Some folks think it's a horrible travesty that the film is doing well. Others are pleased. Personally I'm more interested in the ancillary effects than the actual film itself. As a film, a story and as a piece of theatrical artistry Hoodwinked doesn't have much to offer me for my $8 movie ticket. But that's just me and my taste. I have felt the same way about a lot of films that others think are great. I certainly don't begrudge Hoodwink's success. And even though I personally am not interested in it, it's continued success in theaters is evidence that a strong audience exists for the film. And I think that's a good thing. A very good thing.
Let's face it. Aside from the occasional Incredibles or Wallace & Gromit, the big budget animated film business is stuck in a bit of a rut. To a certain degree it has been for 50 years. Due to the astronomical costs of making these films the investors demand a sizeable return on their money (and rightly so). To get a bigger return, you need a bigger audience. Thus you aim right down the middle of the road. The tried and true. The easiest way to get a bigger audience is to do what big audiences have responded to before. This editorial on Slate puts this reality in stark light. The economics of big budget animated films is a double edged sword. On one edge you have the money to pursue a higher level of craftsmanship in the final product. Good for those of us in the trenches making the thing. The other edge is more often than not you can't do anything even remotely capable of being misunderstood by a large audience made up of mainly suburban children and their parents. Dull for those of us in the trenches. Thus sophisticated storytelling, or premises, or themes or artistic styles that aren't as middle of the road & homogenized as a McDonald's Happy Meal rarely stand much of a chance of getting made with any kind of a budget.
So far so gloomy, right? That's where lower budgets can give animated filmmakers some freedom. A major studio backing an animated film that costs them $15-20mil isn't likely to nitpick the thing into downtown Dullsville. About the most they'll push for is which big name voice talent to enlist so they can promote the film in the US. A director can have a larger, freer creative voice. You can touch on themes that would be downright un-doable at higher budgets. You can explore different styles a bit. In other words, lower budgets can mean a degree of freedom that just doesn't exist in the world of films costing $80mil and up. There is such great leveling of the playing field with regard to the technology needed to accomplish a film production now that very good looking films can be made for a fraction of what they used to cost. And anybody who's worked on a big budget film knows that sometimes tens of millions of dollars are wasted on sheer stupidity, fickleness and hubris. Cut the layer of waste and you can shave 10, 20, sometimes 30 million dollars off of some films. The fact that Hoodwinked isn't much of a film to look at artistically (even by the director's own admission) doesn't negate the fact that a handsome looking film can be made on a low budget. I can cite successes. For $15-20mil Big Idea made a respectable looking Jonah. For $28mil DNA made Jimmy Neutron. Neither were earth shattering technical or artistic achievements, but both very solid, decent looking films with a degree of craftsmanship that belied their reduced budgets. More recently for $15-20mil Disney/Blur/Sparx made a nice looking Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas. And most of Miyazaki's films cost no more than $30mil to make. Sylvain Chromet reportedly made The Triplettes of Belleville for under $15mil. The Weinstein's are bringing the quite decent looking Magical Roundabout over to the US market as Doogal. While the numbers haven't been released for this film, a typical European co-produced animated film is often made for well under $20mil.
Will you wow the world with spectacular new technological achievements like fluid dynamics, fancy cloth sims, giant crowd battle scenes or new hair shaders that are boffo realistic for that kind of money? No, not likely. But you can make a good looking animated film- one that is designed and executed to fit the budget and the story- for $15-20million. The key is to write and design within the budget constraints. Good character design is not much more expensive than poor character design. You just have to have an eye for what is good and what is junk- steer toward the good, avoid the junk. And be willing to pay a tiny bit extra for a good designer. It's such a small price to pay. And your designer will need to have some experience on how best to create a good 2d design that will play nice with the Cg world, should you go that direction. The same is true of good production design. With lower budgets you can't 'explore' as much 'inspirational' art as you might want to. So if your budget is tight you can't stroke your vanity as much as you'd like. So what? If you have a clear, unique vision (and that's the kicker: the director will need a vision) you can make an animated film look really quite good for your $20million. Al this assumes the story is decent and entertaining. Again, as a director you'll need to pull your weight here and not let an army of scriptwriters do the heavy lifting. But it is do-able. I have been convinced of this for years and I believe it's been proven. The question has always been “When will the studios & distributors realize there can be a sizeable market for these kinds of films?” Well, thanks to the Weinsteins and the success of Hoodwinked, I think they're starting to realize the market exists. And that's the very good side of the success of Hoodwinked.
For those of us who have the desire to take advantage of the open door the burden rests on our shoulders. It'll be incumbent upon the practitioners of the lower budget animated film to tell good stories and to work smartly (in design and execution) to function well within the parameters of these lower budgets. If you can do that, and you have a story that can appeal to enough of an audience (and remember, with the lower production numbers you don't have to pull in the masses like a Disney flick does) you can be in business. So all you directors in waiting out there, guys with unique stories, themes and styles that don't fit the bland brand that big budgets demand, it's time to pull a Shane Acker. Or a Nick Park. Get cracking on your short film, make it artistically solid, make it accessible to an audience, make it entertaining, get it into festivals like Sundance and see what shakes out. You know that producers are going to be scouring the world for projects like this to fill out the lower cost/lower risk niche's in the marketplace. Especially as we see the theater reign crumble under the weight of low cost “long tail” distribution models (Do yourself a favor and read up about the long tail. It is the future of media distribution). Will we animators and artists and storytellers just grouse about bad looking super low budget films like Hoodwinked and their impact on our jobs at big budget studios? Or will we see the opportunities here and make a move to do something more?