Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Starting at the Top (Ending at the Bottom)

After reading the entry on Delgo's failure, Paul Teolis pointed me to this 2005 article from Fast Company on the "Baby Pixars." The companies profiled are Threshold (Food Fight), Vanguard (Happily N'Ever After, Space Chimps), IDT (Yankee Irving - renamed Everyone's Hero), and Laika (Coraline).

The success of the Pixar and DreamWorks cgi feature started something of a gold rush into feature animation, but as the above list shows, the success rate was disappointing. Food Fight has yet to be released. Happily N'Ever After and Space Chimps opened but neither set the box office on fire. Happily earned approximately $16 million and Space Chimps earned approximately $30 million in North America. Everyone's Hero earned approximately $14 million and IDT sold off their animation business to Liberty Media. Coraline has yet to be released.

While everyone tries to be the new Pixar, not enough people remember that Pixar started off making shorts and TV commercials before their first feature. For reasons that can only be described as pure ego, producers think that they can enter the market at the top. This is the equivalent of a newbie golfer assuming that he can challenge Tiger Woods the first time he tees up or an expansion team in a league sport assuming that it will make the playoffs in its first year. Nobody in professional sports would take either of those situations seriously, yet somehow, people with more money than brains think they can make huge profits the first time they make an animated movie.

The producers of Delgo, Everyone's Hero and Food Fight fall into that category. While John Williams has more experience than they do, he moves to a new studio for each successive feature, never allowing expertise to accumulate. In sports terms, that's the equivalent of firing the entire team at the end of the season and starting from scratch the next year. How many times has that produced a winner?

Of the four companies mentioned in the article, Laika has the best chance of success. Laika is the former Will Vinton Productions. That company made features, TV specials, series and commercials, so the crew has experience working together on large projects. They're also starting with a story by best-selling author Neil Gaiman and it's directed by Henry Selick, who has directed three features.

Within the sports analogy, they're doing it right. You can hire great players, but it's still going to take time to meld them into a team. Along the way, there will be losses and missteps. The problem with hiring a fresh crew to make an animated feature is that those losses and missteps become part of the movie. Happily N'Ever After ended up using multiple studios to finish the film, and there we have a case where the players were never on the field at the same time. That makes it tough to execute plays.

The economics of maintaining an animation crew have always been daunting and they've gotten worse. But we now have evidence that when it comes to animation, you can't start at the top. Few, if any, of the "Baby Pixars" will grow to adulthood. If we see a new large studio emerge (and we may not), most likely it will be a studio that started on small projects, built an organization, and made its mistakes on low risk projects before attempting to compete in features. In other words, an expansion team that loses a lot of games while figuring out how to win.

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