Times certainly have changed in Toontown.
20 years ago, this was a particularly competitive & cutthroat corner of Hollywood. Take – for example – the extraordinary lengths that Disney went to back in November of 1997 in order to maintain its dominance in feature animation. To deliberately undermine the November 21st release of Anastasia (which was Fox Animation Studios’ first foray into features), the Mouse launched a multi-pronged attack.
The first thing Disney did was to send The Little Mermaid back out into theaters on November 14, 1997 for a special limited-time run. “How limited?,” you ask. This Academy Award-winning animated feature would only stay in the multiplexes for 17 days before Ariel then swam back into the Disney vault.
Part Two of Operation Undermine Anastasia was that – on the exact same day that this Don Bluth film went into wide release – Disney then sent its two hit films from the Summer of 1997, Hercules & George of the Jungle, back out into discount theaters as a double bill.
And then – as the final coup de grâce – just five days after Anastasia debuted in theaters, Disney planned on releasing “Flubber,” that studio’s CG-enhanced remake of its 1961 Fred MacMurray comedy, The Absent-Minded Professor.
So did Disney’s plan to kneecap Anastasia ultimately pay off? Given that Fox Animation Studios’ premiere production cost $53 million to make and then only earned $58 million during its initial domestic run, I’d say that the Mouse’s strategy was pretty successful.
Which isn’t to say that – given what Mickey did to her movie – that the Grand Duchess Anastasia was completely down & out. In fact, the stage version of this animated musical begins previewing at the Broadhurst Theatre next week and will then officially open on Broadway on April 24th.
Getting back to how brutal things used to be in Toontown … Just one year after Disney went after Anastasia, the Mouse found itself in a similar sort of showdown with DreamWorks Animation. The only problem was that Jeffrey Katzenberg (i.e., the former Chairman of Walt Disney Studios who was first forced out of the Mouse House in August of 1994 by Michael Eisner and who then went on to join forces with Steven Spielberg & David Geffen in October of that same year to form DreamWorks SKG) was equally determined to win.
Which is why – when Disney refused to change the release date of A Bug’s Life (which was Pixar Animation Studios’ much anticipated follow-up to its 1995 smash hit, Toy Story. Which was the world’s first feature-length CG film) so that DreamWorks Animation’s The Prince of Egypt would then have the long Thanksgiving weekend (more importantly, that holiday’s lucrative box office) all to itself, Katzenberg did something that genuinely shocked a lot of folks in Hollywood. He changed the release date for Antz (which was DreamWorks Animation / PDI’s own insect-inspired animated adventure) from its previously announced March of 1999 to October 2, 1998. Which meant that Antz would then make it into theaters a full seven weeks ahead of A Bug’s Life.
This change-in-release-dates absolutely infuriated the folks at Disney & Pixar. So much so that – even when DreamWorks Animation ultimately decided to push back the release of The Prince of Egypt from Thanksgiving 1998 to December 18th of that same year – the Mouse deliberately moved its Mighty Joe Young remake to December 25th. With the hope that their big ape would then make it that much harder for DreamWorks’ animated Moses musical to make bank over the week between Christmas and New Year’s.
And this sort of sniping continued between these two animation studios over the next few years. One has to only look at 2001’s Shrek (which features numerous swipes at characters from Disney’s animated features as well as the Company’s theme parks. Not to mention that this movie’s main villain – Lord Farquaad – was reportedly modeled after the Mouse House’s Big Cheese Michael Eisner) to realize that those who were in charge of these companies at that time were still nursing some pretty serious grudges.
But like I said, that was almost 20 years ago. And now that Eisner & Katzenberg are no longer calling the shots at their respective studios, Toontown seems to have entered a relatively peaceful period.
Don’t believe me? Then check out this trailer that 20th Century Fox released yesterday for The Boss Baby. For the first time in Hollywood history, a DreamWorks Animation character actually directly references a Walt Disney Studios release.
In a trailer that’s actually supposed to run in front of screenings of Disney’s live-action Beauty & the Beast reboot, we first see stylized toy versions of Lumiere and Cogsworth. The candlestick says to the mantle clock “Come one step closer, and I’ll illuminate you with a soft glow.” In response, Cogsworth snarls “And I’ll clean your clock.”
As the stylized versions of these Beauty & the Beast characters begins to battle, the camera quickly pulls back – revealing the Boss Baby in his high chair, bashing plastic squeaky toys of Cogsworth & Lumiere together. Quickly realizing that the audience had now spotted him playing with such juvenile items, the Baby Boss immediately tosses these Beauty & the Beast toys aside and then speaks directly into the camera.
“Look, you’ve all made an excellent decision to see this movie. You’re clearly shrewd,” says this suit-and-tie clad toddler as he sucks up to the audience. “So let me lay this out for you: On March 31st, my movie – DreamWork’s The Boss Baby – will be coming out. We don’t have any talking candlesticks. But if that’s the deal breaker, we’ll cram one in there somewhere.”
This is (obviously) a very clever trailer for The Boss Baby. One that will almost certainly go viral and then help build interest in this Tom McGrath movie. But at the same time, one has to argue that this is an incredibly smart move on Fox’s promotional department. Given that Disney’s live-action reboot of Beauty and the Beast is already a box office behemoth (During its first three days in domestic release, this Bill Condon film sold $170 million worth of tickets. Which is not only a record setter for the month of March, but also makes this movie the seventh largest domestic opening of all-time), it’s clearly going to continue to do strong business for the next couple of weeks. Which means that all of those people who now go to see Disney’s Beauty & the Beast reboot will also get to see this Boss Baby trailer which then gently spoofs this hit motion picture. Which – the promotional team at Fox clearly hopes – will then compel people to go check out this new DreamWorks Animation production when it’s actually released to theaters on March 31st.
Mind you, the marketeers at the Mouse House did something similar when Monsters, Inc. was first released back in early November of 2001. Only in this case, the concern was that – when the eagerly anticipated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone finally opened in theaters on November 16th of that same year – people would then just stop going to that Pete Docter picture.
But given that there were a lot of Pixar Animation Studios employees who were Harry Potter fans and were also really looking forward to seeing that Chris Columbus film … Well, the attitude within the promotional department was “ … if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
Which explains “Charades.” This Monsters, Inc. trailer was deliberately designed to be placed in front of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. With the hope that its message (i.e., “Now showing in a theater near you. Really near you. Like, maybe, right next door”) would then compel J.K. Rowling fans to give Pixar’s latest a try.
And given that Monsters, Inc.‘s box office actually went up the weekend after “Charades” began playing in front of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, this was clearly a pretty effective piece of promotion.
So now that Disney & DreamWorks Animation appear to have buried the hatchet, will tranquility reign in Toontown? Well, you have to remember that Hollywood’s landscape has radically changed since 1997. These days, there are all sorts of animation studios out there (Among them Blue Sky, Illumination Entertainment, LAIKA, Sony Pictures Animation and Warner Animation Group) that are producing acclaimed animated films that are seriously connecting with audience around the globe.
So just because Disney & DreamWorks Animation have entered a relatively peaceful period doesn’t mean that the people who run all of these other animation studios aren’t then super-competitive / don’t want to dominate at the box office.
Which brings us to April 8th. Which is when – just one week after The Boss Baby opens in theaters – Sony Pictures Animation’s Smurfs: The Lost Village then goes into wide release. Will that Alec-Baldwin-voiced travel-sized-CEO cause blue blood to be spilled at the box office? Or will The Lost Village sell so many tickets that The Boss Baby‘s run in theaters will then be brought up short?
We’ll know for certain in 20 days or so.