Every year, the animated-feature Oscar race seems squares off as David vs. Goliath showdowns (not “Davey and Goliath”). Megabudget Hollywood behemoths compete — and usually win — against little-known foreign films or quirky, idiosyncratic fare — think last year’s “Incredibles 2” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet” up against “Mirai” or 2017’s “Coco” and “Boss Baby” against “The Breadwinner” and “Loving Vincent.”
Sure enough, this year’s field lines up three big-budget studio offerings (“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” “Missing Link,” “Toy Story 4,” which alone brought in $1.1 billion in grosses) against two relatively little guys (“I Lost My Body,” “Klaus” — about $1.1 million each in grosses) whose budgets together are less than $50 million. Not bad for a 2D Santa Claus origin story by an upstart studio in Spain and a bizarre little French tale of a disembodied hand worriedly crawling around Paris.
Though it’s hard to think of anything associated with Netflix as “little.”
Being picked up by, or in the case of “Klaus,” being made by, the streaming giant makes a film available to 158.3 million subscriptions worldwide. Using Netflix’s estimate of 2.5 viewers per subscription, that’s in the neighborhood of 400 million pairs of eyeballs. If movie tickets now average just over $9 each, the $5.3-million “I Lost My Body” can be seen right now by the equivalent of $3.6 billion in ticket buyers. Take that, Woody and Co.
“I Lost My Body” producer Marc du Pontavice said, “The film had to fight against all the odds to exist in that pretty much no one believed in that concept, that story. The studio, Xilam, had to self-fund it pretty much, by more than 50%. The great news is that when we had the finished movie and we saw the reactions of distributors and other [industry] players — what we understood is that Netflix was bringing something the others couldn’t, which is wide exposure, wide distribution, an enormous marketing capacity that the traditional theatrical distribution system wouldn’t provide for a film like this.
“So many millions of people around the world watching the movie, for us as filmmakers, it’s a huge reward.”
“Body” is only briefly gruesome, but considering Pixar deemed its dogfighting-themed short “Kitbull” not appropriate to package with, say, “Toy Story 4’s” theatrical release (“Kitbull” just received an animated-short Oscar nomination), a handmade tale such as “Body” is not exactly blockbuster fare. Instead, it’s exactly the kind of weird, niche entertainment for which Netflix seems the perfect home.
“What I really loved was this new point of view, this character of the hand,” says director Jérémy Clapin.
“I come from short films and wasn’t expecting to make a feature because most of them are OK for kids and families. My short films are not for kids and families. So it does not make sense that Marc gave me this opportunity [to freely make it] the way I wanted to make the film, to make something mature.”
“Klaus” is OK for kids and families and has the DNA of a high roller, conceived by the creator of the billion-dollar “Despicable Me” franchise and positioned as a kind of Christmas-fare prequel: The origin of Santa Claus. But apart from the use of software to facilitate animators’ control of light and shadow, it’s a throwback to the days of 2D, hand-drawn animation.
“I used to be a 3D animator for many years; I’m much aware of what the advantages of CGI are. So if you find the right story that’s supported by the right medium, that works,” said director Sergio Pablos, who worked for Disney and created the billion-grossing “Despicable Me” franchise for Illumination. He then left to found Sergio Pablos Animation Studios in Madrid, where he crafted “Klaus” — the first animated feature made under the Netflix banner.
“A lot of it is gut feeling. Some of it is nostalgia. Part is the organic quality of the story too; you would not do ‘Wall-E’ in 2D. But if the subject matter is organic and it feels right, you go for it. It’s not about the medium, but how you use it.”
The logline of “Klaus” sounds like a natural holiday theatrical release, but its makers met some Grinchlike resistance.
“We shopped it around,” says Pablos. “We found it was a deterrent for a lot of studios that it was a Christmas story. They did not want to compete in the very crowded market. The only studio that was looking at that as a positive at the time was Netflix.”
Producer Jinko Gotoh said, “Unlike other studios that have branded content, Netflix is looking for originality. They were looking for a Christmas story that was a comedy, and they embraced it immediately. I do believe this will become evergreen for Netflix.”
The filmmakers praised the streaming giant for not only giving them a home but creative freedom. The director said the notes they got were minimal and “only suggestions.”
Producer Marisa Roman said, “We were just a very small studio, and they believed in us. We grew to more than 300 people, 22 nationalities, here in Madrid. So we’re very grateful to have Netflix behind us.”