Friday, March 29, 2019

The Rabbit And The Little Gold Man

Note: We're not talking here about Bugs Bunny, but the second winner of the Academy Award for "Best Actor". It's a post about live-action.

One hundred and ten years ago today, the actor Warner Baxter (seen above) was born. He won himself an Oscar thirty-nine years after his arrival into the world because of a bounding jackrabbit.

The year was 1928. Veteran director Raoul Walsh was already deep into production of the Western "In Old Arizona", one of the first sound films to be shot outdoors and on location. Walsh, who had started as an actor before becoming a director of big-budget movie epics like "The Thief of Baghdad" and "What Price Glory" was also starring in front of the camera as the Cisco Kid. (He had portrayed John Wilkes Booth in "The Birth of a Nation").

But mid-production, a jackrabbit leaped through the windshield of Walsh's car as it sped through the desert. Glass shattered, and in those days before safety glass, Raoul Walsh lost an eye.

Walsh also lost (obviously) the ability to continue in the role of the Kid. Or direct the picture. Irving Cummings stepped in to helm the feature, and Warner Baxter took over the role of Cisco. Several months later, Baxter won himself an Oscar for the role.

Warner Baxter went on to star in "A" pictures throughout the 1930s, and by the middle of the decde was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. His career gradually declined, however, and he shifted to lower-level programmers in the 1940s (along with smaller paychecks). Only vaguely remembered today, he died in 1951 at age 62.

And Raoul Walsh? He recovered from the encounter with the jackrabbit, and went on directing movies for the next forty years. Most were high-budget productions, and Mr. Walsh put most of the major stars* of the era through their paces. He retired in 1964 and died in 1980 at the age of 93.

* The biggies Walsh directed include James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Marlene Dietrich, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper and numerous others. (Director John Ford observed late in life that he and Walsh were often mistaken for one another, since they both wore eye patches.)

Thursday, March 28, 2019

World Animation ... Moving On Up

The global reach of animation has grown steadily over the last few decades. According to a new report entitled “European Animation & VFX Industry: Strategies, Trends & Opportunities”, that won't be changing anytime soon:

The total value of the global animation industry was [US] $259 billion in 2018 and is projected to reach $270 billion by 2020. The spend on special effects as a percent of production cost is about 20%-25%. The traditional form of content viewership is giving way to a sharp increase in streaming video consumption.

The total value of the European animation industry was [US] $45.6 billion in 2018 and is projected to reach $46.2 billion by 2020. The size of the European video gaming industry was [US] $19 billion in 2018 and is projected to reach $21.5 billion by 2020. ...

For years, cartoons short and long were a sleepy little subset of motion pictures and television. There was animation being made in France, Germany, Britain and other European countries, but it didn't amount to much. Most U.S. animation happened in Southern California, divided between Disney, Hanna-Barbera, and a smattering of small studios that made cartoon commercials, cartoon series, and the occasional feature-length animated cartoon that didn't come from walt Disney Productions, Inc.

Disney, in those simple, long-ago days, was a relatively minor player. It was a smallish live-action studio (six to seven productions per year) that was attached to a huge chunk or real estate containing amusement parks, and ... oh yeah ... also operated an animation division that made long-form cartoons.

Today the landscape is very much different. Now the entertainment conglomerate known as The Walt Disney Company operates three feature animation studios and three television animation studios. Beyond Disney, the conglomerate NBC-Universal-Comcast owns DreamWorks Animation, DreamWorks Television Animation, Universal Cartoon Studios, and Illumination Entertainment.

The conglomerate Warner-A.T.&T. owns Warner Animation Group (features) and Warner Bros. Animation (TV product, mostly). And beyond all that, there are sub-contracting animation studios, independent studios in the U.S. and Canada, and a wide range of production work going on in Europe, in Asia, in Africa and Australia and South America.

What's driven the explosive growth in animation has been ongoing audience hunger for content and evolving technology. In the age of super-heroes and muscular visual effects, computer generated animation is a large part of live-action. C.G. animation is also a major driver of theatrical animated features and computer games (a billion-dollar industry that barely existed four decades ago).

And as delivery systems have changed, from network broadcasts to syndication, to cable and (most recently) streaming services, companies have come to realize that animated product attracts young eyeballs, and Netflix, Amazon and others are working to establish long-term viewing habits with the elementary school set. Therefore, more and more cartoons; more and more cartoon employment.

It's all considerably different from where animation stood in, say, 1985. But as the commercial and technological universes have changed, the world of cartoons has changed along with them.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

21st Century Disney

The deal is done:

Walt Disney Co. completed its $71 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox Inc.’s entertainments assets, and now must get to the task of squeezing out promised cost savings. ...

The deal is one of the most dramatic in the current wave of entertainment-industry mergers, shrinking the number of major Hollywood studios to five from six and putting the irreverent Homer Simpson and “Family Guy” in the same stable of cartoon characters as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. ...

The Fox film studios began in 1915 under the leadership of businessman William Fox. By the late 1920s, Fox Film Corporation was a dominant player in Hollywood, and William Fox came close to taking over M-G-M dominated the industry and its CEO came very close to taking over M-G-M. But then the stock market collapsed, William Fox lost most of his fortune AND control of the Fox Film Corporation, and five years later the Fox Film Corporation merged withan upstart film company called 20th Century Pictures, founded and led by the hard-charging Darryl F. Zanuck.

There were ups and downs for 20th Century Fox after the merger, what with sell-offs of backlots, the start of a TV network, the takeover by an Australian newspaper mogul named Murdoch. But today the 104-year-old company was officially eaten my an entertainment conglomerate who's company logo is a mouth.

And the fact that th Walt Disney Company swallowed a major 104-year-old film company ... and most of its subsidies ... whole is jaw-dropping when you focus on it. Because Disney started in a Hollywood garage, amost went bankrupt before World War II, was still a minor player in the 1970s and had to fight off a hostile takeover in the 1980s. And yet today it's the largest entertainment behemoth in the world, operating amusement parks, a half-dozen animation studios, multiple live-action facilities. It's two parts movies and television, one part tech, three parts real estate.

And now it's the Godzilla of all media.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Walt Lives!

It's kind of refreshing that somebody has made a film about the cyrogenic Walter Elias Disney (and high time) ...

This flick has been making the film festival rounds for the past half-year and (allegedly) making a favorable impression. Shot guerrilla-style, the Walt Disney Company did not authorize the shooting of this epic down at WDW, but the movie-makers went and made the feature there anyway.

Perhaps in five decades or so, enraptured audiences will be watching docu-dramas about the frozen heads of Robert Iger and/or Michael Eisner.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Animation and Super Heroes -- Foreign and Domestic Box Office

In the United States and Canada, there are three animated features in the Top Ten. But one live-action super hero (with, of course, lots of animated effects) dominates them all:


1) Captain Marvel -- 4,310 -- $69.3M (-55%) -- $266.2M

2) Wonder Park -- 3,838 -- $16M -- $16M (1st weekend) ...

4) How To Train Your Dragon 3 -- 3,727 (-315) -- $9.3M (-36%) --$135.6M ...

8) Lego Movie 2 -- 2,046 (-884) -- $2.1M (-45%) -- $101.3M

Worldwide, Captain Marvel and most animated features have run up comfortable tallies ...

Captain Marvel -- $760 million (On its way to the north side of a billion dollar gross.)

Wonder Park -- $20.4 million (Just getting started with its international release; B+ CinemaScore domestically.)

How To Train Your Dragon 3 -- $466.5 million (Many foreign markets remain for Dragon)

Lego Movie 2 -- $177.7 million (The majority of Lego's grosses come from the U.S. and Canada; to date, far less has come from overseas.)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse -- $368.2 million (Nearing the end of its run, but "Best Animated Feature" Oscar has iven it a boost.)

Ralph Breaks the Internet -- $526.2 million (Ralph is winding down domestically; the bulk of its worldwide gross has come from overseas.)

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Whole Throwback Movie

SO the new Aladdin trailer dropped today.

And the thing that leaps out while watching it? The trailer is glossy, and slambang, and has all the razzle dazzle that CG visual effects can offer. But there doesn't seem to be much that's new and inspired. And the small things that are new don't appear to be improvements.

Of course, I could be mistaken, blinded by my fondness for the '90s version with the glories of hand-drawn animation, Ron Clements' and John Musker's sure-handed direction, and Robin Williams' vocal pyrotechnics.

But I don't think so.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Cartoon Dominance

There's a good sampling of features of the animated persuasion in the box office list these days:

Total Domestic Box Office Grosses

1) How To Train Your Dragon 3 -- 4,286 theaters -- $102,103,860 (12 days of release)

8) The Lego Movie 2 -- 3,458 theaters -- $92,634,619 -- (26 days of release)

-) Spider-Man ... Spider-Verse -- 2,404 theaters -- $187,848,484 -- (82 days of release)

-) Ralph Breaks Internet -- 204 theaters -- $200,221,956 -- (105 days of release)

-) Mary Poppins Returns -- 245 theaters -- $171,265,234 -- (77 days of release)

There's a reason entertainment conglomerates and streaming services that produce movies are heavy into short and long-form animation: large numbers of people watch it. This wasn't always true. A generation-and-a-half ago, such was not the case. Animation was a small, sleepy side-show to live-action. Not a lot of money in it, not a lot of people working in it.

Cartoons were for kids. And their younger brothers and sisters.

Today, of course, reality is way different. Theatrical animation makes big money. (Those titles above? Dragon has already earned $383,003,860 globally. The Lego Movie has taken in $154,334,619; Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is up to $363,812,385. Disney offering Ralph Breaks the Internet has made $520,348,903, while Mary Poppins Returns (with a sprinkling of hand-drawn animation) weighs in with $346,783,932.

Despite the tidal waves of cash and the higher esteem that animation now enjoys, cartoons will never garner full respect or the top industry awards. Best Picture Oscar? Not until pigs fly and Walter Elias Disney returns from the dead. Actors comprise the largest voting bloc of the Motion Picture Academy, and they aren't inclined to vote for movies where actors don't appear on screen.

If Silence of the Lambs can beat out Beauty and the Beast for the "Best Picture" Oscar, I don't think any long-form cartoon can be awarded the little gold man for Best Picture. It's a shame, but it's the reality. So I'm happy that the "Best Animated Feature" category was created as a consolation prize.

Add On: Feature director Mike Disa raises the issue: "What about residuals for people working on animated shows?" And a fine issue it is. The reason that animation workers don't get a piece of the action as some of their live-action counterparts do is, unions such as The Writers Guild, Directors Guild, and Screen Actors Guild successfully negotiated for re-use residuals sixty years ago, while other entertainment unions did not. (Both the Animation Guild and its predecessor the Screen Cartoonists Guild proposed re-use residuals during contract negotiations, but were unsuccessful in achieving them.)

And there is a larger point: while animation writers and directors receive "copyright royalties" from most European countries, Australia and New Zealand, places where authors have what's called "moral rights", U.S. law, practice and the Supreme Court have surgically removed the concept of authors' moral rights when the creator of the work is the employee of a corporation ("work for hire"), or has sold her (his) copyright on a book, screenplay or somesuch to a third party (which would usually be a company).

Royalties and re-use residuals are emotional, complicated issues that will likely be fought over as long as there are authors creating original works. (Case in point: the Writers Guild of America was sued by members and foreign writers over its handling and distribution of foreign copyright royalties. As a result of the lawsuit, the WGA changed the way it administered copyright royalties from overseas.)