Quote of the Week: Tom Rothman

From the November 2 issue of The New Yorker:

“The trick is, from the business side, to try to be fiscally responsible so you can be creatively reckless.”

– Tom Rothman, president of Fox Filmed Entertainment, on why the $40 million budget of Fantastic Mr. Fox allowed them to be more creative.

Rothman’s comment couldn’t be more common sense, yet I’ve never heard an exec say this about an animated feature. The mega-budget Pixar/DreamWorks features are not a sustainable business model for other studios. When smaller studios without an established creative infrastructure attempt to emulate the model, like Planet 51 ($60 million budget) and Astro Boy ($65 million), they typically end up with a half-assed product that falls flat on its face at the box office. Audiences are increasingly demanding variety in their animated features, and the studios that figure out how to offer original and unconventional animated films that are modestly budgeted will find themselves amply rewarded. One of the major keys to keeping costs down and maintaining originality will be to implement a top-down creative strategy by hiring directors with a strong personal vision, like Anderson, instead of the usual approach that consists of building bloated creative teams. Mark my words, the $15-40 million animated feature will be the big thing of the next decade.


  • http://crowsmack.blogspot.com/ Gibbs Rainock

    I’d love to see more variety on studio released animated films.

  • Nick

    Great post could you put up the link to article?

    Thanks

  • amid

    Nick: The article is behind a subscription-wall at the New Yorker’s site, but scanned pages of the article can be found here.

  • Lucky Jim

    I think that’s the first intelligent thing Tom Rothman’s ever said.

  • http://meridiandream.com/ jim m.

    I enjoy the spirit of the quote and your analysis. I would, however, like to know what delineates a $40mil animated feature from a $60mil animated feature.

    Process? Technique? How much did Perseoplis cost? Triplets of Belleville? How much did they make? Steve Hulett is usually on top of these types of numbers, maybe he could weigh in here.

  • some guy

    words marked. gauntlet thrown.

    let’s do this.

  • Ethan

    It’s a wonderful quote, and I seriously mark your words Amid.

    Let’s hope it makes money, but I think they have it easily covered with:
    A. Wes Anderson Fans
    C. Fans of Roald Dahl
    B. Stop Motion Fans
    D. Brewsters
    E. Me

    Is there something major that changed at Fox lately ? They seem to have a winning streak this year both financially and artistically in animation.

  • Jason

    “Astro Boy” was not half-assed. Oh, it failed at the box office? Well, so did “Iron Giant”. So did “Fantasia”. So did “Pinocchio”. So did “Bambi”. Were they half-assed too? If audiences had given “Astro” a real chance, and then spurned it, then I think the label “half-assed” might apply. But it stumbled from the very beginning.

    Frankly, I think that the audience is growing wary and weary of so many CGI films, and won’t take a chance on those that don’t bear a label they know (Pixar, Dreamworks) or are using a well-known creative property (such as Blue Sky’s “Horton Hears A Who”). The market is getting very competitive right now, and we’re verging on a glut of product.

    As for “Fantastic Mr. Fox”…that looks cheaply made, and proves that cheaply made films…look cheaply made. I haven’t seen it yet and so must withhold judgment as to its overall quality…but man, that thing looks moth-eaten. Bleah.

  • Cu$$ing Cu$$

    Wes creamed off quite a hefty amount from the production budget, and I’m sure the star studded voice talent didn’t turn up for the love of it either!

    This film was made for peanuts, which is great for the accountants, but not so great for the production creatives who had to sweat and toil long hours, and fight to finish this film on a very short production schedule.

    I’m not defending big bloated budgets, but animated films are an expensive product to make, there’s no two ways about it.

    Smaller budgets to increase creative freedom is bull! Accountant bull! Wes may have had more creative control due to the smaller budget, because the studio didn’t meddle. Not sure anyone else on Mr Fox would agree they had more creative freedom though.

    I’m not having a go at Mr Anderson, he made the film he wanted to make, and found a way for it to happen. More power to his tweed jacketed elbow patches!

    But, smaller budgets mean things have to be done cheaper and quicker, and the people who always lose first in that equation are the production artists.

  • http://www.milowerx.com Mike Milo

    Production artists always lose first in ANY equation. As Larry Huber used to say ( and probably still does) “You guys are fists with drawing sticks!”

  • Damon

    So how does he explain the 500 million dollar budget for Avatar?

  • http://www.rauchbrothers.com Tim Rauch

    This is what I’ve been thinking and I’m happy to see it is rolling forward.

    A lot of very good artists could make strong films for less than $20 million. Yes, they will need a production staff willing to sacrifice a bit and put things together with spit and gum in places. But they’ll be much more rewarded when they see their own spit and gum on the screen instead of some over-produced, under-thought glop.

    Make, make, make!

  • http://daryl-rhystaylor.blogspot.com DarylT

    Just like to point out that Up was the best film of the year, and I think the people that worked on the film wouldn’t appreciate people calling it ‘over-produced, under-thought glop’.

  • Peter

    Those numbers still must look ridiculously high to someone making animated films in Japan, Korea or, for that matter, pretty much any country other than the U.S.

  • Sylvain

    Jason, if you want to compare Astro Boy with Fantasia and Pinocchio, there’s something wrong here. Astro Boy was a production mess.

  • http://rauchbrothers.com Mike Rauch

    Quality hasn’t truly driven popularity for large scale mass media producers in decades. Why? Attention has been relatively abundant. Supply of production has been relatively scarce. This results in the calculation that it’s cheaper to invest in the attention of an audience, rather than the quality of the production. That leads to ballooning budgets.

    Production investment in Hollywood has doubled over the past 25 years, marketing investment has quadrupled. Large scale wars for audience attention mean spiraling costs for marketing and an erosion of quality. Thus, we have the blockbuster.

    But the tides are shifting. As the rise of indie productions demonstrates, barriers to entry for production have dropped dramatically. Supply is exploding. So audiences can afford to consume more media because demand is surpassed by supply, making media cheaper to consume. Meanwhile, average quality continues to diminish because the incentive is high to find economies of scale in production and distribution. The goal is: make more more cheaply. Enter Flash, Reality TV, user-generated content, etc.

    Audience attention is getting increasingly more scarce and more costly. A new calculation is inevitable. Investing in production will be cheaper than investing in marketing.

    Investing in marketing has diminishing returns, and exponentially increasing costs. There is only so much attention an audience can give. When advertisers saturate the market, attention gets more and more costly.

    But investment in production doesn’t follow the same rules. In a sea of poor to average content with limited audience attention, the best and most original content will stand out and offer increasing returns. Increased output of productions results in a linear increase of costs, not the exponential increase we see in marketing.

    So, yes budgets will come down. And yes, there will need to be more variety and more quantity (nichecasting, not broadcasting). This won’t mean more quality, however it should be a good thing for creators. Success won’t hinge so highly on the performance of an individual production, so failure will be more acceptable. Reducing fear of failure is good for creativity.

    Now what we need are reconstructors and smart aggregators like Cartoon Brew that can help guide audience attention to the best content in the coming blizzard of cheaply produced content.

    In this new era, a single stunning snowflake can rapidly gain the power of a boulder. Quality will be in a position to drive popularity again. But only if creators do what Nina Paley did with Sita: extend openness. Without openness, reconstructors, aggregators and audiences are prevented from rolling a snowball down the hill for you.

    Out with the blockbuster, in with the snowball.