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Keep Drawing the Lines

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For the entire film industry, 1998 was a very good year. But for animation, it was something of a revelation.

The major studios released an unprecedented six features, four of them clear successes--"A Bug’s Life,” Disney/Pixar, earning $137 million in 1998; “Mulan,” Disney, $120 million; “The Rugrats Movie,” Paramount/Nickelodeon, $90 million; and “Antz,” DreamWorks/PDI, $87 million.

DreamWorks’ “The Prince of Egypt,” though not a breakout hit, earned $67 million in 1998 and continues to do steady business, with about $75 million in box office so far.

Those five features earned more than half a billion dollars out of $6.9 billion in total box-office receipts for ’98. (Besides “Prince of Egypt,” “Rugrats” and “Bug’s Life” remain in release.)

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The only big-studio animated flop was Warner Bros.’ ill-conceived “The Quest for Camelot,” which earned only $22.9 million.

The hits of ’98 confirmed two things: Other studios besides Disney could score big with animation and adults will see the films--even without their kids--as long as they have wit and style.

“It’s good news to see that all these movies can survive in the same year,” says Gabor Csupo, co-founder of the Klasky-Csupo Studio, which created “Rugrats.” The feature, which cost $24 million to make, was one of the most profitable films of the year. “Personally, I find the competition inspiring, because it forces people to do their best.”

In that case, Csupo should really get a kick out of 1999, when even more animated features are scheduled to appear, including “Tarzan” from Disney and “Toy Story II” from Disney/Pixar, the English-language version of Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s hugely successful international hit “Princess Mononoke” from Miramax, “The Iron Giant” from Warner Bros. and Paramount’s feature based on Comedy Central’s hit series “South Park.”

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Audiences can also expect “Heavy Metal: FAKK2 (Federation Assigned Ketogenic Killzone)” from Columbia/TriStar, a sequel to the 1981 sword-and-sorcery cult film; an adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” from Morgan Creek/Warner Bros.; and two computer-animated features from computer game companies, “Final Fantasy” and “Underworld.”

The 1999 animated output is roughly equal to the number of features produced in America during the 13 years between “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937 and “Cinderella” in 1950. This extraordinary level of production has professionals in the animation industry excited--and worried.

“We’re basically in uncharted waters. We’ve never had this many films moving through at once,” says Tom Sito, who heads the screen cartoonists’ union in Hollywood. “There’s a danger of over-saturating the market and exhausting it, but the films may also engender the opposite response. Since the ‘80s, we’ve seen a real rise in adult viewership: Films like ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Lion King’ became date movies, which was unheard of in the ‘60s.”

Jeffrey Katzenberg, the co-founder of DreamWorks, believes it’s the quality and diversity of the animation and not merely the volume that will determine each studio’s success.

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“If there are that many really good movies, there will be an audience for them,” Katzenberg says. “But the likelihood is that some of them will be exceptionally good and will find an audience, some of them will be exceptionally bad and no one will show up and some of them will be in the middle.”

Peter Schneider, who until last week headed Disney animation--he moved up to become president of Walt Disney Studios--also says he’s not concerned about the glut of animation projects, noting: “I’ve never been concerned about having too much animation coming out, just about having bad animation on the market.”

Visions of Profits Lure Major Studios

The boom in production began in 1989, when “The Little Mermaid” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” launched a string of record-breaking hits from Disney. When “The Lion King” became the No. 1 box-office hit of 1994 and sold more than $1 billion worth of licensed merchandise, the animated feature, which had been declared moribund--if not dead--a decade earlier, became suddenly hot. Major studios that had ignored animation for decades announced plans to enter the feature market, lured by visions of enormous profits.

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“We started in [feature] animation, but after we did ‘Bebe’s Kids’ at Paramount, ‘Aladdin’ came out, and it was a giant success, which ignited this sudden hunger for animation,” recalled Tom Wilhite, the head of Hyperion Studios, which does TV and direct-to-video animation. “I thought, ‘Everyone’s going to love the idea of animation, but they’re going to want the kind of box-office returns ‘Aladdin’ generated.”

When subsequent Disney features failed to match the success of “Lion King” (which earned $777 million in worldwide box office), articles began to appear proclaiming “the end of the magic.” Disney movies from the mid-'90s--"Pocahontas,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Hercules"--were widely perceived as failures even though each grossed around $100 million or more.

Warner Bros. production chief Lorenzo Di Bonaventura said the bar for success in animated features has been set too high. “Any live-action feature that earns $100 million is considered a success. Why isn’t a $100-million animated feature considered a success?”

During the ‘70s and ‘80s, animation was considered less expensive than live-action, although top-quality animation has never been cheap: Disney’s “Pinocchio,” which debuted in 1940, cost $2.25 million, about what “The Wizard of Oz” had cost the year before.

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Today an animated feature may require four to five years of work from a crew of 400 to 500. The sheer number of artist-hours, rising salaries and the use of increasingly sophisticated computer graphics have raised the cost of a major animated feature to the level of a big-budget live-action film.

Although Disney and DreamWorks have policies of not revealing the budgets of their animated films, industry observers place the cost of the top-of-the-line features between $75 million and $140 million.

Sito said animators’ salaries have more than doubled since the boom began. “But the highest-paid animator in the world doesn’t make one-tenth of what a Hollywood celebrity makes,” Sito said. “I think the problem with a lot of the large-budget features is that they suffer from poor strategic decisions. I know of projects that have spent $30 million before the artists even started on them.”

Not Interested in Imitating Disney

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Other studios seem eager to distance themselves from the big-budget musicals that have become synonymous with Disney and emphasize their more modest ambitions. John Goldwyn, president of Paramount Motion Pictures, said, “We are not in the business of saying we want to make ‘Lion King.’ In our minds, it’s a phenomenon [the way] ‘Titanic’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ are phenomena; it would be unrealistic of us to expect that level of success.”

Albie Hecht, president of film and TV entertainment for Nickelodeon, said he’s “not interested in imitating Disney.”

“We’ve taken a different style of animation and embraced it, rather than trying to fine-tune a classic style, which gives us more flexibility with production techniques,” Hecht said.

Meanwhile, Disney begins the new year with some changes at the top. Last week Schneider, the president of Walt Disney Theatrical Animation, became president of the Walt Disney Studios, which means he will also be overseeing TV animation and some live-action production. Thomas Schumacher, executive vice president of feature animation and theatrical productions, will take over as Disney’s head of animation.

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Although Disney has instituted cost-cutting measures and recently announced layoffs in the feature animation department, the studio is pursuing an ambitious production schedule. In the works are a fantasy set in the Inca empire; the period adventure “Atlantis”; “Treasure Planet,” an adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic set in outer space; a comic western; “Lilo and Stitch,” an original comedy; and the computer-animated “Wild Life.”

“I know that Disney is working on films for the entire family, for a large, diverse audience, not just boys or teenagers,” Schneider said.

DreamWorks also has an ambitious slate of films. “We have settled into what I hope will be a steady rhythm, producing a traditional-style animated movie every 18 months,” Katzenberg said. “Using the rule that it takes four to five years to develop and make them, we’re pretty much committed through 2003: a comedy-adventure, ‘The Road to El Dorado’; ‘Spirit,’ which is about horses; and a version of the comic book ‘Ash.’

“In addition, we’ll do a [computer-] animated movie with PDI about every two years: There’ll be ‘Shrek,’ based on the William Steig book, in 2000, and ‘Tusker’ in 2002. Then we have an association with Aardman Animations [the creators of the Academy Award-winning “Wallace and Gromit” films]: They’ll be able to do a movie about every 2 1/2 to three years, starting with ‘Chicken Run’ in 2000.”

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At Warner Bros., Di Bonaventura said that after “Iron Giant,” the studio is considering three or four more projects--none of them musicals--but that no decision has been made on which will be next.

Nickelodeon plans to begin making one theatrical feature a year, beginning in 2000. Although no titles have been set, a sequel to “Rugrats” is already in the works for 2000. And Fox is producing “Planet Ice,” an outer-space adventure.

This extraordinary level of production bodes well for the future of animation, but the artists also fear a potential backlash. Terry Thoren, CEO and president of Klasky-Csupo Inc., summed up a widespread fear among animation professionals: “The challenge in the animation business, both on television and in movie theaters, is that if something doesn’t do well, it’s about animation. It’s not about the script or the character design or content.”


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