The Golden Age of Animated Cinema is Over

Eighty-something years is a pretty good run though, right?

All good things come to an end and animation at the cinema is no different. Cinemas are struggling and (at least in the US) audiences have been declining for a long time even as studios tout rising box office revenues to deflect attention from that. The COVID-19 pandemic merely bought forward the inevitable switch to streaming by a good five or so years; hastening the end of the every-man multiplex.

Which means the golden age of animation at the cinema appears to be over. The slow return of films (and audiences) to cinemas coupled with numerous studios’ decision to release films directly to streaming suggests that the cinema as a regularly occurring experience is finished.

…the larger discussion revolves around whether studios like Pixar can afford to create, and maintain the infrastructure to deliver, films costing hundreds of millions…

Lightyear is a symptom of this trend. Middling reviews aside, the film leans hard on Pixar’s brand without success. The studio’s other recent films have gone straight to Disney+; leading to staffers moaning on Twitter that the films are devalued as a result.

It’s a bit more complicated than that though. Films costs have to be recouped and the box office was the first route to doing so until now. Netflix demonstrated that film costs could be decoupled from outright performance and instead folded into overall subscriber revenues; you spend the money you have and not the money you’ll hope you have in an effort to maintain and grow income in the future.

Mainstream culture has changed and the concept of a monoculture where we all consume the same media is gone. We don’t all watch the same films (if we can even watch them all) let alone go to the same location to watch them. Complaining about films being denied their moment to shine at a movie house is anachronistic thinking. Parroting their performance when they succeed there is devoid of meaning. Saturday Night Live gets a lot of attention from media that intones a wildly influential show but the numbers watching, and the numbers of real people talking, tell a very different story. It doesn’t matter if SNL is actually funny; if everyone is busy watching something else to care, it can’t be a paragon of culture.

If anything, going straight to streaming is a sign of confidence in quality. Lightyear going to the box office is a sign that Disney figured they had to hedge their bets by recouping at least some of the film’s massive $200 million cost at the box office because their data most assuredly told them such a turkey wasn’t going to deliver any subscriber growth to Disney+.

I don’t agree with /Film’s take on Pixar’s future, especially since it focuses on the box office, and argues that Disney shouldn’t shy away from a studio who’s delivered hits in the past. I think the larger discussion revolves around whether studios like Pixar can afford to create, and maintain the infrastructure to deliver, films costing hundreds of millions if the return on investment isn’t as clear cut or as swift as the weekend box office.

Low Budget =/= Low Quality;

This is what Netflix has wrought: animated films that are decent quality yet low cost and delivered frequently. Large budget films exist because they had economics which supported them. What happens when those economics are no longer there or are unfavourable? Technology has also advanced to the point where technological prowess is kind of irrelevant. Will a $300 million film look better than a $75 million one? Probably. Will the audience notice enough to care…? Illumination’s success provides a definitive answer.

The Future?

What does the future hold? Like Spielberg, I agree (and have agreed since he made the remarks in 2013) that the cinema experience isn’t dead, but it will evolve into something that is consumed rarely; perhaps once or twice a year and with an increased focus on older films people want to see on a big screen with others. This will continue for a few decades until cinema itself becomes an anachronism like vaudeville, jukeboxes, and the cassette tape.

With the cinema in decline, what will animated films evolve into from here.

2 thoughts on “The Golden Age of Animated Cinema is Over”

  1. Ha! I thought i was the only one who wondered why current SNL is propped up to such an absurd degree, with its content fawned over and analyzed as if it were some divine amalgamation of SCTV and Monty Python. The declining ratings you mention, along with only being able to attract mostly “C-list” talent as hosts, and the exodus of departing cast members (with more to come before the Fall premiere, I’m sure) would seem to tell a different story.

  2. I think you could be jumping the gun. Even if Netflix has had some success with midbudget films, they just laid off half of their staff. It’s thus too soon to assume that big budget films are going to go away. I haven’t been a regular cinemagoer for a while and I’m lucky if I find five films a year that I’m interested enough in to watch at the big chain cinemas even in a year without a pandemic. You might be right that cinema attendance will go downhill, but I can’t see streaming services being the final nail in the coffin. For one thing, the fact that they need to rely on continuous growth shows that they may be a bit of a paper tiger. It makes economic sense for people to pay more money to watch more movies. It doesn’t make sense to have a flat rate to watch as much content as you want and there’s pressure against raising the rates. With Netflix DVD there was a fee paid for every time you rented a DVD and you paid more for larger plans and thus they could sustain an enormous variety of new and old content. Now though, your money goes towards supporting new films that haven’t had any profit from the box office so I don’t think it’s sustainable. Maybe you’ve been able to think it through in a way that I haven’t. I agree that people are watching different things now and the internet has split us into niches. You’re right about the niches but maybe wrong about the box office. There’s so much to talk about that I can’t wrap my head around all of it.

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