The stop motion animation box office glass ceiling

Feature Simon Brew 13 Sep 2012 - 07:49

As Aardman's The Pirates! arrives on disc, and ParaNorman hits UK cinemas, Simon wonders why interest in stop motion animation is limited...

Back in 2000, director Peter Lord brought Aardman's first full-length animated feature to the big screen. The film was Chicken Run, a glorious, funny, knowing piece of work, that broke $100m at the US box office and added even more around the world. The final tally? $224m, before a single DVD (or video, in its case) had been sold.

When Chicken Run hit big, I thought and hoped it would kickstart mainstream stop motion animated movies. Granted, it's a labour-intensive process to make a stop motion movie, one that highlights any attempt to cheat. A stop motion film generally takes around five years to make, start to finish (although the animation itself takes less than half of that), but it also tends, usually, to be cheaper than a big, modern day CG fest. To put that into perspective, the soon-to-hit-UK cinemas ParaNorman was on the expensive side, costing just over $80m to make. Meanwhile, Ice Age: Continental Drift is reported to have cost $95m, Pixar's Brave had a bill around $185m, although Universal's The Lorax came in around $70m.

All that notwithstanding, Chicken Run proved not to be the breakthrough many of us had hoped. In fact, over a decade since it was first released, it's still comfortably the biggest grossing stop motion animated film of all time. At the US box office alone, nothing has come within $25m of it.

Granted, there's hardly been an abundance of stop motion movies. But there's been Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit ($56m US gross), Tim Burton's Corpse Bride ($53m), the wonderful Coraline ($75m) and Fantastic Mr Fox ($21m). Fortunately, Wallace & Gromit found far more favour elsewhere, but the others brought in non-US takings in line with their Stateside revenue.

Then, there's Aardman's The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (or The Pirates! Band Of Misfits if you live in the US). This lovely movie, based on the book by Gideon Defoe, picked up strong reviews pretty much across the board when it was released earlier in the year. Rightly so, too. It's a good, wonderful-looking family movie, that caters for pretty much every level of the audience. It's very funny, too, as well as being a real work of art.

In the UK, appreciating that Aardman isn't shy about its Britishness, the film did well. But go further afield, and the numbers were disappointing. It did okay in Australia, France, Germany, Italy and China. But pretty much everywhere else, it stuttered. In the US, its gross was a measly, and borderline insulting, $31m (by comparison, the not-very-good CG take on The Lorax has taken $214m in America).

It's not just The Pirates!, either. What about ParaNorman? It arrives in UK cinemas this week, again off the back of strong reviews. But it, too, has really struggled to make a dent in America. The current count, appreciating lots of factors affect this, sits at $45m. It'll do well to break $100m worldwide, and we can but hope that the company behind it, Laika, is not discouraged by the film's performance thus far. It's a strong movie that deserves better.

Next up to have a try will be Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, his stop motion updating of his brilliant short film of 1984. Filmed at 3 Mills Studios in the UK, it's a movie that's cost around $85m, is primarily in black and white, and you suspect might too have an uphill struggle to make much of a commercial dent, no matter how strong the reviews turn out to be.

So why is this? Where is the reluctance amongst audiences to go to the cinema and watch a stop motion animated movie? It's a question that was brought to my mind by the aforementioned Gideon Defoe, who Tweeted, "Add the international grosses of Coraline, Fantastic Mr Fox, Pirates & ParaNorman together and you get less than half the gross of Ice Age: Continental Drift".

He subsequently clarified that it wasn't a dig at the aforementioned Ice Age movie (which was surprisingly impressive), more that "the stop motion 'ceiling' is weird".

And he's right. It is. It's not a low ceiling, perhaps, but for a stop motion movie to get over $100m at the US box office again in the near future looks like it'll take some kind of higher force.

Let's look at some obvious reasons why, first. Stop motion films have, in some cases, existed in sub-genres that limit their commercial potential. They've not always been sold quite as well as CG films. Also, stop motion characters tend to look a little less kiddie-friendly on the side of a cup at McDonald's. These are all easy reasons to sniff at, but there's surely something there.

But then there's the unsaid factor: that maybe audiences just aren't as keen on stop motion. In the same way that a black and white movie needs to be treated as some kind of novelty to get people interested, or that a silent film is championed as a one off, to get a modern audience in front of something perceived as off the beaten track is something of a challenge, and often approached as such. For some reason, stop motion seems to fall into that category. This is in spite of the fact that, over a decade ago, Chicken Run proved these rules as incorrect.

Yet the numbers don't lie. People would rather see Puss In Boots than a stop motion movie. So, who do you aim stop motion films at? The two most successful on worldwide box office numbers, Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit were bright, family-centric, and bursting with easily likeable and accessible characters. But then you get something like Coraline, based on the writing of Neil Gaiman, which finds an audience in spite of being a less obvious family choice. Coraline, however, increasingly looks like a modern day one off. Here's hoping we're wrong.

The olive branch for this type of animation comes from patience. Henry Selick's wonderful The Nightmare Before Christmas did good business when it first came out, but it's the tail that's really impressed. It's a film still saluted, collected and bought in numbers as it approaches its 20th birthday. There's a timeless feel to stop motion animation that means it sidesteps a CG arms race, and the short term battle that ensues, in place of making back its money over a longer period of time. It's hard not to see The Pirates!, for instance, entertaining generations to come. The sad thing is that it needed to make more money now to get a sequel off the ground. I'd be surprised if that sequel ever happens now, and that's a sad state of affairs. And all this comes in the light of news that Disney has backed out of making Henry Selick's next stop motion project. How sad is that?

For now, my hope is that people support The Pirates! on its DVD and Blu-ray release, and go and see ParaNorman when it turns up in UK cinemas this weekend. Because stop motion is a glorious art form, one to be cherished and savoured. It helps, too, that the films that use it have been very, very good. Let's hope that more people realise that.

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It's no secret to anyone who knows me how much I love my animation and stop frame animation is right up there at the front. I admire the skil and labour of love it is to create a stop motion animation, whether a short, and advert or a feature length film. And when they are right (which they usually are) they are something of beauty...timeless.
Don't get me wrong, I love CGI movies too, I just honestly think it's not quite the craft of stop frame (or regular hand drawn) animation - it lacks that warmth.
Can honestly say that both Pirates! and ParaNorman are two of the BEST films I have seen this year, and I'm including them alongside "proper" films.

Hi Gang...What can I say...Wallace and Gromit Curse of the Were-Rabbit was funny, inventive and had great characters. Coraline was superb, every Christmas my wife and I still watch the Nightmare Before.... and Fantastic Mr Fox was also great and all of these films sit on my media center downstairs to this day. However we were bored stupid by Pirates band of Misfits. It was pretty to look at, great animation and voice acting and very British, but it was a bit dull. Not a lot happened and I am struggling to find something to say about it that I can remember as a stand out moment, or anything that made either of us laugh out loud. Compare that to Rango which was fabulous and off beat and weird and still told a great story, the fire breathing whisky moment had us screaming with laughter the second we saw it. That never happened once in Pirates. Its not a bad film, its just a bit slow/boring. Its charming and looks lovely but never seemed to get started or pull us in, its like they had this idea of a bad Pirate who was nice but could not find enough in the way of jokes, visual gags or other ideas to keep the momentum going. Maybe its just me and I am getting old. Lorax was fairly dull and rubbish too. Its like everything a good and popular film is good and popular for a reason, if its drawn, claymation or CGI or Celluloid or HD Digital or Hologram or whatever else they might come up with. I am looking forward to Wreck it Ralph now...

Got to disagree with any love anyone might have for Pirates. I'm just surprised it did anything like as well as it has done.

It missed the mark totally for me. It looked fantastic, and as with any Aardman, it contained a few laugh out loud moments, but way less than I suspect it was aiming for.
I had issues with:
- The famous voices not matching the looks of the characters.
- The 'pop' music soundtrack (London Calling? Really?).
- Casting Darwin as villainous - is this really what we want in way of children's first impression of a man whose undeniable theory is seen a heretical by some to?
- Too many jokes missed their target.
- Was the constant beard reference supposed to be a running gag?

I gave up about an hour in, I was just utterly bored, sitting remembering how funny CotW-R was and figuring out who was voicing who.

I think with animation, any animation, the basic rule is the same as all other kinds of film, if the script isn't right, then no matter what, the film will fail. There's been lots of great animated films, from Snow White, to Watership Down, Nightmare Before Christmas to The Incredibles and they were strong both visually and in terms of their story.

New or niche style can only take you so far as a film maker, after that you need the characters, dialogue and plot to keep your audiences entertained and currently we seem to be in a bit of a slump with seemingly endless Ice Age films, a more variable output from Pixar and a frankly slap dash dreamworks' roster of releases.

... I dislike animated films in general as I find them dull and full of cliches, kiddie gags and or over sentimentalism. Even the beloved Pixar films elude me because I find (with the exception of the first two Toy Story) that the few great ideas and moments are lost in the middle of the mess. Stop motion animation on the other hand is the one I always look up, and love every single one of them I've seen, except for James and the Giant Peach. There something in the hard work and true love of art required to make a stop motion film that translates to the end result, and to me it looks way better than most CGI films. It's a shame the audience seems to be so limited but perhaps that's what keeps from becoming mainstream and dull...

If only Willie Rushton was still with us. "Trapdoor: The Movie" would blast through that billion dollar barrier. BERK? WHERE'S MY DINNER?

I think it's such a shame that stop-motion animated films are so over-looked.
I really can't wait to see Frankenweenie, and have desperately been trying to get my friends to go and see it with me, but when I say "black-and-white stop motion" they don't seem too keen.
I think I need new friends :)

RIGHT ON! A couple of years ago I got the whole series of Trapdoor on DvD. Its still just BRILLIANT. From the ideas, animation and the stories and characters its not dated at all is amazing fun. Willie Rushton was superb, just like Bernard Cribbins was the Wombles, W Rushton WAS Berk....and Bony..and the Thing Upstairs. If only they would make animated series like this for kids today...They dont know what they are missing. I even had the game on the ZX Spectrum, which despite the lack of colour in the brickworks and dungeon, had the whole thing spot on....Hmmmm I think I will go and watch it again tonight!

Exactly right... It was a crap script and missed the mark by miles. I still cant remember or work out what the hell it was supposed to be about? It something to do with a not very good pirate....something about a pirate competition and then wandering off to rescue the was just boring. And not funny. Its a pity David Tennant cant seem to find something new to be in as big as Doctor Who, because everything he has done since has either flopped, gone un noticed, or not been very good, or just dull and only appealed to niche viewers....I hope he goes back to WHO next year for the 50th specials, and he might remember, and realise just how good he had it. Oh well...Rex is not my Lawyer, Fright Night and Pirates band of boring Twats will have to do I suppose....

You may be onto something, however the US had the Rankin/Bass stop-motion holiday specials (beginning in the 60s) that were mainstays on TV (though were also really, really ugly IMHO). There IS a cultural thing with The Lorax, I'm sure, because Dr Seuss is friggin huge in the States - despite the fact the screenplay took a lot of liberties. (Fun fact: my mother never let me read Dr Seuss as a kid because she thought the nonsense rhyming would lead to poor reading and writing skills on my part...)

hate to agree, but 100% accurate

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