Sunday, February 16, 2020

Nobody Can STOP Him!!

Partnered with a blue hedgehog, Jim Carrey has rocketed back into big box office during this President's Day weekend ...

Four Days of Grosses*

1) Sonic The Hedgehog -- 4,167 theaters -- $68M -- $68M (1st weekend)

2) Birds Of Prey -- 4,236 -- $19.6M -- $61.7M

3) Fantasy Island -- 2,784 -- $14M -- $14M (1st weekend)

4) The Photograph -- 2,516 -- $13.3M -- $13.3M (1st weekend)

5) Bad Boys For Life -- 3,185 -- $12.8M -- $182.8M

6) 1917 -- 3,084 (-464) -- $9.3M -- $145.6M

7) Jumanji: Next Level -- 2,410 (-319) -- $7M -- $307M

8) Parasite -- 2,001 (+941) $1.7M -- $6.6M -- $44.3M

9) Dolittle -- 2,869 (-593) -- $6.3M -- $71.7M

10) Downhill -- 2,305 -- $5.2M -- $5.2M (1st weekend)

Globally Sonic the Hedgehog has collected $111 million in its various rollouts, the bulk coming from the United States and Canada. It apparently helps to have the '90's version of Mr. Carrey in support of an iconic video game character. Meantime, the partially-animated Jumanji: the Next Level has made $780,016,286 on a worldwide basis.

Then there are the two animated features from different Disney-owned studios. Spies in Disguise from Connecticut-based Blue Sky studios ha earner $166.8 million around the world, while its cousin Frozen II racked up $1,438,869,773 in its recent run. (Contrary to popular opinion, long-form cartoons from the House of Mouse are not all smash hits.)

Friday, February 14, 2020

"Outsized Cartooning"

Apparently Sonic the Hedgehog has (apparently) a character funnier than the title performer:

... Carrey out-cartoons the cartoons. Watching Carrey in a mainstream kiddie comedy again feels a little like comparing the mostly hand-drawn animation of The Lion King to the soulless photorealism of its recent remake: It’s less technologically advanced, yet more impressive. ...

Carrey once had the broad appeal of a Warner Bros. cartoon character in his early pictures, then somewhere he wandered off into the tall weeds and disappeared from view.

Nice to see Jim Carrey is back, older but (happily) no wiser ... or more toned down.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

"And the Oscar Goes To..."

Best Animated feature

... Toy Story 4 ...

And was anyone surprised? Good film, but the Walt Disney Company has the gravitational pull of a large, hungry sun, so it was pretty much inevitable, yes?

The other candidates? The ones that lost? Klaus, Missing Link, I Lost My Body, How To Train Your Dragon: the Hidden World

Best Animated Short

Hair Love

The rest of the field: Daughter, Kitbull, Memorable, Sister

Matthew A. Cherry, director of Hair Love is the first African-American to earn an Oscar in the category as a director. (The late Kobe Bryant won as producer.)

Saturday, February 8, 2020

101 Years Ago ...

This week in 1919, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.), Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffth, join forces to form United Artists. Other studio moguls declare that the lunatics (i.e., the artistic creators) have taken over the asylum, but UA takes hold and goes on for decades and decades, outliving its founders, seen above in pristine newsreel footage.

While United Artists has a very long run, its four founders end up traveling way different paths through Hollywood.

At the time the company is formed, Doug Fairbanks and Mary Pickford are in the middle of a tempestuous extra-marital affair that's been going on for a year. They divorce their respective spouses thirteen months later, marry each other, and become Tinsel Town's first super-star power couple. Mr. and Mrs. Fairbanks jointly own the Pickford-Fairbanks studio and turn out a string of hit films through the 1920s, preside like royalty over Hollywood social events, and help found the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences (Mary wins a "Best Actor" Oscar in the Academy's second year).

They both become very very rich.

But then sound comes in and their stardom fades. Mary stops making films and hits the bottle. Doug stops making films and becomes a globe-trotting Anglophile. He divorces Mary, hangs out in London a lot, and hooks up with Lady Sylvia Ashley. By the end of 1939 Doug Fairbanks is dead of a heart attack at 56, and Mary has tied the knot with actor Buddy Rogers. Thereafter, Little Mary slowly becomes a recluse, and dies of a stroke in 1979 at age 87.

Griffith, oldest of the group, is already near the end of his time as a big commercial filmmaker. There is still the block-buster Way Down East immediately ahead, but by the mid-twenties he is eased out of UA and by 1931 (and two failed talkies), he is a former big-deal movie director. He dies alone and pretty much forgotten in July, 1948, age 73.

Only Charlie Chaplin forges successfully on into the sound era. From the founding of UA through 1940, almost every feature he makes (The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator) is a sizable hit. Hounded out of the United States in the early fifties, Chaplin takes up residence in Switzerland, returning in triumph to Hollywood to pick up an honorary Oscar. (Victory is the best revenge.)

Charlie dies on Christmas day, five-and-a-half years later. He is 88.

At its beginning, United Artists distributed all of the Big Four's films. But there wasn't enough output between Fairbanks-Pickford-Griffith-Chaplin to sustain a distribution company, so outside producers were brought into the mix. UA distributed (among others) the films of Sam Goldwyn, Buster Keaton, Walt Disney, and David Selznick to name a few. What did serious damage to United Artists in its later years was the epic money-loser "Heavens Gate". The corporation was among the barely-crawling wounded after that fiasco.

Addendum: UA had an interesting history with Walt Disney. The company began distributing Disney shorts in the early thirties, and for a brief moment in 1933, Mary Pickford was going to do an animated/live-action version of "Alice In Wonderland" with Walt. But then Paramount did their star-studded, black-and-white version and the idea was shelved.

And then in 1937, UA and Disney couldn't come to an agreement on television rights. (Walt and Roy weren't sure what those were, but they didn't want to cede them to United Artists.) So Chaplin-Pickford-Fairbanks got a divorce, and RKO got a nice percentage for distributing "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs".

Friday, February 7, 2020

Animation's Steady Expansion

It's increasingly evident that large entertainment companies (old and new) are creating more intellectual property that attracts eyeballs. And (here's a surprise) they all seem to know what those intellectual properties need to be:

... More than half of Netflix’s global audience watches family content [read: animation] every month, and such movies and shows tend to be quite sticky, driving not just subscriptions but renewals as well. Until recently, Netflix’s animated offerings included a lot of Disney classics; now, those films are slowly migrating back to their ancestral home. ...

There have been big increases in animation production before. The last big one occurred from 1990 to 2000. But then the general euphoria and profits sank back to earth, and artists who had been making $2700 per week were suddenly making half that, or working at Trader Joe's.

The expansion of cartoons in the second decade of the 21st Century has a different feel than the one which happened a quarter century ago. Then, the increases were driven by Disney's high-profit animated features that many other movie corporations chased with ultimately dire results. (Warner Bros. Feature Animation? We're talking about you); there was also a surge in syndicated and cable animation that faded as the 1990s came to a close.

This time, however, the super-sizing of L.A.'s animation industry has come about due to torrents of Subscription Video On Demand, and the fact that audiences seek animation out, watch it, and then keep watching it (SVOD's holy grail of "stickiness", as noted above).

No boom, of course, lasts forever. But this one shows every indication of lasting longer than its cousin of twenty-five years ago. And it's impacting both large companies and small:

Titmouse, the independent animation house known for cult shows such as the edgy comedy series “Big Mouth” and “Metalocalypse,” is expanding its footprint in Los Angeles.

The Emmy-winning producer, first established in Hollywood in 2000, plans to occupy a new 95,000-square-foot office space in Burbank, its fourth office in North America, later this year.

The company struck a deal with property developer GPI Cos. for a new long-term lease on the North Naomi Street building, the companies said in a statement Friday.

Titmouse needs the extra space because of a growing slate of cartoons and to accommodate an additional 250 staff members who will join the animator’s 700-person workforce spread among offices in New York, Vancouver and Hollywood, where its headquarters will remain. ...

The steady growth of L.A. jobs in Cartoonland has now gone on for the better part of a decade (and the Animation Guild now has the largest member base in its 68-year history). A continuation of this phenomenon over another decade? It would not be a major surprise.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Harry "Bud" Hester, RIP

Harry Hester, known to most people as "Bud", passed away over the weekend at age 91.

An army veteran, Bud joined the Disney animation staff in early 1954 and worked there until the 1970s, when he was elected Business Representative of the Animation Guild, Local 839 IATSE. (It was then called "The Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists".)

Mr. Hester headed the Guild for a dozen years, leading it through studio strikes in 1979 and again in 1982. He retired in 1989, thereafter spending time restoring classic cars and enjoying his numerous grandchildren. Though his career was long, his favorite professional memories centered on his years in the Disney Animation Building's D-Wing, where he worked with many of Walt's "Nine Old Men" on multiple animated features.

In 1960, Bud left the Mouse House during a slow-down and spent a year animating for Bob Clampett on Beany and Cecil, which he found to be an invigorating change from Walt Disney Production's D-Wing. "We had to do seventy-five feet of animation a week, but we had fun doing it. Bob had a fire bell that went off at every break..."

Bud's favorite animator was Milt Kahl, with whom he worked for almost a decade. Mr. Hester said that Milt could be tough, and also profane, "but you always knew where you stood with Milt", which Bud found refreshing.

One of his more vivid memories came early in his career: Walt Disney would come down to his D-Wing office to view progress on clay sculptures that Bud's roommate Blaine Gibson was preparing for the embryonic Disneyland amusement park. Walt would occasionally zip into the room when Gibson was spraying down the clay ... and get doused with water.

Times, and the Disney studio, were simpler then.

(You will find Bud Hester's "Tales of D-Wing", recorded in March 2011, here.)

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

It Was "Beauty" ....

On this date in 1959, "Sleeping Beauty" is released by Walt Disney Productions, the studio's first animated fairy tale in eons.

The picture went into development in 1953 and took forever to reach completion. Walt was off building an amusement park, so newer animated features in the process of becoming didn't get the priority that happened in earlier times. Supervisors groused that Disney didn't hold story meetings often enough, so progress lagged. (Worth noting: Walt Disney had a pattern: he was fully focused on animated shorts until animated features gained his interest; he spent most of his time on animated features until live-action and an elaborate amusement park came along. And Walt would likely have devoted large amounts of his time on Disney World if he had lived longer.)

Another reason for the length of production? "Sleeping Beauty" was big (70 mm!) and complicated (intricate backgrounds, character designs!) Old timers said that doing a handful of cleanup drawings per week was a good result, what with the complexity of the designs. Joe Hale said: "When Iwo [Takamoto] was showing an assistant how to draw Aurora, he'd draw three inches of pencil line, crumple up the paper and start over." (Joe was perhaps being a teensy bit hyperbolic.)

Sleeping Beauty was the first feature on which Woolie Reitherman served as a sequence director. An action specialist during his decades as a supervising animator, Wolfgang oversaw the battle with the dragon that climaxes the film. Walt was well-pleased, and for the next twenty years, Woolie supervised every animated feature produced by WDP, heading up the animation division for a decade and a half.

The story that SB was a flop isn't exactly true. It had theatrical rentals of $5.3 million, but its $6 million cost was caused the pic to be a contributor to the studio's net loss in '59. (Darby O'Gill and the Little People, released the same year and now considered a classic, failed to make its costs back. The BIG Disney picture in 1959, profit-wise, was the black-and-white comedy The Shaggy Dog, which had started life as TV product.)

Beauty turned out to be the last hurrah for big, hand-inked, animated fairy tales during Walt Disney's lifetime. After Sleeping Beauty, the Disney studio laid off lots of animation staff. The next feature 101 Dalmatians was produced for a fraction of the cost and made almost a million dollars more in rental receipts. Today, with all its re-releases, Sleeping Beauty stands as the second highest-grossing film of its year, second only to "Ben-Hur."