Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Hoodwinked Effect: Part II

In my last post I ran down some of the deleterious side effects of the arrival and success of the cheap CG feature film. The most noteworthy of these effects is the inevitable downward drag on production budgets for larger feature films. Many folks believe the result of that will likely be job cuts, wage losses, declining space for creativity & craftmanship and heightened work quotas. All things that would basically make this job not as fulfilling as it could be. The current lightning rod for this new breed of cheap CG animated film is the successful (and still rolling along) Hoodwinked from Weinstein Studio.

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?


Josh Bowman said...

A mate sent me an email about the "longtail" effect a couple of months ago. I did a little comic about it. I now understand why hollywood pumps out over 500 movies a year.
As far as animators in Japan go, most are in the pay bracket just above their national poverty line which is why it's so cheap to make an animated film over there. I'd hate to see that happen to animators in the western world.

Justin S Barrett said...

"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."

I'm curious how that article's core assertion relates to animated films. Take The Incredibles for example. Its story was totally new (not based on a TV series, former film, book, comic, etc.). If the Slate article's "formula" were true across the board, it shouldn't have done as well because it didn't have that built-in audience prior to release, yet it did quite well in the BO. Is that simply because it was animated? Does the article's formula not apply to animated films because there's a certain corner of the market that will take their kids to see practicallly anything animated? Are there other factors that make the formula invalid for animation?

Dan said...

But superhero mythology is something that people have grown up with and love. Maybe that's how it applies...

Marcus said...

I think animated films are in a bit of a rut--

How many animated buddy films have been released?

How many anthropomorphic animal stories have been released?

How many stories about "what really goes on when the humans leave" have been released?

Something to think about...

Anonymous said...

One thing you didn't mention is exactly how this all affects the salaries of animators in the studio trenches. The new longtail distribution model, and lower budget films only favor independant animators/filmakers. Those guys in a spare bedroom cranking away at a short film will be the ones who will see the upside. For the guys who need the safety and security of a nice paying studio animation job will be out of luck.

Like you said, it will be the Shane Ackers of the world who will benefit from taking a chance by telling their stories. When the Pixar shorts on iPod made $250,000 in the first week of downloads...the writing was on the wall for where the future was. But for the risk-averse animator who just wants a job, he better get used to the idea of a steady lower salary when the Hoodwinked type budgets start rolling in.

Now one way studio execs could offset that is to offer some back end compensation for the success of the film to trench animators...but umm...we all know that won't happen anytime soon.

Keith Lango said...

Hey Justin,
I think the reason something like The Incredibles did so well was the same reason Finding Nemo did so well is the same reason Monsters Inc did so well. Marketing surveys done in 2004 showed that Pixar was considered a top 10 brand in the US when it came to brand recognition. Disney is also a top 10 brand. Animation is slightly unique in that the product is sufficiently similar from the same producer that there is a built in audience. Much like there are fans of directors. Like Steven Soderberg fans. Or Michael Bay fans. Or Francis Copolla fans. The directors in animation may change, but the assigned value rolls over due to studio recognition. All that to say that due to years of successes Pixar (and to a lesser degree Disney) have a built in audience for their films. At least until they make a film that doesn't resonate with folks. But til then there's an assumed 'goodness' to their films, and that has the value of the initial audience. Yet even in animation the sequelitis holds serve. The highest grossing animated film of all time was Shrek 2. Toy Story 2 did a bigger business than Toy Story. Toy Story 3 primises to do even better, which is why Pixney wants to make it- just on Lasseter's terms, not Eisner's.

Keith Lango said...

Not necessarily, Bryan. Much of my career has been spent in the making of low budget animated films here in the US (under $15mil). I've made a good living. I've not gotten rich, but I'm doing fine. Hoodwinked was an unfeasibly low budget for actual production and the end product shows it. I don't think Hoodwinked is the winning production model of the future. But I do think that hoodwinked proves that there is a market for lower cost films that can find success in a smaller audience, and that's what I'm pointing to. And that success will create opportunities across the board, not just the creators, but all those who help bring it to success. Others will make more Hoodwinked type films, but that's not what I'm promoting here. Folks like Shane Acker will do well, which is proper. But if his film is made well and (more importantly) smartly in the US those who help him bring that vision to screen don't have to survive on foodstamps. I know a good looking movie, paying people fair wages in the US and similar 'expensive" job markets can be made for $20mil. And that's not paying the artists dogfood wages, either. That's paying a fair wage. I could even whip up a Gantt chart and pro-forma budget breakdown to prove it. What you cut out is all the ego stroking, meddling, stupidity and waste that drives up the budgets on larger films.

Anonymous said...

Very astute as always, Keith.

Distribution models are changing across the board in the entertainment industry right now so why should animation be any different. I admire the fact that you see this more as a potential opportunity than a Dark Cloud moving in. It is possible that a smart, talented animator could parlay the current climate into a chance for growth. He just needs to be alert and agile.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most intelligent thing about low-budget movies I've ever read.
Many people just believe in the equation:
big-budget=good movie
low-budget=bad movie,
and that's such a stupid line of thinking ...
Great writing Keith!

gcastro3d said...

another great post Keith! keep it up!

God Bless,

Anonymous said...

"Long tail" may be good for private equity firms that own "e-Distribution (TM)" netwoks, but the individual artist who, over the length of a year, sells 5000 for 99 cents each will make less than $5,000 that year. The advantage is all to the equity firm collecting all the little fees and none to the small artists who get one little fee. So, as a distribution model, I see nothing to get excited about.

The advantage inherent in the success of super low budget film making is found in the idea of a smallish group of people who spend an unpaid year working in a basement somewhere to produce an animated feature that gets wide distribution, brings in big money, with ownership of the work remaining with the artists who made it. The production model ceases to be the expensive 100 piece municipal orchestra and becomes the cheap basement rock quartet.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Keith and susi about low-budget not necessarily correlating with quality. I think that more and more we will beging to see a proliferation of quality lower-budget animation films and televisions shows, commercials, etcetera. Especially as outsourcing of animation gets more widespread. There's a company called www.OutsourceAnimation.com or maybe it's www.AnimationOutsourcing.com and they are apparently working as a resource for independent producers who want to set up smaller productions to be animated overseas, probably for much lower budgets than possible for U.S. animation companies.
But let's be honest, you can't expect the international companies to stay where they've been. Soon they will probably be taking over even more of the higher-end as well as middle and lower-end productions. Soon they'll probably be producing animated commercials.
And as communication and file transfers gets cheaper and easier, it seems these companies will get even more of a foothold in the industry.

Paul said...

Great points on Hoodwinked! I too, tread cautiously on the news of Hoodwinked's box office success, but at the same time, I don't believe it will have a significant effect on animation. Hoodwinked has as much of an impact on animation as Napoleon Dynamite has on Hollywood blockbusters. I believe the reason why you see films like Hoodwinked and Valient being paid attention is because there is an insatiable appetite for animation. What animated films competed against Hoodwinked? (None that I know of) Smart scheduling allowed the open air to attract hungry film goers. And Valient? Along with the other Disney $equels, they belong to a category all of their own: mindless babysitter material. Today we only see animated films that are family friendly, but we should expect to see the genre grow. Action, suspense, comedy, and anything beyond a PG rating are definitely open avenues for the animation industry to expand towards. That combined with the cultural implications of studios opening up all over the globe will ensure that animation does not grow stale. Keep your fingers crossed for a potentially bright future! - Paul Yan

Art of Don Dixon said...

I vote we make a move! Great stuff!