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It’s Tough to Stay Afloat in the Film-Cartoon Biz : Movies: Disney’s hits prove that it can be done, but other firms lack marketing savvy and a competitive product, animators say.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The critical and box-office failure of Steven Spielberg’s “We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story” and the lackluster performance of Warner Bros.’ newly released “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” confirm the unhappy fact that except for Disney--and that’s a mighty big exception--the much-ballyhooed renaissance in feature animation has largely proved a bust.

The successes of “An American Tail” (1986), “Oliver and Company” (1988), “The Land Before Time” (1988) and especially “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) and “The Little Mermaid” (1989) made the animated feature a hot property in Hollywood. By mid-1990, more feature-length cartoons were in production than at any other time in history.

But 3 1/2 years later, most of those cartoons have come and gone, leaving a record that ranges from disappointing to disastrous. In 1992--while Disney’s “Aladdin” earned a record-breaking $215 million--"Fern Gully: The Last Rain Forest” grossed $24.6 million; “Rock-A-Doodle,” $11.6 million; “Bebe’s Kids,” $7.5 million; “Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland,” $1.4 million; “Freddie as F.R.O.7,” $1.1 million; and the critically lambasted live-action/animation combination “Cool World,” $14.1 million.

The pattern was repeated in 1993: “We’re Back!” has only taken in $7 million in five weeks; Hanna-Barbera’s “Once Upon a Forest” grossed $6.1 million; “Tom and Jerry: The Movie,” $2.7 million. “Phantasm” took in a soft $1 million in its first week of release during the Christmas holidays.

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As usual, Disney has been the remarkable exception. Its stop-motion fantasy “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,” released by Disney, has taken in $48 million and is still in the Top 20 at the box office, and the classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” garnered $41.3 million in a reissue marking the 65th anniversary of its initial release.

“It sounds really arrogant, but the fact is, feature animation hasn’t made a comeback; Disney animation has made a comeback,” said one of the studio’s animators who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The unexpected success of “Snow White” in 1937 established the feature as the most prestigious and potentially lucrative area of animation. But the animated feature has also been a producer’s graveyard since the Fleischer Studio went under after the failure of its attempts to rival Disney with “Gulliver’s Travels” (1939) and “Mr. Bug Goes to Town” (1941).

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Today, Disney dominates the feature market more absolutely than ever.

In a 1990 interview, David Kirschner, then chairman of Hanna-Barbera, expressed concern that an animation renaissance could be endangered by “studios saying ‘yes’ to films that need more work in the development stages before they’re ready to be shown to the public.”

“That’s exactly what happened,” he sighs more than three years later. “It was evident in the way many of the features looked and were received. Of course, no one has a marketing system like Disney’s, which is very important. But their product was so superior to any of the other films that came out in the last two years. Disney seems to understand how to deliver both comedy and pathos better than almost anyone else.”

Jeff Segal, president of Universal Cartoon Studio, agrees. “I think the problems with the films released in 1992 and 1993 represented a classic case of stories not connecting with the market,” he says. “The Disney organization has mastered the art of producing wonderful pictures, but they also make sure that every potential moviegoer knows about their films and are anticipating them long before those pictures open. That was decidedly not the case with the other animated films released in the last two years.”

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The runaway success of the recent features has spurred an ambitious production schedule at Disney. Elton John and Tim Rice are writing the songs for “The Lion King,” a dramatic coming-of-age story set in the African veldt, scheduled for release in June. Also in the works is “The Goofy Movie,” featuring Goofy and his teen-age son, Max, from the weekday afternoon TV series, due in the fall. “Pocahontas,” a historical love story with music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, will be out for the holidays in 1995.

In addition, Disney plans to follow “Nightmare” with another stop-motion film, “James and the Giant Peach,” and is working with PIXAR, the studio that created the Oscar-winning short “Tin Toy,” to produce the first computer-animated feature.

“We don’t want to make features for a ‘cartoon ghetto,’ ” says Disney feature animation president Peter Schneider. “We want them to be accepted as a part of mainstream filmmaking, and I feel we’ve made big strides in that direction: The best picture Oscar nomination for ‘Beauty and the Beast’ honored the art of filmmaking as well as the art of animation.”

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As the only successful producers of animated features in the country, the Disney executives are concerned not to appear to be dancing on others’ graves.

“One of our greatest challenges is staying fresh to ourselves,” says Tom Schumaker, vice president of development. “It’s essential that we endeavor not to remake our films but make new films with new themes, new approaches, new characters. There’s no sense of resting on our laurels anywhere in the company--neither in development nor production.”

The challenge of remaining fresh poses different problems for the artists themselves:

“Animation--even bad animation--is a lot of work, and if you do that much work, you want people to see it, but the reality of the situation is that people won’t go see it unless it’s a Disney film,” says the animator who agreed to speak anonymously. “Having only one studio in town doing quality animation causes problems when we negotiate our contracts, because we have no leverage. It’s work here or go do ‘Ren & Stimpy.’

“It would be nice to see another studio score a hit at the box office, especially with a breakthrough film in style or subject,” he continues. “It might convince the people here to do films with even more varied styles and subjects than they’re doing currently.”

A good animated feature can generate more revenue through video sales and licensing than through box-office returns. “Beauty and the Beast” became the best-selling video of all time with 20 million units (Disney is estimated to have reaped $200 million in profits from U.S. sales of the “Beauty” video alone)--only to have its record broken by “Aladdin” with more than 21 million units.

In addition to cassette sales of more than 10 million units, “The Little Mermaid” has been adapted to a Saturday morning television show and a series of compact discs. Ariel is now the second most licensed figure in the Disney stable: Only Mickey Mouse appears on more products.

With potential stakes this high, it’s not surprising that the industry is regrouping and gearing up to maintain an increased level of production.

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After “Rock-A-Doodle” sank at the box office, Don Bluth’s Dublin-based studio was forced into liquidation in October, 1992. Media Assets, a Hong Kong-based conglomerate, purchased the studio’s three unfinished films, “A Troll in Central Park,” “Thumbelina” and “The Pebble and the Penguin.” Bluth will complete “Thumbelina” for release this year, with “Troll” and “Pebble” to follow.

Also this year, Fox will release the first film from Kirschner’s own production company, “The Pagemaster,” a combination of drawn and computer animation with live action. Rich Entertainment Studio is expected to release “Swan Lake.” In addition, Hyperion Entertainment (“Bebe’s Kids”), Universal Cartoons Studio and Kroyer Films (“Fern Gully”) all have feature deals in development.

“Animation remains attractive, despite the failures we saw in 1992-93,” says Kirschner. “The kind of business ‘Aladdin’ did says to studio heads there is a market here if we can tap into it and deliver the right emotions. But I don’t think you can just casually enter the feature animation business. It requires a long-term commitment to the talent and growing that talent in the right direction. If you hire artists for a single project, by the time you get to know them and how they work, they’re off to another studio and another film. You want to keep continuity with talented people.”


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