Celebrity Voices Help Make Big Noise at Box Office
Celebrity voice-overs have become a central part of the animation business, changing the ways studios today promote and market their family movies.
Not only did Tom Hanks and Tim Allen receive “over scale” salaries for reprising their roles in “Toy Story 2,” they’re also the first stars to get their names above the title in all print advertising for the upcoming Thanksgiving release from Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios.
When movie stars become synonymous with the screen characters they portray, as Hanks and Allen have with Woody and Buzz Lightyear, and Robin Williams has with the Genie in “Aladdin,” it helps sell tickets and videos.
“There’s no denying that when you have Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, two of the big stars around, it’s a huge plus for us,” said Richard Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group. “It’s like they’re starring in the movie.”
Just as with live-action movies, marquee names are particularly advantageous when it comes to positioning a title in today’s increasingly competitive and overcrowded marketplace.
Casting recognizable talent enables studios to sell films such as “Toy Story” and “Aladdin” as family comedies, not just animated kids’ movies.
“People think of ‘Toy Story’ like a Hope and Crosby comedy as much as a children’s picture,” said Disney Studios Chairman Joe Roth.
For years, Disney liked to keep its voice-over talent out of the media spotlight so that audiences wouldn’t identify the animated characters with the stars.
That changed when Williams personified the wisecracking Genie in the studio’s 1992 animated hit “Aladdin” and the character and the comedic star’s real-life persona became inseparable.
“Robin became so identified with the Genie, that really broke the ice,” recalled Cook, noting how characters from such animated movies as “Toy Story,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” have become part of popular culture.
Disney’s motivation in casting someone as high-profile as Williams in “Aladdin” was, in fact, an attempt to move animation into a much bigger realm.
“It opened animation to a wider audience because adults could relate to the movie,” said DreamWorks’ animation chief, Ann Daly, who was president of Disney’s domestic home-video division from 1992 to 1997.
Since “Aladdin,” virtually all major animated movies have featured celebrity talent. Movie stars such as Mel Gibson, Mike Myers, Meg Ryan and Sharon Stone, as well as popular TV personalities such as Rosie O’Donnell, are participating in press junkets and appearing on talk shows to help studios promote their animated films.
Industry standards call for voice talent to get pre-negotiated fees of about $5,000 a recording session. Disney and other movie companies such as DreamWorks still pay their voice talent scale on animated movies.
But such stars as Williams, Hanks and Allen got nontraditional multimillion-dollar salaries to make sequels to films that became animated blockbusters.
Williams, who received $75,000 for the original “Aladdin,” made a multimillion-dollar, precedent-setting deal on the 1995 direct-to-video sequel “Aladdin and the King of Thieves,” which served as the model for Disney’s “Toy Story 2" deal with Hanks and Allen.
Sources said Hanks and Allen got a bump in their deal when Disney and Pixar decided to make the “Toy Story” sequel as a theatrical rather than a lower-cost direct-to-video release.
For their work on the original “Toy Story,” the two stars were paid traditional scale salaries of less than $50,000 each. That film grossed $360 million worldwide and sold 22 million videocassettes in the U.S. alone.
Sources said they each received about $5 million upfront, which is applied against worldwide home-video royalties for “Toy Story 2.”
If “Toy Story 2" is as big a hit as is expected (Roth is predicting more than $200 million domestically), sources said Hanks and Allen could earn more than their upfront fees but nowhere near what they’d get on a live-action movie. Hanks, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, pulls down $20 million a movie against a percentage of theatrical gross.
From a creative standpoint, director John Lasseter, the man behind the two “Toy Story” films and “A Bug’s Life,” said, “The actors are a big part of these movies and so much a part of these characters.”
In casting the parts, Lasseter said, “At Pixar, we’re always looking to make the most believable characters, so it’s not how big an actor is, but how good they are and how their voice and personality fit with the character.”
Lasseter explained that the actors’ dialogue is recorded before the film is animated. Pixar works from storyboards of still drawings that it edits onto reels. The reels are then shown to the actors, with temp voices performed by “the Pixar players,” as Lasseter says they’re called.
The principal actors then perform their parts in a series of 10 or so recording sessions, each lasting about four hours, over the course of the production. The animation is then synched to their performance.
Having big Hollywood stars lend their voices to animated movies is the brainchild of Jeffrey Katzenberg, former Disney movie chairman, who asked Williams, Hanks, Allen and others to do the gigs as a favor.
Roth credits Pixar Chairman and Chief Executive Steve Jobs with being the first to suggest that Disney directly link its voice stars with the characters by featuring them in the television advertising for “A Bug’s Life.”
The spots featured such stars as David Hyde Pierce and Kevin Spacey on a sound stage voicing their parts before cutting to footage from the actual movie.
Roth said people responded so well to the ads that Disney decided to go one step further and put the names of Hanks and Allen on posters for “Toy Story 2.”
“We have big stars, why not remind people that they’re back in the same roles?” Roth said, noting that’s no different from a studio promoting the fact that it has Bruce Willis reprising his role as John McClane in a “Die Hard” sequel.
“You use every asset you have, and Tom and Tim are two great assets,” Roth said.
Although Hanks and Allen partook in last weekend’s “Toy Story 2" press junket, don’t look for them to plug the animated movie on “Leno” or “Letterman,” because each has a big live-action holiday picture to promote. (Hanks stars in Frank Darabont’s upcoming Oscar hopeful, “The Green Mile,” and Allen will be seen in DreamWorks’ sci-fi Christmas comedy, “Galaxy Quest.”)
No matter how much Hanks and Allen were paid for their services on both “Toy Story” movies, it pales next to what Disney made on the original and what Disney and Pixar are likely to make on the sequel.
Profit for “Toy Story,” which cost about $25 million to produce, was in the $500-million range, with the lion’s share going to Disney.
Pixar will see 50% of the profit from “Toy Story 2,” which cost closer to $90 million to make, and four future films, under a deal the company renegotiated with Disney in 1997 after the phenomenal success of the original.
Disney brass says that it will never break precedent and give voice talent a piece of the theatrical gross on its animated movies. But as top stars make ever-larger contributions to the success of these animated blockbusters, that day may not be far off.
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Company Town Film Profit Report
The report is based on projections of total U.S. box-office gross from a consensus of industry sources and studio financial models. The U.S. returns represent only 20% of a film’s final revenue, which includes income from video, TV and overseas theatrical. Typical industry marketing costs are factored into this profit analysis, as is the relative strength of specific film genres in foreign markets. Results for the weekend of Oct. 22-24:
Of the six national releases this weekend, only “The Best Man” will clearly be profitable. “Bringing Out the Dead,” co-financed by Disney and Paramount, could minimize its losses with a strong overseas performance.
Projected Box- Estimated U.S. box-office office cost, in receipts, Movie title Studio rank millions in millions The Sixth Sense Buena Vista 10 $40 $265 Double Jeopardy Paramount 2 45 110
Projected Box- Estimated U.S. box-office office cost, in receipts, Movie title Studio rank millions in millions American Beauty DreamWorks SKG 6 $15 $65 The Best Man Universal 1 9 27
Projected Box- Estimated U.S. box-office office cost, in receipts, Movie title Studio rank millions in millions Three Kings Warner Bros. 9 $48 $60 Superstar Paramount 11 14 28
Box- Estimated office cost, in Movie title Studio rank millions Random Hearts Sony 12 $65 The Fight Club Fox 3 68 The Story of Us Universal 5 50 Bringing Paramount/Buena Vista 4 32 Out the Dead Three to Tango Warner Bros. 8 20 Bats Destination 7 12 Crazy in Alabama Sony -- 17 Body Shots New Line -- 10
Projected U.S. box-office receipts, Movie title in millions Random Hearts $32 The Fight Club 35 The Story of Us 28 Bringing 18 Out the Dead Three to Tango 10 Bats 10 Crazy in Alabama 3 Body Shots 1
Notes: Cost estimates are for production only. Only half of box-office receipts come back to the studio.
Researched by RICHARD NATALE.
If you have information or comments about the chart, call (213) 237-2001 or send e-mail to email@example.com. Send faxes to (213) 237-7837.
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