Tuesday, 13 Nov 2018
Business

In the epic movie, the Hollywood animation industry seeks to make the difference


(Spencer Wilson for the Washington Post)

In Disney's modern classic, "Frozen", two royal sisters make war, a lover proves treacherous and some weird characters show up to save the skin.

The Hollywood animation activity has its own moment Elsa.

The area known as one of the most stable in the world of cinema – "Incredibles 2" and "Hotel Transylvania 3" were both extremely lucrative last summer – slowly plays its own mythical dramas, even if its music is less catchy .

Companies are in the throes of #MeToo mergers or scandals. Studios are committed to great ambitions or past successes.

And internal issues are just the beginning. Leaders like Disney and Pixar are trying to maintain their dominant position in the market, while nearby competitors like Illumination are getting closer. Exceptional studios like DreamWorks are struggling to find their way. And well-funded companies like Sony and Netflix are looking to eliminate them.

"We are witnessing a fundamental change in front of our eyes," said Dan Sarto, editor of the Animation World Network and attentive observer of the category. "It's totally unprecedented. Everything is subject to disturbances. "

In interviews with the Washington Post, 16 officials and animation experts, many of whom spoke under the guise of anonymity because of the highly competitive nature of the field, described a world of intense battles, complex strategies and, perhaps most tellingly, modern motivations. At a time when entertainment has become fragmented and become a niche, with children and parents rarely agreeing on what to watch, the reliance of animation on attracting whole families is the reason for which studios can not let him down.

The challenge is not just to know which Hollywood conglomerate is going to reap financial wealth – major franchises like Toy Story can earn $ 2 billion or more globally – but who will set the tone and the animation style that moviegoers will see for years to come. Will the category continue to be dominated by the computer-inspired Disney and Pixar-inspired spirit? Or does the quirky European flavor of Illumination and its adorably zany "Minions" make more breakthroughs?

Sony's gender-focused approach, with movies like the upcoming action-adventure "Spider-Man: Towards the Spider-Verse", will she open a new path? Or Netflix and its willingness to spend big for Oscar-nominated filmmakers, as announced last week, will they change the game?

The Pixar Gherkin

John Lasseter was one of the few people to define the zeitgeist of modern animation: cute computer-generated children's tales with themes that are both serious for adults. He first made this feat at Pixar and, in recent years, also at Disney. But despite what many thought was a life warrant, Lasseter resigned, accused of unwanted sexual advances and promoting an unhealthy work culture.

The news has put business – and industry – on their ears. While this month's "Ralph Breaks The Internet" and next year's "Frozen 2" and "Toy Story 4" are clearly Lasseter's pieces, the long term introduces great uncertainty.

Disney has invited two in-house filmmakers, Jennifer Lee and Pete Docter, to lead the creative side of Disney Animation and Pixar. Both learned from Lasseter and have a lot of good faith: Lee, the most outgoing of the two, wrote and co-directed "Frozen", while Docter is behind the "Up" and "Inside Out" hits. Everyone has a long track record in creating stories that kids can understand but that parents can understand – the ripping opener on the life of an elderly man with his beloved wife in "Up For example – a central requirement of modern high-end animation.

But no management experience has been made, raising skepticism as to whether the pair will run the companies or place their business leaders as skillfully as Lasseter was known to do. A Disney spokesman refused to put Docter or Lee at the disposal of this story.


Jennifer Lee, presented here at the premiere of Disney's "A Wrinkle In Time" in February, took the reins of Walt Disney animation studios. (Christopher Polk / Getty Images)

To add to the new era: Ed Catmull, long-time president of Disney-Pixar, says the spirit to the soul of Lasseter, announced last month his resignation in December.

In the end, Lasseter himself may not have finished yet. The executive is looking to re-enter the entertainment sector only months after being ousted, according to two people who are familiar with his thought process – a year after the Me Too movement, which asked questions about how and if industries had to accept return attempts.

Lasseter recently met with officials from at least one agency, WME Entertainment, where, at a two-hour meeting at the company's headquarters in Beverly Hills, he gave his share of the charges and presented his hopes for his next act, according to a person who was at the meeting but not allowed to talk about it.

If Silicon Valley companies looking to get started seemed like a logical solution – Lasseter had ties to Apple's co-founder Steve Jobs – whose specialty is creating great theatrical experiences goes against from the attention of these companies for their personal devices.

In fact, among the areas in which Lasseter expressed interest, said the person, there was no connection to the animation: podcasting.

Lasseter did not respond to an email requesting comments.

Rising Illumination

At the same time, Illumination Entertainment, a company founded just 11 years ago and owned by Universal Pictures' parent company, Comcast, has become a low-key force, winning two of the world's top five global successes. 39, animation in "Minions" and "Despicable Me 3". only the titles on the list do not come from Disney-Pixar. As in many companies, the animation is outsourced abroad – in his case, in Paris, where more than 800 animators run and manage the technical work of ideas designed by the writers of the smallest office in Santa Monica, California .

"They did a great job in terms of quality and consistency," said Doug Creutz, senior research analyst at Cowen, which covers animation. "If Pixar misses a milestone, Illumination will continue to take more shares." The company has recorded three movies worldwide, with sales exceeding $ 1 billion.

But the company's executives – and their competitors – are well aware that these films are part of the Despicable Me / Minions franchise, an older line that began eight years ago. To succeed, Illumination has to make its way into new franchises, a hard-to-reach goal that he will strive to achieve with "The Secret Life of Pets" next year and "Singing" in 2020.

This weekend, he published "The Grinch, which launches the season animation season with a film based on Dr. Seuss' standard, the company's second adaptation by the beloved author. Spoken by Benedict Cumberbatch, the film centers on a plot to derail Christmas at Whoville – a commendable metaphor for a sector in which many companies are trying to thwart long-time leaders.

Illumination is also on the Oscars: Disney-Pixar has won the Animation Award 10 of the last 11 years, including six consecutive. Illumination has never won.

"Even if Illumination takes Pixar's share [with Lasseter gone]I still think there is room for all three, "added Creutz on the company ranking by market share. "It's underneath them that things get really interesting."

California DreamWorks

In fact, DreamWorks is right below them. It is an ancient megalith who was eagerly seeking his identity after a sale to Universal and the release of pioneer Jeffrey Katzenberg.

What will the company look like after Katzenberg – his tenure was marked by turbulent animal franchises such as Madagascar – has become one of the big puzzles of the industry. Chris deFaria, a former Warner Bros. executive who oversaw the musical "Happy Feet", plays the penguin. His analysis goes in the same direction – proven but potentially played – analyzed closely by the analysts of the animation.

In February, DreamWorks will release the third film in its Academy Award-nominated crown jewel series titled "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," which totals $ 1.1 billion in ticket sales worldwide. DreamWorks has high hopes – Steven Spielberg even gave notes to the director of "Dragon's", Dean DeBlois, according to a person familiar with the production who was not allowed to talk about it publicly.

But many animation experts believe that its long-term list will not be as user-friendly for critics as it is commercially safe. The company projects two or three films a year: suites, original films and hybrid animations. This is an important volume, say these observers, given the lack of well-established franchises and a clear path forward. It remains to be seen if she can find the magic of the Katzenberg era with an identity not yet defined.

The same goes for the company that will integrate with Illumination. Perhaps the biggest maneuvers in animation are not done between companies but within them.

Comcast bought DreamWorks for nearly $ 4 billion in 2016. At the time, the head of Illumination, Chris Meledandri, considered the most powerful responsible for animation after Lasseter and Katzenberg, had been responsible for managing both units. He refused (although he had supported the development of a "Shrek" restart). The two companies differ in sensitivity – Illumination, which is partly based in France, has a more European mentality than DreamWorks, more American. Nefaria and Meledandri would not comment on these questions. A spokesman for Universal would make no comment.

Publication dates are an area of ​​tension, say those who know companies. Illumination and DreamWorks have so far essentially cut out the calendar – the first having more plum dates on July 4th and the pre-Christmas period with the latest landing at Easter and the beginning of the holiday season. However, according to a company official, a senior DreamWorks executive has expressed his dissatisfaction with the deal and does not believe it is viable in the long run, because he requested anonymity not to be seen as criticizing a brother or sister.

"In the end, the dating must change if DreamWorks is to return to the top," said the person.

Fields rustle

Because DreamWorks is not at the top and the competitors are well aware, the race is launched to dethrone him from fourth place. Sony achieved the best game by tripling the size of its crew and doubling its slate in 2017 under the responsibility of Kristine Belson, herself a former DreamWorks executive.

(Sony's films, like Illumination and several other studios, tend to be cheaper, often for less than $ 100 million.) Animation is a tedious process that takes a lot of work. For many years, Disney-Pixar is spending the most, often taking more time for development and employing large teams, with estimates for the "Incredibles 2" budget of $ 200 million. of dollars.)

Belson also sought to implement a broader approach to animation films. After "Transylvania" this summer, the company will seek to increase its advantage for 2018 in December with "Spider-Verse". The film, which she co-produced with Marvel, breaks the mold with a tougher action-adventure than most large-family family animation.

"I do not know what's going on in other animation studios, but I know what we think we should do at Sony," Belson told The Post. "When you look, there is a landscape of similarity. To survive, the films must be different. "

Sony is not the only company to consider a vulnerability, nor the talent of DreamWorks as the key to dropping DreamWorks. Paramount hired Mireille Soria, a long-time production assistant in Katzenberg, to help revive her own animation efforts. Until now, she has focused on brand titles, activating a sequel to "SpongeBob SquarePants" for a long time troubled and making the acquisition of a movie "Sonic the Hedgehog" of Sony. Soria did not respond to a request for comment. (DreamWorks, let's note, does not release a movie this year because it goes to deFaria.)

At the same time, Warner Bros., who won a disappointing success in "The Lego Movie" four years ago, will continue to exploit this field – and will target the DreamWorks slot, or at least Sony's – with a continuation next year. The creative range is at the heart of our concerns: development projects involving the properties of Dr. Seuss, a novel by George RR Martin, a title by Wile E. Coyote and a story of Toto from "The Wizard of Oz". (These midsize businesses might have more ease with Disney's purchase of Fox, which means that Blue Sky – the creator of the Ice Age movies – owned by Fox – will likely be closed, unless a sale.)

And all that means nothing of Silicon Valley. Netflix surprised many at the Cannes Film Festival in May, when it disbursed $ 30 million for "Next Gen," an animated feature film produced in part and funded in part by China with a lavish US cast. Several weeks ago, the company announced that it was making a new stop-motion adaptation of "Pinocchio" by the director of "The Shape of Water", Guillermo del Toro, suggesting a desire for quality and a desire to spend for it. And last week, he announced new film projects from the co-director of Oscar-nominated film The Secret of Kells and co-director of Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2, among others.

"Netflix is ​​knocking on doors and, at studios, we ignore them at our peril," said a senior official from one of the top four studios, who spoke under cover of anonymity in order to not to be perceived as a reprimand. colleagues. It remains to be seen if they can do so without the major theatrical release at the heart of the economic model of animation. Netflix executives declined to comment on this story.

Too much of a good thing (could be a bad thing)

The crazy race for supremacy – and the different approaches to achieving it – means that the atmosphere of the next generation of animated films is harder to predict than ever before. The multiplex could see a reelection of Disney-Pixar's reign of the last two decades, a power-sharing arrangement between them and Illumination, or one of many cutting-edge competitors.

"There is at the moment a kind of delusional situation where you do not know who will be cannibalized by who," said John Eraklis, an experienced animation producer. "And that means you're really not sure what the long-term visions of these places will be, nor even the animation in general."

The sector has experienced an undeniable explosion of players and movies recently. Last year, 15 large-circulation animation films rose, 50% more than five years earlier. And new entrants will further flood the market.

This could be a reason for optimism, giving some consumers the feeling that the choice will increase. But some creators are worried about a reduction in the luster of these films.

"On the plus side, Hollywood now believes in animation like never before," said Brad Bird, director of Pixar's Incredibles movies. "When I started, the executives gave me that assured look that no animated film would ever win 50 million dollars.

"But technology has also made movies much easier, and I hope people do not rely on that," he said. "I hope they'll use it to promote the art and not just to take advantage of all the ways a computer can help you." I hope people make movies because they have a bold new story.

"It's not because it's easy to produce an animated film," he added.

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