TS3, DM) have a combined world-wide gross of $2.3 billion and climbing!  And last weekend, a fifth animated feature, Megamind, opened domestically at a robust $46 million. It’s unlikely to hit the exalted box office numbers of the four films listed above, but it, too, will be a solid success.

Five animated hits in eight months. Let that sink in a moment. During my career, I don’t know of many people who would have thought that possible. But it’s happened, and there’s a chance that Tangled could make it six hits in nine months.

The counter-example for 2010 is Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, which opened 9/24 (frankly a lousy time to open a film) and has made a quiet $54 million domestically. It’s a good looking film, but for me it cements the notion of what has made the other films such hits. All these films I’ve mentioned were well produced, well animated, big budget productions, with high-end (expensive) marketing.

But the Owls movie is clearly the laggard when it comes to wide-spread appeal. It featured a dark, obscure story, with little evidence of comedy, and surprisingly similar (read monotonous) characters. My single thought when I saw the trailer was, “That’s a whole lotta owls pretending to be in a LOTR movie.”

Perhaps 2010 is part of some weird, fluky cycle, but I think based on the way things have gone this year, we need to give up the ‘glut’ excuse when animated movies tank. Audiences will show up when we deliver the goods, even if they did the same thing for someone else’s animated movie the month before, and another animated film the month before that.

[Completists will note that I left out Alpha and Omega, which was released 9/17/2010. I suppose it’s further evidence that ill-conceived films are unlikely to be hits, but it was such a low-budget effort that I didn’t think it fair to compare it to the other films released this year.]

5 Responses to “Cartoon Gluts?”

  1. Cartoon Gluts – Kevin Koch - Chronicles of an Animator Says:

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  2. alex vaida Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Insightful post, as usual. I too remember that back in the mid 90’s very few believed that 5 or even 7 animated features would be released within the same year and hit it big. I think it’s healthy and this is precisely what will raise the bar in the animation world. Eventually, that is. So-so movies will still make money because people are curious and hungry for entertainment. What I would like to see in this lifetime is solid investment in animation in other parts of the world, not only in US.

  3. Kevin Says:

    I agree that it’s healthy. One think I’d disagree with, at least partly, is that so-so movies make money. I know some people may judge some of the successful animated films to be so-so based on their taste, but from where I sit virtually all the films that are making it big have a combination of appeal that shines through even in the trailers, good story telling, and excellent production values. We’ve seen some good films that lacked the appeal (Nine, the Owl movie come to mind), and we’ve seen a few films that had all three but had lousy timing (like Surfs Up), but generally I haven’t been surprised by which films hit big, and which ones don’t.

    I think we’re starting to see some of that successful investment in Europe (Despicable Me), but the major problem there is that, outside of North America and a few spots in Europe, you really don’t have any place with the work force, the infrastructure, the tradition, and the underlying educational system to foster major animated films. I know a lot of money is being thrown at this in India and China and a few other places, but I’m not impressed by what I see, and I don’t think most of these places are taking a path that will lead them where they want to go.

  4. Paul Says:

    You make some good points. I haven’t been in the industry as long as you have, but I have had similar conversations about too many animated movies being made, and I don’t think most people would have thought what’s happened this year was really possible.

    Your list of successes and failures this year also supports the idea that outsourcing animation, at least in feature films, has been a dead end. You get what you pay for.

    I love reading your thoughts. I hope this means you’ll be posting more regularly now.

  5. Maria Kalachova Says:

    Hey Kevin!
    Great read yet again, interesting too, echoing Ohaya Miyazaki’s message in his book ‘Starting Point’, although I think his remark was more to do with lower budget tv anime, comparing it to Japanese animated features.

    I was just thinking recently how well animated, and CG films in general are doing. If it means nothing else I am personally really excited to be part of a booming and richly developing craft. I went to see Tangled last night and I can’t believe how complex animation has become. Recently the big studios are starting to produce content that’s equally exciting to me, they are not the same of course, but I’m enjoying the content they produce just as much, although in different ways. I enjoyed Toy Story 3 as much as Tangled as much as I enjoyed How to Train your Dragon! And then there’s so many new exciting companies opening up giving us Coraline, Despicable Me. And Tron’s coming out soon too! So much to enjoy 🙂

    A friend of mine posted this rant article on twitter, thought you might like it:
    I’m looking forward to your review of Tangled 😉

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch