Apr 24, 2007

Bird has the last word

From today's New York Times:

"It’s Not a Sequel, but It Might Seem Like One After the Ads"
By Michael Cieply

LOS ANGELES, April 23 — If the Walt Disney Company and its Pixar Animation Studios unit have their way, by the time “Ratatouille” is released on June 29, millions will have learned not only to pronounce the movie’s title — Pixar’s Web site insists on the somewhat un-French “rat-a-too-ee” — but to love the idea of a rodent in the kitchen.

But not without some extraordinary effort. Next Tuesday, Disney will unleash an unusual all-day television advertising campaign, culminating with a 90-second spot on “American Idol,” intended to drive viewers to a nine-and-a-half-minute clip from the film at disney.com.

In effect, the studio is promoting its promotion.

Such bravura is necessary in this case because Disney and Pixar have once again staked their fortunes on a big-budget film that is completely original in concept and execution at a time when ticket buyers have shown a growing preference for repeat performances of known commodities like “Spider-Man,” “Shrek” and Disney’s own “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

“It takes a lot more work,” Richard Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said of the effort to introduce original films. “The rewards can be unbelievable. But they’re clearly more difficult to market.”

That originality is a dying value on the blockbuster end of the movie business is no secret. In the last five years, only about 20 percent of the films with more than $200 million in domestic ticket sales were purely original in concept, rather than a sequel or an adaptation of some pre-existing material like “The Da Vinci Code.”

In the 1990s, originals accounted for more than twice that share, led by “Titanic,” which took in more than $600 million at the box office after its release in 1997.

Pixar and Disney have enviable name recognition among moviegoers compared with virtually any other studio. But when an original like “Ratatouille” costs roughly $100 million to make and perhaps half that to market in the United States alone, even they cannot trust viewers to show up without a painstaking introduction.

“Wonder takes time,” said Brad Bird, the movie’s director. “You don’t rush wonder. You have to coax the audience toward you a little bit.”

Born of an idea from the animator Jan Pinkava (“A Bug’s Life”) and others, “Ratatouille” is not only original but also a bit subtler than some of its Pixar predecessors. Without superheroes, as in Mr. Bird’s “Incredibles,” or talking toys, as in the “Toy Story” films, it is about a rat who wants to cook in a French restaurant that once had five stars, but has slipped a couple of notches.

The conceit brings with it something of an “ick” factor, Mr. Bird acknowledged. Yet he resisted calls during production to make the lead character, Remy, more human and less ratlike. And he predicted that even the whiff of aversion would become an asset in seeking attention in a crowded season.

“That ‘ick’ is something in our favor,” he said. “It makes the story more interesting.”

(Disney, for its part, has generally done well with rodents, from Mickey and Minnie Mouse through the creatures in “Cinderella” and the “Rescuers” films.)

“Ratatouille” has already appeared in a trailer, attached to “Cars” almost a year ago. And Mr. Bird helped produce an elaborate promotional video that circulated on the Web this spring, even as he scrambled to finish the film, which he took over two years ago from its original director, Mr. Pinkava.

As the release date nears, Disney will add ploys like a scratch-and-sniff book from Random House (“I Smell a Rat”) and a 10-city “Ratatouille Big Cheese Tour.”

Led by its founder, Steven Jobs, and its top officers, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, Pixar has been ferocious in its insistence on originality through a cycle of hits that has included only one sequel, “Toy Story 2” in 1999. That policy led to a rift with its partner, Disney, which once planned its own follow-ups to Pixar films.

Disney finally backed off when it acquired Pixar last year. According to Mr. Cook, Pixar — which has agreed to make “Toy Story 3” — will now be in charge of its own sequels.

Devotion to freshness can have its price. Since the release of “Finding Nemo,” which had about $340 million in domestic ticket sales, each succeeding Pixar film, first “The Incredibles” in 2004, then “Cars” in 2006, has done less business than its predecessor.

In addition, the entertainment conglomerates that now own studios may only bring their full resources to bear on the second or third in a series of films. Next month, for instance, Disney will unveil a “massive multiplayer” online game keyed to its three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. This potentially lucrative enterprise took three years to develop, and would be far more difficult to build around a one-time success like “The Incredibles.”

“Branding is the word of the day and it will remain that way,” Russell Schwartz, president of New Line Cinema’s domestic marketing, said of the growing preference by audiences and the industry for known quantities.

Mr. Schwartz, whose own company had huge hits in recent years both with high-profile adaptations in the “Lord of the Rings” cycle and with an unexpected blockbuster from scratch in “The Wedding Crashers,” noted that executives would rather not depend on the latter sort of success. “There’s a zeitgeist about that kind of movie you can’t control,” he said.

The drift away from pure inventiveness is limited to the industry’s most expensive and commercial films. According to the Writers Guild of America, West, the balance between original and adapted scripts in overall feature film production has remained constant in recent years, with slightly more than half of the screenplays being original.

Old hands in the film business argue nonetheless that the industry cheats itself of something precious when it leaves the creation of its blockbuster bets to a graphic novelist like Frank Miller, whose work was behind this year’s “300,” or a distant predecessor, like the makers of the original “King Kong.”

“It’s tragic,” the screenwriter Bob Gale said of what he sees as Hollywood’s lost inventiveness. Missing, he said, is the nonpareil thrill he experienced in creating, with Robert Zemeckis, the early drafts of “Back to the Future,” a 1985 hit provoked by his own question: Would he have liked his own father if he had known him in high school?

Still, Mr. Bird confessed that pure invention can be “scary” even for those at Pixar. The director pointed, for instance, to a moment in “Ratatouille” when he felt compelled to forgo a climactic action sequence that was demanded by conventional movie logic, but that did not fit the story he and his peers had invented. “You have to let the movie be what it wants to be,” he said.

Yet that can be easier, he added, than trying to follow in the tracks of the audience. “When you just make something you want to see,” he said, “it becomes very simple.”


David Germain said...

I whole-heartedly agree with everything Brad Bird said which is why I love his work emensely.

Incidently, would it be alright if I used this comment of mine to promote a new post on my blog all about Censor Monkeys?

Anonymous said...

Ratatouille is going to be incredible, I hope. Brad Bird is genuinely funny and a great writer, and I'm very excited about it.

Also, great review of The Animated Man, I can't wait to read it!

Anonymous said...

"Born of an idea from the animator Jan Pinkava (“A Bug’s Life”) and others"

should probably read

"Born of an idea from Oscar Winning Director Jan Pinkava (Geri's Game)."

Yeti said...

When I first heard of Ratatouille a few years back, it didn't sound too interesting. But from all the promotion lately, and the nice clips available I'm very anxious to see it.

Anonymous said...

The last quote is excellent.
Brad Bird is opinionated, passionate, and confrontational. He speaks as a matter-of-fact iconoclast for animation; he's the closest thing animation has to a friend.
I've got to work with this guy, someday!

Steve Hulett said...

As time moves along, new and original movies will probably get lower budgets than the sequels that studios consider to be mega-tentpoles.

Chris Battle said...

All too true, Steve.... sadly.

Thank god that (Toy Story 2 aside) most of Pixar's movies are always new and original stories. (...and that 9 minute preview was amazing. Can't wait.)

Peter VINCENT said...

Maybe "Hollywood's drifting away from original screenplays" is a good thing. It will open "that" door to the Indie film crowd, who will (hopefully) be driven by a passion for there movies not box office bottom lines.

Ted M said...

I hope so. When there becomes too much of one thing (ie reality TV shows) the pendulum usually begins to swing the other way. Hope it happens with films.

Anonymous said...

After all the misery that took place during the final years of the Eisner regime, it's nice to see Disney is getting back on track.

"When you just make something you want to see,it becomes very simple"

Thank God PIXAR gets it.

Amy said...


I LOATHE that term. A movie cannot exist on its own merits any more. It's tragic that even in the very creative process for that movie, outside forces are coming to bear to ensure that the characters and story will also work on toys, games, web content, poptarts etc.
It's damn criminal and it's one of the biggest reasons for so much animated crap in recent years. Bless people like John and Brad for holding fast to at least SOME of the old rules.