Why Nobody Wants To Watch Sony’s Features Why Nobody Wants To Watch Sony’s Features
Feature FilmIdeas/Commentary

Why Nobody Wants To Watch Sony’s Features

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.

  • Jim

    I thought Surf’s Up was fantastic and on par with many of Pixar’s features. I believe its lack of performance was due to poor marketing and an overabundance of penguin-oriented films at that time.

  • It’s too bad that Pixar and Dreamworks are often mentioned as the two big player in the animation game. What about Blue Sky? Their movies are very entertaining and the animation is beautiful!

  • Dave

    I have to wholeheartedly agree with Jim’s post. Maybe it’s because I’m a surfer, but I was delightfully surprised at Surf’s up (granted, my expectations going in were rather low) and thought it was very well done. I honestly felt that Surf’s Up and Ratatouille were hands down the best animated features of that summer. I realize they were both completely different films, but I liked them for different reasons. I was disappointed that Surf’s Up wasn’t more well received, but I do agree that it may have fallen victim to too many penguin movies. If Surf’s Up was the only penguin movie released, I think that might have helped it’s chances. I think Sony Feature Animation definitely took a step in the right direction with Surf’s Up.

  • Bobby D.

    LOVED “Surf’s Up”…did not care for “Cars”. I agree Blue Sky has made some really nice films.

  • Jonathan

    I think it’s really unfair to say that Surf’s Up “lacked coherent vision, voice or reason supporting it”. I personally really enjoyed it and thought it had its heart at the right place. Might get a lot of bashing on this but I DID enjoy it more then Ratatouille, on a purely “fun” factor.

    On the other end, Open Season was a real waste and really represents what was written in this article.

    My 2 cents.

  • Badjoojoo

    I feel bad for Sony, because they do have some real talent there. Open Season was probably one of the best designed animated films in decades (great backgrounds, plus Carter Goodrich’s excellent character designs) and great technology (probably among some of the best water and fur technology I’ve seen in a CG movie), but unfortunately, the film came out at the tail end of a huge glut of “back to nature/forest/jungle” animated movies, and storywise, while not horrible, not particularly ground-breaking, either.

    As for Surf’s Up, I was initially sucked in hard by the intriguing idea of someone doing a “documentary” in CG, and there is a lot of potential in that prospect, but in the end, they didn’t do much with it, choosing a sports movie of all things as the vessel for that idea. A losing proposition in my mind since the sports/competition movie is such over-farmed territory in American cinema that pretty much anything you do is going to be cliche (I found this to be problematic with Cars as well, which I think can be argued, that other than setting, is almost the same movie as Surf’s Up). Sports movies are so overdone that even parodies of sports movies is cliche. I think they were also hurt by the perception of them trying to cash in on the world’s brief apparent fascination with penguins, but again, they came in on the tail end of the oversaturation and that hurt them.

    But I would really like to see Sony get their act together. If they can put the artistic and technical potential they showed with Open Season together with a bit more adventurous spirit, they might have something.

  • yvette kaplan

    Jim said exactly what I am going to say– Surf’s Up is a wonderful film- it’s exquisitely acted- in both animation and voice performance. It’s clever, honest and most of all, refreshingly restrained– and I readily use the same term Amid did– vision– to describe what I see and saw in that film the first– AND second time I saw it. In fact, I see many similarities in the relaxed and natural attitude of Dreamwork’s newest- and perhaps most creatively successful film- the hysterical and gorgeous Kung-Fu Panda.
    I think it is way too soon to draw conclusions about the overall quality and/or success of Sony’s animated features. All of the studios–Dreamworks, Disney, Blue Sky, and dare I say it? — perhaps even Pixar, have great and not so great films. Again I second Jim– it was the marketing of Surf’s Up that lacked vision. That one deserved to be a hit.

  • Well said Amid. I gotta add that hearing Katzenberg attempt to talk about animation is ridiculous. He is insecure about the idea that other people might be interested in animation, perhaps he doesn’t really like it or feels guilt about liking it, so he ends up sounding very unconvincing.

  • Paul N

    Open Season – beautiful design, weak story structure.

    Surf’s Up – thoroughly enjoyable, very good story, regrettable timing.

    If Sony can do another strong story like Surf’s Up that isn’t the last one out during a “hot” theme (like penguins), I think they’ll have a winner.

  • The populace at large are all sheep. They will watch what you tell them they should watch. When you fail to do this, you don’t make the ticket sales you should, regardless of the quality of the film.

    When I think back over the last few years of CG films, maybe three stand out among all others: “The Incredibles”, “Kung Fu Panda”, and “Surf’s Up”.

    It would be interesting to get a side by side comparison of box office sales and marketing budgets. Nothing exists in a vaccuum, and no film can do well at the box office without proper marketing. That’s just the way it is.

  • James N.

    My theory:

    Why did “Surf’s Up” fail? Two words: “Happy Feet”.

    I think people though “Surf’s Up” was some kind of copy of “Happy Feet”… never mind that “Surf’s Up” was in development years before “Happy Feet” was.

    I think by the time “Surf’s Up” came to theaters… everyone was just sick of penguins.

    btw, I loved Surf’s Up and thought it, along with Ratatouille and Persepolis, were the best films of the year.

  • Tommy E. Brierly

    Marketing is usually overlooked as an important part of a films success. Though not a film or animated, Arrested Development (winner of six emmys, a golden globe, critical acclaim) was canceled because of piss poor marketing.

  • ridgecity

    1.Shrek is pretty good stuff. But it has been milked to a pulp.
    2.The funniest CGI film I’ve seen is Flushed Away.
    3.the best story was Toy Story 1.
    4. The Best Looking with a so-so story is the Incredibles.
    5. The best looking with a crappy story is Beowulf.
    6. The best looking with no story is Final Fantasy. (also from Sony).
    7. The story that was made better by being CGI is Happy Feet.
    8. The crappiest is Hoodwinked. Not even with tons of great actors attached.
    9. The best for the target audience was Cars and sells a ton of merchandise even to this day.
    10 The worst for the target audience was Monster House and the DVD came free inside microwave popcorn boxes.

  • taylor

    What about Monster House and The Polar Express? Both were produced at Sony, and are both very unique in their own ways. Do they not count because they’re dead-face mocap Zemeckis projects?

  • I thoroughly enjoyed Surf’s Up.
    I think it stands up to repeated viewings much better than Ratatouille.

  • Chuck R.

    Surf’s Up has its problems: the docu-gimmick falls apart halfway through the story, and as Badjoojoo says, it’s pretty much Cars for 18-year-olds (or if you prefer, Karate Kid for the gen-Y set). It mines every cliche of sports films and the mentor-student genre.

    Despite that, it’s still an amazing little film. It’s very well designed, and the character acting is surprisingly nuanced at times —the chemistry between Z and Cody is particularly believable, funny and touching. Ollie Johnston deserves all the accolades he’s gotten for his masterful work on Mowgli and Baloo, but for my money, the animators responsible for the surfboard-making scenes in Surf’s Up, surpassed him.

  • Graham

    This news actually kind of concerns me. Sony has really shone through in its animated productions for the past several years. It’s a shame they’re so underappreciated; I really like what they’ve done.

  • Pedro Nakama

    Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks have a big problem and that is management. Too many who don’t know what the [email protected]%& they are doing.

    Why did they release Surf’s Up in theaters the same week Happy Feet came out on DVD?

  • I’ve written about this on my blog before too; am I crazy for thinking this?

    I think what we’re seeing here right now is the exact same thing as what happened to Disney back in the 1930s.

    Only replace Disney with Pixar and WB with Blue Skies and maybe Don Bluth with Max Fleischer.

    All those corporate [expletive deleted]s are trying to cash in on Disney/Pixar’s success without putting nearly the same amount of care or investing nearly as much in the art, story, or technical support needed to make a great film. Instead, they all just copy Disney/Pixar because “HEY IT WORKS FOR THEM WE CAN MAKE MONEY OFF OF IT RIGHT?”

    The only good 3D films NOT from Pixar, in my opinion, are the ones that try not to imitate them, like Shrek, Horton (well, for the most part), Happy Feet, and arguably Final Fantasy: Spirits Within.

    But with the release of Horton a couple months ago, I’m hoping that the other studios are realizing that there’s absolutely no way they’re going to match Pixar and hopefully we’ll get a whole bunch of different styles that will emerge (perhaps similar to how WB shorts are so different from Disney shorts?). One can only hope…

    If anything, I’d say VISUALLY the other studios are moving away from Pixar. Thematically, not so much (how many upcoming 3D films does this describe: An average joe must find his true self and saves the day by becoming a hero to us all).

  • JG

    The way I see it. Sony doesn’t have a fixed style – it does what the particular movie demands. That’s both a con and a pro, imho. Audience doesn’t know what to expect.

    They copy some stuff, sure, what studio doesn’t, but they add something of their own to it. Look at the design for Open Season, look at the concept of documentary and the technology in Surf’s Up – those stand out as innovations, more or less.

    The finantial mishaps are a shame. I do enjoy their work. Surf’s up is a strong movie. Too bad Open Season wasn’t so much…

  • Steve

    Perhaps Sonys fortunes may change when they start releasing Aardman features and with a bit of luck they may learn a thing or two about appeal from working with Aardman.

  • Gobo

    Surf’s Up suffered from bad me-too timing and juvenile commercials filled with fart jokes. Its central hook (surfing penguins) was a poor draw. Why does Dreamworks do better? Well, when your hook is as genius as JACK BLACK: KUNG FU PANDA you’ve got a built in audience right there.

    Sony seems to have bad timing issues… Monster House was surprisingly good, but who decides to release a Halloween movie in late summer?

  • Surf’s Up was a solid movie from a both an entertainment standpoint and from the quality of production. The character design was great, and the they put a unique spin on an animated film using the documentary format. It’s a shame it got derailed by Happy Feet which was completely overrated and ultimately forgettable. Sony is moving in the right direction, they just needs a little more luck on their next release.

  • eroslane

    The films Sony produces, like those of many other studios, are filmmaking by committee.

    This made me laugh, especially in light of the next post from one of the writers of KUNG-FU PANDA ranting about having to work-by-committee.

    Filmmaking is a process by committee. Hopefully you are assigned to a good committee.

    p.s. to Sony: better marketing, better release timing. Just sayin’.

  • Armand S.

    It’s unfair to judge the company by its first two releases. Considering Dreamworks itself had a bunch of bombs prior to Shrek. But the main element that makes animation studios succesfull is commitment. A decade has been patiently spent in doing shorts and technological advancements before the first CG movie was released by this small studio known as Pixar. A studio sprung up out of ex-Disney talents and struggled for years having their first four releases bombed in box-office. And yet during these times because of their commitment in finding the right project and identity built probably the best animated studio building in town and later on Dreamworks made its mark through Shrek. Even Disney itself, struggled for two decades from the late 60’s to the 80’s. But being committed in their craft, they produced the best line up of feature film in the early 90’s. Bluesky thrived for a while and hit it big with their Ice Age franchises and Horton. Review your history, my friend. Be careful in making comments on a project as lacking vision while you still have blinders on. Were you there when the project was conceived? during the pre-production maybe? interviewed people whose contracts expired during production? or probably watched the movie wearing the Disney/Dreamworks filter glasses. Surf’s Up is probably one of the best animated movies ever made and the same goes with Ratatouille, Kung Fu Panda, and Horton to name a few.

    This is just my two-cents and who am I to say all these. I’m just an artist still on the trenches who already spent 18 years of my life contributing (and still counting) to the advancement of this business called animation.

  • Scott

    I have to agree with the Surf’s Up comments. It’s a great film and deserves some recognition.

  • Richard Gadd

    Just want to add my name to the chorus of “Surfs Up” defenders – a great little film. Came and went without much fanfare – but one of the best in recent animation. Agree with earlier comments about open season – nice design – but ultimately rather samey to a lot of other productions. The question is – do Sony want to be a “brand” – like Pixar or Dreamworks. In an ideal world you should be able to sell yourself on the individual film – but brand recognition helps. Pixar have managed to have – I think – fairly diverse bunch of films which even at there weakest have still been pretty strong (lets face it, most studios would kill to be the auteurs of one of pixars 2nd string). Dreamworks, (I can’t comment on Panda – which I am genuinely looking forward to – as it dosn’t open this side of the pond for ages yet) have all had the same sort of snarky tone/celeb voice ethos, that has had diminishing return. Shrek was somewhat amusing (though less so on repeat viewings) – and its sequals were each less than their predecessor (and don’t get me started on Shark Tale). Ultimately, back to Sony, I found it decidely depressing to see the – to my mind decidely lazy and 3rd rate Shrek 3 rake in so much when the fresh, fun, and just well made Surfs Up struggled.

  • AutisticAnimator

    Give Sony Pictures to me, please! I may not be able to save animation, but at least I’ll get a chance to get the funding and support so I can perfect and produce my stories before our sciences, shortening attention spans, and pessimistic/realist attitudes evolves our future children into becoming full adults at age 5 and the animation, PBS, and all other industires like those two go extinct!

  • MattSullivan

    I tried to pitch a few of my scripts to Sony Animation. There was a terrible legal hullabaloo, whereby they made me wait 9 months to say to me, “Sorry, we can’t look at your scripts. We decided we only want to make movies from pre-established properties, books, or children’s picturebooks. We’re not taking any pitches from animators”

    Not saying my films woulda saved the company…but I seem to remember a time when animation studios had no trouble accepting pitches from ACTUAL ANIMATORS who work and LOVE this business…and who love movies.

    *shrug* Eh. Whatta ya gonna do. All our jobs will soon be in China or Malaysia soon. might as well sit back and watch ANOTHER great American industry implode.

  • precode

    “Monster House was surprisingly good, but who decides to release a Halloween movie in late summer?”

    The studio that wants the DVD out in time for Halloween.

  • reader

    “It’s unfair to judge the company by its first two releases. Considering Dreamworks itself had a bunch of bombs prior to Shrek.”

    Both “Prince of Egypt” and “Antz” made money, they didn’t lose any. “Road to El Dorado” was a bomb, but there was no “bunch” of them prior to “Shrek”.

  • I worked at Imageworks as part of the crew of Open Season The underlying vision presented to us was something like “Let’s make a movie that looks like Sleeping Beauty, now that we have this property we bought about a bear and a deer.”

    Basically, the vision was for an aesthetic. A pity that it didn’t come together as a great film, because the crew was talented and enjoyed working together. But I remember a lot of the meetings where people would say “I don’t know, what do you think?” a lot or pat each other on the back uncritically for so-so choices.

    I mostly agree about Surf’s Up, but still… far too many poop jokes and an inconsistent documentary tone kept it from being a “great” film in my opinion. It should have received more success though.

  • Chuck R.

    “Both “Prince of Egypt” and “Antz” made money, they didn’t lose any”
    Thanks, for bringing that up, reader.

    There were lots of high hopes for Dreamworks when Prince of Egypt came out. With the exception of some political correctness and badly integrated songs, it’s still a standout film and probably their best up until KPF. The film goes well into uncharted territory for mainstream animated features and mostly delivers. It conatins excellent dramatic scenes (the great plague montage, the smiting of the firstborn, and the crossing of the Red Sea come to mind) and the relationship between Moses and Rameses is well-handled throughout. Antz may have made money, but it was the turning point leading into Dreamworks’ subsequent Pixar rip-offs, and cynical tone (I’m sorry, I can’t bring myself to write “snarky”.) I’m hoping that they are finally getting back on track with KFP and continue to progress.

    BTW, I still greatly appreciate Armand’s original comments. I’m a huge fan of his work, and wish him continued success.

  • ZX-3

    The upcoming slate for Sony: “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and “Smurfs.”
    Definitely different from their competition, but neither sound very good. I particularly wonder how “Cloudy” will be adapted into anything that could approach an hour and a half of entertainment. I can see “Smurfs” performing like “Alvin and the Chipmunks” but that’s nothing to be proud of… at least not artistically.

  • Dan

    I think it’s kind of refreshing to have a studio without a clear vision or look. We need a “third party” to throw in some fresh ideas, some hits and some misses. But as many others here did, I loved Surf’s Up. That paternal board shaping sequence is what did it for me. Great voice casting and some interesting creative choices. I don’t think Katzenberg has a clear vision whatsoever. From Prince of Egypt to Shrek is a broad swath. I’ve noticed that they have followed the paths that have succeeded. Not a bad idea, but certainly not visionary. I hope Sony hangs in and continues to mix it up.