The controversy serves as a perfect case study for one of the long-running debates in the animation world, which is whether celebrities make any box office impact on the success or failure of an animated feature.
Back in the early-1990s, when Robin Williams provided the voice of the Genie in Aladdin, he earned scale pay for his performance, which was less than $100,000, so it hardly mattered whether celebrities affected the bottomline. But today, celebrities demand lucrative fees for their voices and drive film budgets up by tens of millions of dollars. Owen Wilson took home $2.5 million for Cars 2, Cameron Diaz had a $10 million payday for Shrek Forever After and Tom Hanks earned a reported $15 million for Toy Story 3.
What would happen if you took a celebrity out of one of these films? Would audiences still show up? That’s exactly what happened with Despicable Me 2. The result? It was the fourth-biggest opening ever for an animated feature in the United States.
Those who create animation know the reality: audiences don’t go see animated features because Al Pacino is in it. They go see animated films because they want to be entertained, and the quality of the animation performance and storytelling are far bigger factors than who voices any particular character. The most popular characters in Despicable Me 2, the minions, are voiced by two no-name French actors—Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin. They’re not well known actors because they were the directors of the film.
The celebrity culture of animated features won’t change anytime soon. Studios believe that they derive benefits from having A-listers in films because audiences love celebrities. But there’s no empirical evidence that audiences are attracted to famous voices in the same way that they are attracted to seeing those actors in the flesh.
Still, celebrities do play one hugely important role in the animation process. They pad the egos of fragile animation executives who would otherwise be embarrassed to tell people they produce animation. At Hollywood parties, these execs can tout to their friends that they, too, are working with A-list Hollywood stars. Because after all, who would want to tell their friends that the stars of their hit film is two French dudes* named Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin?
* Correction: Chris Renaud is an American with a French-sounding last name.