Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Animation Upstarts

The New York Times has a new article about the next wave of globally produced animated feature films being created by smaller companies will smaller budgets, but are still making big waves.

Of course, among these so-called animation upstarts is Imagi, and their upcoming animated Astro Boy movie gets a great mention in the article.

One interesting tidbit of info is revealed here. McDonald's will have a promotional tie-in with the Astro Boy movie. Get ready for Astro Happy Meals this fall!

You can read "Animation Upstarts Are Joining the Fray" on the New York Times website (registration required) or by clicking the link below for an archived version.

LOS ANGELES — “Planet 51,” a forthcoming computer-animated movie about an astronaut who discovers happy green people, has the game maker Sega and HarperCollins signed up as promotional partners. Hollywood stars (Dwayne Johnson, Jessica Biel) lend their vocal talents. Online chatter about the film is notably positive.

The latest from Pixar? Try the inaugural effort from Ilion Animation Studios, an upstart film company in Spain. Hardly anyone in Hollywood has heard of Ilion, but here it comes with a big-time distributor (Sony), a high-profile release date (Thanksgiving) and a kids’ meal tie-in (Burger King).

Computer animation, once one of the most isolated corners of Hollywood, is rapidly becoming one of the most crowded. With the cost of computer animation coming down because of advances in technology and soaring box office receipts for family films, a broad range of new animation players are entering the multiplex.

In 2009 14 animated movies — most of them computer-generated — will have a wide release, compared with 8 such films in 2005. Pictures from independent producers like Imagi Studios, which has “Astro Boy” lined up for an October release, are competing with the likes of “Up,” from Pixar, and “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” set for release on July 1 by 20th Century Fox. Sony’s own computer-animated movie, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” is scheduled to open on Sept. 18.

“I have lots of respect for Disney and DreamWorks, but I think we are going to easily compete in this marketplace,” said Erin Corbett, president of Imagi Studios USA. “Astro Boy,” based on the popular Japanese manga and television series, is about a young robot with incredible powers.

Even the big boys are ramping up production. Last week DreamWorks Animation said it would increase its output by 20 percent, delivering five films every two years. Coming titles include “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Puss in Boots,” a prequel to the “Shrek” franchise.

When “Toy Story” had its debut in 1995 as the first feature-length computer-animated movie, the new look of the medium was captivating in and of itself. But this filmmaking style is becoming less special as more of it hits the big screen, movie executives say, forcing giants like Pixar and DreamWorks to keep inventing to stand out.

Few would confuse “Planet 51” with one of Pixar’s films — noted for their highly original stories and lavish production values — or a DreamWorks release, which boast A-list stars and dazzling action sequences. “Planet 51” cost about $70 million to produce, according to Ilion, compared with $160 million for the average DreamWorks title.

The independent production companies entering the market just don’t think computer-animated films need to cost that much.

“Pixar and DreamWorks films end up being very expensive because they have to invent it,” said Keith Calder, president of Snoot Entertainment, whose first animated film, “Battle for Terra,” was released in May. “What they do — breakthroughs in rendering hair and water — trickles down to us at reduced cost.”

In addition to leading the way in technology, the Walt Disney Company has inadvertently given a boost to newcomers by eliminating its Happy Meal partnership with McDonald’s as part of a children’s health initiative. So guess who has a major partnership with the fast-food chain? “Astro Boy.”

It’s easy to see what all these upstarts are chasing. In 2008 4 of the top 10 movies at the box office were computer-animated films (“Wall-E,” “Kung Fu Panda,” “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” and “Horton Hears a Who!”), which are easier for studios to control than their live-action counterparts.

And the medium is showing signs of expanding beyond the kiddie market. The success of video games has resulted in a generation of adults who are comfortable consuming animated entertainment, Hollywood executives say. One indication: “Coraline,” the sophisticated 3-D picture about an adventurous girl, found an adult audience, so far selling $85.2 million in tickets.

Disney will test this part of the market with “Ponyo” on Aug. 14. This Hayao Miyazaki film is centered on a 5-year-old boy’s friendship with a goldfish that wants to be human. “Sophisticated stories coupled with powerful imaginations and beautiful animation appeals to everyone,” said Kathleen Kennedy, who is co-producing the English version of the film.

Ignacio PĂ©rez Dolset, the chief executive of Ilion, is well known in Europe for his work with video games. Mr. Dolset, via Pyro Studios, introduced its first game title, “Commandos,” in 1998. It reached No. 1 in 17 countries, selling more than 1.5 million copies. He formed Ilion in 2002 and announced “Planet 51” three years later, developing more than 100 computer applications along the way. About 400 people, based mostly in Madrid, have been toiling on the movie.

“Planet 51” tells the story of a cheery American astronaut who lands in a world filled with characters, landscapes and attitudes that bear a humorous relation to the 1950s. Joe Stillman (“Shrek” and “Shrek 2”) wrote the script; Jorge Blanco directed with Javier Abad. (The title is a nod to the secretive military base in Nevada known as Area 51.)

“The film is a recognizable world, yet one that is so unique that we see franchise opportunities everywhere,” Mr. Dolset said. “Around every corner is a new piece of business.”

George Leon, the studio’s executive vice president for worldwide consumer marketing, said, “The quality of animation is truly extraordinary, and we are blown away by the storytelling.”

Of course breaking into this market is easier said than done, something Mr. Calder knows all too well. “Battle for Terra,” distributed by Lionsgate, sold a disastrous $1.6 million in tickets — total — for its theatrical run, even though it got some positive reviews. Mr. Calder blamed the competition. “We learned it is very hard to open against an X-Men sequel,” he said.

“Igor,” the first feature from Exodus Film Group, opened last September to better results, making $29.5 million in its run, but still fell far short of a hit, although DVD sales were stronger. Exodus will try again this year with its forthcoming “Bunyan & Babe,” a computer-animated film based loosely on the Paul Bunyan folk tales.

“We learned with ‘Igor’ that a long and consistent and strong marketing campaign is a requirement for a family title,” said John D. Eraklis, chief executive of Exodus. “The nag factor is a very real thing.”