Animated Film Is Latest Title to Run Aground at DreamWorks
By LAURA M. HOLSON The New York Times
LOS ANGELES, July 20 Brad Pitt beaten out by a clown fish?
It has been that kind of summer at the box office, where ticket sales have slipped from last year's record levels and the hottest movie is the computer-animation comedy "Finding Nemo," the father-son fish tale from Pixar Animation Studios, which has taken in an estimated $303.8 million since opening May 30.
DreamWorks SKG, meanwhile, has been one of the latest studios disappointed by a collective shrug from moviegoers. Its hand-animated "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas," featuring the voice of Brad Pitt as the lead pirate, has generated an estimated $23.3 million since opening July 2, including an estimated $1.8 million this past weekend.
And "Sinbad" is not the only disappointment so far this year for DreamWorks. Of the four movies it has released, including live-action and animation, only the comedy "Old School," starring Luke Wilson and Will Ferrell, has made more than $40 million at the domestic box office, according to Nielsen EDI, which tallies cinema receipts.
But "Sinbad" may be the failure that stings most. After all, Jeffrey Katzenberg, a founder of DreamWorks, is a former Disney executive who revived that company's animation department with hits like "The Lion King" and brokered the distribution partnership between Disney and Pixar that has yielded animated hits like "Toy Story" and "Monsters, Inc."
"Sinbad" may exemplify a market that has changed faster than even animation pros like Mr. Katzenberg could have anticipated. As a traditional-style hand-drawn animated feature, the movie took four years to make a period in which audiences have come to prefer computer-animated comedies like "Shrek," an Academy Award-winner made by DreamWorks, to serious animated action adventures.
Disney's hand-drawn "Treasure Planet," which bombed last winter, had perhaps given DreamWorks a sign of the apathy "Sinbad" might face, even though the popular actresses Michelle Pfeiffer and Catherine Zeta-Jones joined Mr. Pitt in putting words in the characters' mouths.
"We are extremely disappointed," said Ann Daly, the head of animation for DreamWorks, noting that "Sinbad" would be the studio's last traditionally drawn film.
From now on, DreamWorks will use computers to animate its movies. Even Mr. Katzenberg concedes that the art form on which he made his reputation may be obsolete.
"I think the idea of a traditional story being told using traditional animation is likely a thing of the past," he said. Among other factors, Mr. Katzenberg said, fast-evolving technology is making it easier to create images that a few years ago could only be drawn by hand.
The studio has much hope riding on the two computer animations set for next year: a sequel to the comedic "Shrek" and the much anticipated "Sharkslayer," a wise-cracking undersea adventure about organized crime, using the voices of Will Smith, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese.
DreamWorks executives declined to say how much "Sinbad" cost. Some industry people have conservatively estimated that DreamWorks spent $70 million (not including marketing expenses), although the comparable "Treasure Planet" cost Disney about $140 million, according to animation industry executives. Ms. Daly said that whatever the losses on "Sinbad," they would not be financially devastating.
With opening weekends more crucial than ever for movies especially summer films "Sinbad" was hurt badly by the failure of children and young teenagers to turn out in the first few days. That same weekend, many young girls and their mothers were off seeing Reese Witherspoon in "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde," while boys and men of all ages were watching Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines."
Meanwhile, "Finding Nemo," despite opening in May, still had legs or fins, at least. Children and their parents who might have otherwise have gone to "Sinbad," were in many cases opting to see "Finding Nemo" once again, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, which tracks box office sales.
"Sinbad" was not the only hand-drawn animation overshadowed by the popularity of "Finding Nemo" with both adults and children. "Rugrats Go Wild," released by Viacom's Paramount Pictures this summer and based on two of Viacom's Nickelodeon cable television shows, "The Rugrats" and "The Wild Thornberrys," has brought in only an estimated $33.4 million at the domestic box office since opening in mid-June.
"There are a handful of movies grabbing the audience, and everything else is getting pushed aside," Mr. Dergarabedian said. "Nemo is playing a lot longer than anyone would have thought."
Errol Flynn is long gone, but the contemporary public is still sometimes willing to watch buccaneers ply their trade. Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl," an action adventure starring Johnny Depp and based on the popular theme park attraction, brought in $46 million its first weekend two weeks ago and has now grossed an estimated $132.2 million.
The problem with "Sinbad," like "Treasure Planet," may lie more in the evidently flawed strategy that many large studios embarked on several years ago to produce animated action-oriented adventure movies to attract boys, said Jerry Beck, an animation historian. "Almost all these movies have failed," Mr. Beck said.
Last year's "Treasure Planet," an outer-space update of Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure novel "Treasure Island," brought in only $38 million domestically. Another space adventure, 20th Century Fox's hand-animated "Titan A.E.," fared worse, bringing in $22.7 million in 2000.
Ms. Daly pointed out that the only animated movies (whether hand-drawn or computer-generated) that have done well recently are comedies, including "Finding Nemo" and last summer's hand-drawn "Lilo & Stitch" from Disney.
And so DreamWorks executives are looking forward to next year's jokey "Shrek 2" and "Sharkslayer." Certainly the marketing onslaught has begun.
During "Sinbad's" opening weekend, in fact, the studio gave people who attended the film a limited-edition read-along compact disc titled, "Shrek and Fiona's Honeymoon Storybook."
And in June the studio took out full-page ads in trade newspapers announcing the release schedule of "Shrek 2," as well as giving out promotional baseball caps with the film's logo and opening date.
For anyone who missed it: "Shrek 2" opens June 18, 2004.