Monday, September 16, 2019

Quimby!!

Frederick C. Quimby, longtime head of M-G-M animation, dies on this day in 1965. He is 79 years old.

Mr. Quimby started his professional life as a journalist, but soon began working for movie companies. He found employment with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the "Tiffany of movie studios", in the late 1920s.

Time rolled on, and in 1937 Fred Q. was assigned to set up an animation division at the studio, being as how animation was an up and coming thing. He had little interest in cartoons, but Quimby was a good corporate soldier and put together an animation department.

And then, a series of amazing things happened.

Artists Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera had the idea for a bunch of cartoon shorts built around a cat and mouse, and Fred half-heartedly approved the production of one. The cartoon was successful and got nominated for an Academy Award. So, since Fred wasn't a complete idiot, he okayed doing some more.

And over the next thirteen years, Frederick Clinton Quimby won SEVEN Academy Awards as the producer of M-G-M's "Tom and Jerry" cartoons. Cartoons with which he had virtually nothing to do with.

"How many times in your life can you win SEVEN Academy Awards, and somebody else takes them?"

-- Joe Barbera

Which is, when you think about it, pretty damn amazing.

Especially when you consider Quimby didn't much care for the original premise, didn't have much interest in cartoons in general, and certainly had minimal respect from the artists who actually created those "Tom and Jerry" shorts.

But hey. That's Hollywood.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Undone/Redone

Amazon has a new animation series, and because its approach isn't done a lot anymore, it gets awed attention:

Undone's rotoscoped animation style, which was produced by the studio Minnow Mountain and involves drawing over live-action footage. ... Thanks to lush watercolor backgrounds and immersive three-dimensional environments. Undone is such a revelation I wouldn't be surprised if it leads to a revival of rotoscoping, a technique pioneered by the early 20th century animator Max Fleischer. ...

Of course, there are animated features with rotoscope and "lush watercolor backgrounds". (Snow White and Gulliver's Travels come to mind. Also Don Bluth's Anastasia and a bunch of Zemeckis features such as A Christmas Carol ... and let's not forget Spielberg's Tin Tin.

But memories, also attention spans, are short. The only thing that's true with the engadget.com piece is rotoscoping doesn't get used on the small screen a lot.)

However, let's get over a notion that Undone is pushing the rotoscope process to "new heights". Methinks it's already been pushed. It's just that nobody has much noticed. (Which I'm sure is a major sadness to Robert Zemeckis, since he was enamored with rotoscope. It's just that, few others were.)

Thursday, September 12, 2019

One-Off??

The usual meme, presented in the usual way regarding China's hit animated feature:

... Considering the high levels of money and time needed to turn out a good animated film, many fear “Nezha” may be a one-off success story. Investment in Chinese animation saw a boom after 2015’s summer blockbuster “Monkey King: Hero Is Back,” which grossed $134 million, but that wave of interest died down. ...

"Can these Chinese animation creators do it again?"

You could substitute lots of other names: Walt Disney, Blue Sky Animation, Pixar (etc.) and do pretty much the same article at various points of entertainment history.

And the answer is always the same: "it depends."

It depends on if you have a compelling story.

It depends if you have characters audiences want to spend eighty-five minutes with.

It depends if your movie is released on the same weekend as the latest Avengers extravaganza.

Stories grow organically. They can't be paint-by-number affairs. Generally there's a lot of wrong turns and sequences that don't work and characters that don't play before the creators get the project "right". And sometimes it's never right. Even Pixar made a flop dinosaur movie, just like Spielberg's London animation studio Amblimation made a flop dinosaur movie (after making the hit dinosaur movie "Land Before Time".)

So the question of whether a Chinese animation studio can do it again is easily answered. Of COURSE it can do it again. But whether a studio in the middle Kingdom does has the same set of variable attached to it as every other creative entity on the globe.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Three Days of Early September Box Office

The second half of an epic Stephen King horror movie appears to be sitting atop the bo office. Who could have imagined?

DOMESTIC WEEKEND GROSSES

1) It Chapter Two -- 4,570 -- $91M -- $91M (1st weekend)

2) Angel Has Fallen -- 3,229 (-107) -- $6M (-49%) -- $53.5M

3) Good Boys -- 3,193 (-265) -- $5.4M (-43%) -- $66.9M

4) The Lion King -- 2,610 (-580) -- $4.1M (-39%) -- $529.1M

5) Overcomer -- 2,153 (+326) -- $3.75M (-34%) -- $24.7M

6) Hobbs & Shaw -- 2,299 (-673) -- $3.7M (-42%) -- $164.2M

7) Peanut Butter Falcon -- 1,310 (+61) -- $2.28M -- $12.2M

8) Scary Stories -- 2,101 (-646) -- $2.28M (-54%) -- $62.1M

9) Ready Or Not-- 2,350 (-607) -- $2.2M (-62%) -- $25.6M

10) Dora -- 1,788 (-689) -- $2.17M (-47%) -- $54.1M ...

12) The Angry Birds Movie 2 -- 1,854 (-1,457) -- $1.6M -- $38M ...

18) Toy Story 4 -- 640 (2,075) -- $.54M -- $431.8M

And the worldwide box office for the current crop of animated epics?

GLOBAL GROSSES

The Lion Lion King (2019) -- $1,600,119,402

The Angry Birds Move 2 -- $104,302,894

Toy Story 4 -- $1,053,340,912

Apparently the Walt Disney Company has the patent on billion-dollar franchises.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Roscoe's Really Rotten, Really Bad Day

A wee bit of movie history...

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (who hated the handle "Fatty") was one of the most famous film comics in the world. He'd come into the business in 1909, found his rhythm with Mack Sennet's Keystone Company in the early teens, and on this date in 1921, was among the highest paid movie celebrities around.

In early September, Roscoe took a break from the hectic pace of filming feature-length comedies for Paramount Pictures. He and two friends drove to San Francisco and booked into the St. Francis hotel. On September 5, 1929 they threw a party with bootleg liquor and lots of pretty girls in a three-room suite upstairs.

And Roscoe Arbuckle's life and career imploded.

A starlet and party girl named Virginia Rappe (unfortunate last name) takes ill from the booze. Arbuckle assists her, a hotel doctor is called, and the comedian departs to drop somebody off in another part of town.

Meantime, Rappe takes a turn for the worse. She's shipped off to a local hospital, where Rappe's companion Bambina Maude Delmont says that Virginia has been raped by Arbuckle. (The attending doctor, however, can find no evidence of rape.) Virginia R. dies the following day from peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder. And the pile-on against Roscoe Arbuckle starts in earnest.

Rappe's manager accuses the comedian of rupturing the girl's bladder, an ambitious district attorney twists arms to get testimony he needs for a criminal charge, and Arbuckle is arrested and arraigned for manslaughter. Film studios scurry for cover, telling their actor employees not to comment on the "scandal". Charlie Chaplin, who knows Arbuckle well and owns his own studio, vouches for Arbuckle's good character. And Buster Keaton, sho loves Roscoe like a big brother, speaks up for him.

These endorsements, of course, are little noticed. And in the great American tradition, media has a field day regarding "Fatty's" perfidy and general villainy, Hearst newspapers leading the way with lurid story after lurid story.

Roscoe Arbuckle is dragged through three jury trials. The first two result in hung juries. The third ends with his total exoneration, the prosecution's case in tatters, and a jury that offers an apology to the comedian for the heartache and sorrow that he's suffered. Arbuckle is a free man, but the "not guilty" verdict makes no difference to his career and reputation. He can't get arrested in Hollywood. His films are withdrawn. He can find no work.

Buster Keaton, who owes his start in movies to Roscoe Arbuckle, offers him financial support, but Arbuckle mostly stays in his house (the mansion being long gone) and drinks. But little by little, Roscoe finds work as a director. He's still mostly a zombie and shell of his former self, but at least he's drawing a paycheck. Then, in the early days of sound, Warner Bros. offers him a contract for six two-reel comedy shorts, all of which find success at the box office. (Kindly note the specimen above.)

Arbuckle completes the last WB short and the company offers him a feature contract. On the day Roscoe signs it, he tells friends, "This is the best day of my life."

That night, he dies in his sleep of a heart attack. He is forty-six years old.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Wayback Machine #1 -- "No Atheists In Foxholes"

I spent a long time in the animation biz, serving as a union rep from 1989 to 2016. I wrote this meditation in 2006. See how much of it you think still applies, and how much doesn't. Me, I think realities remain pretty much the same as when I wrote it.

The old saw that there are zero non-believers on battle fields has its equivalent cliche in cgi-land today: "There are no unionists in computer graphics studios. Everybody's a libertarian."

But the formulations, I submit, are really one hundred and eighty degrees apart. Over the past fifty years, unionized industries in the United States have down-sized and down-sized again. In 1950, forty percent of the American workforce was repped by some labor organization or other. In 2006, it's down to around 12% -- depending on how you do the counting.

The great exception to this steady shrinkage has been the American motion picture and television industry. There, the Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and IATSE have maintained robust representation over the people who struggle to make a living in the entertainment business.

The exception to this exception has been in computer graphics imaging. Show me a visual effects shop or digital game company, and I'll show you a studio filled with staunch free-thinkers who claim to need no help from anybody. (An executive from Blue Sky Animation told me a few years ago: "An animator came into my office last week and said he was a rugged individualist, didn't need help from anybody, made his own way in the world, yada yada. I said, 'Fine. We'll drop you out of a plane into the Canadian North Woods with a knife and loin cloth. And we'll see how long you and your rugged individualism lasts out there.'")

The exec's point was: all the "rugged individualists" are just as dependent on the trappings of benevolent civilization -- the power grids, high capacity computers, and interconnectivity of broad-band networks -- as the weepy, bleeding-heart liberals who had the bad judgement to vote for Al Gore. "Rugged individualism," he went on to say, is mostly a state-of-mind that flowers when things are going swimmingly. But confront a grizzly in a stand of tall, first-growth pine trees, and knife and loin cloth seem somehow inadequate. Where's a shotgun, or the 101st Airborne, when you need them?

When the chips clatter down, most libertarians and individualists turn into Roosevelt Democrats (non-atheists?). The labor strikes that got animation and the rest of the movie industry unionized sixty-seven years ago did not occur in a vacume. There was a depression going on, and lots of artists were making twelve to sixteen dollars per week. So ... it was easy for them to get religion.

There was also a Washington power structure (those nasty Roosevelt Democrats again) who already had it. We're pretty much on the other side of the compass from those perilous times, but underlying dynamics are still the same: when employees feel used and abused, they start looking around for remedies. In the past fifteen years its happened numerous times: IDT Entertainment/Film Roman staffer became militant when their health benefits and pensions were cut. Disgruntled employees voted for unionization at Hyperion Productions, at "Clifford the Big Red Dog, the Movie" at small studios and large studios.

When management gets perceived as being mean and nasty, employee attitudes change. In the wink of an eye, libertarians became unionists. There are no atheists in foxholes when times get tough enough. And now here we are at the height of the cgi animation boom, and lots of people are feeling self-confident about their careers. Nothing but good times as far as the eye can see, just as it was in 1995, at the crest of the last big animation wave. (Seems like little more than an eye-blink, but it's been a whole ten years. A thousand lay-offs ago.)

Lots of CGI feature animation is unionized, but big chunks of it aren't, most notably PDI, Blue Sky and Pixar. I get asked all the time by Disney and DreamWorks employees when PDI and Pixar are "going union," and I mostly give the same anwer: When PDI and Pixar employees are good and ready. For if history is any guide, it won't be management that pushes for unionization, whether management considers itself "liberal" or not. (One Disney Feature staffer recently told me in wonderment: "I went up to Emeryville, and a management guy bragged to me about what a hard-core Democrat he is. Oh, except he didn't care for unions at all." Which is a little like being a Civil Rights enthusiast who doesn't like black people. But hey. What's a little hypocrisy in 2006 America? It's almost mandatory.)

So, as always, it's up to the board artists, writers, designers, scene finalers and animators to decide on the path they want to take. When the uncompensated overtime stacks up high enough, when weekly pay checks and health benefits are cut deeply enough, then the church organ will commence playing and attitudes -- and the non-guild studios in which they dwell -- will change. How does it go? There are no atheists in fox holes.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Labor Day Box Office

Animated features continue to roll right along, even as new movies featuring lots of "Booms!" and "Bams!" get released. (And the Chinese blockbuster Ne Zha gets an American release, though it debuts on less than 70 theater screens. Ah, well ...)

THREE DAYS OF DOMESTIC HOLIDAY GROSSES

1) Angel Has Fallen -- 3,286 -- $21.2M -- $21.2M (1st weekend)

2) Good Boys -- 3,353 (+149) -- $11.75M (-45%) -- $42M

3) Overcomer -- 1,723 -- $8.2M -- $8.2M (1st weekend)

4) Lion King -- 3,300 (-260) -- $8.15M (-34%) -- $510.6M

5) Hobbs & Shaw -- 3,312 (-445) -- $8.14M (-43%) -- $147.7M

6) Ready Or Not -- 2,855 -- $7.6M -- $10.6M (1st weekend)

7) Angry Birds 2 -- 3,869 -- $6.3M (-39%) -- $27M

8) Scary Stories CBS/LG 2,927 (-208) -- $6M (-40%) -- $50.4M

9) Dora and the City of Gold -- 2,843 (-892) -- $5.2M (-39%) -- $43M

10) Once Upon a Time In Hollywood -- 2,209 (-295) -- $5M (-35%) -- $123.1M ...

15) Toy Story 4 -- 2,175 (+1,895) -- $2,314,000 -- $429,659,899 ...

18) Ne Zha (Chinese) -- 66 -- $1,192,032 -- $1,192.032 (1st weekend) ...

28) The Secret Life of Pets 2 -- 227 (+42) -- $275,000 -- $157,833,845

Meantime, animation continues to perform well globally, witness:

GLOBAL ACCUMULATIONS

Lion King 2019 -- $1,564,549,294

Angry Birds 2 -- $93,890,108

Toy Story 4 -- $1,044,257,899

Secret Life of Pets 2 -- $421,133,845

Ne Zha (Chinese biggie) -- $687,192,032

Disney adds domestic screens for Toy Story 4 during its last spasm of box office before moving to other platforms. Also, too, Secret Life of Pets remains in a few theaters even as it moves to streaming and little silver disks.