Paramount announces animation division amid DreamWorks departure rumors

Why in the world would Paramount want to start their own animation division?

I’ve always had a deep love for animation as an art form, and when I moved to Los Angeles, many of the people I met and became friends with worked in animation.  Very quickly, I learned that it can be one of the most punishing forms of filmmaking to work in.  That was the era of the giant Disney mega-blockbusters like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” and every studio in town lost their minds trying to figure out how to get a piece of what they saw as a very easy pie.

Let’s go ask Fox how they feel about that animation studio they built in Arizona for Don Bluth these days.  Let’s ask them if that was a good investment.

Or maybe we can go ask Alan Horn if he feels like Warner Feature Animation was a good investment.  Sure, we got “The Iron Giant” out of that deal, but we had to basically shame the studio into giving that a theatrical release because of how badly they got burned on “The Quest For Camelot.”

There are many reasons it is not easy to jump into the animation business, and I suspect Brad Grey and Paramount are about to start learning all of those lessons.  The first one that I look forward to him learning was laid out in the first paragraph of the press release they sent out today about the new division.  “Paramount Animation… will focus on high quality animation with budgets per picture of up to $100 million.”

Yeah, good luck with that.  Animation is an expensive business, and if you plan on competing theatrically, it’s more expensive, on the average, than live-action filmmaking, and putting a cap of $100 million on your films is a mistake right up front.  The first sentence of the second paragraph sums up why animation is a trap for executives and a nightmare for artists, though, and it has to do with that cost factor.  “Paramount Animation’s mandate will be the development of the broadest range of family CGI animated films…”

Oh, there it is.  Family films.  So this isn’t really an animation division.  It’s a family film division.

Just like every other animation division or studio in Hollywood.

It is depressing to see how the moment you discuss animation with money men, what they’re really hearing is “movies for children that will have toys you can sell and that you can cross-promote with McDonald’s,” and nothing else.  I’m not surprised anymore.  Even Pixar, the most innovative animation company working in America, makes films for family audiences exclusively.  And Pixar’s films are not inexpensive by any means, just like the movies by DreamWorks Animation.  You’re talking about a million dollars a minute, minimum.

The issue of DreamWorks Animation is an important one here, because for the last few years, they’ve been the supplier of animated fare to Paramount, which has served as the distributor for films like “Kung-Fu Panda,” “Megamind,” and “How To Train Your Dragon.”  The two “Shrek” sequels that Paramount released were monster hits, earning about a billion and a half dollars for just those two films.  This is, by any definition, a successful relationship, but Jeffrey Katzenberg is a very demanding partner, and there have been rumbles now for years that the relationship with Paramount is an uneasy one.

The story at Deadline today suggests that Warner Bros. might end up stepping in to partner with DreamWorks Animation if they do leave Paramount at the end of the year, and that surprises me.  Then again, none of the top guys at Warner were there when they tried this before.  The difference, of course, is that DreamWorks Animation is up and running and has a track record and an infrastructure already in place, so this isn’t a case of Warner starting to make these films.  They’d just step in to release them.  After losing Marvel to Disney, I’m not sure Paramount can afford to give up DreamWorks Animation.  This is a major piece of their financial year every year, and they can’t just start making their own animated films and expect that things will work out exactly the same.

The end of the press release today mentioned the success of “Rango” worldwide, and carefully describes it as the company’s “first fully owned CGI animated property.”  That is true, but they didn’t actually make the film.  ILM was the animation house, and the film was developed by Gore Verbinski and the ILM team.  Whatever Paramount Animation will or won’t be, “Rango” is not an example of what we can expect.  If Paramount announced they were signing a deal with ILM to distribute film they produce, that might interest me.

But Paramount Animation?  So far, it’s nothing but a name with no track record, no talent announced, and if industry history is any indication of what we can expect from the fledgling studio, it’s going to be an educational few years for the company.  A very expensive education, at that, and only time will tell if they’ll end up telling any stories we actually care about.