January started off 2024 with a bang as awards season kicked into high gear, Mickey Mouse hit the public domain, several new features were announced, and a handful of movies hit major box office milestones.
It wasn’t all good news, though. Last year’s string of layoffs continued into 2024, a Colombian graphic designer who claimed to have worked on The Boy and the Heron went viral for all the wrong reasons, and some worrying advancements were made in the field of artificial intelligence.
Here are ten topics that had our readers talking in January.
We’re deep in the heart of awards season, and many prizes have already been distributed, including the animated feature Golden Globe, which went to Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron, the first foreign film to top the category. The Critics Choice Awards‘ animated feature prize went to Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, setting it and Heron up as the frontrunners for this year’s Oscars. The most significant animation awards, the Annies and the Oscars, unveiled their 2024 nominees in January. Other awards ceremonies that named nominees this month included France’s César Awards, the U.K.’s BAFTAs, and the VES Awards. Last year’s Emmys were delayed by the writers’ and actors’ strikes but finally took place in January, with The Simpsons winning its 37th Emmy for “Treehouse of Horror XXXIII.”
2023 saw numerous layoffs and closures in the animation, vfx, and video game industries, and 2024 is off to a similarly dismal start in that regard. In January alone, Unity laid off 1,800 employees (25% of its workforce), Pixar revealed it will make significant cuts this year, Riot Games let go 530 workers (11% of its staff), Microsoft fired 1,900 Activision Blizzard workers (8% of the studio’s employees), and Embracer Group laid off 97 employees at Eidos Montreal while canceling a Deus Ex game that was two years into development.
3) Artificial Intelligence:
The debate surrounding artificial intelligence intensified in January, with artists finding new allies in the fight against being exploited by the emerging technology. A tech group in Japan proposed a new generative AI model called Anime Chain that will use the blockchain to track all data used for training, protecting the rights of license holders. Computer scientists at the University of Chicago unveiled a new tool called Nightshade that allows artists to corrupt image-generating AI models that use their work for training purposes. Perhaps less exciting for artists, Google Research shared details about its new AI model, Lumiere, that can create the most sophisticated animated videos we’ve seen from any AI yet.
4) Title Announcements:
January saw several new animated titles announced, including a Pharrell Williams Lego biopic titled Piece by Piece, a Puerto Rico-set Bob the Builder theatrical feature, a sequel to Netflix’s hit film Leo, and the Korean horror film Exorcism Chronicles: The Beginning.
5) Festivals and Markets:
Mumbai’s Animela celebrated the best of Indian animation, vfx, and gaming earlier this month. Nouns Fest opened a call for animated short film project submissions and will distribute $1 million to selected participants, whose films will then stream at the event later this year. And the Berlinale unveiled its 2024 competition lineups including the world premiere of Mascha Halberstad’s Fox and Hare Save The Forest.
6) Box Office:
The 2023 theatrical box office continued down the long road to recovery following the pandemic. Japan saw increases in admissions and box office gross from 2022 to 2023, led by four animated films. French cinema exports had their best year abroad since 2019, with animated features leading the charge. Illumination’s Migration, Studio Ghibli’s The Boy and the Heron, Dreamworks’ Trolls Band Together, and Disney’s Wish all crossed significant milestones in January. Less impressive were the recycled releases of Pixar’s Soul and Sony’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which failed to inspire audiences to turn up in January.
Netflix signed an exclusive feature distribution deal with Japanese Studio Ponoc and will release The Imaginary later this year. Tribeca launched a new distribution unit to get more festival films on major streaming platforms. Robert Morgan’s hybrid thriller Stopmotion will get a U.S. theatrical run in February before heading to Shudder on May 31. And Busifan’s Chinese epic The Storm got a limited run in several English-language territories.
8) Colombian Drama:
For about a week, all anyone was talking about was the Colombian graphic designer who convinced several major media sources that she worked extensively on Hayo Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron. Modern news cycles are short, however, and the drama surrounding the scandal seems long gone now. What remains, however, is a Colombian animation industry that is rapidly maturing and deserves more positive press, so we highlighted some of the best work being done in the country.
9) Public Domain:
Another fad that seemed to come and go in the blink of an eye was a short-lived obsession with Mickey Mouse, specifically the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey, hitting the public domain. There were a few days when loads of new Mickey content hit the web, most of it pretty bad, but the buzz quickly died down. That said, last year’s Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey made $5.2 million at the box office, so we don’t think we’ve seen the last of the Steamboat Willie-inspired content.
We had the tremendous pleasure of discussing this year’s 15 Oscar-shortlisted animated shorts with their directors, who shared their favorite shots and the first piece of concept art they made for their films and discussed their visual approach to storytelling. We also got to sit down for a face-to-face with Suzume director Makoto Shinkai, who talked about writing and storyboarding his own films.
On the Move:
John Bush, Emmy-winning animation producer