Looking For The Megabucks? Think Megapixels

Jul 13, 2012
Originally published on July 13, 2012 10:30 pm

Imagine you're a movie producer, and you've got a couple of hundred million dollars to gamble on a single massive blockbuster. Which genre do you suppose will be your safest bet — superhero? Action-adventure? Sci-fi? All of those have had huge successes, but they've also all had hugely expensive failures.

There's one genre, though, that's hardly a gamble at all. It's been almost foolproof since it first came into being in 1995: computer animation.

Pixar's Toy Story was the first fully computer-animated feature film, and it started a revolution. In the past 17 years, the major Hollywood studios have made about 70 more, and only a handful of those studio-produced films have made less than $100 million at the box office.

The really big hits have made much more. Shrek and its various sequels and spinoffs have raked in more than $3 billion in ticket revenues worldwide. And the three Toy Story movies have taken in about $2 billion, a mark that the Ice Age movies will almost certainly reach this summer.

The Madagascar, Cars and Kung-Fu Panda franchises are no slouches, either, at more than $1 billion each. Small wonder that we'll soon be seeing Despicable Me 2, Cloudy 2: Revenge of the Leftovers (a follow-up to the surprise hit Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) and a sequel to Monsters Inc. called Monsters University. Computer-animated sequels are so reliably successful that if you've got an idea for how Nemo could get lost again, I'll bet Pixar would listen.

And box-office revenues are barely the beginning. DVD sales are always in the gazillions, because young kids love to see these movies again and again, and the characters are tailor-made to inspire toys — some of them even are toys — not to mention everything from sheets to collectibles to theme park rides.

All of this comes with advantages on the production end too. Star salaries? Not necessary. Ratatouille took in $600 million, with its leading rat voiced by Patton Oswalt, who's a celebrity but hardly a household name. And because actors only need a few days to voice a whole movie, even big stars don't demand million-dollar paydays.

It also helps that animated movies are a snap to dub into other languages, because there's less disconnect when an animated character's lips move and Spanish or French or Chinese comes out. With overseas markets looming ever larger on studio balance sheets, that's no small consideration.

All of which speaks to why Hollywood studios are so fond of computer animation. And audiences? Well, initially there was the novelty factor: Teens and adults had long been leaving cartoons to kids, but these new digital characters seemed startlingly lifelike, and they sounded hip and clever. Enough so that for the first time since the early Disney years, animated films were widely regarded as a draw for everybody, not just children.

It is possible to make a computer-animated dud. Disney did it with Mars Needs Moms, and smaller companies that don't have the merchandising power of the big studios have had misfires, too. Also, digital animation isn't cheap, so hundred-million-dollar grosses don't mean animators all get limos.

But the two companies that have led the digital animation revolution — Pixar/Disney and Dreamworks Animation (which is home to the Shrek and Madagascar movies) — have between them produced 17 of the top 20 computer-animated features. And in the process, they've grossed a bit over $13 billion, not counting DVD sales, toy sales or theme park rides.

Why, you have to wonder, would the studios make anything else?

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And finally this hour, we're right in the middle of Hollywood's blockbuster season. Theaters are packed and running films that studios consider most likely to succeed. Our critic Bob Mondello says they're especially confident about one form in particular.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Imagine you're a movie producer, and you've got a couple of hundred million dollars to gamble on a single massive blockbuster. What genre do you suppose will be your safest bet? Superhero? Action-adventure? Sci-fi? All of those have had huge successes, but they've also all had hugely expensive failures. There is one genre, though, that's hardly a gamble at all. It's been almost foolproof since it first came into being in 1995.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOY STORY")

JOHN MORRIS: (as voice of Andy) You saved the day again, Woody.

TOM HANKS: (as voice of Woody) You're my favorite deputy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as voice of character) (Singing) You've got a friend in me.

MONDELLO: Pixar's "Toy Story" was the first computer-animated feature film, and it started a revolution. In the last 17 years, the major Hollywood studios have made about 70 more, and only a handful of those studio-produced films have made less than $100 million at the box office. The really big hits have made much more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SHREK")

EDDIE MURPHY: (as voice of Donkey) You definitely need some Tic Tacs or something because your breath stinks.

MONDELLO: "Shrek" and its various sequels and spinoffs have taken in more than $3 billion at box offices worldwide, and the three "Toy Story" movies...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOY STORY")

TIM ALLEN: (as Buzz Lightyear) I am Buzz Lightyear. I come in peace.

MONDELLO: ...have taken in about 2 billion...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOY STORY")

DON RICKLES: (as voice of Mr. Potato Head) Money, money, money.

MONDELLO: ...a mark that the "Ice Age" movies will almost certainly reach this summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT")

JOHN LEGUIZAMO: (as voice of Sid) Hey, there really is a rainbow around every corner.

MONDELLO: The "Madagascar," "Cars" and "Kung Fu Panda" franchises are no slouches either at more than $1 billion each. Small wonder that we'll soon be seeing "Despicable Me 2," "Cloudy 2: Revenge of the Leftovers" and a sequel to "Monsters Inc." called "Monsters University." Computer-animated sequels are so reliably successful that if you've got an idea for how "Nemo" could get lost again, I'll bet Pixar would listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FINDING NEMO")

ALBERT BROOKS: (as voice of Marlin) Dory, do you see anything?

ELLEN DEGENERES: (as voice of Dory) Aah. Something's got me.

BROOKS: (as voice of Marlin) That was me. I'm sorry.

MONDELLO: And box-office revenues are barely the beginning. DVD sales are in the gazillions because young kids love to see these movies again and again, and the characters are tailor-made for toys - some of them even are toys...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOY STORY")

HANKS: (as voice of Woody) T-O-Y, toy.

ALLEN: (as voice of Buzz Lightyear) Excuse me. I think the word you're searching for is space ranger.

MONDELLO: ...not to mention everything from sheets to collectibles to theme park rides. All of this comes with advantages on the production end too. Star salaries? Not necessary.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "RATATOUILLE")

PATTON OSWALT: (as voice of Remy) Tomme de chevre de pays. That would go beautifully with my mushroom.

MONDELLO: "Ratatouille" took in $600 million with its leading rat voiced by Patton Oswalt, who is hardly a household name. And because actors only need a few days to voice a whole movie, even big stars don't demand million-dollar paydays.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DESPICABLE ME")

STEVE CARELL: (as voice of Gru) Okey-dokey. Beddie-bye. All tucked in. Sweet dreams.

MONDELLO: It also helps that animated movies are a snap to dub into other languages...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DESPICABLE ME")

MONDELLO: ...because there's no disconnect when an animated character's lips move and Spanish comes out or French or whatever, which is helpful with overseas markets looming ever larger on studio balance sheets. All of which speaks to why the Hollywood studios are so fond of computer animation. And audiences? Well, initially, there was the novelty factor. Teens and adults had long been leaving cartoons to kids, but these new digital characters seemed startlingly lifelike, and they sounded hip and clever enough that for the first time since the early Disney years, animation was attracting everybody...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WALL-E")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (as voice of character) WALL-E.

MONDELLO: ...not just children.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WALL-E")

MONDELLO: It is possible to make a computer-animated dud. Disney did it with "Mars Needs Moms," and smaller companies that don't have the merchandising power of the big studios have had misfires. Also, digital animation isn't cheap, so hundred-million-dollar grosses don't mean animators all get limos. But the two companies that have led the digital animation revolution - Pixar/Disney and DreamWorks Animation, which is home to the "Shrek" and "Madagascar" movies - have between them produced 17 of the top 20 computer-animated features and in the process grossed a bit over $13 billion, not counting DVD sales, toy sales or theme park rides. Why, you have to wonder, would the studios make anything else? I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WALL-E")

JOHN RATZENBERGER: (as voice of John) Hey, I know that guy. It's WALL-E. That's it. Hey, WALL-E.

KATHY NAJIMY: (as voice of Mary) Hey, WALL-E. Hi, WALL-E.

RATZENBERGER: (as voice of John) Hey, it's your buddy, John. Hey.

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.