It’s the year 2016. The animation industry is thriving in ways that people couldn’t have imagined in the past 5-6 years. Specifically, the past few years have seen a near-meteoric increase in the number of studios and films released in theaters. No longer a playground consigned to three of its biggest players (Disney, DreamWorks Animaion, and Pixar), the headlines of every animation news site and blog are now increasingly dominated by a cavalcade of new faces and returning champs. Take for example, the unprecedented (and controversial) success story that is Illumination Entertainment, or the roaring entrance of Warner Animation Group with The LEGO Movie, or LAIKA Entertainent’s sizable cult following gained from their stop-motion features, or GKIDS’ current status as the top distributor of indie animation.
Day in and day out, new studios are diving head-first into the pool, all in a bid to latch onto their own piece of a now-lucrative segment of the film industry. But when you have this many players in the pool, you are bound to have a few rough scrapes. DreamWorks Animation found out as much when their 3-films-a-year strategy – implemented at a time when the market wasn’t as crowded – proved difficult to maintain in the long-term (with under-performances resulting in write-downs and layoffs) and rightfully adjusted course.
It can be a tough business for sure. But it’s another thing to have clearly-defined winners and losers crop up in the ongoing rush of mid-sized studios and indie outlets hopping in to take a piece of the pie.
Viewed from that prism of thought, Lionsgate Films is the BIGGEST loser in the game right now. Why? Because out of all the mid-size studios you could name, Lionsgate possess a truly unique and fundamental lack of understanding of animation in general. They are, sadly, in a category of their own in that regard. Their entire history with animated releases is a masterclass in how NOT to do feature animation, specifically from a distribution and marketing standpoint. Their horrendous and laughable output alone is the strongest sign that there’s nobody at the studio who even knows how the feature animation field works on a surface level. That’s a big problem, because Lionsgate is constantly throwing away a grand opportunity to establish another strong brand that could greatly benefit their film business.
Allow me to clarify.
Establishing a Timeline
Now, let me make it clear that when it comes to feature animation, not everyone has the most ideal start but you have to start somewhere. That’s true for even the companies who just distribute animated films, as they have to gradually build a bigger profile so that they can gain access to more high-profile picks. GKIDS began with relatively obscure features like Azur & Asmar and Sita Sings the Blues before tearing a war path through the indie animation scene with acquisitions like The Secret of Kells, Earnest & Celestine, and Song of the Sea, in addition to being the current rights holders to the Studio Ghibli library.
Lionsgate, in comparison, began its hopeful venture into animation back in 2007 with…Happily N’ever After, one of the worst-reviewed animated films of all time. Okay, that was fairly disastrous (both the movie and the numbers), but as I’ve said before: everyone has to start somewhere. Surely, with subsequent films, they can learn the ins and outs of feature animation. Maybe they can hire people who are adept in that area, so that they can eventually build a name recognition in that field. Besides, this can only get better from here, right?
Battle for Terra, 2009. An earnest effort at an animated sci-fi film with interesting ideas that flounders on the execution. Flopped horribly with $6 million against a budget of $4 million. Little marketing, with awareness of the film close to nonexistent.
Alpha and Omega, 2010. Maddeningly lazy stuff with a decent voice cast that’s wasted. The film earned just enough worldwide to spawn a series of direct-to-DVD films that nobody outside of the very, very young will enjoy.
Shaun the Sheep Movie, 2015. A fantastic stop-motion film that borders on near-masterpiece. Didn’t even crack the top 10 at the US box office, thanks to a combination of shoddy marketing and Aardman’s diminished presence in the US (still, an ace marketing team would have made that irrelevant). Thankfully, it made enough money in its home country and everywhere else for Aardman to greenlight a sequel.
Norm of the North, 2016. Literal garbage in animated form. Made barely enough that it might justify the two direct-to-DVD sequels that were announced before the film’s release.
That’s not improvement. Miraculously, in the nine years since Happily N’ever After – almost a decade ago now – Lionsgate has gotten worse. Instead of finding ways to improve their distributing finesse in a competitive market, Lionsgate has somehow found a way to double down on their missteps, mishandling, mismanagement, and misunderstanding of the business.
It Gets Worse!
Lionsgate treats their animated films the way Lord Shen treated his goons in Kung Fu Panda 2. Most of the time, they are of little importance, little value, and they are perfectly expendable when necessary. Who the heck cares about putting some effort into this very lucrative segment of the film industry when we can just throw something in theaters that kids can watch while their parents are off seeing that new Jason Bourne movie?!
The company, in its current form, could care less about animation. If you don’t think that’s true, than you haven’t seen this:
This is how much Lionsgate cares about animation. Granted, it’s going direct-to-DVD (where it belongs) and it’s really just an English dub of a Chinese-animated feature. Still, that is no excuse. There’s a wide sea of animated films coming out of China, all deserving of a US release of some kind and this is what you pick? It certainly shows how much they care when, on top of being looking awful, most of the distribution budget was spent on attaching Rob Schneider’s name to a crappy animated feature (again) and dragging Tom Kenny’s name recognition through the mud (to be fair, if his long career could survive Happily N’ever After, Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, and a slew of direct-to-DVD features, than I’m sure he’ll be just fine).
(This is an actual image from the trailer, by the way)
With each disaster like this, Lionsgate solidifies its status as the Syfy/Asylum of animated features. The only difference is that I might actually get more entertainment from Sharknado than I would from the most of the films Lionsgate has released thus far.
Now, I want readers to understand me carefully. The reason why I’m railing on them so much (as opposed to a popular target like Illumination Entertainment) is that I know they can do better. They have the resources to do better. Their overall studio history alone proves that they can do better.
A Studio’s Success (Elsewhere)
Outside of animation, Lionsgate has built for themselves an impressive distinction of being one of the biggest mid-size film studios in Hollywood. After kicking in the door with American Psycho in 2000, they proved themselves adept at building a profile for top-shelf films on modest budgets. Then, their long-running partnership with film multi-talent Tyler Perry proved that they could support a brand that could make them money regardless of the films themselves. And then, in 2012, The Hunger Games proved that Lionsgate was capable of supporting a blockbuster franchise that it could call it’s own.
From there, it was off to the races as Lionsgate blazed a trail for other mid-size studios to emulate. That’s not to say that said trail has it’s missteps (The Divergent Series: Allegiant, Gods of Egypt, etc), but these are missteps that they can come back from. There aren’t very many ways to continue The Hunger Games franchise after Mockingjay – Part 2, but it won’t take them long for them find their next big franchise (or franchises, even).
I guess what I’m trying to say is that if they can put in the maximum effort to carve out a place in Hollywood with their films, than I don’t see why they can’t do the same for animation. There’s nobody at the studio that understands how feature animation works, and that’s not just a detriment to their output, but to their image as a whole. I can’t imagine that being the distributor of two of the worst-reviewed animated films of all time is a point of pride for the studio. Which is why I think that there’s still an opportunity here to do with their animated films like they did with their other brands.
How Their Problems Could Potentially Be Fixed!
The first step would be to actually hire somebody who understands the animation business. Somebody who has a pulse on what works and what doesn’t work in an animated movie and can use that to determine how they choose which films to distribute for release. Second, I would suggest that Lionsgate create a animation sub-division, with a team focused specifically on their distribution of feature animation so that their output doesn’t continue to be a disparate string of films with no overall consideration for quality. Third, coach the marketing department on animated films and what examples they should follow (for starters, the marketing team for illumination). Then, have them work in tandem with said division on the marketing of the films.
A Personal Wish
I will be the first to admit right now: most of this is definitely wish-fulfillment. I don’t even know if it’s actually as easy as it sounds in real life and if it does happen, there’s no immediate guarantee that the films that result from this do-over will succeed at all. But maybe, just maybe, it would finally mean that Lionsgate could finally become a serious competitor in a field that’s more crowded than it has ever been. That maybe they could come along with something that would challenge long-held notions about animation in the US. That maybe the studios’ CEO, Jon Feltheimer, could have one more thing to boast about during an annual earnings report. That maybe, instead of treating animation like the sordid sideshow of years past, they can finally start to take it as seriously as they do with Hunger Games.
But that’s just me.
Is There Still Hope?
On September 9, 2016, Lionsgate will release The Wild Life, a Belguim-French import that puts a spin on the tale of Robinson Crusoe. Then, on October 2017, My Little Pony: The Movie will be the feature film debut for the Friendship is Magic-era of the My Little Pony franchise. In all brutal honesty, only one of those films has the potential to turn around Lionsgate’s image in animation. But if they want to make that change, they need to do it soon or abandon ship altogether, as history isn’t necessarily kind to the losers in this game.
What do you think? Is it too late in the game for Lionsgate to improve, or is there still hope?