Why Movies Like ‘Storks’ Give Me Hope for Animation… [ADD-ON]

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The add-on to this article appears at the end…

Warner Animation Group’s latest film is entering its second weekend of release.

The picture, mainly made by Sony ImageWorks up in Vancouver, cost a good $70 million to produce. Warner Animation Group farms the animation for their projects out to various studios. Storks is only their second picture, their first was The Lego Movie. That picture was mostly animated and produced by Animal Logic, and the budget for the film – hyperrealistic it may have been – was an astounding $60 million.

The group’s next two releases, The Lego Batman Movie and The Lego Ninjago Movie, ought to cost around the same amount. Following this, in spring 2018 if all goes according to plan, will be an original animated movie called Smallfoot. That’s going to be done at former Disney animator Sergio Pablos’ studio in Madrid. S.C.O.O.B., an all-animated movie based on – you guessed it – Scooby-Doo, will likely have a smaller budget.

This is actually nothing new in current, mainstream feature animation. While Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar, and DreamWorks continuously throw over $120 million at each new feature of theirs, studios like Sony Animation and Illumination are a little more budget-conscious. Sony Animation’s movies normally pull in good, but not spectacular grosses. Above all, they can be very, very profitable. Hotel Transylvania, also an original story, is a fine example. It only cost around $85 million to make, and made $358 million. Now if that were an $120 million-costing feature, I don’t think they would’ve been celebrating.

Illumination’s films hover around the $70-75 million field, but unlike Sony Animation, their movies are almost routinely rewarded with massive, *massive* grosses. Despicable Me, their first feature, a perhaps unguaranteed original idea (coincidentally thought up by Sergio Pablos), went on to make over $500 million at the worldwide box office! Its sequel and spin-off did even better, while a new take on a Seuss classic –¬†The Lorax – did reasonably well with $348 million worldwide. The Secret Life of Pets, a new original of theirs, has crossed $800 million at the worldwide box office. These features also did very, very well domestically, only one film of theirs didn’t crack $200 million domestically alone. Universal, their distributor, currently has a real knack for marketing animated comedies.

Warner Bros. on the other hand backed Storks, a pretty decently-received movie, with a ho-hum marketing campaign with trailers that seemed to leave audiences either unsure or uninterested. Opening with $21 million last weekend, not a spectacular opening by any means, it should follow a trajectory similar to that Sony Animation’s 2006 debut feature Open Season. That film opened at a time when audiences were starting to get choosier with computer animated films, as that novelty had worn off by that time. They now wanted to see the ones they thought looked good, not every single one. (This explains why things like Shark Tale and Chicken Little did so well back in the day. If released today, I’m sure they’d belly flop.)

Open Season, too, was a late September release. It opened with $23 million, and made a good 3.6x its opening, settling $85 million domestically and $197 million worldwide. That was a little more than twice its budget, Sony said that the film met their expectations. Storks cost $70 million, and if it plays out the same way, Warner Bros. ought to be okay with how it did. A $200 million gross would be 2.8x the budget. Fortunately for them, the picture started off fine overseas with $20 million, so I’m confident that this will be a nice little profit-maker…

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Truth is, not every family-friendly, 4-quadrant animated feature is going to magically pull big grosses out of a hat. Perhaps Warner Bros. knew this beforehand, and gave this bird feature enough of a push so that it could make its money back. If WB is ultimately satisfied with how this movie will do – should it make $180-200 million worldwide – then this could set a new precedent for mainstream American feature animation.

Yes, a computer animated family flick can reel in huge bucks, but not every one is destined to do that. The same goes for any VFX-laden summer blockbuster, even franchise entries. This past summer showed us that, and then some.

For smaller houses and the distributors behind them, this should say that “it’s okay to not make $100 million domestically sometimes.” Storks can then enjoy a new life on TV, VOD, Blu-ray, etc. It may not be a Frozen or Despicable Me-type that keeps on giving and giving, but again… Not every film or franchise or form of entertainment media is going to be just that. Warner Animation Group seems to have known that. Lego Movie was obviously going to be a hit, but they budgeted it at $60 million anyway. They were smart, and the profit was much greater on the picture.

So let’s say studios keep releasing pictures of this size, and the returns are all satisfying on each. Some make around $85 million domestically, others make $155 million. Worldwide numbers are solid as well. How long till someone realizes that, hey, we can make a traditionally animated picture for around the same amount and make a profit with a good-sized gross?

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Let’s say Storks was a traditionally animated film, that cost $70 million to make and was the same exact movie that we got in theaters. Let’s say it opened with $21 million just like it did in real life as a CG movie. That would be a much-needed win for traditional animation, don’t you think? A far cry from the $105 million-costing The Princess and the Frog opening with $24 million and having to put up with far bigger competition. I know pretty much every executive in animation is unwilling to touch 2D because they think it’s inherently box office poison, but! Princess and the Frog. Made over $100 million domestically. More than Storks! And many other recent CG pictures! And live-action blockbusters, too!

That kind of gross would be a success for a $70 million-costing movie like Storks!

You get where I’m going with this? Traditional animation is far from dead, and there are audiences out there for it… But the studios should be budget conscious when returning to that medium. Why in the world did Disney spend $105 million on the froggy film? With a $65 million budget, that could’ve been a reassuring hit, not one that made the suits say “Death to 2D! Death to fairy tale princess movies!” Maybe The Princess and the Frog didn’t need to be a Despicable Me or Frozen-sized monster. Maybe it could’ve been just fine as a movie that barely cracked $100 million domestically and $260 million worldwide in a highly competitive field. Maybe it could’ve been marketed much better than it was back then, but think for a second… Imagine if it was successful making that relatively small amount of money…

If only it hadn’t cost that much. If only all those expectations weren’t riding on its back.

Let’s look at a more abstract, original, not-so-hyperrealistic CG film: The Book of Life. A visually wild experiment from the Dallas-based Reel FX, The Book of Life cost $50 million to make and grossed $99 million at the worldwide box office. Okay, it didn’t double the budget, but it didn’t have a gazillion marketing/tie-in deals breathing down its neck either. The movie could make it into the black, or maybe it already has, but the point is… Maybe The Book of Life was not meant to crack $150 million worldwide, not every animated feature is, so Reel FX was smart. They didn’t spend too, too much on it, and they still get to make features. After Book of Life was released, they announced several future projects and continue to do so… It must’ve met their expectations. If it lost money, I don’t think you would’ve heard of plans to do W.I.S.H. Police and Book of Life director Jorge Gutierrez’s untitled kung fu space western.

LAIKA gets to keep going because its founder and CEO is the son of Nike’s co-founder and chairman emeritus. Shoes help that studio make more stop-motion treats. They too, however, are smart with the budgets. None of their individual features have cost more than $60 million to make. Kubo and the Two Strings may not top $100 million worldwide, but it’s fine. The untitled 2018 movie is still happening, and the string of features set to come out after it. Travis Knight himself said that he would like to get LAIKA to a state where they can get one stop-motion feature out every calendar year! Kubo‘s performance would’ve derailed another studio and hurt their plans, but it isn’t hurting the Portland house.

Perhaps all the big studios ought to accept that not every animated feature is meant to be some blockbuster. If Warner Bros. says in early 2017 or so that they are okay with Storks‘ gross, I optimistically hope that sends the message… And as a result, studios get more experimental while knowing their budgets, hoping to make a decent profit for their distributor…

It can happen!

ADD-ON: May 4, 2017…

Quite some time has gone by!

I felt the need to revisit this because of a particular animated film that’s out now.

Sony Animation’s Smurfs: The Lost Village.

But wait a minute, isn’t this thing flopping? It only opened with about $13 million, and is not even past $40 million domestically! Worldwide, it sits at $156 million. This is far below what the live-action/CG hybrid Smurfs movies – also made by Sony Animation – took in. But there’s no need to worry.

Sony Animation spent $60 million on this all-animated reboot of the series. Over $100 million was blown on each hybrid movie. A second one is probably no longer in the cards, though there is the possibility of a direct-to-video sequel. After all, Sony Animation did give us Surf’s Up 2, a sequel to a decade-old flop of theirs.

Warner Bros. hasn’t seemed to sound the verdict on Storks. The film ended up grossing $182 million worldwide, a solid 2.6x its budget. The movie’s been out on home media formats for a long while, so it looks like they aren’t fretting. Their next non-Lego animated movie, Smallfoot, has recently moved from February 2018 to September 14, 2018. While this is the week before the sequel to the mildly successful Goosebumps movie, it should be fine if it’s a lower budget film. It’s being made in Spain at Sergio Pablos’ animation studio, he conceived the picture. He also conceived Despicable Me, which turned into a massive franchise for Illumination. Maybe the same fortunes are in store? Who knows…

It also appears that Reel FX is going to be the one doing the animation for Warner Animation Group’s Scooby, the all-animated take on the Hanna-Barbera canine that’s being positioned as the starting point of a Hanna-Barbera cinematic universe. It’s good, because, Reel FX doesn’t blow over $55 million on features… And it seems like Warner Bros. isn’t looking to get a blockbuster gross out of it, as it has been slated to open just a week before the distributor’s huge May 2020 tentpole, Godzilla vs. Kong. If it performs like the new Smurfs (whose source material was, coincidentally, was adapted into a TV series by Hanna-Barbera in the 80s), there will be no need to panic.

I think it’s happening… Studios outside of the big guns like Disney, Pixar, Illumination, and DreamWorks… They’re getting it. Not everything is going to be some $100 million-grossing tentpole, nor does everything need to be.

Now the next step is the try new things under small budgets.

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