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The Seven Ways To Become An Animation Powerhouse

The domestic box office1 made $11.3 billion last year. A lot of that came from the movies that got most of the hype: comic-book movies, sequels, Oscar bait. But there’s another category of movies that contributed a major chunk of that total: animated movies, which pulled in $1.4 billion.

This year, animated movies have already made more than $1.5 billion. And this weekend, “Kubo and the Two Strings,” an animated movie about a kid who goes on an adventure with Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron from independent studio Laika, will try to add to that total. The movie — which is stop-motion, not digital, animation — is getting absurdly good reviews. Laika hasn’t had many financial hits — “Coraline” is probably its best-known movie — but the tiny studio is a small part of a genre that’s driven by a host of studios that have different approaches and visions and are hoping to cash in on a rising share of box office revenue.

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That chart doesn’t even include animated movies from 2016, which has had the smash hits “Finding Dory,” “Zootopia,” “The Secret Life of Pets,” “Kung Fu Panda 3” and “The Angry Birds Movie.” So far this year, digital animation has accounted for 21 percent of domestic box office revenue. With major non-animated blockbusters still to come, that’s bound to change. (Figuring out which film will dominate the box office is tricky, but it’s typically a rogue one.) Still, animation is on the ups.

Although the annual number of tickets sold overall is down since 2000, that’s not true for animated movies — those numbers are up, entirely thanks to the genre’s digital branch.

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This could be one of the strongest years for animation in recent memory, so I wanted to take stock of the primary companies behind hand-drawn, stop-motion and digital animation films over the past few decades to see how the business has grown and changed. For answers, I turned to The Numbers, which has detailed data about film production history and box office performance going back to the mid-1990s, and Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates critics’ film reviews.


First up: DreamWorks Animation

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Which franchises? Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, the assorted Madagascars.

DreamWorks is the company that thought to throw a bunch of money at former “Saturday Night Live” stars, ask them to stand behind a microphone, and then release a fun animated film. It has released more films than any other studio in our data set. That volume of production means that DreamWorks’ output is scattershot — it has put out all kinds of films. Its average movie had a 71 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and made about $180 million at the domestic box office (in 2016 dollars).

The DreamWorks averages are close to the overall animated movie average for the data set (about $200 million in domestic revenue and a 73 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating). That should not come as a shock: DreamWorks has focused on putting out a quality product that has received solid, if not high-brow, critical reception for its entire run.

It all comes down to that ogre. “Shrek” — the stunningly popular animated film that came out in 2001 — spawned a historically lucrative series and somehow jammed immortality down Smash Mouth’s throat. It also introduced a new format for DreamWorks and animation in general: giant franchises built around a single universe of characters.

DreamWorks began cranking out films that could have been the beginning of the next “Shrek” series but weren’t — fare like “Shark Tale,” “Over the Hedge,” and “Bee Movie” — and stumbled onto a few golden nuggets: “Madagascar” and “Kung Fu Panda.”

But through the studio’s nearly 20-year run, it tried to hew close to its original mission to be a place for individual creators to break out on their own, where engaging and competitive films could be made for a mass audience, all without the safety net of a conglomerate beneath you. … Oh, and then it was sold to Comcast.

Next: Disney’s Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios

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Full disclosure, before we get going: The Walt Disney Co., besides owning Walt Disney Animation and Pixar, owns ESPN, which owns FiveThirtyEight.

Which franchises? Pixar: Toy Story; Monsters, Inc.; Cars; Finding Nemo/Dory. For Disney … is “Princesses” a franchise?

Nearly all the films from these companies in our data set — Disney owns both — were considered very good by critics, and most of them made a whole bunch of money. (The four exceptions — Pixar’s “Cars 2,” which attempted to structure a summer hit around Larry the Cable Guy, and Disney Animation’s three-picture stretch in the early and mid-2000s of “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” “Brother Bear” and “Chicken Little.”)

But, really, I don’t need to waste your time here; trenchant analysis like, “Pixar movies are pretty good and tend to make a lot of money” isn’t exactly new. Nor is “Walt Disney Animation Studios movies have been pretty good ever since they bought Pixar to make it good again.”

Despite the domination of DreamWorks, Disney and Pixar, there’s still plenty of space for other studios, many of which arrived a little later.

Namely:

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Which franchises? Sony Pictures Animation: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, The Smurfs, Hotel Transylvania. Blue Sky Studios: Ice Age. Illumination Entertainment: “Despicable Me”

Let’s break each of these down.

Sony Pictures Animation is a grab bag of intellectual property, with critical darlings like the Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs films, mediocrities like the Hotel Transylvania movies, and monstrosities of the screen like the two Smurf-related films (22 percent and 13 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively). Despite the wide range in the quality of Sony’s movies, the main thing they all have in common is that they’re cheap — take a look at the budgets of DreamWorks, Disney and Pixar, which haven’t made a film for less than $130 million since the Bush administration — and perform well enough, on average, at the box office to justify the investment.

STUDIO AVERAGE BUDGET
Disney’s Pixar $136.8m
Walt Disney Animation Studios 117.8
DreamWorks Animation 113.4
Blue Sky Studios 92.7
Sony Pictures Animation 87.6
Illumination Entertainment 70.8
Laika 52.5
Overall 114.3
Average budget for an animated film in 2016 dollars, since 1991

There’s a similar situation at Blue Sky Studios, which makes the Ice Age and Rio movies for 20th Century Fox, along with adaptations like “The Peanuts Movie” and “Horton Hears a Who.” All the movies are cheap — Blue Sky binged on “Rio 2,” spending $130 million, but all its other movies cost less than $100 million — and have a slightly higher box-office ceiling than the Sony films. Still, this does not seem to be a creatively healthy company. The studio is squeezing every remaining dollar from the Ice Age franchise — a series that has gone steadily downhill both critically and financially since it started in 2002. The only critically lauded movie that Blue Sky Studios has made recently is “The Peanuts Movie,” and good luck getting a franchise out of that when you don’t even own the rights to the sequel.

This leads us to Illumination Entertainment. It is the monster responsible for the “Minions” universe, a movie adaptation of “The Lorax” that was sponsored by a car company, and the recent crowd-pleaser “The Secret Life of Pets.” The movies range from the very, very bad to the mediocre but highly lucrative. Illumination cranks ’em out for $75 million or less a pop, but, good god, do they make a fortune — an average of about $275 million domestically for each film. “The Secret Life of Pets,” a movie about what doggies do when their owners aren’t home, has already made more money than the Warner Bros. tentpole “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

Laika is an exception. While the other companies we’ve looked at so far had at least one critical dud, Laika has consistently nailed it. The movies are cheap to make — at most $60 million — which allows them to get away with a smaller audience. But, and this really cannot be overstated, it’s unexpected to see a studio with movies as consistently beloved as Laika’s, and I realize I am writing that in a post that mentions Pixar. The clustering is absurd. On average, Laika movies had a Rotten Tomatoes score of 84 percent, behind only Pixar, and pulled in $64 million, the lowest by far in the data set.

But the crazy thing is this: The animation field is still somehow bigger than all these studios. “The Lego Movie,” the top-grossing animated movie of 2014, was made by none of these people (produced by Warner Bros., animation by Animal Logic), and there are sequels and spinoffs to come. “Sausage Party,” which I understand is essentially pornography but still made $34 million in its opening weekend, was not made by any of these wholesome firms. Rovio, a cell phone game maker, commissioned an “Angry Birds” movie, which went ahead and made $100 million domestically. The commercialism is getting out of control! I mean, what’s next, a movie about a bunch of talking toys?

Footnotes

  1. The domestic box office is made up of revenue made in the U.S. and Canada.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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