(NYTimes, By Laura M. Holson)
HOLLYWOOD, Oct. 2 — Mike Hernandez has had it with the new offerings of animated movies.
Other than “Cars,” the summer hit from Pixar Animation Studios, he would rather watch the re-released animated classic “The Little Mermaid” with his 4-year-old daughter, Alicea.
“They had a good message,” Mr. Hernandez said of “Cars” and “The Little Mermaid” after attending a recent matinee of “The Little Mermaid” at the El Capitan movie theater here. Of other, newer films, he said, “I don’t pay too much attention.”
With more than a dozen computer-animated movies being readied for release by next summer, Hollywood is facing viewer fatigue worthy of Sleeping Beauty. Analysts and industry executives have long warned of a coming glut of computer-animated movies. That time has come.
Now, with so many movies for audiences to choose from, some are failing to meet expectations or are flopping outright.
This summer’s “The Wild,” from the Walt Disney Company, proved anything but for moviegoers, bringing in only $37 million at the domestic box office. The bigger disappointment was “The Ant Bully,” produced by the actor Tom Hanks and distributed by Warner Brothers Entertainment. That movie’s powerful ant wizard could muster only enough magic to garner $27 million.
By contrast, the debut of “Open Season,” the tale of a defiant grizzly bear and feisty mule deer who battle hunters, brought in $23 million over the weekend for Sony Pictures Entertainment, putting it in first place. But only the coming weeks will tell whether it will be widely embraced by moviegoers.
Over the last five years, almost every major film studio has sought to make or acquire the type of movies pioneered by Pixar, which was recently acquired by Disney. At the same time, independently financed animators have ratcheted up production.
But while animation continues to be popular with families, audiences complain it is suffering from too much sameness, with movie plots and characters looking increasingly alike.
Computer animation is not the novelty it was when introduced a decade ago. Now even actors are animation-savvy. Aside from Mr. Hanks, the popular actor Will Smith has plans to produce an animated film in India. With all the choices, moviegoers are being forced to sift through an increasingly crowded marketplace where quality and brand-name recognition will ultimately reign supreme.
“I think audiences are saying, ‘I’ve seen a lot of computer animation and it’s not so special anymore,’ ” said Julia Pistor, an executive producer of the recent “Barnyard,” which was a modest performer, bringing in $69 million domestically. “In that case it’s a lot harder for a movie to break through.”
Both Pixar and its main rival, DreamWorks Animation, continue to dominate the animation genre because their brands are widely known and highly regarded. But even those studios are feeling the pinch.
Though “Cars,” from Pixar, was a hit last summer, bringing in $243 million domestically, it failed to live up to prerelease expectations. The stock price of DreamWorks Animation is down about 40 percent since it traded near a high of $42 in November 2004, as analysts and investors remain concerned about unpredictable movie profits. Shares closed at $24.57 yesterday.
Box-office figures show how central Disney and DreamWorks are to the animation business. (Executives there declined to comment for this article.) Nielsen EDI, a box-office tracking service, said that 2004 was a banner year for animation, with domestic box-office receipts of $1.2 billion. That success was largely a result of the release of “Shrek 2” and “Shark Tale,” both from DreamWorks, as well as “The Incredibles” from Pixar.
In 2005, the domestic box office fell by half, to $640 million. Then Pixar did not release a feature film that year, and DreamWorks’ “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” was a flop.
Through mid-September 2006, the domestic box office for animated films was $928 million. But there also has been a rise in the number of films — filmmakers plan to release 17 animated movies in 2006, compared with 11 in 2005.
If there is a shakeout and fewer animated movies are made, animators without a brand name or those who do not produce high-quality movies will probably be hurt most.
“There are a lot of movies out there,” said John H. Williams, a producer of “Shrek” and chief executive of Vanguard Animation. “The question is, ‘Who are the people who are going to be getting the funding?’ ”
The main criticism of animated movies within the industry and among consumers is that they are beginning to look alike. And the recent crop looks a lot like a zoo.
Natalie Ward, 13, who was out shopping with her grandmother, Bonnie Ward, in Hollywood recently, was unimpressed with the latest offerings. “There are so many movies with animals,” she said, pursing lips tinged blue by the icy neon drink in her hand. “The ones about cows are too, like, I don’t know — boring.”
Next month, Warner Brothers will distribute “Happy Feet,” featuring tap-dancing penguins. Rats are a favorite, too. Coming from DreamWorks is “Flushed Away,” the story of a high-class rat flushed down a toilet into London’s sewers, while “Ratatouille” from Pixar features a rat living in a fancy French restaurant.
These movies come on the heels of a menagerie of talking animal films, including “Over the Hedge” (raccoon, turtle, skunk), “Barnyard” (cows, mule, hen) and “The Wild” (lion, wildebeest, koala bear). Even “The Ant Bully” looked like a reworking of previous insect-themed movies like “A Bug’s Life” and “Antz,” both released in 1998.
“I think we need to branch out and find a wider breadth of stories to tell,” said Gary Ross, the director of “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit,” who is producing the animated film “The Tale of Despereaux,” based on a best-selling book that features a rat, a servant girl and a mouse who cross paths. “We just have to find a diversity of narratives.”
Still, it is no wonder that Hollywood is flush with fuzzy creatures. A few years ago “animated films were the most profitable,” said Mr. Williams. That was particularly true because they were nearly guaranteed to be best sellers on DVD. But making animated movies is expensive — some cost upward of $150 million — and that makes it especially risky to bore consumers.
John Davis, the writer and director of “The Ant Bully” did not return calls seeking comment. But studio executives have said that even with its reasonable budget of about $45 million, it is questionable whether “The Ant Bully” will make a profit. That sent shivers through the animation industry, whose members wondered how a film backed by Mr. Hanks and starring Julia Roberts could have performed so poorly.
Many here suggest that animation will go the way of independent film companies, many of which were either acquired by major studios or have been forced to hawk their films project by project. Already several animation companies are shopping new movies, but studio executives are being cautious. “There are all these people saying we are going to be the next Pixar,” said Ms. Pistor. “We say, ‘Who is your John Lasseter?’ ”
By all accounts, DreamWorks and Pixar should be in a good spot to weather the uncertainty. Pixar is now part of Disney, having been acquired earlier this year for $7.4 billion. The timing of that sale looks especially smart for Pixar, given the recent jitters about the genre.
DreamWorks, meanwhile, is still publicly traded and is unlikely to be sold anytime soon, analysts say. In a recent interview, Viacom’s chairman, Sumner M. Redstone, said he was not interested in acquiring DreamWorks Animation, which is run by Jeffrey Katzenberg. (Mr. Katzenberg co-founded DreamWorks SKG, the company from which the animation unit was spun off, with the director Steven Spielberg and the billionaire David Geffen.)
DreamWorks recently had a creative tussle with a partner, Aardman Animation, the British producer of two movies released by DreamWorks, “Wallace and Gromit” and the coming “Flushed Away.” While “Wallace and Gromit” was critically acclaimed, American audiences did not like it and the movie brought in only $56 million at the domestic box office.
Aardman executives chafed at the creative control DreamWorks tried to exert, particularly with “Flushed Away,” according to people apprised of the situation who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the relationship.
As a result, the two companies have decided to split and Aardman is expected to begin looking for a new distributor in the United States, said the people. Aardman executives did not return phone calls seeking comment. A DreamWorks spokesman said the studio had no immediate plans to make movies with Aardman after “Flushed Away.”
But in addition to getting along with its partners, DreamWorks must also manage Wall Street. One reason DreamWorks’ stock is trading at a low price is that analysts are concerned that a DreamWorks investor, Paul G. Allen, will activate his option to sell shares to the public. Such a move, which many analysts say could be announced before the end of the year, could further drive down the stock price. An alternative for DreamWorks is to sell a stake to another investor to pay off Mr. Allen, said analysts.
Asked by analysts last month if Mr. Allen had activated that option, DreamWorks’ newly appointed president, Lewis Coleman, said DreamWorks did not have to disclose that information, but had 90 days to respond to Mr. Allen.
“In our view, these comments are vague and cryptic enough to suggest that certainly the answer could be yes,” a Prudential Equity Group analyst, Katherine Styponias, wrote in a report last month.
DreamWorks’ financial machinations mean little to Bonnie Ward, Natalie Ward’s grandmother — unless the studio stops making interesting movies. She said she enjoyed “Over the Hedge,” even if the movie’s humor was sometimes a little grown-up.
“They aren’t all perfect,” she said of the new fare. “But it is something for me to do with my little grandchildren.”