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Hollywood Insider Sony Pictures Animation Success Story

Photo: Sony Pictures Animation

A once unheralded studio, Sony Pictures Animations is quickly revolutionizing the animated subsect of film through their unique storytelling and innovative distribution. 2018 saw the release of the high flying ‘Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse’ which, immediately upon release, was lauded as a masterpiece of Western animation and would revolutionize how artists use the medium thereafter. This success was just the first step to the studio’s plan for market domination through a creative new style instilled within the companies business model and offerings, alike. 

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Humble Infancy

The year is 1993; The film ‘Striking Distance’ starring Bruce Willis has just been released. This moment in time represents Sony’s first foray into animation through their newly minted off-shoot company Sony Pictures Imageworks. This was a tiny company of just five employees specializing in building complex sequences and backdrops through computer imaging to aid live-action films. The company would go on to prove very successful finding increasing demand for work with each passing film they supplied animation for. Through 1994-1999, Imageworks was credited for visual effects in huge critical and financial draws, ‘Speed’, ‘Die Hard With A Vengeance’, ’Starship Troopers’, and ‘Stuart Little’ amongst dozens of other films. Only after the release of the aforementioned ‘Stuart Little’ would Sony truly delve into the world of animation. 

With the release of ‘Stuart Little 2’ coinciding perfectly with the releases of Dreamworks’ ‘Shrek’ and Pixar’s ‘Monsters, Inc.,’ Sony felt it was the perfect opportunity to dive head-first into animation. Fast forward to 2002 and Imageworks has been left in the shadow of the newest addition to the Sony conglomerate, Sony Pictures Animation.

SPA, as it is commonly referred to, has become one of the most widely distributed animation studios in the history of the medium, putting out dozens of films and creating six original franchises. On the studio’s first birthday, May 9th, 2003, their first-ever upcoming release slate would be announced. ‘Open Season’, ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ and ‘Surfs Up’ would all be coming to a theater near you. 

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Angsty Teenage Years

Sony Pictures Imageworks are the actual animators, those beautiful few capable of sculpting life through the screen of a computer. They are the people responsible for the actual images we see on screen and Sony Pictures Animation is the business side. SPA becomes responsible for the transactions of IP, the upcoming slates, anything monetarily linking Imageworks to their parent company, Sony. In this understanding of the balance of power between the two sister companies, it is clear that they are largely reliant on each other for success. Without one, the other has no chance of survival. 

It’s interesting to see the success, or lack thereof, that the new era of SPA ushered in. The company never lived up to the heights of their greatest competitors Pixar and Dreamworks, instead, garnering a reputation as the crude substandard competition. Although some of their films would go on to be critical or financial successes, they failed to ever put two and two together and create something groundbreaking.

Instead, three sequels of ‘Open Season’ were made, three sequels to ‘Hotel Transylvania’ were made and two sequels of ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ and ‘Smurfs’ were made. It is clear to see that there was some level of disconnect between the two studios resulting in some bizarre, capitalist idea of animated films being made instead of actual attempts at telling a story. Out of the Studios theatrical releases, seven have been sequels and only 13 have been original concepts. 

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This questionable approach to production led to SPA having a terrible reputation and audiences denigrating their productions to the bargain bin of animated works. These were some of the darkest years in the history of Sony Pictures as the company failed to generate any semblance of a cult-like fan base that is so common amongst franchises like ‘Toy Story’ or ‘Shrek.’ This was a period of needed growth for SPA, growth that any company must undergo on its mission towards market domination. Some companies undergo this transformation more gracefully than others, but making it through is all that matters. It was only after their image fell to unprecedented lows that the studio began to reassess how they went about conceiving and producing films, but adjust they did. 

Sony Pictures Animation – The Reinvention

December 14, 2018; the Sony Animation renaissance officially begins. On this date in history ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ would release to an unparalleled level of fanfare and acclaim. The film has widely been discussed and labeled a modern masterpiece and, within a year of its release, became the highest-grossing Sony Animation film of all time. Finally, Sony had achieved critical and financial success and, unsurprisingly, it came in the form of their most interesting and creative production to date. This was only the first step in a long process of revitalizing the tired studio. The glimpse at the potential when both sister companies align in their mission with a more cohesive and healthy outlook for success.

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Since the release of ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ SPA has slated a number of upcoming productions, including a sequel to the transcendent Spider-Man property. Alongside the upcoming sequel are an assortment of films focused on unique and diverse locations and themes featuring the Chinese inspired ‘Wish Dragon’ and the Cuban story of immigration with Lin-Manuel Miranda’sVivo.’ This commitment to interesting, fresh ideas paired with competent and recognizable names is a recipe for success. This formula has already begun to bear fruit, as well, with the success of ‘The Mitchell’s vs. The Machine’s.’ The film uses hints of technical aspects used in ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ to add personal flair to the visuals, making for a fun and engrossing watch.

To quote acclaimed film reviewer Mark Kermode, an animated film is at its best when, “…it plays to a wide range of ages. The kids are entranced by exciting visuals and the story and the adults are full of tears for the fact that, in the end, the film is about them and their relationship with their children.” This truth is largely applicable to the fantastic ‘The Mitchell’s vs. The Machine’s,’ I found myself in literal tears several times, some from the sheer emotion portrayed and some from the comedy that had me laughing out loud.

The upcoming productions ‘Wish Dragon’ and ‘Vivo’ bring some heavy hitting and massively successful names on board, giving them a bit more pre-release credibility than they would usually be afforded. Jackie Chan and Lin-Manuel Miranda have signed on to produce the respective films, instantly donating a vote of confidence. With respect to the former, Chan will be starring in ‘Wish Dragon’ – the Chinese language version but will be replaced in the English version by John Cho.

The former, Miranda, who is most famous for creating and starring in the broadway iterations of In The Heights and Hamilton, will also write and perform original music for the film, ‘Vivo,’ alongside his role as producer. Collaborating with accomplished, multifaceted artists like Miranda and Chan is a great step towards creating genuinely interesting and fulfilling films. 

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A New Way of Distribution

Following the absolutely massive success of ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ on Netflix, it quickly became apparent that it was no longer necessary for animated films to debut in theaters in order to be successful. Streaming has revolutionized everything about cinema, and with the help of the pandemic, it is becoming progressively more viable option for distribution. Sony has taken advantage of this, selling the rights to ’Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’, ‘The Mitchell’s vs. The Machine’s’ and the upcoming ‘Vivo’ and ‘Wish Dragon’ exclusively to Netflix. It appears as though Netflix has worked out some kind of exclusivity deal with SPA to premiere their films on the most-used streaming platform on Earth, creating a huge pipeline for distribution in the future.

Streaming invariably eliminates any possibility for financial failure as Netflix is able to broadcast productions directly to consumers at a rate previously untapped by theaters. After Netflix has had its time with the SPA products, they will then be turned over to Disney+ where the pay-for-play service can push the already specialized platform on the consumer even further. This new dimension adds several wrinkles to the already confounding algorithm that is distribution.

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On one hand, it guarantees that we, the consumers, will be getting quality animated films directly for a number of years into the future. On the other, it lowers the bar of quality, so to speak. There is no way of knowing or trusting Sony Pictures Animation to keep up their impressive outings in the future, so absolute security in distribution may afford them the luxury of taking their foot off the pedal and releasing some half-baked duds. This is something that will take time to play out, but it will be very interesting to see in the future, nonetheless. 

What’s Next

Well, ‘Wish Dragon’ will be releasing on June 11th of this year along with ‘Vivo’ which is coming out at some unspecified time in 2021. These productions will provide a clear glimpse at the impending fate of Sony Pictures Animation, but even if these new properties flunk there is still a chance at redemption for the studio. The ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse 2’ release will be the ultimate deciding factor in the medium to the long-term health of SPA.

Will we see another slip into sequel-itis as the conglomerate did previously or will they put more stock into making fun, touching, and creative properties. Only time will tell, but the outlook is brighter now than it ever has been. Sony Pictures Animation and Imageworks have worked together to create some truly great films in ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ and ‘The Mitchell’s vs. The Machine’s,’ making it easier to trust them now than it ever has been before. 

By Tyler Sear

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