The Theatrical Animation Enemy: Mediocrity

OK, obviously “flash in the pan-itis” is a made up word, but mediocrity certainly is not, and it’s just as acceptable a substitute. So what do both words mean in the context of animation, why are they the theatrical animation enemy and what does it have to do with the industry right now? Let’s find out.

What is “mediocrity” as it relates to animation?

To start with what it is, mediocrity is basically exactly what you think it might mean: mediocre films, average films, middle-of-the-road films. Do note that this does not mean they are the film that everyone can enjoy, far from it, even the film that’s accessible for all ages can be far from ordinary.

What I mean is that we’re starting to see the kinds of films that we haven’t really seen before for the simple reason that not enough of them were being made. Looking back 30 years ago, you pretty much had Disney and, uh, not many others in the theatrical sphere. That meant of course that what was released was generally considered either good or bad with little middle ground.

Today, though, there are plenty of animated films studios (Disney, DreamWorks, Sony, Illumination, Blue Sky, Aardman (in the UK), Cartoon Saloon (in Ireland), even more in other countries) and they’re all releasing films every year. In 2012 we’re up to at least 13 (and that’s just the big ones in the cinemas). What this means is that we’ve seen the middle ground between the truly bad and the truly great open up and spew forth a rash of films that are, well, meh.

Films from the past few years that fit into this mould include The Lorax, Despicable Me, Flushed Away, Tangled (on the borderline),  Megamind and pretty much any sequel you care to name.

Why is it a problem?

Well, think about it! A good, really good film should stay with you for a long time after you leave the cinema. you should ruminate on it, contemplate its good and bad points and ultimately either like or dislike it in an informed manner. Films like those listed above, while generally good films, don’t tend to provoke strong responses outside of kids and overly-enthusiastic adults. Sure I like most of them (splurged for a Tangled poster even), but I honestly can’t say what it is about Despicable Me that forms my opinion of the film.

In contrast, say, with Brave, I can pinpoint exactly where it is in the film that my opinions come from (poor story, wooden characters but gorgeous animation). The same goes for any great film be it from Studio Ghibli to DreamWorks to Aardman. The point is that those films are burned into my noggin’, not simply threaded in front of my eyes.

Middle of the road movies provide quick and easy entertainment but God knows how the animation industry has struggled to free itself from the “babysitter” label for decades now. I don’t mean to say that every animated film produced has to be a work of artistic and critical genius, but it’s hard to look back over ten years of Shreks and see the uniqueness in any of them (the novelty of the original has long worn off, and the Disney parody it portrayed has become moot since they decided to start parodying themselves with Tangled).

Why is it the “enemy”?

Perhaps “enemy” is too harsh. What about “nemesis”? No, that’s even worse. Hmmm, how about “that melanoma that’s OK for now but will eventually get really ugly looking if you don’t treat it”? That sound kinda right, right?

What I mean is that mediocre films have to be tolerated, up to a point. If we let too many swamp the market, we set ourselves up for failure. Appealing to the broadest audience is easily done with boring films, but the problem is that they have no legs. Look at Disney, it’s still making (loads of) money from Snow White, and you know that that film was paid for many, many decades ago.

Now look at something like Shrek, or The Lorax. It’s barely ten years since the former and the latter has only just come out on DVD/download, but they barely blip on my radar any more. Why is that? Why have they sort of slipped into my subconscious into the “I saw them once, they were good, but I could stand to watch something else” place?

Now you could argue that continuous production of new content is necessary for employment and that the public wants to see new stuff, but that ignores the premise that the public always wants to see new stuff. They always have and they always will!

What does it have to do with the industry now?

The problem is that the industry as a whole is convinced that they are putting out the best movies they can. Unfortunately we won’t know for certain for a decade or two, but a great example can be seen in Disney output in the latter half of the 90s. Yeah the films were OK, good even, but they were mediocre films. Kids today know the Lion King, but can they name any of the films that came after it?

A focus on short term returns or profits may seem like a good idea but content (and copyright) last a lot longer. Why ignore all those potential future revenues? Walt Disney seemed to think they were worth it, certainly so when his films made a loss the first time out. He’s been proved right in the end. Who’s laughing now? (Hint: it may be Bob Iger).

The notion of a reaching a high bar is a noble one. Disney did it for a long time. Pixar came along and raised it again but too many films seem to be coming out that are happy with where that high bar is and are more than content not to reach for it. That’s kind of sad really. We should be seeing more films taking the risk and reaching for it. That’s not to say every film has to, but it would be nice to see at least a few more trying or appear to be trying. The alternative is a decade of theatrical animation that will be consigned to the history books.

The One and Only Reason We Don’t See More Diverse Animated Films

 The Secret of Kells most definitely counts as diverse animation.

On Sunday, Nora Lumiere posted a very passionate call to arms with a wonderful post that expounded the very many areas that we have yet to see in theatrical animated form. Far from a wistful wishlist, it’s a well thought out look at the various genres and styles that are rare or unheard of in animated form.

Hinting on the success of Tangled’s “painterly” style, Nora rattle off style after style that could easily be used on a theatrical scale today thanks to modern technology.

The only caveat with her post is that she is speaking for theatrical animation. We already see plenty of diversity in shorts for the simple reason that they are inherently more independent examples that are created at the whims of the animator themselves. Nora touches upon one reason why we don’t see more diverse animated films (emphasis mine):

It’s time to dare to push the animation envelope and break out of the children’s toy box.  Forget about box-office profits for a minute, hire some innovative scientists and adventurous animators to research new artistic software.

Ah, therein lies the dilemma. As much as we like to think of theatrical animation as an artistic market where the dreams of the artist make it to the silver screen, that is the view that is presented to the great unwashed masses. who truly believe that Hollywood is a “dream factory”.

Not to say that Nora’s post does not acknowledge this, it does, however the fact remains that no matter how right she is, unless there is enough (notice I said enough, not any) money in it, the main studios won’t touch it.

The Big 6 will only ever play within a safe set of boundaries when it come to films because they are incredibly risk averse, and justifiably so. If you were coughing up in the region of $500-600 million (including promotion/marketing) you’d be making princess movies all the time too.

That’s the current problem with the way things are set up at the moment. Independent, inspiring and mould-breaking movies are well within arms reach. Sita Sings the Blues was done by one person, ONE! Why on earth don’t we see many more films like that? The simple answer in this case is that Nina Paley busted her butt and her bank account to get the film made and released. There aren’t too many people who are willing to make that kind of commitment, let alone do it regularly.

Since cost/risk is arguably the main problem when it comes to genre-defying films, there is a logical argument that subsidies could be a potential solution. This is true, certainly in the case of The Secret of Kells, which benefited from a few grants from the European Union and tax credits from the Irish government.

Such subsidies are the sad reality of the style of films that Nora calls for. They are too risky for mainstream, commercial studios, but they clearly have more than enough potential to succeed based on their many merits.

That is the reason why we don’t see more diverse animated films. The unholy mix of risk and cost which combine to make most films that are outside the mainstream too much of a hot potato. Hopefully in the future, as traditional distribution shenanigans break down, we will see more daring films that push the envelope.

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.