The stop motion animation box office glass ceiling

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.

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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”.

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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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