Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Big-Screen Shorts!

Variety tells us:

A record 92 animated short films have qualified for the 92nd Academy Awards, a list that will be winnowed to 10 contenders when shortlist is announced Dec. 16. Alongside entries such as Sony’s “Hair Love” and Magic Light Pictures’ “Zog,” challengers include lauded films from animators such as Tomek Popakul’s “Acid Rain,” Siqi Song’s “Sister” and Theodore Ushev’s “The Physics of Sorrow.” Ranging from studio darlings to festival gems, the diversity of projects in the category makes for a somewhat unpredictable race. ...

Walt Disney Productions stopped making shorts in 1958 or thereabouts. M-G-M stopped making new shorts in 1957 when it closed its animation department and set Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera adrift. (SPOILER ALERT: they started their own company the same year and ended up doing rather well.)

Warner Bros. Animation -- which concentrated on shorts -- limped along until 1963, when that studio breathed its last. (Of course, nothing is forever. Warner Bros. Animation started up again in a limited way in the 1970s, finally expanding in a way way in 1989 when it partnered with Steven Spielberg for Timy Toons, then launched other animated series.)

Walter Lantz, working under the Universal umbrella, made increasingly anemic theatrical shorts until 1972, and then gave up the seven-minute cartoon biz. Friz Freleng and Dave DePatie made Pink Panther theatrical shorts alongside dtelevision product until 1980. But for the most part, theatrical shorts in the latter part of the 20th century were as extinct as the T-Rex.

But that dynamic has changed. Shorts, lots of shorts, are being made again. The problem now is getting them shown in regular theaters with regular, main-stream live-action features. That's the final frontier.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Annie Nominees

And if you don't know, some of the reasons the Annie Awards from ASIFA are valued by filmmakers who create animation. 1) they are selected by peers, 2) they point toward (and influence) other awards the come later in the shiny-trophy sweepstakes.

Best Animated Feature

Frozen 2 -Walt Disney Animation Studios

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – DreamWorks Animation

Klaus – Netflix Presents A Production of The Spa Studios and Atresmedia Cine

Missing Link – LAIKA, LLC

Toy Story 4 – Pixar Animation Studios ...

You will note: three of the five nominees come from entertainment conglomerates (and Netflix is certainly not some small indie, is it?).

The fact that there are five nominees ... and more animated features in the marketplace which haven't been nominated ... is a refreshing difference from the fifty years of film history where two animated features in a calendar year was unusual. So power on, Annie's. And may the best long-form cartoon win.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Thanksgiving Box Office

It appears that the House of Mouse continues to dominate with two out of the top three grossing movies ... to nobody's surprise.

Four Days of Box Office

1) Frozen 2 -- 4,440 -- $126.3M -- $290.1M

2) Knives Out -- 3,391 -- $42.4M -- $42.4M (1st weekend)

3) Ford V Ferrari -- 3,585 (+57) -- $19.8M -- $81.8M

4) Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood -- 3,325 (+90) -- $18.3M -- $35.3M

5) Queen & Slim -- 1,690 -- $14.9M -- $14.9M (1st weekend)

6) 21 Bridges -- 2,665 -- $7.7M -- $19.2M

7) Midway -- 2,377 (-250) -- $5.96M -- $50.4M

7) Playing With Fire -- 2,679 (-81) -- $5.96M -- $39.1M

9) Joker -- 1,146 (-264) -- $2.8M -- $330.5M

9) Last Christmas -- 1,852 (-559) -- $2.8M -- $31.6M

On the animated front, there is the new Frozen, then there are the other animated features, way off in the distance and beyond a snowy hill:

Worldwide Grosses

Frozen 2 -- $739 million

Abominable -- $175.3 million

Addams Family --$175.7 million

What's interesting are the constancies over time. For years, Disney was the only animation studio that was successful with cartoon features. Other corporate entities would, every once in a while, have some mild success. But the house of Walt was the place that did multiple features in the forites ... fifties ... sixties ... seventies (etc.)

So in a strange way, we're back where we began. There is Disney, and then there is the lacklustre competition. History does indeed rhyme.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Beyond Obvious

Business Insider has been reading entertainment data ...

[The Walt Disney Company], which has two animation studios, has vastly outperformed its competitors, luring audiences to theaters in droves to see new stories and sequels to franchise titles. Disney’s brand reputation, stellar storytelling and emotional resonance has kept it at the top of the box office.

The debut of “Frozen II” last weekend combined with the billion-dollar “Toy Story 4″ means Disney has now garnered more than $1.4 billion in ticket sales from its animated movies so far in 2019. And “Frozen II” still has plenty of room to grow ...

... but sadly, it doesn't read very well. Disney owns a lot more than two animation studios.

It owns Pixar (purchased from Steve Jobs). It owns Blue Sky Studios (purchased from Rupert Murdoch). It owns the Walt Disney Animation studios*.

Those are the studios that make theatrical animation, which focus on long-form features shown in multiplexes.

Then there are the TV animation studios: Walt Disney Television Animation and Fox Animation. These do pre-production on smaller screen fare slated for Disney+, the Disney Channel, broadcast television (remember that ancient distribution system?)

Disney dominates because Disney has put big money into animation, and also owns ... ahem ... some pretty potent brands.

Paramount-Viacom has never gotten much traction in theatrical animation, and its television outpost Nickeloden is a shadow of its former self. Warner Bros. had misfires in animation for years until its new division W.A.G. (warner Animation Group) struck gold with its Lego features. (Its television animation studio Warner Bros. Animation has been a force since the early nineties.) Sony makes has made some competitive cartoon features, and Universal-Comcast has found success with Illumination Entertainment and DreamWorks Animation.

But let's face it. Disney has been building synergy between its various divisions and production facilities forever. Uncle Walt was a master at having one part of his company boost and reinforce another, pretty much inventing the practice in the 1950s. And with Robert Iger, the practice has been super-charged to the point of near total dominance of the marketplace.

* Let's not forget DisneyToon Studios, which created direct-to-video and theatrical features for a quarter century, finally closing its doors the summer of 2018 when the dvd market was deader than a school of beached mackerel.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

A Brief History of Color Movies -- Live Action and Animated

This week in 1922, the Technicolor feature The Toll of the Sea premieres. The story of a Chinese girl in love with an American cad who deserts her, it goes into general release in February 1923, and stars the young Anna May Wong.

(Anna was a second-tier movie star in the '20s and '30s. She played Tiger Lily in the '23 version of "Peter Pan", the Mongol villainess in Douglas Fairbanks' "The Thief of Baghdad." She died in 1961.)

Toll was the first commercial live-action color feature that went into wide release. (There had been experiments previous to it, but nothing distributed nationwide that could run through a regular projector.) Two-Strip Technicolor didn't show the entire color spectrum, but was used in Hollywood through the 1920s and early 1930s, until full color/three-strip Technicolor replaced it.

Fairbanks's "The Black Pirate" was a sizable hit in 1926. At the time, Technicolor'scolor system used two strips of 35mm film fused together, which caused the twin problems of 1) keeping the image in focus and 2) jamming the projector with double-thick film. Technicolor soon figured out how to use one strip of film.

Surprisingly, there were a LOT of Technicolor features made in the decade after "Toll of the Sea". Douglas Fairbanks produced the big-budget "Black Pirate" in Technicolor, and Warners filmed many of its early sound musicals in color. Cecil B. DeMille used Technicolor for parts of 1923's "Ten Commandments" and the silent "King of Kings" (below). The '25 version of "Ben Hur" had a Technicolor sequence.

Sadly, a lot of two-strip Technicolor features have been lost. Most of Toll of the Sea survives due to the efforts of the UCLA Film Archive.


Walter Lantz created an animated color sequence for the Paul Whiteman two-strip Technicolor feature The King of Jazz in 1930. Universal was playing catch-up with Warners and M-G-M in the color feature department, and TKOJ was their big-budget attempt to catch up. Their Whiteman offering featured Bing Crosby before his movie career soared into the firmament.

But the first color short (mit sound!) was this Flip the Frog offering from Ub Iwerks in 1930. (Iwerks had turned in his 20% share of Walt Disney Productions and toddled off to form his own studio a bit earlier. Definitely a bad career move in retrospect. How much would 20% of the Walt Disney Company be worth now?):

Walter Elias Disney never did any two-strip color cartoons. When Technicolor developed its full color (three-strip) system a couple of years later, Walt gobbled up the exclusive rights to make full-color cartoons for three years. (No fool, he.) Disney's first offering was Flower and Trees.

Since everyone else was shut out of the full color Technicolor ball game, they all had to do the best they could. The Fleischers on the east coast made color cartoons with two-strip Technicolor. Their "Color Classics" weren't Disney "Silly Symphonies", but they were giving it the old college try.

Ub Iwerks in the years after his color "Flip the Frog", did a pretty fair Disney imitation with Balloon Land in glorious Cinecolor (which, as you can see, is another partial color system, much like Technicolor's two-strip system):

Disney had a five-year contract with Technicolor, but after three years his exclusivity ran out. Starting in 1936, any animation studio could use three-strip Technicolor, and many did. The Fleischers produced a Popeye featurette in three-strip technicolor, then another. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, most everybody's cartoons were in color.

A Popeye Color Special (1936) -- in the full and complete thrcee-strip color spectrum.

As for Walt Disney's former right-hand man Ub Iwerks, his series of ComiColor shorts ended in 1936. Thereafter, he subcontracted work from other cartoon studios before returning to Disney in 1940. (Minus, unfortunately, that 20% stake.) Iwerks died in 1971.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Reconsideration of An Action-Adventure Epic?

The Brew runs across video Ladyknightthebrave's analysis of the hand-drawn Disney feature Atlantis and gives her a shout-out:

... Atlantis: The Lost Empire, the curious 2001 flop from the tail end of Disney’s 1990s renaissance, is “the raddest gem in the Disney canon.” Or so argues Ladynightthebrave, a Youtube critic whose half-hour essay on the film, part of Filmjoy’s reliably absorbing Lessons Animation Taught Us series, is our video of the week.

Her fun, well-researched deep dive explains what sets Atlantis apart from other Disney features. She touches on the absence of cute sidekicks, lack of music, eccentric storyline — which draws on the writings of Plato and madcap philosopher Edgar Cayce — and hugely ambitious production. ...

Some of the reasons for Atlantis's under-performance almost twenty years ago?

It was a hand-drawn feature fighting against an incoming tide of computer generated animated cartoons that audiences loved.

It was darker than other Disney animated features of the time; Rourke, its central villain (played by usual Good Guy James Garner) is villainous without comedic redemption.

Atlantis was devoid of show-tunes.

In short, it went against the viewing public's expectations of wht a cartoon feature should be, and suffered accordingly. But there were reasons for this. Directors/creators Kirk Wise and Gary Trouysdale were flat out tired of doing animated musicals, as Gary Trousdale explains:

We kicked ideas around. ... [And] we want[ed] .. to do, like, an adventure thing. ... We wanted to get away from the musical. We were tired of musicals. That's one of the dirty secrets: I don't really like musicals, having directed two of them, they're not my favorite thing. I thought it would be really fun to do an action-adventure with monsters. ...

(Gary's comments about "Atlantis" start around the 21 minute mark.)

So maybe Atlantis is due for a fresh look and critical reconsideration. And we'll know those things have happened when the Walt Disney Company cues the picture up for a live-action/CGI reboot. (Stand by)

Monday, November 25, 2019

Frozen and More Frozen

A shocker.

Frozen 2, after massive marketing, social networking, and stratospheric global anticipation, comes in at #1. Who would have thought? ...

Three Days of Grosses

1) Frozen 2 -- 4,440 -- $130M -- $130M (1st weekend)

2) Ford V Ferrari -- 3,528 -- $16M (-50%) -- $57.9M

3) Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood -- 3,325 -- $13.5M -- $13.5M (1st weekend)

4) 21 Bridges -- 2,665 -- $9.3M -- $9.3M (1st weekend)

5) Midway -- 2,627 (-615) -- $4.7M (-45%) -- $43.1M

6) Playing With Fire -- 2,760 (-425) -- $4.6M (-45%) -- $31.6M

7) Good Liar -- 2,454 (+15) -- $3.37M (-40%) -- $11.8M

8) Charlie’s Angels -- 3,452 -- $3.175M (-62%) -- $13.9M

9) Last Christmas -- 2,411 (-1,043) -- $3M (-53%) -- $27.8M

10) Joker -- 1,410 (-927) -- $2.8M (-47%) -- $326.9M

Frozen 2 has earned $223.2M in its overseas debut and $353M globally. Meantime, Universal/Dreamworks Animation's Abominable has now collected a worldwide gross of $174.1M.

The trade press and others are nattering on about the "record breaking" opening of this Disney cartoon sequel, but it's only record-breaking -- as some note -- for the month of November. "Lion King 2019" opened with $191,770,759 (U.S. and Canada) in July. So that's the actual record-breaker. Of course, there's the ongoing fiction that "Lion King" isn't animated because the House of Mouse says it isn't, but we can ignore fiction, can't we?