Friday, May 5, 2017

Don Bluth Productions

I chose not to focus on just one of his studios, since he had three and he owned them all, so for a more condensed story I bunched them all into one. Don Bluth had worked for Disney as an animator and animation director off and on starting with Sleeping Beauty. In 1979, along with John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman, Bluth left Disney and created his own animation Studio, Don Bluth Productions. Bluth and the others were tired of the bureaucracy at Disney and the “churn em’ out” attitude Disney used. Bluth wanted to get back to the golden age of Disney, but didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel while he worked there. Goldman, Pomeroy, and Bluth had been working on a short, Banjo the Woodpile Cat, while at Disney and took it with them when they left. Along with other defecting animators, they worked out of Bluth’s home to finish the short. It took four years of part-time work, mostly done while at Disney, to finish the short, but they screened it in 1979, with TV stations picking it up a couple years after. After Banjo was finished they moved out of Bluth’s house and into an actual facility in Studio City, CA.

They moved on to their first feature-length film based on the children’s book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Disney had been offered the rights back in 1972, but turned it down. Aurora Productions, headed by a former Disney exec, bought the rights to what would eventually be called The Secret of NIMH and gave Bluth a budget of $5.7 million and 30 months to complete. This was a tighter schedule than most animated films at that time. Keeping with Bluth’s desire to go back to the “golden age” of animation, they sought to make their films focus more on strong characters and story, and utilize more labor-intensive animation techniques. Limited Animation was still very popular at that time, and Bluth felt it was killing traditional animation. To pull off this approach to the animation, plus stay in budget and finish in time, the animators worked long hours with no immediate pay-off. Though directors and producers routinely were paid with cuts of the film’s profit, this was unheard of for animators, though that’s just what they did. They utilized all they could without cutting corners when it came to the production to make sure they had exactly what they wanted from the film. The studio ended up going over by over $500,000 and Bluth, Pomeroy, Goldman, and even the executive producers from Aurora collectively mortgaged their homes to finish the film. This is what it looks like when a studio that is financing an animated film actually believes in it!

The film took two years to complete and was released in 1982. Critics praised the richness and fluidity of the animation, though some were not hooked on the story. The movie did reasonably well at the box office, making $14 million against its almost $7 million budget. This was not enough to save the studio. Combined with the industry-wide animator strike in 1982, Don Bluth Productions was forced to declare bankruptcy. The Secret of NIMH had a few things going against it. Bluth didn’t have any clout quite yet and therefore didn’t have the name recognition to help promote the film. This would not be a problem for long. Second, those who were not familiar with the book were likely confused by the title of the film and therefore didn’t bother. Lastly, it opened a little while after E.T., and that’s one of the highest grossing movies of all time. Here’s my own input on The Secret of NIMH. In my opinion it is one of the best animated movies I’ve ever seen. This is coming from someone who watched this a bunch as a kid and still sings Paul Williams’s “Flying Dreams” every time he thinks about the movie. I’m a bit biased, I admit. If you haven’t seen the movie and want to show it to your kids, be warned that this is not a traditional kid’s movie. Bluth’s films, at least his movies from the 80’s, didn’t hold kid’s hands and showed frightening images, death, and blood. I’m not talking about Watership Down levels of blood, but it was something that Disney hadn’t even done yet (they would with The Black Cauldron in 1985). Mrs. Brisby getting her arm sliced open by the cage still sticks with me to this day. I completely recommend this movie, but maybe wait to show it to your kids if they are a little sensitive. I know I have covered Secret of NIMH before, but I really like talking about it.

Bluth reformed his studio under The Bluth Group. Bluth Group did not last long. They worked with video game company Cinematronics to make Dragon’s Lair, which ended up being a huge hit. Unfortunately the gaming industry collapsed shortly after and Cinematronics, in an effort to keep themselves from financial ruin, froze all fees and royalties to Bluth Group. Bluth was again forced to declare bankruptcy. Luckily for Bluth, while working on Dragon’s Lair he met Morris Sullivan, a mergers and acquisition broker. Sullivan was a huge fan of traditional animation and saw potential in Bluth’s company. Combining Sullivan’s business know-how with Bluth’s animation prowess, they formed Sullivan Bluth Studios. They moved into a much larger studio and started production in 1985. While starting to move, Bluth was approached by Steven Spielberg about creating an animated film about a young mouse family emigrating to America, An American Tail. Backed financially by Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, and distribution by Universal, production started in earnest. Production had a different feel from Secret of NIMH. Amblin and Universal wanted more control over what was happening and their interference caused many scenes and songs to be dropped. On top of that were union issues with his workers that eventually caused him to relocate to Ireland. Despite some rough goings with production, An American Tail was released in 1986 to mediocre reviews but killed it at the box office, pulling in $47 million, setting the record for highest grossing animated film during its first run. This was the first time that Disney had legit competition, and considering how huge of a bomb The Black Cauldron was, they should have been worried. The studio did indeed re-locate to Ireland while product on The Land Before Time started. Bluth lost even more creative control on Land Before Time, with 10 minutes of film being cut from it by the end. The film was finished in 1988 and competed with Disney’s Oliver & Company. While it initially out-did Oliver, Land Before Time would fall behind in its initial gross. It has since grossed more thanks to re-releases. In terms of accessibility, Land Before Time has way more going for it. Oliver & Company suffers from being very 80’s, and that gives it a very dated feeling as opposed to the timeless (get it?) feel of Land Before Time.

In 1988, Sullivan Bluth partnered with Goldcrest studios for partial financing and distributing. Partnering with Goldcrest allowed Bluth to have more creative control over his movies, something that he really didn’t have with Spielberg. Their next film, All Dog’s Go to Heaven, was released a year after Land Before Time, and had to be cut down so it could receive a G rating. The movie is still terrifying at parts, don’t be fooled. PG doesn’t seem so bad now, but that was box office poison to animated movies, as evidenced by Disney’s The Black Cauldron. Of course half of animated movies are now PG, so I guess kid’s are tougher these days? All Dog’s Go To Heaven went up against Disney’s The Little Mermaid and lost. Big time. Grossing only $26 million, it would find its footing with VHS when it would become one of the highest selling of all time. Bluth’s golden age was officially over. It’s all downhill (mostly) from here, folks! Bluth had challenged Disney and was doing pretty well for a while. You can partly attribute Disney’s Renaissance to Bluth, as he lit the fire under Disney to produce a legit hit, which they eventually did with The Little Mermaid.

Goldcrest was bought out and the new owners were not happy about All Dog’s Go to Heaven’s gross and dropped Sullivan Bluth. Sullivan Bluth would rename itself Don Bluth Entertainment and release its next film, Rock-a-Doodle in 1992. Bluth had long been planning on making Rock-a-Doodle, a story based on Chanticleer, and it finally came to fruition in 1989. Bluth had long been catering to what critics had been saying and not what audiences thought, so he held screenings and changed elements based on audience reaction. Unfortunately that didn’t work out too well for Rock-a-Doodle. It was lambasted by critics and grossed only $11.7 million, losing to its apparent competition, Ferngully, which had grossed $32.7 million. Bluth, yet again, had to file for bankruptcy. Bluth would limp on for three more films, Thumbelina, Troll in Central Park, and Pebble and the Penguin, thanks to various financial backers, but all were commercially and critical failures, the studio eventually closed for good in 1995.

After Thumbelina bombed in 1994, Bluth and Goldman were hired by Bill Mechanic, then-chairman of 20th Century Fox, to be the heads for their new animation studio, Fox Animation Studios. Fox had a mixed past with distributing animation and were hoping to change their luck with Bluth and Goldman. They actually had a big hit with 1997’s Anastasia, the most Disney animated film that wasn’t Disney. People still mistake this for a Disney film, and every time someone makes that mistake I want to beat them over the head. Disney wasn’t having it and scheduled The Little Mermaid release around the same time and spent millions advertising for it, while also forbidding any of their corporate sponsors from showing any clips of Anastasia. Anastasia ended up making $139 million all together, making it Bluth’s biggest hit, beating out The Land Before Time. Critics also enjoyed the movie, though they acknowledged that the film borrowed heavily from the Disney recipe.

Titan A.E. had been bouncing around Fox for a few years, though initially as a live-action movie. It ultimately fell to Fox Animation to make the film, something Mechanic had to unfortunately force them to do, or he would lay off all their workers. Though they were not fans of science-fiction, Bluth and Goldman took on the film. Fox suffered cutbacks in 1999 and was forced to lay off most of Fox Animation anyway, with production being given to random animation studios. One of these studios was Blue Sky, who would end up being a successful animation company years later. Bill Mechanic was fired by 20th Century Fox and that all but doomed Fox Animation. Titan A. E. bombed at the box office and the studio closed for good shortly after. Don Bluth did not have an easy time of it for a good portion of his career. He was an excellent animator and a lot of his stories have stuck with kids to this day. Unfortunately he also created a few duds, and those aren’t all his fault, as it’s always hard to pin a specific person with the blame for a production that involves multiple companies. Bluth is remembered best for his hits in the 80’s and effectively bloodying Disney’s nose. Disney would not have another real competitor until Dreamworks started churning out hits.

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