As of this writing, in 2006 there are well over a dozen animated CG feature films scheduled to be released in theaters. It is no surprise that the CG animated feature film market in the US is going to get very crowded in the next 2 years. And if you consider that we also have studios like Wild Brain, Blur, Laika and the Orphanage also gearing up to produce their first CG animated films, then things get even tighter. The big names are also working to crank up the animated engines- you have Sony Animation ramping up, Dreamworks hitting 2 per year, Pisnar (or is it Dixey?) with their 2 per year, Fox/Blue Sky with their one per year (plus Fox's outsourced efforts from IDT) and Warner Bros with their one or two per year (done by outsource studios). Now I'm not implying that any of these studios will make such cynically uber-low budget products like Hoodwinked. Most of these larger studios seem fairly committed to doing a decent job with their films. They're not shy about spending some money to make their films better. Now what they think actually makes a film "better" can be misguided and derivative at times, you still gotta give 'em credit for trying. But the fact remains, it's gonna get crowded. It feels like San Francisico in 1849 around here.
And if that wasn't enough, now the bottom end is open for business.
On to our topic: the recently released Hoodwinked. To the chagrin of many folks Hoodwinked didn't die a horrible "Valiant-like"death at the box office (more on Valiant later). In fact, this VERY cheaply made outsourced film has hit a resonant tone with movie going audiences. Like it or not, people are going to see this film and they are enjoying it. To the tune of over $40million in domestic box office so far. Granted those are not Shrek numbers, but for a film that reputedly cost well under $5million to make, them's very, very good numbers. It has what they call in the biz "legs". Say what you will about the artistic or story merit of the thing or the quality of the craftsmanship (or as many insist, the lack thereof), Hoodwinked has made it's mark on the business- a mark that is not going to go away. HW will turn a handsome profit for its masters, the Weinstein Studio. The true "C-cheap-I" (instead of "CGI") movie has been born. We can know this: more are coming. Today we see a report over at Cg-Char that the Weinsteins are ramping up their slate of low budget animated offerings. And why not? There's gold in them thar hills!
Here is the deflating reality facing feature film animation (all animation, not just CG or 2d): Typical American audiences can indeed distinguish the difference between poorly crafted animated fare and highly crafted animated fare. They just don't seem to value that difference.
Many artists and technicians in the business are experiencing a vaguely reminiscent uneasiness. I think we've seen this story before. The cat is indeed out of the bag- producers now know that a ridiculously low budget film made by an undeniably amateur crew in the far East can (if sufficently pop-culture in humor/nature) rake in enough box office success to justify doing more of the same. This will inevitably create a downward drag on higher budget CG animated films. Will the big name studios approve budgets that are above $40 or 50mil for feature films if they know in the back of their minds that audiences really don't value that added artistry? Even if the rumors prove true and we see the shut down of sequel factories like DisneyToon and Circle 7, there will be no shortage of other producers to jump in the water. With the Indian studios improving in capability & capacity and with Singapore getting into the act I don't think it's a stretch to see the number of animated feature films available for the American public approaching 20 films per year by 2008. The obvious question is whether the market can support that kind of saturation. It's hard to know. I don't think there's ever been anything close to that amount of feature film animation on the menu in theaters before. And this in a climate where overall theater attendance is dropping steadily. I think it's fairly safe to assume that more producers will split the same movie audience dollars. To a certain extent movie going is a zero sum game. That means the winners will be those willing to make their films for the least amount of money- given those cheapo films can garner an audience. And even box office failure is not guarantee of financial loss. For weeks now my local suburban Blockbuster has been sold out of copies of Disney's Valiant. Did you even know it was out on DVD? I didn't before I noticed it's space on the shelf. And yet it seems to be doing a fairly brisk business in DVD with next to zero marketing effort. It has the Disney name, that's enough aparently. So in the end, given that it was a fairly inexpensive film to make, it's conceivable that Valiant will be a money maker for Disney, despite its very lackluster box office. All of the various factors taken into consideration, we're not exactly looking at a recipe for prodcuing great, classic animated films. And for those of us who make a living doing this stuff it doesn't sound like a very fun job. How does 20-30 seconds of approved animation per week sound? For a feature? *gulp*
That's the bad side. But there's another side to this coin, one of opportunity. We'll discuss that next.