According to Steve Hulett of the animation union Local 839, the execs at Sony are perplexed about why their films (Open Season, Surf’s Up) are underperforming at the box office:
“[Co-Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment] Amy Pascal asked animation executives why Pixar movies were doing so well and Sony Pictures Animation’s weren’t. This was a few months ago. A couple of the story artists who’d worked at other studios wrote up a little paper about what some other feature studios did, how they approached things. They passed it on to Penny and Sandy before those two left. Whether the paper got into Amy Pascal’s hands or not, I’ve got no idea …”
Of course, Pascal is the executive whose suggestion for improving Surf’s Up was to add “more poop,” but besides the obvious cluelessness, their problems can be boiled down to the lack of one key element in their films: vision. The films Sony produces, like those of many other studios, are filmmaking by committee. They have no coherent vision, voice or reason supporting them. They borrow a piece from Pixar, a bit from DreamWorks, and the result is a cobbled-together half-baked Frankenstein idea.
As much as I cringe at the DreamWorks animated features, I have to give credit to Jeffrey Katzenberg for sticking with an original and singular vision for the type of films his studio produces. For what it’s worth, he established the crass humor, celebrity-driven, parodic CGI style with Shrek in 2001. Look at the animated features that were released prior to Shrek and one doesn’t find a whole lot of similar films, though elements of this style were budding in Katzenberg’s Disney-era features. Katzenberg succeeded by doing something original that nobody else in animation was doing at the time, the very same thing that Pixar had done a few years earlier, with the primary difference being that Pixar’s formula was based on a foundation of artistic and narrative integrity.
Sony, on the other hand, seems to be headed down the same doomed path of Fox and Warner Bros. circa mid-’90s: copying the formulas of more successful studios with slight variations on their themes. There have been plenty of shake-ups at Sony Feature Animation in recent months, but I’ve yet to hear of anybody taking over their animation division who might encourage a shift towards an original direction.