LOS ANGELES — In the modern Disney classic “Frozen,” a pair of royal sisters wage battle, a lover turns treacherous and a few oddball characters come along to save the day.
Hollywood’s animation business is having its own Elsa moment.
The sector known as one of the film world’s most stable — “Incredibles 2” and “Hotel Transylvania 3” were both hugely lucrative this past summer — is slowly playing out its own mythic dramas, if with less-catchy music.
Companies are beset by mergers, or #MeToo scandals. Studios are wedded to big ambitions, or shackled to past successes.
And internal questions are only the start. Leaders such as Disney and Pixar are trying to maintain dominance over the field, while close competitors like Illumination are closing in. Once-great studios such as DreamWorks are struggling to find their way back. And well-funded upstarts from Sony to Netflix are seeking to knock them all off.
“We are witnessing fundamental change right before our eyes,” said Dan Sarto, editor at the industry-watching Animation World Network and a close observer of the category. “It’s totally unprecedented. Everything is subject to disruption.”
In interviews with The Washington Post, 16 animation executives and experts, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the highly competitive nature of the field, described a world of intense battles, complex strategies and, maybe most telling, modern motivations. In an era in which entertainment has become fragmented and niche, with kids and parents rarely agreeing on what to watch, animation’s reliable power to attract whole families is the reason studios can’t let it go.
At stake is not just which Hollywood conglomerate will reap financial bounties — major franchises like Toy Story can take in $2 billion or more globally — but which will define the tone and style of animation moviegoers see for years to come. Will the category continued to be dominated by the computer-generated soulfulness of Disney and Pixar? Or will the off-kilter, European flavor of Illumination and its lovably goofy “Minions” make more inroads?
Will the genre-bending approach of Sony, with movies like the upcoming action-adventure “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” set a new course? Or will Netflix and its willingness to spend big on Oscar-nominated filmmakers, as it announced last week, change the game?
John Lasseter has been one of just a few people to define the modern animation zeitgeist: slick computer-generated kids’ tales with simultaneously serious themes for adults. He achieved the feat first at Pixar and, in recent years, at Disney, too. But despite what many thought would be a lifetime tenure, Lasseter has stepped down, accused of unwanted sexual advances and promoting an unsafe work culture.
The news set the companies — and industry — on their ear. While this month’s “Ralph Breaks The Internet” and next year’s “Frozen 2” and “Toy Story 4” are decidedly Lasseter pieces, the longer term brings a large degree of uncertainty.
Disney promoted two in-house filmmakers, Jennifer Lee and Pete Docter, to run the creative sides of Disney Animation and Pixar. Both learned from Lasseter and have plenty of bona fides: Lee, the more extroverted of the two, wrote and co-directed “Frozen,” while Docter is behind hits “Up” and “Inside Out.” Each has a deep track record in crafting stories that kids can understand but parents can appreciate — the heartbreaking opening montage about an elderly man’s life with his beloved late wife in “Up,” for example — a central requirement of modern high-end animation.
But neither has any executive experience, provoking skepticism about whether the pair will run the business side or placate their corporate bosses as skillfully as Lasseter was known to do. A Disney spokesman declined to make Docter or Lee available for this story.
Adding to the new-era feel: Longtime Disney-Pixar President Ed Catmull, known as the mind to Lasseter’s soul, announced last month he will step down in December.
As it turns out, Lasseter himself may not yet be done. The executive has been looking to reenter the entertainment business just months after his ouster, according to two people with knowledge of his thought process — raising questions, a year after the Me Too movement, about how and if industries should accept attempted comebacks.
Lasseter recently met with officials from at least one agency, WME Entertainment, where in a two-hour meeting at the firm’s Beverly Hills headquarters, he gave his side of the accusations and outlined his hopes for his next act, according to a person who was at the meeting but not authorized to speak about it.
While Silicon Valley companies looking to get into animation would seem a logical fit — Lasseter had ties to late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs — his specialty in creating large theatrical experiences runs counter to those companies’ focus on personal devices.
In fact among the areas in which Lasseter expressed interest, said the person, was one unrelated to animation: podcasting.
Lasseter did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Meanwhile, Illumination Entertainment, a company founded just 11 years ago and owned by Universal Pictures parent Comcast, has become a quiet force, claiming two of the top five all-time global animation hits in “Minions” and “Despicable Me 3,” the only titles on the list not from Disney-Pixar. As with many companies, animation is outsourced overseas — in its case, Paris, where more than 800 animators execute and handle the technical work of ideas conceived by writers at its smaller Santa Monica, Calif., office.
“They’ve done a great job with quality and consistency,” said Doug Creutz, a senior research analyst at Cowen who covers animation. “If Pixar misses a step, Illumination will continue to take more share.” The firm has had three movies gross close to or more than $1 billion worldwide.
But company executives — and competitors — are keenly aware these movies come in the Despicable Me/Minions franchise, an older line that began eight years ago. To succeed, Illumination must slip its way into new franchises, an elusive goal it will attempt to reach with sequels to “The Secret Life of Pets” next year and “Sing” in 2020.
This weekend it released “The Grinch,” kicking off the holiday animation season with a film based on the Dr. Seuss standard, the company’s second adaptation of the beloved author. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, the movie centers on a plot to derail Christmas in Whoville — a worthy metaphor for a sector in which a whole batch of companies are trying to thwart the long-standing leaders.
Illumination also has work to do on the Oscar front: Disney-Pixar has won the animation prize 10 of the past 11 years, including six in a row. Illumination has never won.
“Even if Illumination takes share from Pixar [with Lasseter gone], I still think there’s room for all three,” added Creutz of the ranking of companies by market share. “It’s below them where things get really interesting.”
Right below them, in fact, is DreamWorks, a onetime megalith searching fervently for its identity after a sale to Universal and the exit of the pioneering Jeffrey Katzenberg.
How the company will look post-Katzenberg — his tenure was marked by boisterous animal franchises such as Madagascar — has become one of the major industry riddles. At the helm now is Chris deFaria, a former Warner Bros. executive who oversaw the penguin musical “Happy Feet.” How much he takes it in a similar direction — proven but potentially played out — has been closely parsed by animation analysts.
In February, DreamWorks will release “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” the third film in its Oscar-nominated crown jewel series that has totaled $1.1 billion in global ticket sales. DreamWorks has high hopes — Steven Spielberg even gave notes to “Dragon’s” director Dean DeBlois, according to a person familiar with the production who was not authorized to talk about it publicly.
But many animation experts believe its longer-term slate won’t be as critic-friendly — or as commercially secure. The company plans on two to three films a year: sequels, originals and hybrid live-action-animation. That’s a high volume, these observers say, given a lack of established franchises and clear forward path. Whether it can recapture the Katzenberg-era magic with an as-yet undefined identity remains highly unclear.
So, too, is how the company will fit with Illumination; perhaps the greatest maneuvering in animation is not between companies but within them.
Comcast bought DreamWorks for nearly $4 billion in 2016. At the time, Illumination chief Chris Meledandri — considered the most powerful animation executive after Lasseter and Katzenberg — was asked by Comcast executives to run both units. He declined (though has taken over development of a “Shrek” reboot). The two firms diverge in sensibility — the partly France-based Illumination has a more European mind-set compared with the more American DreamWorks. Neither deFaria nor Meledandri would comment on these issues. A Universal spokesman would not comment.
One area of tension, say those with knowledge of the companies, is release dates. Illumination and DreamWorks have thus far basically carved up the calendar — the former getting more plum dates of July 4 and the run-up to Christmas with the latter landing Easter and the early part of the holiday season. But top DreamWorks executives are privately unhappy with that arrangement and do not believe it’s viable in the long run, according to a senior person at the company who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to be seen as criticizing a corporate sibling.
“Ultimately the dating needs to change if DreamWorks is going to get back to the top,” the person said.
Because DreamWorks is not at the top, and because competitors know it, the race is on to dethrone it from the fourth spot. Sony has made the biggest play, tripling its crew size and doubling its slate in 2017 under Kristine Belson — herself a former DreamWorks executive.
(Sony’s movies, like those of Illumination and several other studios, tend to be made less expensive, often for under $100 million. Animation is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process, taking hundreds of animators working for years, and the battle is often about keeping costs down. Disney-Pixar generally spends the most, frequently taking longer for development and employing vast teams; by some estimates, the “Incredibles 2” budget reached $200 million.)
Belson also has sought to implement a broader way of thinking about animated movies. After “Transylvania” this summer, the company will look to increase its 2018 advantage in December with “Spider-Verse.” The film, which it co-produced with Marvel, breaks the mold with a harder-edged action-adventure than most big-budget family animation.
“I don’t know what’s going on inside other animation studios, but I know what we feel we need to do at Sony,” Belson told The Post. “When you look out there’s a landscape of sameness. To survive, the movies have to be different.”
Sony isn’t the only company that sees a vulnerability — or DreamWorks talent as the key to knocking off DreamWorks. Paramount has hired Katzenberg’s longtime production deputy Mireille Soria to help revive its own animation efforts. So far she has focused on branded titles, activating a long-troubled “SpongeBob SquarePants” sequel and acquiring a “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie from Sony. Soria did not respond to a request for comment. (DreamWorks, it should be noted, is not releasing a movie this year as it makes the transition to deFaria.)
Meanwhile, Warner Bros., which struck gold with an offbeat hit in “The Lego Movie” four years ago, will continue to mine that ground — and aim to get to DreamWorks’ slot, or at least Sony’s — with a sequel next year. Creative range is the gambit here: Development projects involving Dr. Seuss properties, a George R.R. Martin novel, a Wile E. Coyote title and a story about Toto from “The Wizard of Oz.” (These midsize companies could have it easier with Disney’s purchase of Fox, which means Blue Sky — Fox-owned creator of the Ice Age movies — is likely to be shuttered, barring a sale.)
And all of this is to say nothing of Silicon Valley. Netflix surprised many at the Cannes Film Festival in May when it paid $30 million for “Next Gen,” an independently produced animated feature partly financed out of China with a glitzy American cast. Several weeks ago, the company announced it was making a new stop-motion adaptation of “Pinocchio” by “The Shape of Water” director Guillermo del Toro, suggesting a desire for quality and a willingness to spend for it. And last week it announced new film projects from the co-director of the Oscar-nominated “The Secret of Kells” and the co-director of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2,” among others.
“Netflix is banging at the gates, and we at the studios ignore them at our peril,” said a high-ranking executive at one of the top four studios, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to be seen as rebuking his colleagues. Whether they can do that without the major theatrical releasing that sits at the core of the animation business model remains an open question. Netflix executives declined to comment for this story.
The mad dash for supremacy — and the differing approaches to get there — means the vibe of the next generation of animated films is harder than ever to predict. The multiplex could see a reelection of the Disney-Pixar reign of the past two decades, a power-sharing arrangement between them and Illumination, or any one of several upstart challengers.
“There is this kind of crazy fluid situation now where you’re not sure who’s going to be cannibalized by whom,” said John Eraklis, a veteran animation producer. “And that means you’re really not sure what the long-term visions for any of these places, or even animation in general, is going to be.”
The sector has seen an undeniable burst in players and films lately — last year saw 15 wide-release animated films, up 50 percent from just five years earlier. And the new entrants will flood the market further.
That could be cause for optimism, making some consumers feel that an increase in choice awaits. But it makes a few creators worry about a reduction in these movies’ luster.
“On the positive side Hollywood now believes in animation in a way it never did before,” said Brad Bird, the director of the Incredibles movies at Pixar. “When I was starting, executives would give me this self-assured look that no animated film would ever make $50 million.
“But technology has also made it much easier to make movies, and I hope people don’t rely on that,” he said. “I hope they use it to push artistry and not simply take advantage of all the ways a computer can support you. I hope people make films because they have a bold new story.
“Just because it’s easier to put out an animated movie,” he added, “doesn’t mean you should.”