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20th Century Fox Closes Its Phoenix Animation Studio

Film: Decision to end costly 6-year run follows layoffs in February. Unit produced only 2 theatrical features.

June 29, 2000|CLAUDIA ELLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

20th Century Fox has shuttered its animation studio in Phoenix after a disastrous and costly six-year run that produced only two theatrical features.

Fox's decision to close the unit had been under consideration for several months since layoffs of two-thirds of the operation's 320 employees in February. The remaining 60 staffers were let go Monday.

Recently ousted Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman Bill Mechanic had come under increased pressure from his bosses, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch and President Peter Chernin, when it became clear that the studio's huge investment wasn't paying off. It was Mechanic who aggressively championed Fox's move six years ago into the animation business.

Fox opened its Phoenix facility in 1994 with a $100-million financial commitment. The director-producer team of Don Bluth and Gary Goldman were recruited to run the operation, which was expected to turn out a full-length feature every 18 months.

Despite opening amid great fanfare, the Phoenix facility's first feature, "Anastasia," was only a moderate success, making $58.4 million in U.S. theaters.

The follow-up feature, "Bartok the Magnificent," was a direct-to-video release, and the studio's second theatrical feature, "Titan A.E.," an expensive sci-fi flop, has grossed just $17 million after two weeks in release and is expected to lose Fox tens of millions of dollars.

Fox officials say that despite closing its Phoenix plant, the studio plans to continue producing animated movies under its Los Angeles-based animation president, Chris Meledandri.

The new focus, however, will be on computer-generated animated movies produced at its Harrison, N.Y.-based Blue Sky Studios, rather than traditional, hand-drawn animation.

For six months, Fox has been in the process of transforming Blue Sky from a special effects and commercial production house into a feature film animation studio. Its work force was recently increased to 150 from 75 to gear up for its next feature, "Ice Age," which begins production shortly under the direction of Chris Wedge (who won an Oscar for his animated short "Bunny").

A Fox spokeswoman said Meledandri will remain in place as head of animation, overseeing projects produced both in Los Angeles and at Blue Sky.

Other animated projects in the works include "Monkeybone," a live-action, stop-motion animation comedy directed by Henry Selick, due out in early 2001, and "The Dubbed Action Movie: Enter the Fist," an offbeat comedy starring and written and directed by Steve Oedekerk, which is part of a planned trilogy. Both films are in post production.

"Frisco Pigeon Mambo," produced by the Farrelly brothers, and a film version of the comic book "Fathom" are also in development at Fox's animation division.

Meledandri said Fox wanted to create a broad range of product to capitalize on the recent seismic shifts in the animation world, which has caused other Disney rivals like Warner Bros. to significantly retreat from the animation business.

"The marketplace for animated feature films has changed dramatically, creating opportunities beyond the realm of traditional cel animated pictures," Meledandri said. "Consequently, we've refocused our efforts to include a wide range of films . . . everything from mixed media to state-of-the-art CG animation."

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