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A Closer Look: Fox's Tribulations in the Feature Production World

Two years ago, following the theatrical release of "Anastasia," Fox was

expanding its commitment to animation. Fox Family Films, one of Twentieth

Century Fox's four film divisions, was being renamed Fox Animation Studios,

to reflect the division's new plan to focus solely on animated feature

films, including stop-motion, mixed media (live-action mix) and digital

production. Several animated projects were on the development slate then,

including "Dark Town" with Henry Selick, "Santa Calls" with Blue Sky|VIFX,

and projects with Matt Groening ("The Simpsons"), and Steve Oedekerk and

Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). Fox's second animated feature,

"Planet Ice," then slated for a 1999 release, experienced several setbacks.

For instance, in May 1998, ten development personnel and artists involved

in pre-production were given lay-off notices, after the film's former

director, Art Vitello, had already parted ways with the project. Meanwhile,

Fox confirmed another animated feature in development, a musical based on

the story of "Dracula," developed with Josh Whedon and his production

company, Mutant Enemy. A year later, Fox Feature Animation proved that it

was alive and well. A trailer for "Titan A.E." (previously "Planet Ice"),

re-slated for a summer 2000 release, was being screened in front of "Star

Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" guarenteeing mass exposure. "Titan

A.E." is currently finishing up production at the studios' main production

facility in Phoenix. The film, which mixes CGI and traditional animation,

is directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. It follows a rebellious teenager

who, after the earth is destroyed, embarks on a journey through space to

find a legendary spacecraft which holds the secret to salvation for the

human race.

Today, after five years in existence, Fox Animation Studios is laying off

nearly 70% of its Phoenix-based toon factory's staff. The restructuring of

the animation department will include more contract work outside the

studio. President of animation at Fox, Chris Meledandri said a foundation

of 65-100 of the now 320 employees will remain, including, of course,

studio staples Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. Fox will continue to perform

pre-production work including storyboarding, character design, production

design and layout work. Key animation and editing will also be done at the

Phoenix studio. All additional work after key animation and special effects

will be subcontracted outside of Fox, most probably to Asia. The new

animation division is sending home many of the animators they recruited

from around the world five years prior. It is possible that some staff will

move over to New York-based sister company, Blue Sky Studios, to help on

their new fully-digital feature entitled "Ice Age." The only other animated

Fox feature currently in production is Selick's "Dark Town," which has

taken up residence in a San Francisco studio.

This move happens at the same time as Disney's decision, after four years,

to close the doors of its animation studios in Canada. The Canadian

branches at one time employed 220 people. Disney's closing comes while

Canadian-based companies like Nelvana Ltd. and CINAR have been receiving

large bids to produce animated TV series for U.S.-based companies like PBS

and Fox. This set of events once again brings to the fore that strategic

decisions are economic ones. The animation marketplace, as in many other

industries, is driven by economic realities.

Read Harvey Deneroff's review of Fox Family Entertainment's first animated

feature in the November 1997 issue of Animation World Magazine, in

"Anastasia: Fox's Great Hope."