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Sony hopes for clearer outlook with 'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs'

The computer-animated film is the studio's latest attempt to gain a foothold in the lucrative market for family movies.

September 18, 2009|Richard Verrier

Sony Pictures hopes "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" forecasts a sunny future for its animation business.

The $100-million-budget picture, adapted from the 1978 children's favorite storybook about a town where it snows mashed potatoes and rains fruit juice, opens today in 3,120 theaters. It's the first major computer-animated release from Sony since the 2007 box-office flop "Surf's Up" and signals the studio's latest attempt to enter the lucrative market for family movies.

Seven years after launching its animation unit, Sony Pictures is still trying to find its footing in a fiercely competitive environment dominated by more established studios in family entertainment, notably Walt Disney Co.'s Pixar Animation Studios, DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. and News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox.

It's a segment of the movie business in which Sony, with rare exceptions, has never been much of a player. But in recent years computer-animated movies have become gold mines for the studios because they frequently attract broad-based audiences both in the U.S. and overseas. Interest in the genre has been spurred further by the potential upside from 3-D screenings. Higher 3-D ticket prices helped deliver huge business for "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs," the third installment of Fox's movie series. It earned $667 million in overseas ticket sales, making it the third-highest-grossing film ever outside the U.S.

Although expectations for "Cloudy" are considerably more muted, the movie nonetheless "is important because [Sony] needs to establish their credibility as a force in the animation industry," said Steve Hulett, business representative for the Animation Guild, which represents animators at Sony and other studios. "Their track record has been checkered."

Sony's first computer-animated effort, "Open Season," was only moderately profitable, and the film's 2008 sequel was released in only a few foreign markets and went directly to DVD in North America. Its second movie, "Surf's Up," despite a disappointing performance at the box office, nonetheless earned an Academy Award nomination for best animated film. (Studio executives said "Surf's Up" was hurt by audience fatigue with a surfeit of movies featuring penguins that preceded it.)

Amid concerns that the division was operating too autonomously from the parent studio, Sony Pictures last year installed new management.

Bob Osher, chief operating officer with Sony's Columbia Pictures Motion Picture Group, was tapped to head the studio's digital production division, and Hannah Minghella, daughter of the late filmmaker Anthony Minghella, was put in charge of production for the animation unit. Osher replaced Yair Landau, who left after clashing with executives at Sony and the two former DreamWorks executives he tapped to run the division, Penny Finkelman Cox and Sandra Rabins. Tensions also arose between Sony's visual-effects unit, Imageworks, and the animation division.

Michael Lynton, chairman of Sony Pictures, attributed the division's problems to the growing pains associated with launching a new studio. "Animation is something that's relatively new to us," he said.

But Lynton said the new management team was communicating more closely with him and Sony Pictures co-Chairwoman Amy Pascal. In a departure from past practice, the two attend weekly meetings with the animation executives.

"We face stiff competition from people like DreamWorks and Pixar, and in all of those instances you see the whole studio get behind the movies," he said. "We realized that's something we needed to do."

Although Sony has traditionally relied upon big franchises like "Spider-Man" or star-driven movies with Will Smith and Adam Sandler to win over audiences, Lynton said animated movies like "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" were an integral part of the studio's new strategy to develop more family-oriented movies.

"It's a growing and global business," he said.

Ironically, through its Imageworks special-effects division, Sony had been a pioneer in cutting-edge computer animation by creating digital characters such as those in "Stuart Little." Nonetheless, the studio has been slow to leverage its technical expertise into developing full-fledged computer-animated movies and has been overtaken by rivals releasing hits like "Shrek" from DreamWorks and Fox's "Ice Age."

Although "Cloudy" was in development long before the management change, the movie marks the first major release for the new team.

Pre-release audience polling indicates that "Cloudy" is expected to have a modest opening. People who have seen tracking data estimate it could earn $25 million to $30 million on its opening weekend. That would be above the $23.6-million first weekend for "Open Season" but well below a typical opening for a DreamWorks or Pixar movie.

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