THE BIZ : Rich Hopes to Strike It in Animation : ALAN CITRON
With a name torn from the comics, a Walt Disney Co. pedigree and six kids of his own, Richard Rich should know a thing or two about ‘toons. Just how much will soon be seen.
At his Rich Animation Studios in Burbank, artists are putting the finishing touches on “The Swan Princess,” a lavish musical based around the “Swan Lake” legend. The film, which is set for a fall release, has a combined production and marketing budget of $35 million.
That’s a big piece of change for a company with no movie experience and only 140 employees. It’s also inspired some tight security precautions--with visitors forced to sign confidentiality agreements before seeing any parts of the film.
But Rich says that doesn’t reflect a lack of confidence. The company, a division of closely-held Nest Entertainment in Dallas, is hoping to gain entree to the Disney-dominated cartoon feature business through “Swan Princess,” after making its reputation on short-form videos such as “Animated Stories from the Bible.”
“Disney is the intellectual and spiritual founder of the business,” Rich says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s only their business. There’s plenty room for more animation.”
How much room is a question that’s confounded Hollywood for years. While most people agree there’s a demand for more family entertainment, Disney is the only studio that’s routinely succeeded with animation. It has produced eight of the 10 top-grossing cartoon features of all time, including the recent “Aladdin,” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
Universal Pictures enjoyed a brief animation flurry in the 1980s with “The Land Before Time” and “An American Tail.” But since then the company’s cartoons have hit the proverbial brick wall. The recent “We’re Back” has grossed only $7.6 million, despite the presence of producer Steven Spielberg fresh off the success of another dinosaur tale--"Jurassic Park.”
Mindful that animation can be a lucrative endeavor when video sales and other spinoffs are included in the mix, Warner Bros. will test the country’s ‘toon tolerance on Christmas Day with “Batman: The Mask of Phantasm.” The studio has two more animated films set for next year.
Other competitors have tended to cede that playing field to Disney--partly because hand-drawn animation is such an expensive, time-consuming process, and partly out of the belief that Disney has some magical hold on the genre. “Some things are unique. They’re just not replicatable,” says one Hollywood insider. “And Disney animation is one of them.”
Rich is well versed in the Disney culture. He spent 14 years in its animation department, directing “The Fox and the Hound” and “The Black Cauldron” among others, before leaving in the mid-1980s, with the arrival of the management team headed by Michael D. Eisner.
He started his animation company soon afterward with about 26 employees. Rich says most of his key people came from Disney, including the company’s marketing chief, Matt Mazer. He also hired some of animator Don Bluth’s former workers when Bluth moved his operation to Ireland.
While Rich makes nine or 10 animated, short-form videos a year, he calls features “the big canvas.” “Swan Princess,” like Disney features, will consist of more than 200,000 hand-drawn cels.
Rich admits that he’s also taken much of his inspiration from the Mouse Factory. In rough form, the film bears many Disney trademarks--including romanticized leads, cuddly supporting characters (both human and otherwise) and a lush musical score, all set against a fairy tale backdrop.
“One reason we picked ‘Swan Princess’ is because it’s based on a classic story,” Rich says. Adds Mazer: “We’re not pushing the envelope here. We’re going after the traditional audience of parents and children. We know that if we build it right, they will come.”
While there’s some difference between making movies and widgets, Mazer says he plans to use all of the test-marketing tools available. A 35-second teaser will begin appearing soon. Test audiences will then be shown rough cuts of the film at several different stages of production.
While Rich is still in negotiations with distributors, he expects to reach an agreement soon. Scenes from “The Swan Princess” will be shown at the Show West convention in March. There are also plans for a major promotional event at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The release is set for November, which means Rich has nearly a year to refine the film.
If “Swan Princess” finds an audience, the company hopes to begin turning out an animated feature every 18 to 24 months. If not, there’s always video. It’s currently working on the story of Hanukkah.
Back in the Saddle: Was that producer Don Simpson doing the Monday night table-hopping ritual at Morton’s?
Apparently so. Sources report that Simpson, who produced hits such as “Top Gun” and “Beverly Hills Cop” with partner Jerry Bruckheimer, has returned to the Hollywood social scene in a major way after a long absence. Besides Morton’s, a tanned and rested-looking Simpson was recently spotted at the premier party for Tristar Pictures’ “Philadelphia.”
Friends speculate that the producer is making the rounds in anticipation of the March release of “The Ref,” which he’s hoping will mark a career comeback for himself and Bruckheimer.
The early buzz on the Touchstone Pictures release is very good. Simpson and Bruckheimer are also producing “My Posse Don’t Do Homework” for Hollywood Pictures.