Comments by John Cawley
September & October 2003
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"I didn't make him... for you!"
My opening line comes from the classic ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. The scientist, a self proclaimed transexual, has created a man-made male (ala Frankenstein) with a beautiful body. Another character states "the monster" is just "ok". The scientist then cattily hisses the classic line above.
I was reminded of it recently when a pair of TV creators were told of Chuck Jones' oft-repeated statement about how the classic cartoons weren't made for kids, but were made "for us". This mantra has been bantered about for years as an excuse by creators against meddlesome networks and their focus groups. Sadly, this is one of those lame statements that sounds profound, but is really meaningless. It sort of falls into the "we can send a man into space, but we can't feed all the hungry people."
The truth is, the classic cartoons existed in a very different world than today. In those days animation didn't have to be good. It just had to fill 7-minutes on a theatrical bill. Every major studio wanted them, and if they didn't have their own studio (like MGM or Warners), they bought them from Disney or Terry. Cartoons were just another short, like the comedies, newsreels and travelogues, that theaters thought they needed to have to sell tickets. Once it was discovered people would come to movies without all the frills, much as gas stations found folks would pump their own gas, entire entertainment industries disappeared.
Disney, and eventually Hanna-Barbera, discovered on early TV you had to produce something people would actually want to watch. If people didn't watch your cartoons, the sponsors wouldn't pay you to make them. As networks got more involved, if ratings went down, the networks wouldn't show your cartoon anymore. Suddenly studios discovered they had to listen to outsiders.
Another factor in this equation is the widening of audience choices. When the classic cartoons were made, people really only had a few inputs. There were only a few channels (radio and later TV). Most people were fans of the same shows. Most read the same books. Most went to the same movies. Hence, it was very likely an animator's or film maker's tastes were similar to the general public. As the century came to an end, we saw the emergence of dozens of channels, multiple entertainment systems and specialty films. Suddenly, you couldn't be certain if your audience was even watching the same shows as you were.
I remember when an episode of TINY TOONS did a satire on the old Mickey Mouse Club. One critic asked who the show was for? He reasoned the only ones familiar with the old 50s TV show would be folks in their 40s, or the few who had the (then new) Disney Channel. Private jokes are not the best demographics for a children's cartoon.
When one is working on small budget films, one can indulge on one's own personal tastes. However, if you are working for a studio that is investing $100-plus million dollars in a film, you need to consider the widest possible audience. Niche films like THE IRON GIANT may find a limited audience who fondly remembers 1950s sci-fi films, but a big-budget animated feature needs a bigger audience than a Woody Allen comedy.
This is not to imply that creators have to bring in test groups and advisers on every project. Film makers from Spielberg to Lucas to Cameron have shown you can still please yourself as well as millions of ticket buyers. You can still make something for you. Just try to surround it with something others will enjoy too.
Disney vs Pixar: Tweedle Dum & Tweedle Dummer
It seems the biggest news in animation right now is whether Disney and Pixar will come to an agreement. Not only are folks in the biz a-buzz, but even outside media like business journals. If Disney sticks to their guns and refuses to give Pixar a huge amount of profit, Pixar claims it will walk from the mouse. All seem to feel that if Disney loses Pixar, Disney will be the big loser. Actually, if Pixar does walk away from Disney, two things will probably happen. In five years, Disney will be releasing animated features from various sources and Pixar will be gone.
Disney has proven through Pixar and their TV features that they can outsource animated features and keep on going. If Disney loses Pixar, they'll find someone less expensive who will continue to keep up the image that Disney is releasing animated films. If some don't do well, Disney will simply try different directions and suppliers. And Disney must consider if they make huge concessions to Pixar, and Pixar films begin to fail at the box-office, Disney will be criticized by the business world. The mouse has lasted through dry spells in the past and will continue.
Pixar, to many folks, is still an unknown entity. The general public still sees FINDING NEMO and TOY STORY as Disney films. When Pixar moves on, it will get the notorious label, found on so many low budget video titles, "from the makers of..." which always seems to indicate a lesser product. Also, who would Pixar go to? Again, when Disney films sink, they keep making and/or buying them. Warners, Fox, even Dreamworks have shown that at the first sign of sinking films to abandon the animated ship. Should Pixar films start faltering at the box office, those studios will say adios to pricey Pixar flix as quickly as they shut down their own animated feature studios.
As always, in the mainstream Disney means animation. Would FINDING NEMO have done as well if it came from the folks who brought us THE IRON GIANT, TITAN A.E. or ROAD TO EL DORADO? Even though SHREK had a phenomenal run at the box-office, it still stands as a "one-hit" wonder. Is Pixar willing to gamble their future on such limited success?
Film history has shown the wisdom of bickering partners staying together. Disney and Pixar could be the Abbott & Costello of animation. Hopefully Pixar will consider that few comedy pairs have succeeded alone as well as they did as a team.
Books I Want to Write...
Years ago, I had two companions who were trying to sell a book about the Three Stooges. At that time, no publishers were interested in the comedy team. I suggested my friends do a book listing all the animated TV series. They asked where would they would find the info. I told them I had several syndication guides that would give them a start and that they could borrow my files. They pitched the book and a year later Jeff & Greg Lenburg's classic volume appeared.
Folks asked if I was bitter that their success was due to a book folks said I "should have written". The answer was (and is) no. At the time I was busy with other projects. I did get a big "thank you" in their acknowledgements. (Though it grew tinier as newer editions had more names to add.) If anything, I was just disappointed that some of my own books hadn't become as much of a standard as theirs did.
I still have a batch of books I'd like to get around to writing. I've pitched some, but publishers deemed them "un-sellable books". These include a book showing posters of animated films, a discussion of films Disney never completed, a book about music in animation and others. Other authors have better luck with these ideas. A few of my ideas have publishers expressing interest, but I still do not have the time to pursue them.
Since I still seem to have a lack of time to write, I thought I would mention just a few of the books that I would like to write. I give these ideas freely in the hopes someone else will pick up the baton and do the work. If anyone has such luck, all I ask is that I get a "thank you" in the acknowledgement, and a free copy.
Cartoon Curtain Calls - This book would be about the many famous folks who made their last mark in animation. It is amazing the number of stars and big names who worked in animation prior to their death. Such folks as Orson Welles and Jimmy Stewart did their last performances in animated features, but almost all of their obits listed lame live action or TV appearances as "final." Even music master Henry Mancini's last film score was for an animated feature.
Cartoon Bozos - Here is a book I still think about... but know it would be one of those "You'll never work in this town" tomes. It would be full of the "clowns" one runs into in animation. From thieves (who stole everything from salaries to credit), to ego maniacial creators, to simple idiots put in charge of projects, to fans who yammer about the business with little knowledge of anything.
The Ron Miller Story - I think a fascinating tale of a man who ended up at the top of the world's biggest animation studio due to marriage. While at Disney I had the chance several times to talk with Ron and always found him sincere and (surprising to some) intelligent. I honestly think his failures were due more to his lack of confidence and listening to the wrong people. After all, one of Eisner's first acts was to cast off all the "rules" the studio had worked under since Walt's death. Once Miller was pushed out he literally disappeared!
Death on the Set - Not really animated, but stories of those who died in the line of performing. Most recently, John Ritter joined the club of such luminaries as Redd Foxx and Curly Howard as folks who were hit by strokes while working. In animation land, George O'Hanlan died while recording THE JETSONS: THE MOVIE. Add to that those who died of injuries and I think you have a best seller!
Okay, folks. Get to work.
July & August 2003: Who Needs To Make Animated Features? // 20-20 Hindsight // Still Disney's King // Moving On... // Death of A Character(s)
May & June 2003: Gods of Animation... Or False Profits? // Doodle Development // Why does Animation=Cartoon, but CGI doesn't? // Dreamworks remakes AMERICAN POP! // FINDING NEMO gets $70+ Million Reward for Consistency // Animation in Slo-Mo...
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