Where the Action Is

Harvey Deneroff sums up the current state of America's animation industry, with an emphasis on recent mergia mania, feature films and prime time shows..

Christmas card from Warner Bros. displaying the fruits of the Time-Warner/Turner Broadcasting merger.

The American animation industry is riding high these days in more ways than one. Its sheer size and dominance in both the domestic and most international markets has made it the envy of most other animation nations. And for better or worse, it's where the action is.

Los Angeles studios have now become home base for an increasingly international cadre of animation artists. The glamour and money that have long attracted their live-action brethren to Hollywood are now working their magic in the frame-by-frame world.

Only a few years ago, it was something of an oxymoron to talk about animation art and Hollywood in the same breadth. After all, its "Golden Age" had long since disappeared into a nostalgic haze--a concept glorified some 30 years ago in André Martin's magnificent poster-sized chart on the "Origine et âge d'or du dessin animé américain de 1906 à 1941/Origin and Golden Age of the American Cartoon Film, 1906-1941." While there were there have been revisionists who have disputed the parameters of this period, there was no dispute that it represented an era that was no more.

However, the recent boom has caused most commentators to speak of a new Golden Age. In terms of the sheer volume of animation being turned out and money being earned, there has never been any period like it in the history of the medium. Animated features are almost becoming a commonplace in theaters, while the direct-to-video market is providing an increasingly lucrative market for lower budgeted titles. Television production is not only expanding, but is showing an increasing willingness to venture out of the kiddie rut into more adult programming. The interactive realm, despite recent setbacks, promises continued expansion, especially as the introduction of DVD-ROM, with its increased storage capacity, should increase the demand for animation in terms of both volume and complexity. Finally, the increased use of animation in live-action films (as in Mars Attacks!) and of digital special effects (as in Forest Gump) have started to blur the line between live action and animation, providing even more employment for animation artists.

However, it is almost too easy to fall into the trap of characterizing the current era more in terms of expansion (of the number of animators, the number of theatrical films and their increasing box office returns) and to almost neglect looking at "artistic" side of things. Animation has been a stepchild so very long, it becomes tempting to stand in awe of blockbusters like The Lion King and quickly put aside any critical qualms one may have about them. For a film like Space Jam, Warner Bros. publicity machine hyped the film's technical wizardry that to talk about anything else seemed like heresy. (Somewhat the same approach was taken by Disney is promoting Toy Story.)

While the current batch of animated event films may often something to be desired, there is still much to be admired in American animation today, especially in television. After all, one rarely hears of "creator-driven" in the same way in theatrical circles as in television. Producers perhaps feel they can ill afford to allow the creative freedom in theatrical films that big name directors get in the live-action arena. Perhaps, as one wag pointed out to me, the reason most theatrical films follow the Disney fashion for using two or more directors on a film is not so much to share the workload, as it is to better control the creative process.

Doug, the flagship series of New York-based Jumbo Pictures, which was bought by Disney last year.

Merger Fever

Overhanging all this has been the specter of the recent wave of mergers and takeovers, along with the growth of new broadcast networks in the United States. The effect, especially in television, has been to effectively curtail market access. For instance, Disney's takeover of ABC effectively shut out most non-Disney companies from the network's Saturday morning line up. In addition, as a result of getting ABC, it took control of DIC Entertainment, a major producer of TV animation for both the domestic and international market; if this was not enough, in a separate deal, it bought out New York-based Jumbo Pictures and promptly put a new version of Doug on ABC.

Time-Warner's merger with Turner Broadcasting, saw Turner Feature Animation absorbed by Warner Bros. Feature Animation, while Hanna-Barbera has now become a division of Warner Television Animation. Time-Warner, which controls the budding WB Network and several cable channels (including HBO, which has just set up its own animation studio) added several animation-friendly cable outlets, including the Cartoon Network, as well as the rights to the MGM cartoon library and the pre-1948 backlog of Warner Bros. cartoons.

Twentieth Century Fox has combined its highly successful Fox Children's Network with Saban, a leading international supplier of animation programming; Saban, in turn, continues its deal to handle children's programming for the Paramount-controlled UPN network. Paramount, which was engulfed by Viacom a few years back, could always ask Saban to step aside and turn the job over to Nickelodeon, part of Viacom's MTV Networks. Nickelodeon, though, seems preoccupied for the time being with doing more animation for its cable service and expanding into theatrical animation.

With Fox, WB and UPN tying up increasingly larger blocks of time of once independent TV stations, the American market for syndicated shows (i.e., programs sold directly to stations rather than to networks) has shrunk drastically. Even Disney has had to scale back on the syndication deals for its Disney Afternoon package, and now allows stations to broadcast less than its full package. However, given Disney's situation, I suspect the company will somehow endure this hardship; the same, however, cannot be said for studios who do not have their own television networks (terrestrial, cable or satellite) to rely on. The situation effectively precludes most overseas producers from making further inroads into the US TV market for the immediate future; the situation must be especially frustrating to Japanese companies, who have seen their product gain popularity in home video.

Space Jam.

Theatrical Features

The most visible and seemingly most lucrative branch of the US animation industry lies in theatrical features. The field has been almost totally dominated by Disney since the alliance between Steven Spielberg and Don Bluth ended after The Land Before Time (1988).One after another, the films put up by various pretenders, ranging from Rich Animation (The Swan Princess) to MGM (All Dogs Go to Heaven) have fallen by the wayside. However, late last year, there were signs of erosion. The Ivan Reitman-Warner Bros. Space Jam generated enough money at the box office to demonstrate that someone else besides Disney can successfully market an animated event film. (The fact that the film's inflated budget may severely interfere with its profitability, is really of little concern in these matters.)

The second and most important breakthrough was Mike Judge's Beavis and Butt-head Do America (MTV Animation) which has brought in more than half the money that Space Jam did, on a budget perhaps one-tenth its size. Besides laying the groundwork for theatrical versions of such shows as The Simpsons, it may very well rid the common misperception that animated features can only be successful if they appeal to kids. If it does open the doors to lower budgeted animated features aimed at older audiences, it will surely make Beavis and Butt-head Do America a landmark film.

Butt-head and Beavis on the set of their landmark feature debut, Beavis and Butt-head Do America.

In the meantime, MTV's sister company Nickelodeon is going ahead with a movie based on its popular Rugrats show from Klasky Csupo, which is most definitely kid friendly.. This conceivably could be followed by a version of Jon Sciesak and Lane Smith's wacky children's book, The Stinky Cheese Man, to be directed (or at least co-directed) by Smith; like Beavis and Butt-head Do America, this is would be done in New York (and possibly other animated features to be done by Nickelodeon). If so, the city will have finally reestablished itself as a major regional production center, a cachet it lost with the demise of Famous Studios, Terrytoons and the shift of animated commercial production to Hollywood in the 1960s.

In the meantime, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks are actively pursuing the Holy Grail of Disney-style animated blockbusters with their own in-house units. Warner Bros. Feature Animation, fresh from its rescue operation on Space Jam and bolstered by new talent absorbed from Turner Feature Animation, is betting on The Quest for Camelot, which will do battle during the Christmas season with Don Bluth's Anastasia, being done in Phoenix, Arizona, at Fox's new animation facility.

Klasky Csupo's Rugrats feature based on the popular TV show will be Nickelodeon Movie's first animated feature.

DreamWorks SKG is mounting the most ambitious assault on fortress Disney, with four animated features in the works, starting with the an epic-scaled biography of Moses, The Prince of Egypt, for 1998. The company is strongly hinting that it will not necessarily indulge in the excess of merchandising hype and tie-ins that seem almost de rigeur for any major animated film these days. If this is really so, it would be a refreshing change and perhaps indicates DreamWorks' hopes that the film would be taken more seriously.

The company, spurred on by the success of Toy Story, last year bought a 40% interest in Pacific Data Images, a major computer animation house, and immediately put it to work on&nbspAnts, the voice of Woody Allen; also in CGI is a version of William Steig's book, Shrek, to be done by DreamWorks Feature Animation itself, which will also use motion capture techniques. Warner Bros. will also chime in on the CGI front with a version of Ted Hughes' Iron Giant&nbsp(Iron Man), which has been in development for several years.

Television

The announcement that the CBS will give up programming animation on Saturday mornings was remarkable only for the way it was almost treated as a nonevent. With NBC having done the same five years ago, that leaves ABC as the last of the original three terrestrial networks programming animation at that time of the week. But with ABC's Saturday mornings given almost entirely over to Disney product, the days of Saturday morning animation as we once knew it are now over.

Mike Judge's King of the Hill.

While the major networks were decimated by such upstarts as the Fox Kids Network and Nickelodeon, their exit from the market does change the dynamics of the market somewhat. Though the licensing fees paid by the likes of CBS to producers had been cut over the past few years, it was still considerably more than that paid by most of its competitors, (I've heard said that the reason that Nickelodeon has not dealt more with more traditional studios, is that they demanded higher licensing fees than Nickelodeon was willing to pay; while the differential has narrowed over the years, it remains significant.)

Despite this and the increased concentration of power in TV, production continues to increase. Of special note is the proliferation of prime time shows, mostly on cable, but also on-air. It is an aspect of television animation that is perhaps the best indicator of how far things have progressed over the last few years. Thus, after several fruitless attempts to cash in on the early popularity of The Simpsons, doubts have vanished about the viability of programming animation in the evening hours, especially if they aimed at adults.

Cable's Nickelodeon continues to flex its muscles not only by increasing the number of animated shows it puts on, but by beginning to program such shows in the evening/prime time hours, including Craig Bartlett's Hey AlbertKablam! Sister channel MTV will give us more episodes of Beavis and Butt-head with its new spinoff, Daria, featuring BABH's only "intelligent character."

Of more interest though is what HBO is doing; a premium cable network noted for its top flight original movies, HBO also expanding into more adult animated fare. Thus, Ralph Bakshi, whose New Adventures of Mighty Mouse spurred the current rage of creator-driven shows (as well as bringing the talent of John Kricfalusi to the fore), will be returning to series television with Spicy City, promises to be in the same raunchy mode as many of his theatrical films.

Hanna-Barbera's Cow and Chicken.

HBO will also air a version of Todd McFarlane's comic book,.Spawn,&nbsp from its new in-house studio, along with more episodes of Hyperion's stylish Fairy Tales for Every Child, which offers multicultural renderings of familiar stories.

The Cartoon Network, despite its international success, still remains unseen on many US cable systems. But this has not stopped it from introducing more and more new shows each season. (They are also broadcast on sister cable channels TNT and TBS, which are more widely seen in the US.).At least one a year is being based on its widely publicized World Premiere Toons, which are essentially series pilots dressed up as old-fashioned cartoons. Nevertheless, it has provided a vehicle for reaching out to both young filmmakers and such veterans as Ralph Bakshi (whose work was considered too risqué to be shown) and Bruno Bozetto. To date, Cow and Chicken, Dexter's LaboratoryJohnny Bravo have gone this route.

Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Comedy Central's prime time animated hit show.

Among terrestrial broadcasters, Fox is betting on Mike Judge's King of the Hill,&nbsp which is being shown right after The Simpsons. Produced concurrently with Beavis and Butt-head Do America, Judge's new show, despite its rather tentative nature of its early episodes, is remarkable for its sympathetic portrayal of a middle American family, which seems a hell of a lot truer to life than most of today's TV sitcoms.

Steven Spielberg, whose company, Amblin, enjoyed a productive relationship with Warner Bros. in producing such shows as Tiny Toon Adventures and the delightful Pinky and the Brain (especially in its prime time version). He is now supervising things at DreamWorks TV Animation and is is looking toward the new WB Network to debut his prime time adventure serial, Invasion: America.

In addition, there are such cable standbys as Klasky Csupo's Duckman&nbsp(USA Network) and Dr. Katz Professional Therapist (Comedy Central).

Ralph Bakshi's new HBO series, Spicy City.

Home Video

The home video market has long been one of the animation industry's most lucrative outlets. Until recently, most attention in this arena has been focused on the video versions of such blockbusters as Toy Story and such classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. More recently, the direct-to-video market has exploded, what with Disney's two Aladdin sequels setting new sales records for original video productions. Universal Cartoon Studios is enjoying similar success, if on a lesser scale, with its follow ups to The Land Before Time. Both studios have stepped up production in this area, with Disney opening a new Canadian studio, with branches in Toronto and Vancouver, devoted strictly to making home video movies.

However, until the direct-to-video market starts to be more adventuresome, most of the interest will be in this month's long-delayed release of Richard Williams' The Thief and the Cobbler (even if it is in its bastardized version) and in the latest in anime.

Harvey Deneroff is Editor of Animation World Magazine; he also edits and publishes The Animation Report, an industry newsletter.

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