Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Newest Golden Age

There was the thirties and early forties version ... then there was the Disney Renaissance in the first half of the nineties.

And now directors Millers and Lord, directors of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie (among others), talk about the latest incarnation. ...

There are a lot more players in the animation game since the medium went to CGI. They talk about technical nuts and bolts of creating TLM after a short break and the start of a newer video. Click here to read entire post

Friday, December 19, 2014


I motored to Glendale this morning and talked to staffers on three floors of the 'scraper that DreamWorks now occupies. There is a LOT of production (or should I say pre-production) going on. ...

All three floors re busy hives of activity. As one of the employees explained to me:

"It took awhile to get DreamWorks executives used to doing television. They had to adjust to not tweaking and micro-managing, there isn't time. But they get it now." ...

Another employee gave me a heads up about this new rollout ... that happened today:

... The Netflix series [All Hail King Julien] is a prequel, set at the time of Prince Julien's ascension to the lemur throne after his Uncle King Julien (Henry Winkler, continuing his productive late period) suddenly abdicates. In fact, he is throwing his nephew into the jaws of what he believes is a fatal prophecy, and planning to take back the crown after that dust settles.

As in the film, the lemurs are threatened by the fossa — the island's predatory cats. Although it's common enough in animated feature films, this is the rare short-form cartoon series in which the threat of violent death underlies the action.

It also makes for philosophy. Under Julien's uncle, the lemurs live in a state of soul-crushing silence, so as not to become targets; but once Julien takes over, he fires up the boom box, cranks up the bass and lets the rave begin. ...

I talked to a director who said it's been a challenge to find seasoned storyboard artists and storyboard supervisors because (as was related to me) "anybody with experience, and who's any good, is already working."

I confirmed that this was true, that things are tight all over, and I had visited a studio the day before where the supervising director said he was going to have "to build a crew from scratch" and he was dreading it. "Because the pickings beyond the studio walls are pretty slim."

This is a good thing for newer artists, because it makes it easier to break into the business. Lots of shows are getting produced, and lots more opportunities for a paycheck present themselves.

On the other hand (and there is always one of those), DreamWorks Animation's feature division continues to lay off artists as production schedules are rejiggered. An under-performing feature hurts. But (happily) the television product will be getting made for the next three to four years and should produce income streams far into the future.

Click here to read entire post

Thursday, December 18, 2014

When Nick Toons Got Its Start

It commenced with one woman.

[Vanessa] Coffey began by producing an [animated] Thanksgiving special for Nick. At that point, the studio had only done animation once before, in the form of a Christmas special led by Ralph Bakshi. Soon, she started a dialogue with then-president Geraldine Laybourne and her team about recruiting original content.

Executives at the time were hesitant due to the fact that they didn't have the budget for bigger animation projects. Months of conversations and brainstorming later, Nick hired Vanessa as a consultant to look for original, creator-driven ideas. After testing pilots, they made Coffey vice president of animation, and assigned her to fill a 90-minute slot with three shows. ...

"Rugrats," "Ren & Stimpy" and "Doug" were each major successes, which can be fully credited with beginning Nick's golden age of cartoons. But not one of them came to her as a fully-formed idea. ...

But then, unpleasantness came. ...

... "That was the most amazing time in my life working on 'Ren & Stimpy,'" Coffey said, "But the situation with John was the most painful situation of my career."

The first six months came with playful disagreements regarding notes. As Coffey recalls, it was only after "Ren & Stimpy" aired with great ratings and garnered a college audience that Kricfalusi became difficult. "He turned," she said. "He said this on the phone: 'I'm the star. I'm making your network. It's all me.'"

Back in August, Kricfalusi expressed his frustrations. "I told her to think of it as though she got to play Santa. You don't give the kids presents that you want for yourself, do you? Kids don't want socks and underwear, they want toys and silly stuff," he said. "I thought to myself, 'Have you ever met a kid?' Who doesn't know that kids think rude things are funny?"

Coffey insists she was just doing what needed to be done to get the show to air. "I wasn't being a big bad executive," she said. "It was my job."

... Kricfalusi's behavior spiraled out of the realm of her patience and the legal terms of his deal with Nick. "Frankly, John was out of control," she said. In September of 1992, he and Nickelodeon parted ways. Kricfalusi insists he was not fired, though Coffey says simply, "He was in breach of contract for not delivering on time, disturbing content and not [being] within the budget." ...

I remember when the John K. kerfuffle went down. There were screams of outrage and anguish when Mr. Kricfalusi was dismissed from the show, but the series went on without him.

And John Kricfalusi went his own professional way. The lesson I draw from this? In conglomerateland, almost all cartoon creators are fungible. Unless your Steven Spielberg or Michael Bay, an executive can Deep Six you on forty hours notice.

I often tell newbies, "Learn to play well with others" (learned from cold, first-hand experience). Artists seldom get their way all or even three-quarters of the time, and it's useful to know this fact of life right out of the gate. If John Kricfalusi had owned the knowledge at the beginning of his Ren and Stempy career, perhaps he would have remained on board to supervise all of the R & S episodes, instead of just some of them.

Then again, maybe not.

Click here to read entire post

Hackery III

Or IV, or whatever. TAG's mother international says this:


As you may be aware, Sony Pictures Entertainment ("SPE") experienced a significant IT systems disruption on Monday, November 24, 2014. The IATSE has been in discussions with the company since then to determine what risk our members may face regarding the potential disclosure of personal information and data.

SPE has determined that the cause of the disruption was a cyber attack. After identifying the disruption, SPE took prompt action to contain the cyber attack, engaged recognized security consultants and contacted law enforcement. SPE learned on December 1, 2014, that the security of certain personally identifiable information about its current and former employees may have been compromised.

SPE has made arrangements with a third-party service provider, AIIClear ID, to offer 12 months of identity protection services at no charge to potentially impacted current and former production employees of SPE or an SPE-affiliated company.

IATSE members should contact AIIClear ID directly to initiate the enrollment process and/or learn more about their services. ...

More info up there at the link. ...

In other hacking news, the terrorists win (again):

Paramount Cancels ‘Team America’ Showings, Theaters Say

Forget those plans by Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and other theaters to run Team America: World Police in place of The Interview. The Austin-based chain says that Paramount has now decided not to offer South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 2004 satire that focuses on Kim Jong-il, the late father of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Alamo says that the cancellation at its Dallas theater is “due to circumstances beyond our control” and says it will offer refunds to those who have already bought tickets. Cleveland’s Capitol Theater also tweeted that Team America “has been canceled by Paramount Pictures.”

Yesterday Sony pulled The Interview, which depicts an assassination of Kim Jong-un, after hackers threatened theaters that showed the film. ...

And there seems to be some teeth-gnashing at all this. Also teenaged girl type fear. (All due respect to teenaged girls).

As we watched one group be completely vilified, nobody stood up. Nobody took that stand. Now, I say this is a situation we are going to have to come to terms with, a new paradigm and a new way of handling our business. Because this could happen to an electric company, a car company, a newsroom. It could happen to anybody. ...

The truth is, you’re going to have a much harder time finding distribution [for controversial movies] now. And that’s a chilling effect. We should be in the position right now of going on offense with this. ...

So says George Clooney.

Nothing against Mr. Clooney, but Hollywood has always been cowardly. As novelist Raymond Chandler said seventy years ago, "The Hollywood big shots, they're terrified of losing all that fairy gold." Which of course explains why, in the fifties, studios and labor unions could be bullied by the House of Un-American Activities Committee and Red Channels into black-listing artists and writers who didn't toe the "True American" line as defined by HUAC and Red Channels.

The fear of losing big bucks; it's a fabulous motivator, no? What's one movie, more or less? What's a pack of lousy movie actors and writers?

North Korea and/or its agents are simply the latest bully boys to show up in show business's neighborhood demanding that a movie they don't like be pulled. It's not really much different than those earlier power brokers' demands that creators with impure thoughts be banished from the creative landscape. Seeing Hollywood get rolled by thugs with brass knuckles is as old as the movies.

The only thing different this time is the newer technology being employed.

Click here to read entire post

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Expanding Universe of Cable Animation

More cartoons on more platforms.

FXX is moving into latenight with an original animation block anchored by “Lucas Bros. Moving Co.” and “Stone Quackers.” ...

The heightened presence of animation on FXX is no surprise as the comedy-themed cabler was turbo-charged in September by the arrival of “Simpsons” reruns. Expanding into latenight animation has been a priority for FX Networks execs, no doubt inspired by the ratings garnered by Adult Swim’s out-there toons. ...

These new productions are part of Fox-News Corp. low wage partner ADHD, located in Hollywood, and using a lot of new artists. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. ...

The bad thing is, the newbies are underpaid and Fox happily keeps feeding ADHD work. TAG's job is to convince the crew that there's a road to higher (as in livable) wages. And quality benefits, they're good too.

Because, friends and neighbors, the animation business in Los Angeles is all of a piece. If Studio X starts paying skim milk wages to the artists turning out its shows, that puts downward pressure on salaries at other studios.

This is nothing new. Years ago, a Disney TV Animation timing director was collecting union wages at her home studio while picking up freelance work at a non-signatory company that was way under going rates. I didn't think there was much point in asking her to knock the behavior off (money is money, after all, and she was out to collect as much as she could), but I told her fellow directors what she was about. They weren't happy and talked to her. She wasn't happy that I had made an issue of it, and snarled at me to "mind my own business" on the phone.

But this is simple, really. If pay unravels at one place, the odds are higher it will unravel at other places. Econ 101.

Click here to read entire post

A Brief History of Pensions

Some members have inquired about new legislation out of Washington that impacts multi-employer pension plans (these are of the Taft-Hartley variety, of which the Motion Picture Industry Pension Plan is one.)

The short answers:

Yes, some multi-employer plans, particularly manufacturing pension plans centered in the mid-west, could see some payout reductions to current participants under 75.

But no, this new legislation shouldn't affect the MPIPP, because our plan has 85-90% funding. (Those mid-west plans are drastically under-funded, unlike the MPIPP.)

But let's dig a little deeper into this pension thing. ...

Bloomberg has a succinct summary about pensions in the U.S. of A.:

... The U.S. is almost unique in its reliance on private, company-sponsored pensions instead of comprehensive, government-sponsored benefits.

Private pensions emerged in the late 19th century in what was then the most important U.S. industry: railroads. In 1877, striking railroad workers protesting wage cuts brought the country to a standstill. Workers clashed with state militias; dozens died in the ensuing violence. ... And in 1880, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad instituted a private pension plan for its employees; it eventually would cover 77,000 workers. ...

In the succeeding decades, corporations in other industries followed suit. Invoking the spirit of welfare capitalism, they unilaterally introduced pensions, health and disability insurance, and other perks in a rather overt attempt to woo workers away from unions. The programs became so widespread that in the 1920s, many unions protested against such benefits. ...

Private pensions flourished until the Great Depression, when many corporations went bankrupt, as did their benefit programs. But they soon revived, along with the economy. Between 1939 and 1946, the number of U.S. private pension plans went from 659 to 9,370. ...

The growth of private pensions in the postwar era also reflected a shrewd triangulation on the part of the business community. Business leaders wanted to check the further expansion of what is now derided as "big government." They also wanted to curb the power of unions. Pensions and other benefits such as health insurance enabled employers to achieve both goals. ...

Private pensions are now a vestigial presence in American work life, replaced by defined-contribution plans such as the 401(k). In the last 15 years, the portion of the U.S.’s largest companies offering defined-benefit pensions to new workers has fallen to 24 percent from 60 percent. ...

The changes in the spending bill, which could permit cuts to multiemployer private pensions for about 10 percent to 15 percent of the 10 million workers in such plans, are framed as a necessary measure to preserve the solvency of the PBGC. But on a deeper level, this step is a harbinger of the ultimate demise of a private pension system that has outlived its usefulness to the business community.

The drumbeat today is to demonize employees who still have livable pensions ("Hey now, aren't those people greed-heads? Why should they have nice monthly checks while you don't?") so that other working stiffs are angry about it.

I look forward to the day when few have any kind of significant retirement and everyone works into their eighties ... because that's when Social Security kicks in.

Click here to read entire post

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

When I Met Jeffrey

It was heart palpitation time.

... At two o’clock the Basil story crew stood tensely in the second-floor hallway of 2-D, waiting for Jeffrey’s arrival. At two after two he came striding down the hall, shook hands with everybody, and I launched into my spiel about a detective mouse in London, his arch enemy Ratigan, and the nefarious plot to take over all Mousedom.

Mr. Katzenberg listened with laser-like intensity. I managed to avoid mangling the plot or muddying up the characters. ...

1985. Jeffrey was the dynamo from Paramount Pictures. And I thought (silly me) that I would be going places in my Disney career.

I was so young then. And so wrong. ...

And we'll call this "Self Aggrandizement II". But it's late and I can't think of anything else to put up.

Click here to read entire post

Cartoon Ratings

For Sunday last.

Show -- 18-49 rating -- audience (millions)

8:00 p.m.

#1 -- Football Night -- 4.1 -- 12.39m
#2 -- Simpsons -- 2.0 -- 5.02m
#3 -- Undercover Boss -- 1.7 -- 8.92m

9:00 p.m.

#1 -- Family Guy -- 1.5 -- 3.15m
#2 -- Barbra Walters -- 1.4 -- 7.78m

9:30 p.m.

Bob's Burgers -- 1.3 -- 2.54m

It's always a confusion why the show with the most viewers, Barbara Walters for example, isn't the winner.

But to own the "old people" audience is almost like having corpses goggling at the flatscreen. You need to have the high-value, 18 through 49 demographic.

Add On: And then there are the cable ratings:

Compared to the same time period in 2013, [Cartoon Network's] total day delivery grew by strong double digits, with kids 2-11 up by +33%, kids 6-11 by +39% and kids 9-14 by +22%. Early prime delivery also increased among kids 2-11 & 6-11 by +10% and among kids 9-14 by +7%. ...

Adult Swim programming – including telecasts of Family Guy, American Dad! and Robot Chicken – accounted for 27 of the top 50 telecasts on basic cable for the week among adults 18-34 and 24 of the top 50 with men 18-34, both more than any other network. ...

Click here to read entire post

Elf Momentum

The trades tell us:

... Thanks to Warner Bros. Animation, “Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas,” a one-hour special that airs Dec. 16 on NBC at 8 p.m., with Jim Parsons voicing the titular character originated by Ferrell in the 2003 pic.

Animation house Screen Novelties, which specializes in stop motion, created the TV version. “Warners thought doing it in stop motion would be cool, given the art’s historical ties with Christmas specials,” said co-founder Seamus Walsh (above, center).

The studio also may have been swayed by the success of 2012’s “A SpongeBob Christmas Special,” which Screen Novelties created for Nickelodeon. ...

Stop motion will never die, so long as their are television Christmas specials (and Henry Selick).

Click here to read entire post

Monday, December 15, 2014

My Miscalculation

SO today the trades say

... DreamWorks Animation shares are down about 5.9% in mid-day trading after Stifel analyst Benjamin Mogil slashed his forecast for its latest film Penguins of Madagascar and projected that it will end up losing $49 million vs. his previous prediction for a $15 million loss. On Friday B. Riley’s Eric Wold also lowered his estimates, and predicted a write-off for the quarter. ...

AND Cartoon Brew goes

... Penguins of Madagascar hit an ignominious milestone: on Friday, its 17th day of release, its domestic gross was surpassed by the Rise of the Guardians, the notorious DreamWorks underperformer that was released at the same time in 2012. Adjusted for inflation, the Penguins audience is even smaller than Guardians’s audience. ...

Therefore my calculation of $105-$135 million in domestic grosses looks a teensy bit off.

The picture isn't going to hit a multiple of four (4) in the U.S. of A., which means DreamWorks Animation has some long thoughts to wade through. Penguins was shifted (in part) because wise studios heads thought it would perform better running up to Christmas than in March 2015.


Every studio has its ups and downs. Disney went through a rough patch at the turn of the century where it created very few films that connected with the public. At the same time, DreamWorks had a large and stable staff turning out one money-maker after another. And now it's Walt Disney Animation Studios that's on a roll, while DWA isn't achieving lift-off with the majority of its releases.

When you're around animation for a while, you understand that the studios in the industry are much like pistons in an engine: one of them is up while another is down, it's just the way he business seems to be. The difficulty is, DWA isn't part of a monster conglomerate like its competition. And that spells TROUBLE, right here in L.A. city.

Click here to read entire post

Christmas in December

Another day, another Oswald.

A 1927 Disney Christmas cartoon thought to be lost was discovered in Norway, Agence France reports.

"Empty Socks," Disney's first Christmas, was found during an inventory of one of the facilities of Norway's National Library. The film starred Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a precursor to Mickey Mouse. ...

Thought a rabbit, Oswald is a close cousin of Mickey.

And five will get you twenty that Diz Co. soon buys this flick for a princely sum. Then they'll add some bells and whistles and copyright it.

Click here to read entire post

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Goodbye, Mr. Taylor

Another major animation talent departs. From Animation Scoop:

... [A]nimator and director Robert Taylor passed away last Thursday, December 11th, from complications due to COPD. He was 70 years old. Taylor is perhaps best known for directing The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat (1974) - a sequel to the first X-rated animated feature Fritz the Cat - as well as Hanna Barbera's Heidi's Song (1982).

Taylor began his career in 1966 co-directing Mighty Heroes and Sad Cat with Ralph Bakshi at Terrytoons. Taylor had worked with Ralph Bakshi in various capacities (layout, design, animation) on a number of his animated features, including Heavy Traffic, Hey Good Lookin' and Wizards. He went on to work in later years as an animator, story man, layout artist, producer, screenwriter and director on various animated TV shows for Disney (Bonkers, Goof Troop), Hanna Barbera (Scooby Doo, Superfriends) and Klasky Csupo (Wild Thornberrys, Rugrats).

One of his many projects was the unreleased Hanna Barbera feature Rock Odyssey (1987). It was an adult skewing history of pop music, narrated by a jukebox (Scatman Crothers). Though Hanna and Barbera get co-director credit, it's known that Taylor actually headed the project.

His daughter has released this information: "His memorial service is open to any and all that knew him or followed him in his life. His service is Saturday, December 20th at the chapel at Oakwood Cemetery in Chatsworth, CA. It is a beautiful location and he shall be buried there immediately following the service. The ceremony starts at 10:00 am. I know my father would have loved his friends and colleagues to attend this special event and celebrate his life. If you cannot attend, I thank you for knowing him and being with him there in spirit."

Our condolences to Bob's family. Three score and ten is too soon to leave.

President Emeritus Tom Sito adds:

... Bob was a mainstay of many top TV series at Hanna Barbera and Disney. Goof Troop, Rugrats, Ducktales, Flintstone Kids, GoBots, and many more. One of those solid, reliable studio artists who got your shows done. He also created the feature films Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat and Rock Odyssey. When I was freelancing storyboards for Kaye Wright at H&B in the 80s, on every show I picked up Kaye would give me a Bob Taylor and Alex Lovy storyboard as an example of what to do. ...

Click here to read entire post

The Global Box Office

For the latest three days, your animated and VFX extravaganzas:

Weekend Foreign Box Office -- (World Cumes)

Hobbit: ... Five Armies -- $117,600,000 -- ($117,600,000)

Exodus: Gods and Kings -- $18,800,000 -- ($74,700,000)

Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- $16,000,000 -- ($611,398,249)

Penguins of Madagascar -- $14,700,000 -- ($175,538,709)

Interstellar -- $11,400,000 -- ($621,799,576)

Paddington -- $11,000,000 -- ($45,000,000)

Big Hero 6 -- $3,900,000 -- ($253,525,009)

The trades tell the tale:

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” was the one film to rule them all at the foreign box office this weekend, picking up a massive $117.6 million. ... Sliding in at number two on the foreign charts, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” earned $18.8 million from 6,096 screens in 27 markets. ...

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1″ and “Penguins of Madagascar” were the third and fourth highest-grossing films overseas, picking up $16 million and $14.7 million, respectively. The “Hunger Games” sequel has earned $611.4 million worldwide, while the “Madagascar”spinoff has picked up $175.5 million. ...

Fifth place finisher “Interstellar” blasted past $600 million globally last week. The space adventure earned $11.4 million overseas, pushing its worldwide total to $621.8 million. ...

Click here to read entire post

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Martha Sigall, RIP

We have lost a bright link to animation's past. Someone who was there near the beginning, when a small studio in Hollywood turned out whacky, black-and-white cartoons that are still watched ... and laughed at ... around the world.

Martha Sigall, who worked alongside Clampett, Jones and Freleng (among numerous others) went to her rest today. She was ninety-seven years old.

As I wrote three years ago when I interviewed her:

During the depths of the Depression, Martha Sigall was a neighborhood kid who ran errands for artists at a small animation shop who worked at light boards. Little did she know that it would lead to a half-century career creating cartoons. The studio was in some small buildings in Hollywood and owned by a man named Leon Schlesinger. Martha painted her first cels before she was in high school, and took a full-time job in the business when she turned nineteen.

By then, Schlesinger and his staff were headquartered in a larger building that came to be known as "Termite Terrace." ...

Martha went on from there, ending her journey today.
Click here to read entire post

The Unionizing Thing

As somebody who lives inside organized labor, this is heartening:

Federal officials unveiled new rules on Friday that will streamline and simplify the union election process, a reform long sought by labor unions and fiercely opposed by businesses.

Among other changes, the rules issued by the National Labor Relations Board will limit some of the litigation that can precede a union election, making it harder for parties to stall or drag out the process. The reforms will also allow unions to file election petitions and other documents via email, and they will require employers to provide unions with the email addresses and phone numbers of workers eligible to vote.

Many employers favor the older, slower election process, as it gives them more time to dissuade workers from unionizing. The reforms announced Friday have long been discussed and debated, and businesses have argued that they would infringe on the businesses' free speech rights and lead to "ambush" or "quickie" elections. ...

Employers favor the "slower election process" because it's a way of running out the clock ... and doing a little one-on-one with employees. (An employer can't say: "You vote to go union and we're closing the company!" But an employer can say: "Gee Bill, we know how you and the others feel about going union, but honest to Gosh, we just don't know what we're gonna do if good old Slave-Grind, Inc. has to go under a union contract.")

You may have noticed that in our charming corporatist state, the land of Socialism for Mega Banks and the rich, Free Enterprise for the poor, that unionized work-places comprise a much smaller percentage of corporate America. This trend has been going on since I graduated from college, and we now have about 14% of the work-force under the wing of guilds and unions, about the same ratio we had a century ago.

Entertainment unions are outliers here in Freedom's Land. They still represent a large part of motion picture and television workers, even as other areas of employment slip away. The Animation Guild has had some momentum on its side these past few years, as we've organized a number of non-union cartoon studios in Los Angeles.

The new rules will help TAG and other labor unions secure better wages and benefits for people they strive to represent, which is a good thing.

Click here to read entire post

Your Domestic Box Office

On Friday, there were two American animated features in the Top Seven Features in the U.S. of A. and Canada.

Domestic Top Ten -- Friday

1) Exodus: Gods and Kings -- $8,625,000

2) Hunger Games: Mockingjay Uno -- $3,790,000 ($267,988,000)

3) Top Five -- $2,500,000

4) Penguins of Madagascar -- $1,570,000 -- ($53,109,000)

5) Interstellar -- $1,570,000 -- ($162,790,000)

6) Horrible Bosses Too -- $1,475,000 -- ($40,446,000)

7) Big Hero 6 -- $1,3919,000 -- ($180,571,000)

8) Dumb and Dumber To -- $796,000 -- ($80,157,000)

9) The Theory of Everything -- $737,000 -- ($15,360,000)

10) Wild -- $475,000 -- ($1,348,000)

Penguins should waddle through the holiday season in good order, but it's going to end up with a Koch Calculator multiple of 3.7-4.2 after all is said and done. And the trade papers tell us:

The Bible epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings” will bring down reigning box-office champ “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” and win this weekend with a three-day opening of around $25 million. ... That easily outpaced Lionsgate’s young adult blockbuster, which has been No. 1 for the past three weekends, and DreamWorks Animation’s holdover “Penguins of Madagascar,” which took in $3.8 million and $1.5 million respectively. ...

Click here to read entire post

Friday, December 12, 2014



Sony Emails Reveal Failed Efforts to Recruit ‘Lego’ Directors to Run Animation Unit

Stolen emails from Sony Pictures reveal the studio tried and failed last summer to recruit Phil Lord and Chris Miller to take over its animation division.

The emails from the hacked documents, obtained by Variety, show studio toppers Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton looking to animation “to turn the studio around.” They hoped to install a Pixar-style “brain trust” of filmmakers at the top of Sony Pictures Animation. Lord and Miller were being courted to head that group; other names being floated included Brad Bird. ...

Michael Lynton wrote to Pascal and pointed a finger at Sony Pictures Digital president Bob Osher, who oversees Sony Animation and Imageworks. Lynton implied that Osher would have to be fired. Pascal responded that Osher’s “cost savings stuff” at Imageworks was “amazing.”

I've been going through Sony Pictures Animation and parts of Imageworks (non-union though it is) for the past decade. And I've been listening to the complaints of artists for almost as long as the studio has existed. Regarding Bob Osher:

"He's clueless." ... "Osher is not really interested in taking the division anywhere creatively, he just wants to suck up to Amy [Pascal]. ..." "We were set to have a screening on a [developing] project, and he cancelled the screening at the last minute because he hadn't gotten an e-mail he thought he should have gotten and was ticked off about it." ...

To be fair to Mr. Osher, management persons before him haven't gotten rave reviews from story artists or designers either. Bob Osher is just the latest top-kick about whom artists complained when I walked through the doors. Some of it you can chalk up to the general belly-aching that always ricochets around cartoon studios, but a lot of it was more than that.

Sony Pictures Animation started off semi-promisingly with Open Season, but things slid downhill after that. The division used to have a director on board named Chris Buck (Frozen), but he's long gone. It used to employ one of the best story persons in the business, a man named Ed Gombert, who story-directed the features Aladdin and The Croods, but SPA cut him loose. Many other talented animation veterans have also departed over the course of time.

I chatted to Lord and Miller when they were developing Cloudy With Meatballs, and immediately picked up that they were bright, funny, upbeat guys. New to animation, they were brought in to work on Cloudy after other development efforts had fallen flat. Amy Pascal (I was told) believed in the project, and thought there was a way to "lick it"; Lord and Miller found the correct route. (Pascal isn't a stranger to animation; she headed up Turner Feature Animation in the long-ago nineties.)

Talking to Lord and Miller, it was pretty clear they were iffy about hanging around after the picture was done. Other employees told me neither of them cared much for management.

More recently (and happily) Sony has brought in Genndy Tartakovsky, but is Genndy alone going to turn Sony around? Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks used to occupy the same Culver City campus; now Imageworks is a wee bit farther away in Vancouver. How that helps Sony's animated features to be better, I don't know. Certainly it will make them less expensive to produce, for the Canadians are throwing around lots of free money. But will that help them to be hits?

What amazes me most about the Variety article above is: I've been going into Sony Pictures Animation like forever, and the complaints and morale issues have smacked me in the face year in and year out. (Note the smacking here, here, here and here. And I was being diplomatic in these blog posts.)

If a union thug like me, ambling through the Spa/Imageworks campus every few months, can pick up on the general unhappiness, what drugs was management taking to miss it?

(And so you don't think I'm just a dour Sony basher, note this.)

Click here to read entire post

Your Box Office Forecast

The Mojo predicts a small drop for Penguins.

Forecast (Dec. 12-14)

1. Exodus - $29 million
2. Mockingjay - $11 million (-50%)
3. Top Five - $8.2 million
4. Penguins - $7.1 million (-35%)

To date, Penguins of Madagascar has collected $153,432,709 worldwide. It doesn't look as though it will turn into a blockbuster, and how Home performs (it's due out early next year) is anyone's guess.

DWA thought Penguins was the stronger yuletide offering; I wonder if any DreamWorks execs are second-guessing the decision?

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Cashing In

DWA sells a holding at a profit.

DreamWorks Animation may have had some trouble with potential deals that leaked before completion, but the company struck one on Thursday involving AwesomenessTV, an online media company.

The Hollywood studio said that it sold a 25 percent stake in the venture to Hearst for $81.25 million.

The transaction values two-year-old AwesomenessTV at about $325 million, significantly more than the $33 million that DreamWorks Animation paid for the company last year. ...

When you pick up 100% of something for $33, and sell a quarter of it for $81.25, you have made a killing.

The trick for Jeffrey Katzenberg is to hang on to assets that increase in value, while building cash reserves to finance new hit movies. Maybe the partial sale of a hot corner of a subsidiary will enable him to do that.

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Moving To A New Location

DreamWorks Animation reconsiders the release date of a franchise.

DreamWorks Animation has moved the release of “Kung Fu Panda 3″ to March 18, 2016, leaving its previous Dec. 23, 2015 date, where “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is expected to dominate.

Disney will release “The Force Awakens,” directed by J.J. Abrams, on Dec. 18, 2015. ...

The new date for “Kung Fu Panda 3″ means that DWA will need to find a new birth for “Boss Baby,” also dated for March 18, 2016.

It's always a fine idea to shift a tentpole away from a monster juggernaut, which (let's face it) this new Star Wars movie is.

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Globs of Gold

The Globe nominees are out; you'll find them here.

But let's get real about this award. The show is good fun, and the stars and big shots turn out in force to participate in the televised festivities. But the Golden Globes are a total and complete joke, chosen by stringers for the foreign press.

It's been this way since the Globes beginning during World War II. Seventy-odd years later, Hollywood likes to pretend that the little trophies are significant in some way, but they're not. Except maybe that reality doesn't matter, because if everybody acts like the Globes are a Big and Important Deal, then by grab, they ARE a big and important deal.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Comedy Spidey

The Sony hacking hasn't been a good thing for Sony ... or the nerves of its current or former employees. But some of the hacked e-mails have been interesting, especially for people in Cartoonland:

Sony Pictures has considered partnering with Marvel and producing an animated comedy as it looks to revamp its big screen strategy for “Spider-Man.”

Details of the discussions are contained in e-mails to and from Sony’s motion picture chief Amy Pascal, which were released on the Internet by hackers this week.

The e-mails reveal extensive discussions between executives at Sony and Marvel owner Walt Disney, all the way up to their respective chief executives Kaz Hirai and Robert Iger. ...

As of late November, executives were planning a “Spidey summit” for January to discuss future plans. Among projects in development are an animated Spider-Man comedy that would be produced by Chris Miller and Phil Lord, the team behind “22 Jump Street” and “The Lego Movie,” as well as previously disclosed Spider-Man spin-offs focused on villain team Sinister Six, super-foe Venom, and women from the webslinger’s life. ...

I fully expect months of surprises as new caches of information are put out there by the people who hacked Sony's data. I fully expect lots of news stories in the near and middle future as small, bright bombs continue to go off.

But for how long the explosives will be detonating, that's the question.

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Suppression and Freedom

The wage suppression involving animation and visual effects artists has been in the news a lot, and Disney/Pixar Animation chief Ed Catmull has been at or near the center of the alleged collusion between various Hollywood and San Francisco cartoon studios keeping salaries of nine-to-fivers down.

The above is pretty well known at this point, an old story that's gone the rounds and come back again, nothing fresh to chew on. But earlier this week I was talking about the subject to a former Disney employee and a new wrinkle cropped up. It went like this ...

Former Employee: When Disney Animation had personal service contracts, back six or seven years ago, management had us come into meetings. And Ed Catmull explained how they were doing away with PSCs because they thought it would be better for all us Disney employees not to be tied down.

Hulett: I remember. People at Feature Animation asked me about it. I said it was just a way for the studio to save money. Employees wouldn't be locked into automatic raises in personal service contracts every year, wouldn't be focused on raises because they'd be "at will" and more concerned about keeping their jobs.

FE: There was something else. Ed told us without the PSCs, everybody was free to go work someplace else if they got a better gig. The company wouldn't stop people from moving on. But the companies out there were talking to each other and keeping wages down, so how could anybody go get a higher-paying job? And Ed knew about this when he was talking to employees. When he was pushing the "free to get a better deal" thing.

ME: Imagine that. ...

Management dissembling. Alert the media.

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The Next Pixar

With parallel command centers not meshing well.

Not a sequel. Not the usual animated feature subject matter and format. Is there a story here?

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

New Cash Streams for Entertainment Conglomerates

It appears the worldwide web isn't always the enemy.

... In the first nine months of this year, consumer spending on digital purchases of theatrical new releases climbed 88% over the same period in 2013, according to DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group. That’s a growth rate more than five times faster than consumer spending on digital formats overall (including all electronic sell-through, streaming and video-on-demand).

Electronic Sell Through arguably moved into the mainstream last year, when consumer spending on digital purchases of movies and TV shows topped $1 billion for the first time. In 2014, EST spending crossed the $1 billion mark by the end of September, putting $1.5 billion within reach for the year, fueled by consumer demand. ...

Jason Spivak, exec, VP digital distribution, for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. He says family films “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2” and “Heaven Is for Real” have been digital standouts for the studio. ...

“Three of the five top-selling new release EST titles of all time are family (films), including ‘Despicable Me 2,’ which is Universal’s largest EST title by a wide margin — selling well over five times what the first ‘Despicable Me’ sold a few years ago,” says Michael Bonner, exec VP, digital distribution, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. ...

“The overall growth of digital this year is very exciting, and we have had some breakout successes, including ‘Frozen’ becoming the best-selling digital title of all-time” in the U.S., adds Janice Marinelli, prexy, Disney/ABC Home Entertainment and Television Distribution. ...

You will note that animated features and effects-heavy live-action movies take up an increasingly large part of digital downloads, as well as other formats.

Frozen isn't just breaking records with movie box office and internet delivery. It also frolics in the shrinking market of little silver disks:

"Frozen" Home Video Revenue

Domestic DVD Sales $148,645,885

Domestic Blu-ray Sales $143,320,697

Total Domestic Video Sales $291,966,582

Interesting thing about older technologies: They often become less robust when newer distribution pipelines come along, but they seldom vanish altogether.

After all, we still have plays on the Great White Way, even with digital downloads and home flat-screens.

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DreamWorks Animation morphs some more.

DreamWorks Animation is set to launch a TV channel featuring kids and family programming in 19 Asian countries sometime in the second half of 2015.

The channel will represent DWA’s first foray into operating its own TV network in any part of the world. ...

HBO Asia, based in Singapore, will manage affiliate sales and marketing, as well as technical services, for the channel, with larger markets expected to launch first.

Original content won’t be created specifically for the channel.

Instead, the network will consist of a combination of original shows produced for partners like Netflix, as well as pre-existing and new series based on Classic Media’s library of character that were developed for European markets and air in syndication. ...

DWA is positioning the branded network as having more original content than any other kids’ channel in the region. ...

The company has figured out it won't survive and prosper using the old format of "Produce a hit film ... produce another hit film ... produce another hit film" (etc.) Because the old format doesn't work too well anymore.

The Netflix deal enables DWA to create a lot of product without having to worry if it's going to be a hit or not. Now it has to figure out how it expands its global reach and its cash flow in new media ventures.

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Your Cartoon Cable Ratings

They explain why there's so much television animation work.

... Last Monday's episode of TBS's American Dad! averaged 1.3 million viewers in Live + 3 delivery, with 949,000 adults in 18-49 and 550,000 adults 18-34. For the season-to-date, American Dad! is averaging a reach of 4 million viewers per episode for its premieres on TBS, encores on Adult Swim and multi-platform plays. ...

Cartoon Network dominated all television networks among targeted kids and boys on Thursday Night (6-8 p.m.), with its performance increasing delivery among all kids/boys 2-11, 6-11 & 9-14, ranging between 49% and 90%. The new episode premiere of original series Teen Titans Go! (6 p.m.) ranked #1 for the day among kids and boys 2-11/6-11, while original series Regular Show (7:30 p.m.) won the day among kids/boys 9-14. ...

there's been a steady expansion of television work over the last few years. Our fine entertainment conglomerates discover, to their delight, that there's a new wave of kids coming along, and fresh appetites for new series and newer characters. We've got more television production -- even with the competition of Canada and its subsidies -- than we've ever had.

How long will it continue? Only the Shadow knows, and he's not telling the rest of us.

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Monday, December 08, 2014

What Mark Kennedy Said

Straight from the Temple:

... Jon Stewart (host of "The Daily Show") ... talked about former Daily Show cast member Steve Carell's role in the film "Foxcatcher". Jon said something along the lines of "What makes Steve so good is that he finds the moments in scripts that no one else realized were there".

We've been talking a lot at Disney about what makes a good story artist, and it can be hard to define what makes a story artist so good at what they do.

Drawing is important, as is a sense of staging and acting, and all the other things that a good story artist needs to know … but there's also a hard-to-define "X factor" that some board artists seem to have. I think it's along the lines of what Jon Stewart is saying about Steve Carell.

A good board artist knows how to "plus" and elevate an idea. A good board artist can improve on any idea that they're given by finding little moments of entertainment and opportunities to exploit the character's personalities, without getting off track from moving the overall story forward. These are the things that directors at Disney seem to find the most valuable in board artists, and they are the hardest things to describe or to teach people. ...

I think it's the ability to find the essence of what a scene or sequence is about. A character's reaction to something. A comedy bit that reveals character.

Some board artists have it instinctively. Others acquire the talent through hard work, and trial and error. Still others never get the knack for plussing a scene at all.

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More About Hackery

The release of chunks of Sony corporate data keeps coming.

Fake names also used by Jessica Alba, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Tobey Maguire during film shoots to protect privacy are among list revealed. ...

The hack exposed personal information — including salaries and home addresses — of current employees and those who stopped working at Sony as far back as 2000 when the information was leaked to various news outlets and over BitTorrent ...

We continue to get inquiries about Sony's personal info leaks, but we're not the ones with much in the way of information. Maybe these folks:

... Experts point to several signs of North Korean involvement. They say there are similarities between the malware used in this attack and a different cyber blitz against South Korea. Both were written in Korean, an unusual language in the world of cyber crime. ...

Sony is now getting around to communication with its workers:

... Sony sought to calm its jittery employees, announcing in an internal memo that the F.B.I. would visit its Culver City, Calif., lot on Wednesday for security briefings.

In a companywide email sent on Monday afternoon, Michael Lynton, the studio’s chief executive, told staff members that the F.B.I. had dedicated “senior staff” to the global hacking investigation, which has been described by cybersecurity experts as “unprecedented and highly sophisticated.” Sony employees over the past week have seen their Social Security numbers, performance reviews, salaries, home addresses and passwords shared with the world. ...

This definitely a fuster of the loudest cluck.

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One less cartoon lawsuit:

The claims against the major toon studios of anti-poaching deals and secret wage-fixing agreements aren’t going away, but DreamWorks Animation, Disney, Sony Pictures Animation, Digital Domain, Imageworks, Pixar, Lucasfilm and others soon will have a little less of a legal battle to deal with. After filing a class action of his own on November 20, animator Van Phan today told his lawyers he wants his complaint dismissed as soon as possible.

“It was never my intent nor would I intentionally agree to be lead plaintiff in this new class action,” says the layout artist. “I thought I was opting in to a pre-existing suit. I didn’t do my due diligence and I made an incorrect assumption,” he told me today, referring to the previous three class actions and now consolidated class action of digital artists Robert Nitsch Jr. David Wentworth, and Georgia Cano. Not that Phan was in the dark about what was being done in his name by a team of lawyers from three different firms. “I did get a copy of the compliant a few weeks ago and I read it, but I just skimmed it,” Phan admitted. It was only when the Madagascar and Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs animator read my story of late last week on his complaint that he more clearly comprehended what he had gotten himself into.

“I got the phone call from the lawyers, there was money on the table,” the animator says of how he got involved in any legal action in the first place. “I now see I misunderstood.” ...

The lesson here: Read, don't skim. Click here to read entire post

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Worldwide Movie Grosses

Penguins of Madagascar, despite its under-performance across the fruited plain, lands at #2 the global list.

Weekend Foreign Box Office -- (World Totals)

Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- $31,600,000 -- ($560,526,831)

Penguins of Madagascar -- $23,500,000 -- ($144,090,536)

Interstellar -- $22,800,000 -- ($434,400,000)

Exodus: Gods and Kings -- $23,000,000 -- ($23,000,000)

Paddington -- $13,000,000 -- ($15,000,000)

Big Hero 6 -- $4,000,000 -- ($240,348,239)

Big Hero 6 hasn't rolled out in a lot of foreign markets yet, but Penguins is (are?) making a splash in various part of the globe:

Penguins of Madagascar marched to $23.5 million from 50 markets for an international total of $94.5 million and worldwide cume of $144.1 million. ... Overseas, the spinoff opened in another eight territories over the weekend, including the U.K. ($2.4 million). It stayed No. 1 in Russia and Italy, as well as enjoying strong holds in Germany and Spain. ...

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The Leakage

There's been a lot of commentary about Sony's hacked data. It's crappy that personal information and Social Security Numbers of thousands of employees got released; on the other hand it's enlightening for showing how studios/conglomerates really operate.

... Contained in the same [hacked] document were details of [Bob] Osher’s recent restructure of Imageworks, Imageworks Interactive, Colorworks and Post Production -- a move that reduced staff by 230. Osher's move to outsource much of the company’s special-effects work was controversial in VFX world.

“Because of Bob’s extraordinary focus on cost management, Imageworks is expected to generate $7M in EBIT (before restructuring) in FY15 despite a 30% reduction in revenue,” the letter states. ...

This pretty much confirms (if confirmation was needed) that studios do what they need to do increase profits, and the soothing company memos to employees saying "There will be no further layoffs" or "We're paying competitive rates" are pretty much flapdoodle.

But then, they always have been. My longtime joke that "Employees should start looking for other work when managers come downstairs to assure everyone that 'their jobs are safe'" is as true as it's ever been. The hacked information from Sony simply underscores the trueness.

One more point: The Guild has gotten concerned e-mails and phone calls from ex-Sony employees about leaked data. The Guild received screen shots of lists of former ImageWorks employees with a "MPIPHP" designation beside their names. (This is the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan, jointly run by unions and industry companies).

One caller said, "This can't be right, we weren't in the Plan because we were non-union. Was somebody skimming?"

I had no answer other than to tell them to check with Sony and the Plans, because they shouldn't have had contributions made, so I have no idea what the acronym next to their name even means.

Further, I don't know where the list that was sent to us comes from. It might be a screen shot of hacked Sony files, it might be something else. (And I'm not going to be downloading anything to check. First because I'm a Luddite and second because I don't want to get messed up in this fustercluck.)

Lastly: The IA communicated to TAG and other production locals that Sony informed them the company is still investigating the extent of the corporate hacks and so hasn't sent communications about the digital thefts to many employees (even though employees, present and past, are clamoring for information about what info was taken.)

The IATSE's communication happened before the last round of released information from the hacker(s), so what Sony does next week or next month is anyone's guess.

Right now Sony ain't saying.

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