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Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This…

Well, I didn’t intend for this week to become the animation apocalypse, but something seems to really be poking the hornets’ nest in Burbank and Emeryville. Snow Queen is back on the shelf, newt is dead, Rapunzel has been ridiculously rebranded as Tangled, and King of the Elves is either in turnaround or abandoned depending on who you talk to.

Then there are the more insidious whispers. Whispers that the Walt Disney Animation Studios will be severely downsized, going to a model similar to the one that has occasionally been pushed on Imagineering – that of a small, centralized core of managers and key creatives still working at Disney, with the production work farmed out to contractors. When Michael Eisner arrived at Disney in 1984, Jeff Katzenberg and Frank Wells originally wanted to go to this television model; if TV animation could be completed so cheaply in Korea or China, why couldn’t this be used for expensive theatrical animation too? Thankfully, Roy Disney and others were able to appeal to Eisner’s desire for prestige and keep animation at the Disney Studios, but who knows what the future holds.

But wait, there’s more – lots of rumbles of internecine squabbling at Pixar, possible troubles with Cars 2, the studio’s noticeable new reliance on sequels, and then today I hear the following words for the first time:

Toy Story 4.

Whenever I’m at some Disney event handing out my silly little business cards to people in Imagineering or Animation, I often tell them, “Feel free to read and yell at me when I get it wrong.” I don’t expect them to be ringing me up and giving me the top-secret scoop on their new projects; I’m hoping, instead, that they’ll set me straight when I’ve really messed up. Because despite what some might think, I do not relish disseminating bad news. I’ve had no happier day in reporting on animation than when Disney and Pixar released their very ambitious production slate in 2008. And while I’ve been talking about these recent rumors and events, no one hopes more than I that I’m completely wrong.

Just keep your eyes open and your ears to the ground, in the off chance that I’m unfortunately not wrong about this. Hopefully the suits are just in panic mode right now, and things will level off like they usually do. We’ve been on the cusp of disaster before only to be pulled out of the fire, so this could just the cycle of executive indecision at work. I’ll bet that if Rapunzel is a hit, the suits will be shoving each other out of the way to see who can take the most credit for it.

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7 comments to Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This…

  • Honest John

    As has been pointed out elsewhere, the economy is obviously still incredibly soft and the movie industry hasn’t been immune. The studio that did TMNT and Astro Boy just went belly up this week. Sony Pictures Entertainment just laid off ~7% of its workforce.

    I think the performance of TPATF really does have to be jarring for the suits; this film ostensibly had the goods to be a “blockbuster”: critical acclaim, a wonderful score, marketable characters (a princess no less), John & Ed’s first film where they really had a hand in steering the development…and the film-going audience showed much more love for a poorly reviewed Squeakel, a universally panned film that’s now outgrossed every WDFA picture since Tarzan.

    As someone who desperately wants to see WDFA succeed, it’s inexplicable to me — and frustrating — to see good film after good film come out of WDFA (MTR, Bolt, TPATF) barely crack the $100 mil mark domestically while far inferior films like The Squeakquel pulls in huge audiences and 300 mil plus BO.

    And I’m just a fanboi. I’m not a guy whose career and livelihood rides on the box office haul of these films.

    If you’re Disney suit who has to answer to a board and a stockholder, who sees Dreamworks spit out Shrek sequels — it’s understandable, in a soft economy like this where risk is absolutely loathed and everyone is looking for a sure-money-maker — that Disney/Pixar isn’t immune to pressure to cash-in on their established franchises.

    I would love for some of the Disney suits to, as you say, have the stones and stand behind the product. But we’re now at three very-well received products in a row from WDFA that just aren’t resonating with mass audiences. It’s perplexing. There are no easy answers.

    I’d love to believe the notion that quality will out, but this is different from the dying days of the Eisner Era because WDFA really is producing quality…audiences just aren’t responding. In this economy, it’s the unfortunate reality that even the gutsiest studio moguls are going to take a look around and see that for whatever reason, WDFA’s product just isn’t resonating and they’re going to look to make changes.

  • philphoggs

    Honest John, what you’ve said has troubled me also, and that is, why do audiences seem to respond, or in this case not, the way it do?
    I wanted PTAF to succeed for many reasons, but speaking chiefly here of WDFA prospects. The piece of marketing I saw, which was aimed at the Disney animation enthusiast, seemed to say hey we did this for you, and in return I say thank you. Unfortunately, the implied feeling is also now, well if this a failure, you’re screwed.

    Sadly circumstances do seem to consume the best laid plans. Would have PTAF loaned itself better to a spring or early summer release? Squeakel seemed to fit the passive kiddie family entertainment interest of the holidays, which includes established characters; and a left at the door popcorn box moral lesson. On the other hand, if Squeak continues to do well worldwide, then I’m left scratching my head, and as you said after three film attempts, with no easy answers.

    Of course, I don’t consider PTAF a a failure yet, even in potential revenues. It’s only had a few months, and this movie is strong enough to grow legs in other venues, chiefly the (bla) home entertainment market. I hope that something will grab our imagination, and will resound with our collect conscious, enough to make this a steady late blooming success.

  • Honest John

    It’s possible TPATF does well in the overseas markets it hasn’t opened in yet, or that it does especially well in home video…but I suspect the panic coming out of Disney (especially the attempt to rebrand Tangled and remove the princess overtones) indicates that Disney thinks it’s something of a failure. I’m guessing that in addition to the box office, the TPAFT merchandise didn’t hit the right marks over the holiday season at retail. That’s just my supposition, I don’t have any proof — but after the holidays is when it seems as if the rumors and the innuendo about the panic at WDFA leaked out. I’m guessing it was a combination of mediocre box office performance and the softness of TPAFT merchandise at retail is what caused Disney to reassess their future.

    I’m just hoping Tangled is of similar quality to Bolt and TPAFT — both films received 85%+ on Rotten Tomatoes — and that this time, the audiences show up like they do for inferior films from other studios.

    No offense to Dreamworks, but aside from Kung Fu Panda and the first two Shreks, most of what they put out is mediocre in my opinion (both Madagascars, Shrek 3, Over the Hedge, Bee Movie, Shark Tale, and Monsters vs Aliens were all inferior to the MTR, Bolt and TPATF). And movies like Alvin and the Chipmunks are even worse.

    But they generally outperform WDFA films. So I think we really have to hope that Tangled is a blockbuster, because I share the same fears as Michael — that another WDFA feature that gets beat by inferior competition is going to cause the suits to react in unfortunate but understandable ways — they’ll probably downsize/outsource the animation team, catch sequel-itis and try to capitalize on their known franchises, maybe return back to the Eisner days of focusing on the home video market with cheaply made sequels — it could get very ugly for those of pine for the glory days of robust, high quality, high budget features based on new ideas that are more than just glorified home video babysitters to keep the toddlers and preschool set distracted.

  • philphoggs

    Yep, sometimes it cost to do the right thing. In this economy however, that expense is magnified for sure. This film is right for Disney long term; the benefits will outweigh the cost. I know, tell that to someone trying to pay the bills now.

  • Another Voice

    It’s the studio’s responsibility to make a film that people want to see; an audience is under no obligation to tithe money just because it’s “Disney”.

    Just screaming “DISNEY!” “ANIMATION!!” “SHE’S BLACK!!!” just doesn’t work. There was nothing appealing in the film’s marketing, nothing that people haven’t already been bored with for a decade, certainly nothing that said “this is a wonderful movie we made because we thought it you would enjoy it!”.

    They might as well have just presented the marketing focus group PowerPoint slides.

    Just making a “good enough movie” was the strategy back in the days when people first went the theater and then decided what to see, just like when there were only three networks and you just had to pick what was the best of what was available.

    Movie going today is a destination. You need to make people want to go out and see your movie. ‘Frog’ was not good enough nor interesting enough to make the average family plunk down all the cash required these days. It’s not their fault, it’s Disney’s.

  • philphoggs

    As if to echo your point, an exhibitor friend said at the time “Movies are a mini luxury, and this one isn’t ringing the cash registers”.
    Here is a film with great animation, a good soundtrack, and although coupled with a storyline worn, tried and true, introduces the Princess smartly.
    From what I see, Disney has become part of the global and cross cultural fabric. To many parents, a Princess is “the” part of the Disney pie. Could or should it have been done with a better storyline… absolutely. Do I agree with the cumulative changes going on in the Parks… no bleeping way. Yet regardless of my stance on the “Princess” trade, one look at those little Gems from around the map reminds me that this film was the right thing to do, and done better than most could attempt. A film however must finally stand on its own, regardless of good intentions or bad promotion. In my humble opinion, this film can do that.

  • Great comments, everyone.

    HJ: I would agree that it’s extremely frustrating to see PATF “underperform” while something truly godawful like the Squeakuel very obviously succeeds. At last we have a film from Disney that, at least ostensibly, is created under the control of creatives instead of executives. And, of course, it’s a return to hand-drawn animation.

    I’ll admit, I thought it was going to be a smash. I thought there was pent-up demand and it would be a phenom. But seeing it get beaten by Alvin just leaves me wondering, and I’m sure it’s enough to make any executive waver.

    Of course, the real problem is that these things are judged today not on absolute performance, but instead on relative performance to an arbitrarily-determined benchmark. Did PATF turn a profit? Of course it did. Did it sell a *ton* of merchandise? Yep. Will it sell oodles of copies, until the end of time, on Blu-Ray and holodisc and who knows what else? Yup. And for those of us who care about those things – was it actually a good movie? Yeah, it was. The film *was* a success. Just not a theatrical blockbuster. And that’s when people panic.

    To watch it and other Disney films get outperformed by some of the rubbish that comes out of the other studios is discouraging. But I try and remember that PATF will continue to be watched long after the Chipmunks have been rebooted a million times.

    I just think in this case there were a lot of factors dragging down the box office, and you can’t really blame anyone. There are always unintended consequences of even positive events. The success of animation in the second golden age led to all these other studios starting up and now they’re cranking out material that just serves to act as the electronic babysitter. These studios, and Disney in Eisner’s latter days, turned animation into something slick, cheap and disposable. We’re reaping the effects of that now. The public has to be re-trained that Disney films just don’t mean another Cinderella sequel or some dumb pop-culture-referencing trash that’ll hit DVD in a month so why bother going to the theater?

    Pixar doesn’t have this problem. Disney, if they keep true to their values, will eventually shake these problems off too.

    HJ mentioned the quality of the last three Disney films – heck, I didn’t even see MTR (or Chicken Little, or Home on the Range, but I don’t regret those) in the theater! I saw it wayyyy after it came out on video. Why? Because the advertising, trailers, and commercials were abysmal. The breakdancing dinosaur? What?! I even netflixed it with the sole intention of mocking it MST3k style only to be surprised that it actually had some heart. I am a Disney *and* animation freak and they had managed to chase even me off after the dark years. Imagine the effect on families who don’t follow all the corporate soap opera and don’t know who Lasseter is or anything else about all the events since 2006.

    Disney is rebuilding a rep, and it’s taking a while. But they must keep working at it or it’ll never happen.

    AV: I don’t think it’s a matter of people being obliged to watch because it’s Disney; I’m old fashioned and hope that they’ll watch because it’s *good*. Of course, life has disabused me of that notion. After all, even Walt literally apologized to the public for Fantasia. And I really, really love Fantasia.

    Phil: I think you make an excellent point about having to judge the film on its own merits regardless of the greater trends going on around it. The fact is, that despite some specific story issues it was a good film, and actually quite removed from the “princess” mindset it was promoted as promoting.

    In the end, Disney spent a long time turning animation into something that was only targeted at very, very young children. Then they made a film that would only appeal, at its surface, to half of those young children. And there’s also the fact that Tiana is black; while it’s an element I welcomed, I won’t pretend that I don’t think it somehow factored in to how the film could have been perceived by families looking for something to go watch. Hopefully not maliciously, but I still think it could have been a factor.

    Of course *I’m* glad they made it, and found it very enjoyable.

    They just need to stick to their guns until people realize that Disney is making films for everyone again.

    Unless they stop. And then there’s Winnie the Pooh.

    Anyway, time for some curling…

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