Friday, February 03, 2006

The Hoodwinked Effect: Part I

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.


Anonymous said...

I don't know that I wholeheartedly accept your argument, Keith (as well-argued as it was). Don't you think we can extend your "2006 is 1994 all over again" argument? In the wake of "The Lion King" everyone decided that they had to be in the animation business and almost everyone crashed and burned. When everything was sorted out "The Lion King" was still considered a fine film and movies like "Quest for Camelot" were largely forgotten. I think the public can discern good from bad; sometimes it just takes them a while. In a way this was a contributing factor in Disney's purchase of Pixar: Disney has eroded its own brand so badly with inferior product that even they, in their money-addled little brains, realize that it's time for a reboot. Walt always insisted that quality will win out and, over the long term, I think he was proven right.

Anonymous said...

Why is everybody so pissed off?! I know all the animators including me will be in the trenches fighting for better films. We'll lose out to the greedy producers who want films. But you know what! It's that time it's the silence before the storm. We are all asking ourselves what will happen. And maybe we'll see a whole new form of animation be created! Because it's that time! Maybe just maybe someone may it be Lasseter or some new talent from the east will stand up and give us what we want. Yes a GOOD film just look at that guy Shane Acker his (short) film 9 is being made into a feature by Tim Burton! (and its nominated for an academy award) I know it hurts but not all of us will be at the right time at the right place to be in the middle of that development.

So keep fighting keep analysing and be critical of your superiors. Like Milt Kahl he allways was critical of what was happening and so should all animators be.

Keep your hopes up! Keep Animation real!

Greetz Lars

Jeremy Mace said...

Keith - Your observations are awesome and I have really enjoyed your blogs over the past couple of weeks after discovering them through the Animation Podcast site. Anyway - I have more of a question than a comment:

How important is the "story" in this new CG era?

From my stand point it seems like Dixney will be the only company concerned with creating good stories - it seems John L and the gang are the only ones that care about character development and a story that needs to be told.

I love great animation, but to me, it is secondary to a great story. Where does that leave us?

Randy said...

Despite the obvious differences in craftsmanship, I can honestly say I liked Hoodwinked better than a lot of recent fare, including even the Shrek films. To me the Shrek films always reeked of cynicism, and their sarcastic tone made the "sincere" endings less impactful. Hoodwinked, was almost the exact opposite in spirit. While it did lack a lot of the heart-level acting found in more expensive films, its humor was more about making things funny than making fun of the things themselves. It's humor was sincere in a way that most pop-culture films aren't, and it kept that loose, have-fun-with-it feeling throughout the story. Whil I generally like feeling along with a character more, Hoodwinked's ability to make you laugh during its darkest moments was part of its charm. Again, they made things funny even when a character might be sad, without making fun of the character's emotions.

On the idea of a crowded market, though, I agree Keith. But I think it could go either way. Can't wait to hear about the opportunity side of things.

Anonymous said...

When I first saw the preview of hoodwinked in the theatre I was disgusted by the lack of appeal and craftmanship of the visuals. . .no scene had the illusion of life. but to my disbelief I looked around at everyone in the theatre and they were actually laughing. I realized it wasn't just because it was animated or it was a cg feature that people were into it but because the writing and gags in the preview were good enough to get the audience interest.That's the toughest job of all so I have to give the project props on that level. Like it or not fluff and style isn't the most important part of story telling. South Park proves this. Does it deserve to be up on a big screen? not in my opinion. Does it deserve and audience? I guess it does.

Anonymous said...

I worked with Cory Edwards on a couple of previous straight to DVD releases and can say that you really should give these guys some credit. Considering the projects I worked on,.. there were just a handful of guys working on it and like Keith said... we were cranking it out. Up to 1-2 min a week per animator! No it's not enough time to do a polished job. No it's not fun. And no it doesn't look good,.. much of it is just awful. We knew it, but when the money is limited you make do. The guys that financed the projects I worked on with Cory paid for much of the work from thier own pockets yet still pulled off what many of us hope to do on our own someday as well. Of course we all want to produce better animation but when you get TV deadlines for a feature project you do the best you can with the time and money you have. I believe Cory is a good writer and without that to backup the bad, low budget animation it definitely would not have legs.

David Mitchell

Anonymous said...

Just a note, I read a note from the director himself that Hoodwinked was budgeted at 20 million, and its sequel will have its budget doubled.


Anonymous said...

In Denmark there was released this film called "Terkel in trouble"

The story was written by a Danish comedian and then produces more then a year later by the studio "A-film".

I was created in 3 month and that is why both appealing and animation was "Bad"

But that did not have any impact on the audience they loved it, Hole Denmark loved it.

Anonymous said...

I knew a few of the people who worked on Hoodwinked and they said the
deadline was just crazy. id still give credit to them i knw theyre far from being disney/pixar quality but they did their best within the time given that was possible. Shot the producers! hehe


Anonymous said...

I went to college with the Edwards brothers and Preston Stutzman the Producer was my room mate...and these guys are incredibly creative that can do a lot with a little. They started Hoodwinked with their own money until Hollywood came sweeping in. Give these guys a break. Lets see how their next project ends up before you judge to harshly...

Funny about this is the character Keith looks and acts just like me from our college days where all we ever quoted were lines from whatever Fletch movie was out at the time and I went snow skiing on a whim...Preston says they didn't specifically make the character after me..but its funny none the less.

Just my thoughts...