The Animated Films of Don Bluth|
by John Cawley
Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Spielberg
As the games were nearing the peak, Don was introduced to a key businessman, Morris Sullivan. Sullivan had spent most of his life in business and one of his talents was in helping companies merge. Recalling how they met, Sullivan said "One of the fellows I played golf with kept telling me about these animators who had all this talent but no business sense and that I could help them. I was semi-retired and wasn't looking for anymore work. But he was very insistent. One day, he opened his car door and said, 'C'mon, it'll only take an hour.'"
Don was hoping that having a real businessman in the studio could help maintain an even financial keel. They showed Sullivan around the studio and screened THE SECRET OF NIMH for him. Sullivan was impressed. "I realized they had tremendous ability... but they had put two companies into bankruptcy, they didn't know how to handle themselves financially."
Ironically, shortly after Sullivan became involved, the gaming industry collapsed. Cinematronics was already having banking problems and began selling the games off cheaply to help pay debts. The crushing blow came when the firm took legal action in 1984 to block royalty and fee payments due to the Bluth Group in excess of $3 million.
Sullivan told newspapers in 1985 that Cinematronics "had bad legal advice." Sullivan went on to state that Cinematronics had the right to hold on to the money due Bluth. The end result was that Don Bluth Production was forced to claim bankruptcy.
Don and Morris began a steady program trying to lock up some form of production for Bluth and his crew. Sullivan, who knew little about the motion picture business did know that he liked Don's artwork and felt that if handled properly, the studio would be a success. Putting his own financial resources to work, he merged with the trio to form Sullivan-Bluth Productions (the hyphen would be dropped in short time).
The studio moved out of the small two story building in Ventura that had housed Don and his staff since NIMH. Sullivan Bluth set up operations in Van Nuys in a large building in an industrial area near the Van Nuys airport.
Utilizing a skeletal crew, Don kept developing projects and checking into a number of options with Sullivan. Feature films which had some development included BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and SATYRDAY (based on the book by Steven Bauer).
To help with finances a commercial was picked up here and there. The Zorro computer game was done at this time. A DRAGON'S LAIR book/cassette was also produced at the studio.
However, work for animated feature producers was slim. Don had given the reason during an interview at the debut of SPACE ACE. "I think the later Disney films have turned animated movies into baby-sitters. They're films you drop your kids off to see while you go shopping. We don't want to do that. We're interested in trying to reestablish animation as an art form, creating subject matter which will appeal to the adult brain.
"Economically, there is no good reason to go into classical animation today. In the last fifteen years there have been something like 32 non-Disney animated films made. Four have made money.
"But you can always spot why they fail. People don't pay attention to story. Or they say they want to be just like Walt Disney. Well, you **can't**. You have to be different. Or look at Ralph Bakshi. He's a wonderful man, but most of his movies have appealed to the dark side of things. I think the majority of people want to see movies that are uplifting. Remember those old Frank Capra movies? You keep on going back to see them again and again. People want to believe that life is worthwhile."
Suddenly a voice from the past arose, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg had been introduced to Don and company during NIMH by Jerry Goldsmith. He was impressed with THE SECRET OF NIMH, feeling it was the most "Disney" looking animated film since the classic Disneys. An avid Disney fan and collector, he had promised he would keep an eye open for a property the two might work on. (At one time they had discussed an animated sequel to E.T.)
That property came from an individual named David Kirschner. A writer-artist-marketing wunderkid, he had his first major success with the marketing of Rose Petal Place. Kirschner had an idea of a mouse family migrating to the U.S. during the construction of the Statue of Liberty. (Kirschner was not limited to children's fare. In 1988 he created and produced CHILD'S PLAY, the live action horror movie that first brought the "Chucky" doll to life.)
Originally planned as a TV special, Spielberg thought it had feature potential and began talks with Don. Spielberg talked of a potential three picture deal. Early in 1985, a report in New York magazine stated that Spielberg was planning to "profit from" the upcoming centennial of the Statue of Liberty. It discussed the feature as "a group of ordinary mice immigrating to America at the turn of the century." It was one of the few public mentions of the project.
At the same time Sullivan had begun talks with the Irish government about possibly moving the studio to Ireland. For helping the Irish build an animation industry, Ireland would grant the studio various financial and tax consideration. Though Don did not fully embrace the idea of leaving the U.S., he did see the advantages.
A deal was finally signed with Spielberg's Amblin productions and Universal Pictures to produce AN AMERICAN TAIL. The Sullivan-Bluth studio would not make a lot of money on the picture. However, working with Spielberg would give Don a strong credential.
They were given a very tight budget of around $6.5 million, about half of what Disney was spending at that time. Any money from profits would only come if the film did over $100 million.
The highest grossing animated film in history (at that time) was Disney's THE RESCUERS (1977) at around $40 million. How much more could a non-Disney mouse do?
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text and format © John Cawley