In Epic Rumpus, Hollywood's animation industry is trying to sort royalties off its henchmen

In Epic Rumpus, Hollywood's animation industry is trying to sort royalties off its henchmen

(Spencer Wilson for the Washington Post)

In the modern Disney classic "Frozen" two sisters of the royal sisters lead a fight, a lover will be treacherous and some crazy characters come to save the day.

Hollywood's animation business has its own Elsa moment.

The sector, known as one of the most stable in the world – "Incredibles 2" and "Hotel Transylvania 3" were both extremely lucrative last summer – it is slowly playing its own mythical dramas, albeit with less catchy music.

Companies are plagued by mergers or #Messo scandals. Studios are bound to great ambitions or tied to past successes.

And internal questions are only the beginning. Executives like Disney and Pixar are trying to maintain the dominance of the field, while close competitors like Illumination are coming closer. Once great studios like DreamWorks struggle to find their way back. And well-funded upstarts from Sony to Netflix are trying to beat them all off.

"We are undergoing a fundamental change right now," said Dan Sarto, editor of the animation network for the industry and an attentive observer of the category. "It is absolutely unprecedented. Everything is subject to interference. "

In interviews with The Washington Post, 16 animation managers and experts, many of whom talked about anonymity because of the highly competitive nature of the field, reported a world of intense battles, complex strategies and, albeit the most interesting, modern motivations. In a time when the conversation is shattering and a niche and children and parents rarely agree on what to see, the ability of animations to attract whole families is the reason why studios can not let go.

It's not just about which Hollywood conglomerate will make money – big concessions like Toy Story can take in $ 2 billion or more worldwide – but it sets the tone and style of the animated films that moviegoers will see for years to come. Will the category continue to be dominated by the computer-generated soulfulness of Disney and Pixar? Or will Illumination's off-European, European flair and its loveable, silly Minions catch up?

Will Sony's genre-flexible approach set a new course with films like the upcoming action adventure "Spider-Man: Into the Spider"? Or will Netflix and its willingness to spend a lot of money on Oscar-nominated filmmakers, as announced last week, change the game?

The Pixar Pickle

John Lasseter is one of the few people who has defined the modern animation spirit: chic computer-generated children's stories with at the same time serious topics for adults. He succeeded first at Pixar and in recent years also at Disney. But despite the many who would consider many a lifetime, Lasseter has resigned, charged with unwanted sexual advances, and is promoting an insecure work culture.

The news puts companies – and industry – to the ears. While this month's "Ralph Breaks The Internet" and "Frozen 2" and "Toy Story 4" are Lasseter's pieces for the coming year, longer-term development is causing great uncertainty.

Disney promoted two in-house filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Pete Docter to lead the creative side of Disney Animation and Pixar. Both learned from Lasseter and have a wealth of awe: Lee, the more extrovert of the two, wrote and co-directed "Frozen," while Docter is behind the hits "Up" and "Inside Out". Everyone has a deep track record of stories that children can understand but parents can appreciate – the heartbreaking opening montage of an older man's life with his beloved deceased wife in "Up" – a central requirement for modern high-end animation.

However, there is no leadership experience that causes skepticism as to whether the couple is leading the business or complacently appeasing their CEOs, as Lasseter knew. A Disney spokesman declined to provide Docter or Lee for this story.


Jennifer Lee, seen here at the premiere of Disney's "A Wrinkle In Time" in February, has taken over the management of Walt Disney Animation Studios. (Christopher Polk / Getty Images)

The new sense of time is added: longtime Disney Pixar President Ed Catmull, known as the Spirit of Lasseters Soul, announced last month that he will resign in December.

As it turns out, Lasseter himself is not finished yet. The manager sought to enter the entertainment business a few months after his withdrawal. Two people with knowledge of his thought process – one year after the Me Too movement, they wondered if and whether the industry should accept comebacks.

Recently, Lasseter met with representatives of at least one agency, WME Entertainment, where in a two-hour meeting at the Beverly Hills headquarters he voiced his side of the allegations and disclosed his hopes for his next act, according to one person at the meeting, but not authorized , talk about it.

While Silicon Valley companies interested in animation may be a logical consequence, Lasseter had a connection to late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. His specialty in making great theater experiences contradicts those companies' focus on personal devices.

Among the areas in which Lasseter expressed interest, it was not about animation, but about podcasting.

Lasseter did not respond to an email seeking a comment.

The lighting is rising

Founded eleven years ago and owned by Universal Pictures' parent Comcast, Illumination Entertainment has become a quiet force, claiming two of the top five global animation hits of all time in "Minions" and "Despicable Me 3" Only titles on the list not from Disney-Pixar. As in many companies, animation is outsourced overseas – in this case in Paris, where more than 800 animators carry out and execute the technical work of ideas designed by writers in their smaller office in Santa Monica, California.

"They have done a great job with quality and consistency," said Doug Creutz, chief research analyst at Cowen, who deals with animation. "If Pixar misses a step, Illumination will continue to take more shares." The company had three films close to or over $ 1 billion.

However, company executives and competitors are well aware that these films appear in the Despicable Me / Minions series, an older product line that began eight years ago. To be successful, Illumination has to come up with new franchises, an elusive goal he wants to achieve with sequels to The Secret Life of Pets next year and Sing in 2020.

This weekend, "The Grinch" was released, with a film based on the standard of Dr. Ing. Seuss is based, the second season of the popular author. According to Benedict Cumberbatch, the film revolves around a conspiracy to derail Christmas in Whoville – a worthy metaphor for a sector where a whole range of companies are trying to thwart the longtime leaders.

Illumination is also on the Oscar front: Disney-Pixar has won the Animation Award 10 of the last 11 years, six of them in a row. The lighting has never won.

"Even if Illumination of Pixar share gets [with Lasseter gone]I still think there is room for all three, "Creutz added to the company's ranking for market shares. "Among them, things become really interesting."

California DreamWorks

Just below them is DreamWorks, a one-of-a-kind megalith, eagerly seeking its identity following a sale to Universal and the departure of pioneer Jeffrey Katzenberg.

What the company will look like in Katzenberg – his tenure was dominated by lively animal franchise companies like Madagascar – has become one of the most important industry puzzles. At the top is now Chris deFaria, a former manager of Warner Bros., who supervised the penguin musical "Happy Feet". How much he takes it in a similar direction – proven but possibly leaked – has been carefully analyzed by animation analysts.

In February, DreamWorks will release the third installment of its Oscar-nominated series "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," which grossed $ 1.1 billion worldwide. DreamWorks has high hopes – Steven Spielberg even commented on Dean DeBlois, a dragon director, according to a person who was familiar with the production and was not allowed to speak publicly about it.

Many animation experts, however, believe that their longer-term goals will not be as critical – or commercially secure. The company plans two to three films a year: sequels, originals and hybrid live-action animation. That's a high volume, these observers say, given the lack of established franchises and a clear forward path. Whether she can capture the magic of the Katzenberg era with an undefined identity remains highly unclear.

So the company also fits in with the illumination; Perhaps the biggest maneuver in animation is not between companies, but within companies.

Comcast bought DreamWorks in 2016 for almost $ 4 billion. At the time, Illumination boss Chris Meledandri – the most powerful animation manager after Lasseter and Katzenberg – was asked by Comcast executives to lead both units. He declined (although he took over the development of a "Shrek" start). The two companies differ in their sensitivity – the partially based in France Illumination has compared to the American DreamWorks rather a European way of thinking. Neither deFaria nor Meledandri would comment on these questions. A universal speaker would not comment on that.

A field of tension, say those with knowledge of the companies, are the dates for publication. Illumination and DreamWorks have so far essentially broken down the calendar – the earlier more plum date of July 4th and the pre-Christmas period with the last landing Easter and the early part of the Christmas season. DreamWorks executives, however, are dissatisfied privately with this arrangement and do not believe it will be viable in the long run, according to a senior executive of the company who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order not to be criticized as a company's sibling.

"Ultimately, dating must change when DreamWorks returns to the top," the person said.

The field rustles

Since DreamWorks is not at the top and the competitors know it, the race is denied from fourth place. Sony has done the biggest piece under Kristine Belson, the former DreamWorks leader. She tripled her crew size and doubled her slate in 2017.

(Sony's films, like Illumination's and some other studios, are usually made less expensive, often for less than $ 100 million.) Animations are a time-consuming, labor-intensive process that requires hundreds of animators working for years Often it's about keeping costs down, and the fight is often. Most of the time Disney-Pixar spends most of its time, often taking longer to develop and engage huge teams; it is estimated that the Incredibles 2 budget is estimated at $ 200 million.)

Belson has also tried to develop a broader mindset for animated films. After "Transylvania" this summer, the company wants to expand its lead for 2018 in December with "Spider verses". The movie, co-produced with Marvel, breaks with a harder action adventure than most big-budget family animation.

"I do not know what's going on in other animation studios, but I know what we need to do at Sony," Belson told The Post. "When you look outside, there is a landscape of equality. To survive, the films have to be different. "

Sony is not the only company that sees a vulnerability – or the DreamWorks talent is the key to turning off DreamWorks. Paramount has commissioned Katzenberg's longtime production officer, Mireille Soria, to revive his own animation efforts. So far, she has been focusing on brand titles, activating a boring sequel to "SpongeBob SquarePants" and earning a Sony "Sonic the Hedgehog" movie. Soria did not respond to a request for a comment. (DreamWorks does not release a movie this year because of the transition to deFaria.)

In the meantime, Warner Bros., who hit gold four years ago in "The Lego Movie" with an unusual hit, will continue to expand this ground and come to DreamWorks, or at least Sony, next year. The creative spectrum here is the Gambit: Development projects in which Dr. Ing. Seuss real estate involved, a novel by George RR Martin, a title by Wile E. Coyote and a story about Toto from "The Wizard of Oz". (These midsize companies could make it easier with Disney's purchase of Fox, meaning Blue Sky – Fox's own creator of Ice Age movies – is likely to be closed, which precludes a sale.)

And all that is nothing to say about Silicon Valley. Netflix surprised many at the Cannes Film Festival in May, when it paid $ 30 million for "Next Gen," an independently produced animated film partly funded by China with a glittering American cast. A few weeks ago, the company announced that there is a new stop-motion adaptation of "Pinocchio" by Guillermo del Toro, the director of "The Shape of Water," reflecting the desire for quality and the willingness to invest in it , suggests. Last week new film projects were announced, including the co-director of the Oscar nominee "The Secret of Kells" and the co-director of "Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2".

"Netflix beats at the gates, and we in the studios ignore them at our peril," said a high-ranking clerk in one of the four leading studios who talked about the condition of anonymity so as not to be considered a rejection colleague. Whether this is possible without the big theatrical release that forms the core of the animation business model remains open. Netflix executives declined to comment on this story.

Too much of a good thing (could be a bad thing)

The madness of supremacy – and the different approaches to getting there – makes it harder to predict the mood of the next generation of animated films than ever before. The multiplexer could see a re-election of the Disney Pixar reign over the last two decades, an agreement on the sharing of power between them and Illumination or one of several emerging challengers.

"There is this crazy, fluid situation where you are not sure who will receive cannibalism," said John Eraklis, an animation producer. "And that means you're really not sure what the long-term visions for one of these locations or even the animation in general will look like."

The industry has recently had unquestionable outbreaks of players and movies – last year 15 animated films were released, up 50 percent from just five years ago. And the new additions will continue to flood the market.

This may give cause for optimism, so some consumers feel that more choices are expected. However, there are some creators who worry about reducing the gloss of these films.

"On the positive side, Hollywood now believes in an unprecedented animation," said Brad Bird, the director of Incredibles films at Pixar. "When I started, the executives gave me that confident look that no animated movie would ever make $ 50 million.

"But it's also much easier to make films thanks to technology, and I hope people will not rely on it," he said. "I hope they use it to advance the artistry and do not just use all the possibilities that a computer can offer you. I hope people make films because they have a bold new story.

"Just because it's easier to create an animated movie," he added, "does not mean you should do that."

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