DreamWorks Really Is Pushing The Envelope

Yes, DreamWorks really is pushing the envelope, the release envelope that is. Here’s what I read this morning over on the Animation Guild Blog that really made me take a minute just to think about it (emphasis mine):

There is a squadron of other features are lined up on the tarmac, but I won’t bother rattling them off, since you can see most of them listed here. (It dawns on me that by 2014, DWA will have thirty animated movies out in the wider world. By contrast, Disney’s fifty-first feature — after 73 years, came out last Spring.)

You could easily argue that DreamWorks isn’t as diversified as Disney, nor has it ever put out even close to the same volume of shorts. However, the fact remains that as far as animated features go, DreamWorks is certainly cranking them out.

Now you can read this any number of ways you like. Be it that the fact that Disney is diversified means they do not need to rely on aniamted films to bring home the bacon, that things were different back in the old days or even that Disney has such a strong brand that they can afford to coast on films for years after release in contrast to DW which must continue the releases to bring in the dough.

I tend to believe that DW does need to continually release films, hence it’s faster production rate. However, the time will come when DreamWorks will have earned a legacy that is strong enough for it to slow down a bit. That day is still a bit far away, but it is drawing ever closer.

Using Neuromarketing for Animation: Good or Bad?

 Via: Fast Company

The other night, we watched the Morgan Spurlock documentary POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It was an entertaining enough look at how products get into films and how studios use them to help pay for and promote them.

Interestingly enough, there was no explicit mention of animation. Not to say that it doesn’t go on of course. Pretty much every animated film contains promotion to some extent. Yes, the film itself is a form of ‘promotion’, it being the vehicle that drives all the ancillary sales of merchandise and DVDs. Need proof, look no further than the final Harry Potter film. It contains no advertising whatsoever apart from on, the Harry Potter itself.

However, one aspect of the films that I found most intriguing/disturbing, is the whole idea of neuromarketing. In the film, Spurlock is basically shoved into an MRI and shown images of products. During the analysis afterwards, he is shown how his brain reacted when shown an advert for Coca-Cola: it released hormones that indicated he wanted the Coke.

As scary as that may sound, its been known about for years. What is not so well known, is that movie studios use it to perfect their product before releasing it. In the course of the documentary, we see Spurlock having a look at the schedule for the day of the neuroanalysis firm he visited. The film right before his: Toy Story 3.

Now you might say to yourself “But Charles, Toy Story 3 had an emotional story to begin with!” Well, yes, it does. However keep in mind that even stories can be analysed to make sure they extract the right emotions from the audience. Fast Company discussed the practice back in February when they took a look at the rise of “neurocinema” and how it is likely to affect future films.

Animation is not immune as this quote regarding Rango from Steve Sands, head of neuroanalysis firm Sands Research demonstrates:

Often animation can be more engaging for the brain than real actors. Look at the strong response to Avatar,

And check out the image below that shows brain activity while watching the trailer for Rango.

 Via: Fast Company

The downside to all of this? Well for one, now you know that the opening montage in UP was nothing more than a tightly crafted, artificial play on your emotions. There was no need for skill in the writer’s room because the data told them exactly what they needed to do in order for you to well up. Michael Barrier hits it right on the head when he calls it “emotional manipulation” because that’s exactly what it is. The images flashing before you were specifically and intentionally made to engage your emotions. You just can’t help it!

Now, you could argue that that is the case with any such scene in any movie. Films are supposed to engage emotions after all, that’s why you watch them. However, Mike nails it again when he compares UP to Dumbo (emphasis mine):

The difference between, say, the opening sequence in Up and Dumbo’s reunion with his mother can be summed up in one word, the old Disney shibboleth “sincerity”.

Why rely on your own or your team’s judgement when you can just do a neuroanalysis and have the data tell you exactly what you need to do. That’s not filmmaking, it’s sheer laziness and insincere because the emotions are not meant, they’re demanded. Major studios would rather have it that way though, because if you’re going to cough up $300 million on film, it had better perform as expected, and the data never lies*.

Will this result in better films? Meh. However I would much rather see a film that allowed me to control my own emotions rather than having them dictated to me. It’s practically cheating with your film and nobody likes a cheat.

*Garbage In Garbage Out applies but it’s safe to say that the marketing firm knows what it’s doing.

Fast Company Profiles Disney’s Rich Ross (and Misses the Point)

Fast Company recently ran a profile on Rich Ross, the current head of the Walt Disney Studios (i.e. the division that actually makes the films). The article itself is well worth a read seeing as it’s slightly above the usual blind admiration that non-trade publications and outlets are infamous for.

The article points out some bleedingly obvious things, but still manages to miss the point of exactly why Ross is a TV guy running a movie studio.

The movie division has not been Disney’s most profitable arm for many years. Yet it remains the company’s big intellectual property “wave maker,” to use the phrase you hear a lot these days inside Disney’s executive suites.

Unfortuntaley, “making waves” is defined as finding a hit franchise (read: Pirates of the Caribbean) and running it into the ground. This is somewhat unfortunate as Tangled did quite well (considering) and while it was unproven, it was a solid film that was always going to do well.

This brand stewardship is the source of controversy surrounding Ross, Iger, and Disney in general these days. A lot of movie fans–ticket buyers, critics, and industry professionals included–hate seeing films reduced to such crass commercial terms. Hollywood still promotes itself as our manufacturer of dreams, relishing the cultural currency and aesthetic cachet that comes with the territory.

Arguably, this is true, except for the small matter that this has always been the case. Hollywood has never made a movie for the fun of it. Films are made for one reasons and one reason only: to make money.

Having said that, there is a fine line between making films for the audience and making films for the studio and it would appear that that line has been crossed this decade of the new Millennium. The old adage of Walt Disney seems to have been lost:

We don’t make movies to make money.
We make money to make more movies.

Notwithstanding the small fact that making more movies will make you more money, but I digress.

So how exactly has the Fast Company article missed the point when it comes to Ross’ promotion? Well, it muses over the fact that he is from a background in television but completely fails to opine that most studios in Hollywood are run by TV folks these days (yes, Bob Iger was at ABC prior to Michael Eisner’s departure).

For that, we need to visit a second article by Edward Jay Epstein in Adweek that chronicles how the vast majority of revenue for the big 6 comes not from the movies themselves but from TV rights to said films. Such an arrangement has (according to the article) assured that any movie put out by a studio has a solid ability to be sold or packaged for TV. The result is that a TV person familiar with the medium is best placed to run the show, as Epstein puts it:

They know a crucial reality: whatever hurts TV’s ability to sell ads, hurts their own bottom lines. Consequently, when new-age players such as Netflix, Apple, Google, or even Hulu (Hollywood owned) threaten to undercut the ad base of the traditional TV networks, they’re also threatening to gut Hollywood’s golden goose

Hence Ross’ promotion from Disney Networks to the hallowed movie studio.



DreamWorks MUST Remain Independent: The 7 Reasons Why

 Via: Wikipedia

Although DreamWorks Animation is already independent, it does distribute it’s films through Paramount, who in return, collect a fee from the gross receipts. Such an arrangement has worked well until now, just one short year away from the end of the current agreement.

There has been a lot of talk about DreamWorks being either acquired or selling itself to a larger corporation as a way to ensure its survival. Of all the big guns, only Warner Bros. seemed likely as they don’t already have a theatrical animation division but the noises from inside that company suggest they are not interested. The question is: Why would DreamWorks feel the need to be part of one of the larger studios anyway? The answer is money, but instead of analysing that reason, I offer you X reasons why the studio must remain independent.

  1. Katzenberg is not a quitter. He built DW up from nothing and I doubt he would like to sacrifice his independence to be under the boot of a board of directors again. He’s taken the company this far, there are few reasons why he can’t take it further.
  2. When you’re number 2, you try harder: Yes, it’s an old Avis slogan, but it rings true. If you’re number 2 in the market, you will try harder than the leader when it comes to your products. DreamWorks isn’t quite there yet, but last year’s How To Train Your Dragon was infinitely superior to Toy Story 3.
  3. It’s been done before: Back in the late 40s, a relatively small animation studio lost their distribution deal with RKO. They managed to haul a distribution team together and form Buena Vista. A distributor I think you all should be familiar with.
  4. An independent keeps everyone on their toes: As an independent, you have to do your best every time.That means others must compete on at least the same level of quality. If one player ups their game, everyone must. Corporations have a habit of getting comfortable in their shows which can lead to a stagnation of quality.
  5. The money is in the long tail: Walt Disney himself knew it was better to create a good film that would be popular for a long than one that would be a flash in the pan. Good films make money for decades after they’ve been paid for. DreamWorks can rely on this for income provided their films are up to scratch (see point 4)
  6. It’s a tougher road , but the ultimate rewards are better: No-one likes to take the hard road, it’s more work for what appears to be less reward. However, that burden of responsibility will ultimately result in a stronger company as everyone shares in the responsibility for success.
  7. It affords more freedom to experiment: Right now, on the cusp of the digital revolution, DreamWorks has the freedom to go in directions that were never possible before. As an independent, it has the freedom to try and experiment with new distribution and sales models to see if they work. DW can has the chance to become the industry leader in the digital age, an opportunity that should not be passed up.

Is Animation Really Killing the Movie Business?

Exhibit A, this quote from an article by Mark Harris in GQ Magazine (I profusely apologise, I would never consider linking  to, much less blogging about, an article from such a rag unless it is under exceptional  circumstances similar to this one) which came my way via Marco Arment.

As recently as 1993, three kid-oriented genres—animated movies, movies based on comic books, and movies based on children’s books—represented a relatively small percentage of the overall film marketplace; that year they grossed about $400 million combined (thanks mostly to Mrs. Doubtfire) and owned just a single spot in the year’s top ten. In 2010, those same three genres took in more than $3 billion and by December represented eight of the year’s top nine grossers.

Let me posit something: That’s bad. We can all acknowledge that the world of American movies is an infinitely richer place because of Pixar and that the very best comic-book movies, from Iron Man to The Dark Knight, are pretty terrific, but the degree to which children’s genres have colonized the entire movie industry goes beyond overkill. More often than not, these collectively infantilizing movies are breeding an audience—not to mention a generation of future filmmakers and studio executives—who will grow up believing that movies aimed at adults should be considered a peculiar and antique art. Like books. Or plays.

Where to start? If you have read the rest of the article, you will know that is a passionate lament about the slide of the quality of Hollywood films over the last 40 years or so. He talks about the seismic shift towards more family friendly films and how they are strangling the mature films that he decries as a rare find today.

In my (admittedly) hard-headed Irish opinion, it’s a complete load of bullshit that smacks of both desperation and a complete misunderstanding of the facts. He focuses solely on content and uses that as a crutch for why films made for adults are becoming more and more scarce. Harris bemoans the fact that R rated films have to be made on a relatively small budget. He goes so far as to say:

The economic pressures the studios are facing aren’t just an excuse—they’re real. Movie-ticket sales may be reasonably strong, but any number of economic forces are conspiring against the production of adult dramas. They don’t generally have the kind of repeat-viewing appeal that would make them DVD smashes. They often end up with an R rating, which puts a ceiling on their earning capacity and makes a modest budget absolutely essential. Oscar nominations or even wins can no longer be relied upon to goose a quality film’s revenues.

The kicker to the entire article is that it seems like one big advertisement for Hollywood, in particular the large studios.

Studios make movies for people who go to the movies, and the fact is, we don’t go anymore

Duh, no shit sherlock. It costs a fortune to do that and the films are generally not that great. Besides, I can’t watch the film in my underwear or drink beer at the cinema, which I can at home (not that I actually do, but it’s nice to have the option).

Harris completely (and I mean utterly) misses the point, which is that animated films have become successful over the last number of years because they’re great films, and their suitable for all ages too!

He fails to mention the seismic shift in cinema over the last number of years, namely the rise of the internet and the total failure of Hollywood studios to adapt a new business model. They keep spending tons of money suing fans that completely pisses them off and make life difficult for them to enjoy what they love.

Harris’ position is that because animated films are successful at the box office, they will eventually push out “real”  films that are ultimately less profitable to make because they are appropriate for a smaller audience. As any business student can tell you, that’s basic economics. If a film is suitable for a larger audience, it will of course, make more money. That is a simple fact that has been true since the dawn of time. The only difference is now there are many more animated and family-friendly films being made than in the past. A fact that zooms straight over Harris’ head.

Overall, this article was not worth blogging about because I have only served to call attention to it and the nonsense contained within. The only reason I do so is because it is featured in GQ magazine, one that I can only presume people other than myself read and respect. As a result, I cannot allow such readers to believe that what the article says is the truth.

Animation is an artform for filmmaking. It does not purport to usurp the crown of the classic American dramatic film. It is also not guilty of ‘gaming the system’. many have tried that game and failed miserably. Hollywood as an industry is in a time of great upheaval and those who do not adapt are getting left behind. it is these tragglers that Mark Harris is lamenting, because there continues to be plenty of fantastic, dramatic films being made outside the system, and their often much better for it. This includes animation, the supposed slayer of the industry.

So don’t blame animation and children’s films for the demise of Hollywood, it’s their own damned fault.


The economic pressures the studios are facing aren’t just an excuse—they’re real. Movie-ticket sales may be reasonably strong, but any number of economic forces are conspiring against the production of adult dramas. They don’t generally have the kind of repeat-viewing appeal that would make them DVD smashes. They often end up with an R rating, which puts a ceiling on their earning capacity and makes a modest budget absolutely essential. Oscar nominations or even wins can no longer be relied upon to goose a quality film’s revenues.

The economic pressures the studios are facing aren’t just an excuse—they’re real. Movie-ticket sales may be reasonably strong, but any number of economic forces are conspiring against the production of adult dramas. They don’t generally have the kind of repeat-viewing appeal that would make them DVD smashes. They often end up with an R rating, which puts a ceiling on their earning capacity and makes a modest budget absolutely essential. Oscar nominations or even wins can no longer be relied upon to goose a quality film’s revenues.

What Everyone Ought To Know About Movie Promotion

A movie lobby card (an old form of promotion) via: Retrospace

Most people believe that the cost of a film is whatever the studio says it is. It might well be, but as I learned in my managerial accounting class, what counts towards that cost can  be hard to determine.

For example, what about the people processing the payroll for the set designers, does that count as a cost? The answer is no, it doesn’t because it is considered overhead, in other words, those people processing payroll would be doing it even if the film wasn’t being made.

How about the actors? Well clearly they are a large part of the cost of a film and if the project didn’t exist, they wouldn’t be paid. So, yes, they are a cost to the film.

What about promotion of a film?

You would figure that into the equation, right? I mean, if you make a movie, you have to sell it somehow, and you can’t turn a corner without seeing an advertisement for a film these days. Besides, if the film wasn’t made the cost wouldn’t be there, right? Yes, that’s right. So it would make sense to include the cost of promotion into the cost of a movie, wouldn’t it? Again, yes it would. Except herein lies one of the tricks of the movie business that the public at large is not familiar with or aware of.

For you see, promotion isn’t handled by the studio, it’s handled by the distributor. Never mind that they are usually one and the same (think Disney and Buena Vista), the fact is, for the vast majority of mainstream releases, the cost of promotion is handed off to the books of the distributor, for which they normally receive a 35% cut of the box office gross.

What is the effect of all this? To make costs appear lower of course! Most large movies have a promotional budget in the range of half to three times the film’s cost (how it makes sense to spend more promoting the film than it did to make it is beyond me). So basically, a $100 million movie could cost anywhere between $50 million and $300 million in promotion by the end of its theatrical run.

So when you hear about a film raking in more than it’s cost at the box office, that just covers the studio’s cost, not the promotion. The end result? Films appear much more successful than they really are. Huge box office grosses are often a facade that masks the real cost of a film.

The truth never hurts, and I believe that if studios were more upfront and honest about the cost of a film, i.e. acknowledging the promotion costs more clearly, then they would be in a better position to operate effectively. Sadly, in Hollywood, everyone wants their share of the pie, and will engage in shady tactics like those mentioned above to make themselves appear stronger than they really are. In the end though, the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, and he always get’s called out in the end.

Accounting in Hollywood

I read this article on Wikipedia the other day and found it quite amusing. As I’m currently studying for my MBA, I have to take a few accounting classes and suffice to say, the teacher never explained this to us!

I’ve known about not accepting net terms on a Hollywood contract ever since Freakazoid! told me not to way back in the day but the levels that it seems to go to are extreme. It’s safe to say that the major animation studios are involved, they too, after all, play in the same sandbox.

At one end, it is necessary, with so many fingers trying to grab a piece of the pie. At the other end, it is dishonest and misleading. Why distributors feel the need to secure a slice of the gross is beyond me, surely they’d be much happier with a flat fee thereby removing the risk element involved, no? It’s beyond me, but not beyond self-styled Hollywood Economist Edward Epstein. His blog provides a great insight into the financing machine that is the movie industry and is well worth a read.

I’ll elaborate more in a future post.