Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Rats Deserting a (Sinking?) Ship

(Legal stuff: characters from Flushed Away © DreamWorks Animation.)

The news has been released for a while. Aardman's contract with DreamWorks Animation is up, and Aardman is signing with Sony.

As everyone knows, the idea that DreamWorks would be able to do wonders with Aardman was exciting to animation fans. And certainly, with the involvement of Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey "Sparky" Katzenberg, their animated products would be merchandised and promoted well, right?

Well, no. Partially because the animation division of DreamWorks has had problems enough for the main branch of DreamWorks to spin them off. From The Prince of Egypt to Over the Hedge, their ability to market films has been completely mis-aimed. I've talked about this in the past, but please let me re-visit and rephrase it.

The booth set up to promote Shrek at Comic-Con thought giving out pencils to the people who stopped by was sufficient promotion. No announcement about who the characters were, what they did, what the film was about - here, have a pencil, you forty-year-old child! Maybe they thought that telling anything about the film might frighten off potential customers - saying to us, "We just made some pretty pictures; we don't have a story." I thought at first they were dissing the fan audience - meaning "If you care about animation, you're worthless to us; we're trying to sucker the big, general, stupid audience." Or maybe the executives, often young and inexperienced in the Hollywood hierarchy, really thought this was how you promote cartoons.

That was typical of everything DreamWorks did in promotion. I didn't know was based on a long-running web comic until someone told me. Their PR people didn't think that was important. (Oddly, the filmmakers did; the end credits showed the original character drawings.) And posters for Flushed Away didn't even mention Aardman; yes, the characters looked similar, but they didn't even give credit to the creators.

There was a lot of paid advertising for Flushed, but it told very little about the story of the film. There was very little that helped you understand who Roddy was, why his being flushed into the London under-underground was an adventure...and sure, casting Hugh Jackman might suggest Wolverine-level action, but nobody at DreamWorks was talking...

The community of critics are finding that the studios are freezing them out. Passes to films are rare, near impossible for web-only critics. It's become an operational procedure among studios. Why have anyone critique your product? Won't you make more profit if you make people see the film, so they don't know if it's good or not? Why let Roger Ebert get in the way of the purpose of making movies - transferring wealth from the public to the studio heads?

DreamWorks seems to have taken this philosophy very seriously. I believe that the Aardman films suffered because of this belief. Perhaps Sony will offer a better deal, and sensible and intelligent promotion. They've also been good with many of the animated programs they've released to video; one of my favorites, Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, got a good-looking DVD release after decades of indifference. True, films like Open Season and the forthcoming Surf's Up (another PENGUIN film, God help us!) don't look that good, but at least they've had decent promotion. Getting qualified animators like Aardman will give them something good to promote.

Or at least Aardman has the chance to produce something good. We'll have to see. In the meantime, besides making a third trip to the well with Shrek, about all that DreamWorks Animation has to promote is Bee Movie, which sounds like Hollywood's most criminal act since Mel Gibson's appraisal of a policewoman's breasts - continuing the painful career of Jerry Seinfeld in the form of a cartoon voice. It sounds like a drinking game could be designed around the movie, taking a shot every time a Seinfeld reference pops up. What's up with that?