The Filmation studio may fall victim to the success of a market it established.
Although the bulk of the studio's production has been animated television programs, its future may depend on the theatrical feature, "Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night," which fared relatively poorly in its opening Christmas weekend ($600,000 in 1,182 theaters). The Woodland Hills-based studio recently laid off more than 300 animators, assistant animators and ink-and-paint artists, reducing the staff to about 230 employees, down from a peak of 700.
During the early '80s, studio president Lou Scheimer quit producing network kidvid shows to develop a program based on a line of sword-and-sorcery toys from Mattel. The runaway success of "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" in 1983 created a lucrative new market for animation in first-run syndication. Other studios began making syndicated shows and soon glutted that market.
"This September, 28 or 30 series of 65 half-hours were available for first-run syndication," said Scheimer in a recent interview. "The market has become so crowded, it's very difficult to find time slots. And what used to be a market that started in January for September of one year now starts in July the year before: People are selling material for syndication a year and a half in advance."
"The layoffs became inevitable when we didn't sell anything for next season," he continued. "Our parent company, Westinghouse/Group W, has backed us--they've put $25 million into the three features we're doing. But we couldn't continue the insanity of producing two half-hour shows that weren't going to be sold this year. We started the features to train young animators; now they've taken on a life of their own."
Syndicated production mushroomed while the number of viewers remained stable, resulting in a fragmented audience and plummeting ratings. With the exception of Disney's smash hit, "Ducktales," ratings for syndicated cartoon series have fallen 50% or more in the last two years. The decline in ratings has led to a decrease in revenues.
"These are barter shows," explained Scheimer. "You give the show to the stations and they give you back 30-second commercial spots; you sell the spots and hope they pay for the shows. In 1983, 'He-Man' grossed between $15,000 and $16,000 per 30-second spot; our recent shows only grossed about $6,000 per spot. That's a drop of about 60%, while our costs have risen at least 30%--for a business, that's not great."
Filmation's commitment to keeping every aspect of production in America has raised costs considerably. (Much of the animation work for network kidvid, syndication and even some features is done overseas, primarily in the Far East.) One of the most expensive areas of production is the labor-intensive ink-and-paint process: The artists' drawings must be transferred onto "cels" (sheets of clear acetate) and painted before they are photographed.
"It costs between $10 and $12 to do each cel in the United States," said Scheimer. "In Korea, that cel costs about $1.25; in mainland China you can get it done for about 17 cents. Ink and paint has been costing us $30,000 to $40,000 per half hour. I think our 'Pinocchio' will be the last feature done entirely in this country: About 60% of the ink-and-paint for our upcoming feature, 'Snow White: The Adventure Continues,' will be done overseas."
(With "Oliver and Company" and "The Little Mermaid" are in production at the Walt Disney Studio, "Pinocchio" will not be the last animated feature made in the United States.)
In addition to completing "Snow White" and a feature based on the "Bravestarr" television series, the remaining Filmation artists are developing four series for syndication. "Sherlock Holmes in the 23rd Century" and "Bravo" are original properties. The other two will center on characters from the features: the Bugsbergh insects from "Pinocchio" and the seven diminutive ladies known as the Dwarfelles from "Snow White: The Adventure Continues." The fate of the first two series will be decided in February, when they'll be offered at the annual National Assn. of Television Program Executives conference.
"The creative people we have left are preparing material so it can be produced once it's sold. Of course, there's a risk it may never be sold. . . , " Scheimer said with a sigh.
"What's happened to us is a microcosm of what's happened to industry in America. In the short term, it may be very difficult to produce animation entirely in this country. I see one hopeful sign: You can't afford to do it in Japan these days, either. The Japanese are subcontracting work to the Koreans--who are subcontracting it to Taiwan, the Philippines, mainland China and Malaysia. I'm eagerly awaiting the day a Japanese animation studio comes to ask us whether we would be willing to accept subcontracted work from them."