As animation evolves, its economic and cultural correlates multiply; this concept gains even greater verity as the number of corporate players increase and modes of transmission by media become ever more diversified. This summer brings us two examples of how the marketing of animation has adopted a novel trend previously unseen by both the public audience and animation's more specified fandom: With the premieres of Hey Arnold! The Movie,The Powerpuff Girls Movie and the recent announcement of a SpongeBob SquarePants feature we are witness to the cementing of that trend. Even the pious plants of Veggie Tales are not to be denied. The small screen is moving to the big screen in heretofore unprecedented numbers, and this month we shall examine what this new development may mean for American animation.
Turning animated shows into theatrical releases is neither an original nor expressly American idea. This has been done in Japan for most of the past decade with rousing success until these transformations were expected by audiences as a matter of course. A popular series such as, for example, Urutsei Yatsura might spawn several films, all fitting more or less within the continuity of the series. It was only a matter of time until American producers and distributors wised up, as they did with the concept of direct-to-video (OAV) and followed suit. Therefore, this new trend has a strong precedent of proven economic success. Considering the general timidity of Hollywood where novel ideas are concerned, one supposes such a track record would have to be demonstrated in order for TV-based features to move to the big screen at all.
Track records apply in more than one instance here; not only does the practice of adapting animated series to theatrical release have to be a winner, so do the cartoons. If we consider the series mentioned above, the facts are unarguable. SpongeBob SquarePants and Rugrats have continually vied for the cable ratings championship over the past two years. Hey Arnold! can be frequently found in the top ten. Some of their star power is attributable to the fact that Nickelodeon typically broadcasts these series during prime-time hours as well as on afternoons and weekends, but the shows in question are also popular, likable offerings that feature winning scripts more often than not. In the case of Hey Arnold!, Craig Bartlett's spin on Hal Roach has made the grade without the ubiquitous merchandising associated with Nick's other hits. Not much needs to be said about the popularity of Cartoon Network's The Powerpuff Girls; the mighty moppets have attained classic status within their time, and nearly every product that can be marketed to a child carries their goggle-eyed images. So confident is distributor Warner Bros. that the film carries a PG, rather than G rating (even though most of the violence is aimed at cartoon simians).
A New Age
The present and future animation scene is crowded with possibilities; Samurai Jack is headed for the big screen via live-action, The Simpsons, which has been a big-screen rumor since Mrs. Flanders was still alive, seems to be underway, and who's to say that John Kricfalusi (once again in control of Ren and Stimpy courtesy of Viacom), won't make the big-screen feature that fans were hoping for ten years ago? One of the most interesting questions regarding this new trend has to be: Why now? How is it that we weren't treated to a Beany and Cecil feature or a Rocky and Bullwinkle flick in the mid-sixties? The only contemporary precursors to the new boom in small-screen to feature animation were the two Hanna-Barbera films Hey There It's Yogi Bear (1964) and The Man Called Flintstone (1966). Why weren't The Archies or Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids on the feature docket in the 1970s? These shows were certainly popular enough, and wouldn't have needed a Dalton Trumbo or Tennessee Williams to write the screenplay. The reasons are varied and have to do with the business, and the audiences, involved with animation in the 2000s.
In the halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s TV cartoon animation was largely confined to a tiny corner of Saturday morning, and networks bought any schlock that could fill a half-hour slot. No one (including many of the kids watching) constituted a fan base that would have justified any feature films derived from a given series. No producer or distributor would have taken such a risk based on such limited exposure and demographics. A 24/7/365 channel that broadcast naught but toons was an unthinkable fantasy, and any executive that suggested it would have been placed on a considerable dose of antipsychotic medication. Today such a thing does exist, and some cable stations either have or are considering adding animation "blocks" to their programming.
When a TV toon attains popularity today, the result is more media attention and possibilities for marketing over wider demographics. TV animation actually seems to be bucking the tendency of modern marketing, which breaks the population down into specialized "niches" in order to target choice groups for specific advertising strategies. The appeal of animation is broadening to include a demographic base much wider than children, with exposure that far exceeds the old Saturday morning "cartoon ghetto." With this dynamic in place, it is little wonder that several animated TV series are making the jump to theatrical release; their world is a bigger one now.
Animation also came to be a great investment after films began breaking the $80 million mark, but such features hardly existed (outside of Disney) until the late 1990s. The rise of successful rivals to the Mouse proved that corporate money spent on films could finally pay off. Oh, there were missteps, to be sure -- Titan AE and Trumpet of the Swan come to mind -- but overall the earning curve of animated features was clearly going up. A massive infusion of prime-time television animation may have been a failure but the time has never been better for toons making it to the movies; since 1998, the first year in which Disney faced major competition, animated features have averaged $80,251,586 at the box office. Twelve films have grossed over $100 million, and half of them were by studios other than Disney.
The Larger Picture
Of course, feature films are also part of a cycle; they help to sell merchandise. Small screen animation has generated more saleable commodities over the past few years. There is more Scooby Doo product available in more stores than there ever was in 1969, and the Looney Tunesters have easily followed suit. Walt Disney found out long ago that his characters were worth a fortune in licensing, and worked closely with independent businessman Kay Kamen in order to exploit the situation to the fullest. When Kamen died in 1949, Disney eventually replaced him with O.B. Johnson and finally Vince Jefferds (an in-house company man). Few other studios outside of Disney marketed as aggressively, so many famous characters appeared only as toys or board games or in comic books. Today, studios that feature animation have, or had, entire stores dedicated to a wide selection of animation-related product; The Warner, and of course, Disney outlets are an example, and other beloved characters are marketed in video outlets, novelty stores, or over the Internet. In truth, Warner, Disney, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon can't lose much money on an animated feature -- even should the film in question bomb -- since they serve as promotional vehicles for the proliferation of licensed products -- whether the movie busts the charts or not.
SpongeBob, Arnold, Doug, the Powerpuff Girls, the Recess and Rugrats gangs and the Looney Tunes do indeed seem to be harbingers of the future. If they are, they presage changes in animation and its production. Studio heads and producers may begin buying shows based on whether they can be translated into feature films in addition to a regular series; it may not be unreasonable that part of the agreement could be: "A feature film must be produced within eighteen months of a show attaining a certain number of rating points." Creators and writers may sweeten the pot (and increase chances of a sale) by presenting a rough screenplay when they pitch a series. Why? In order to take advantage of a show's popularity with all due alacrity. A lesson is in order here: When Pokémon became a phenomenal hit among prepubescent TV watchers in 1997, Warners immediately bought a pre-existing film in Japan and released it the following year in the U.S.A. -- just in time to catch the crest of the series' popularity. The result? $85 million at the box office and all the secondary profits they could catch.
As we remember, the first movie starring that yellow ingenue Pikachu was followed by several sequels that went to theaters rather than OAV. A well-received film that makes a tidy profit may become a franchise. In an interview with Toon Zone (2/24/02), Craig McCracken revealed that he was considering ideas for a Powerpuff sequel. There seems no doubt that the Powerpuff Girls will not play (and pay) well enough to bring Professor Utonium's waifs back for an encore, but if the idea of a TV series birthing a movie franchise seems farfetched, Rugrats has two films in the can already. These movies are also a safe bet for studios by dint of being pre-sold and pre-marketed. How many people will go to a multiplex next year where Spongebob Squarepants is playing and wonder, "Gee, I wonder what this funny-looking thing might be?" One might as well fail to recognize Tom Cruise.
If there is a downside, it rests upon the downtrodden independents, who have a hard enough time getting their films made. Only so many movies will be released per year, and only so many of them will be animated. I pity those like Bill Plympton, who gamely soldier on though their films seem to be seen only by their appreciative fans. I pity those like Richard Rich, who may never gain a shot at redemption because studio executives decide to go with a tried-and-true TV hit over their feature production. I pity the legions of Internet animators who may have seen their dreams distanced by yet one more obstacle when it's hard enough to sell a concept already. Another concern (at least of mine) is the situation that could be created at the Academy Awards now that animated films have their own category. Is it possible that someday the Powerpuff Girls may do battle with The Wild Thornberrys (due for a feature team-up with the Rugrats) for an Academy Award? Technically, both films would be eligible if entered, but if a television-based feature took the prize over an original film what would that mean for Oscar?
These are not questions for the future; the future is here. Within the darkened province of our movie houses the Powerpuff Girls battle Mojo Jojo, Arnold battles a greedy developer, and Spongebob Squarepants will battle, one suspects, his uncontrollable exuberance. They are only the vanguard. Of course, there is always the possibility that the entire venture may go the way of the recent prime-time animation bust, but shed no tears for the studios should that happen; many animated films have a great track record of outdoing their box office profit after they are released to video. In short, translating TV-based features to the big screen is likely to guarantee a profit one way or another. Keep an eye on some of your favorite toons over this year; they might just be up on the big screen next year.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.