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In epic rumpus, Hollywood's animation sector looks to sort its royalty from its minions

In epic rumpus, Hollywood's animation sector looks to sort its royalty from its minions

(Spencer Wilson for The Washington Post)

In the modern Disney classic "Frozen," a pair of royal sisters wage battle, a lover turns treacherous and a few oddball characters come to save the day.

Hollywood's animation business is having its own Elsa moment.

The sector known as one of the world's most stable films – "Incredibles 2" and "Hotel Transylvania 3" were hugely lucrative this past summer – is slowly playing out its own mythic dramas, if with less-catchy music.

Companies are beset by mergers, or #MeToo scandals. Studios are wedded to big ambitions, or shackled to fit successes.

And internal questions are only the start. Leaders such as Disney and Pixar are trying to maintain dominance over the field, while close competitors like Illumination are closing in. Once-great studios such as DreamWorks are struggling to find their way back. And well-funded upstarts from Sony to Netflix are seeking to knock them all off.

"We are witnessing fundamental change right before our eyes," said Dan Sarto, editor at the industry watching Animation World Network and a close observer of the category. "It's totally unprecedented. Everything is subject to disruption. "

In interviews with The Washington Post, 16 animation executives and experts, many of whom are of the most competitive nature of the field, described a world of intense battles, complex strategies and, maybe most telling, modern motivations. In an era in which entertainment has become fragmented and niche, with children and parents, we can not let it go.

At stake is not just what Hollywood conglomerate will reap financial bounties – major franchises like Toy Story can take in $ 2 billion or more globally – but which will define the tone and style of animation moviegoers see for years to come. Will the category continue to be dominated by computer-generated soulfulness or Disney and Pixar? Or will the off-kilter, European flavor or Illumination and its lovably goofy "Minions" make more inroads?

Will the genre-bending approach or Sony, with movies like the upcoming action-adventure "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," set a new course? Or will Netflix and its willingness to spend big on Oscar-nominated filmmakers, as it is announced last week, change the game?

The Pixar pickle

John Lasseter has been one of just a few people to define the modern animation zeitgeist: slick computer-generated kids' tales with simultaneous serious themes for adults. He achieved the feat at Pixar and, in recent years, at Disney, too. But despite what many thought would be a lifetime tenure, Lasseter has stepped down, accused or unwanted sexual advances and promoting unsafe work culture.

The news set the companies – and industry – on their ear. While this month's "Ralph Breaks The Internet" and next year's "Frozen 2" and "Toy Story 4" are decidedly Lasseter pieces, the longer term brings a large degree of uncertainty.

Disney promoted two in-house filmmakers, Jennifer Lee and Pete Docter, to run the creative sides of Disney Animation and Pixar. Both learned from Lasseter and have plenty of bona fides: Lee, the more extroverted of the two, wrote and co-directed "Frozen," while Docter is behind hits "Up" and "Inside Out." crafting stories that kids can understand but parents can appreciate – the heartbreaking opening montage about an elderly man's life with his beloved late wife in "Up," for example – a central requirement of modern high-end animation.

But neither has any executive experience, provoking skepticism about whether the pair would run the business side or placate their corporate bosses as skillfully as Lasseter was known to do. A Disney spokesman declined to make Docter or Lee available for this story.


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

Adding to the new-era feel: Longtime Disney Pixar President Ed Catmull, known as the mind to Lasseter's soul, announced last month in December.

As it turns out, Lasseter himself may not be done. The executive is looking forward to the entertainment business just after his ouster, according to two people with knowledge of his thought process – raising questions, a year after the Me Too movement, about how and if industries should accept attempted comebacks.

Lasseter recently met with officials from at least one agency, WME Entertainment, where in a two-hour meeting at the firm's Beverly Hills headquarters, he gifted his side of the accusations and outlined his hopes for his next act, according to a person who was at the meeting but not authorized to speak about it.

While Silicon Valley companies looking to get into animation would have been a logical fit – Lasseter had ties to late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs – his specialty in creating large theatrical experiences' focus on personal devices.

In fact among the areas in which Lasseter expressed interest, said the person, was one unrelated to animation: podcasting.

Lasseter did not respond to email seeking comment.

Illumination rising

Meanwhile, Illumination Entertainment, a company founded just 11 years ago and owned by Universal Pictures parent Comcast, claiming two of the top five all-time global animation hits in "Minions" and "Despicable Me 3," the only titles on the list not from Disney Pixar. As with many companies, animation is outsourced overseas – in its case, Paris, where more than 800 animators execute and handle the technical work of ideas at Santa Monica, Calif., Office.

"They've done a great job with quality and consistency," said Doug Creutz, a senior research analyst at Cowen who covers animation. "If Pixar misses a step, Illumination will continue to take more share." The firm has had three movies grossly close to or more than $ 1 billion worldwide.

But company executives – and competitors – are keenly aware of these movies coming in the Despicable Me / Minions franchise, an older line that began eight years ago. To succeed, Illumination must slip its way into new franchises, an elusive goal it will attempt to reach with sequels to "The Secret Life of Pets" next year and "Sing" in 2020.

This weekend released "The Grinch," kicking off the holiday animation season with a film based on the Dr. Seuss standard, the company's second adaptation of the beloved author. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, the movie centers on a plot to Christmas in Whoville – a worthy metaphor for a sector in which the long-standing leaders.

Illumination also has the Oscar front: Disney Pixar has won the animation prize 10 years ago, including six in a row. Illumination has never won.

"Even if Illumination takes share from Pixar [with Lasseter gone]I still think there is room for all three, "added Creutz of the ranking of companies by market share. "It's below them where things get really interesting."

California DreamWorks

Right below them, in fact, is DreamWorks, a onetime megalith searching fervently for its identity after a sale of the pioneering Jeffrey Katzenberg.

How the company will look post-Katzenberg – his tenure was marked by boisterous animal franchises such as Madagascar – has become one of the major industry riddles. At the helm now is Chris deFaria, a former Warner Bros. executive who oversaw the penguin musical "Happy Feet." How much he takes it in a similar direction – proven, but also played out – has been closely parsed by animation analysts.

In February, DreamWorks will release "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," the third film in its Oscar-nominated crown jewel series that has totaled $ 1.1 billion in global ticket sales. DreamWorks has high hopes – Steven Spielberg has some cool notes to "Dragon's" director Dean DeBlois, according to a person familiar with the production who was not authorized to talk about it publicly.

But many animation experts believe that the longer-term slate will not be as critic-friendly – or as commercially secure. The company plans on two films a year: sequels, originals and hybrid live-action-animation. That's a high volume, these observers say, given a lack of established franchises and clear forward path. Whether it can recapture the Katzenberg era magic with an as-yet undefined identity is highly unclear.

So, too, is how the company will fit with Illumination; perhaps the greatest maneuvering in animation is not between companies but within them.

Comcast bought DreamWorks for nearly $ 4 billion in 2016. At the time, Illumination chief Chris Meledandri – considered the most powerful animation after Lasseter and Katzenberg – was asked by Comcast executives to run both units. He declined (though has tasks over development of a "Shrek" reboot). The two firms diverge in sensibility – the partly French-based Illumination has a more European mind-set compared with the more American DreamWorks. Neither deFaria nor Meledandri would comment on these issues. A Universal spokesman would not comment.

One area of ​​tension, say, with knowledge of the companies, is release dates. Illumination and DreamWorks have thus far basically carved up the calendar and the last landing of the Easter season. But top DreamWorks executives are privately unhappy with that arrangement and do not believe it is viable in the long run, as a criticizing a corporate sibling.

"DreamWorks is going to get back to the top," the person said.

The field rustles

Because DreamWorks is not at the top, and because you know it, the race is on the spot. Sony has made the biggest play, tripling its crew size and doubling its slate in 2017 under Kristine Belson – herself a former DreamWorks executive.

(Sony's movies, like those of Illumination and several other studios, often for under $ 100 million.) Animation is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process, taking hundreds of animators, working for years, and the battle is often about keeping costs down, Disney-Pixar generally spends the most, frequently taking on development and employing fixed teams, by some estimates, the "Incredibles 2" budget with $ 200 million.)

Belson also has a broader way of thinking about animated movies. After "Transylvania" this summer, the company wants to increase its 2018 advantage in December with "Spider-Verse." The movie, which it co-produced with Marvel, breaks the mold with a harder-edged action-adventure than most big -budget family animation.

"I do not know what's going on inside other animation studios, but I know what we feel we need at Sony," Belson told The Post. "When you look out there is a landscape or sameness. To survive, the movies have to be different. "

Sony is not the only company that sees vulnerability – or DreamWorks talent as the key to knocking off DreamWorks. Paramount has hired Katzenberg's longtime production deputy Mireille Soria to help revive its own animation efforts. So far she has focused on branded titles, activating a long-troubled "SpongeBob SquarePants" sequel and acquiring a "Sonic the Hedgehog" movie from Sony. Soria did not respond to a request for comment. (DreamWorks, it should be noted, is not releasing a movie this year as it makes the transition to deFaria.)

Meanwhile, Warner Bros., which struck gold with an offbeat hit in "The Lego Movie" four years ago, will continue to join that game – and aim to achieve DreamWorks' slot, or at least Sony's – with a sequel next year. Creative range is the gambit here: Development projects involving dr. Seuss properties, a George R.R. Martin novel, a Wile E. Coyote title and story about Toto from "The Wizard of Oz." (These midsize companies could have it easier with Disney's purchase of Fox, which means Blue Sky – Fox-owned creator of the Ice Age movies – is likely to be shuttered, barring a sale.)

And all of this is to say nothing of Silicon Valley. Netflix surprised many at the Cannes Film Festival in May when it paid $ 30 million for "Next Gen," an independent produced animated feature with a glitzy American cast. Several weeks ago, the company announced it was making a new stop-motion adaptation of "Pinocchio" by "The Shape of Water" director Guillermo del Toro, suggesting a desire for quality. And last week it announced new film projects from the co-director of the Oscar-nominated "The Secret of Kells" and the co-director of "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2," among others.

"Netflix is ​​banging at the gates, and we at the studios ignore them at our peril," said a high-ranking executive at one of the top four studios. colleagues. Whether they can do that without the major theatrical releasing is the open-ended business model. Netflix executives declined to comment for this story.

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

The mad dash for supremacy – and the differing approaches to get there – means the vibe of the next generation of animated films is harder than ever to predict. The multiplex could see the Disney-Pixar reign of the past two decades, a power-sharing arrangement between them and Illumination, or any one of several upstart challengers.

"There is this kind of crazy fluid situation now where you're not sure who's going to be cannibalized by whom," said John Eraklis, a veteran animation producer. "And that means you're not sure what the long-term visions for any of these places, or even animation in general, is going to be."

The sector has seen an undeniable burst in players and films lately – last year saw 15 wide-release animated films, up 50 percent from just five years earlier. And the new entrants will flood the market further.

That could be a cause for optimism, making some consumers feel that an increase in choice awaits. But it makes a few creators worry about a reduction in these movies' luster.

"On the positive side, Hollywood now believes in animation," said Brad Bird, the director of the Incredible movies at Pixar. "When I was starting, executives would give me this self-assured look that no animated film would ever make $ 50 million.

"But technology has also made it easier, and I hope people do not rely on that," he said. "I hope they use it to push artistry and not simply take advantage of it. I hope people make films because they have a bold new story.

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

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