Risk-taking in the world of Animation and the fears of Development Hell

Imitation is the highest form of flattery, or so they say.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery, or so they say.

Hollywood does not like to take risks, I’m pretty sure we all know that. It’s why we’ve had four Transformers films and are reviving Star Wars films for the second time. Those with money want to play it safe, and those without are going to try to copy what is working in order for them to get their hands on some money. Film production has changed drastically within the last several decades. In the 50s, a film like The Bad and the Beautiful would have an average budget of around $1.5 Million to work with. Nowadays the latest blockbusters have a budget a hundred times that size. Jurassic World with a budget of $150 Million, Inside Out with a budget of $175 Million, and Avengers: Age of Ultron with a budget of ~$280 Million. The money is thrown into these big name products because companies like Universal and Disney know that these films will make their money back several times over. As Powdermaker puts it in his novel Hollywood, The Dream Factory, “Unless a profit is “sensational” or “terrific”, it is not considered a profit in Hollywood.” (pg. 90)

It’s things like this that made watching The Bad and the Beautiful quite interesting, since it was depicted as an open look into the film industry during the 40s. Poking into the lives of a screenwriter, a director, and an actress, it goes into their histories working under the same film producer, Jonathan Shields, during their starts in Hollywood. Things go wrong for all three of them involving the producer, so they all part ways with him and find success for themselves. Shields (The producer) is a very picky man when it comes to his films, and decides to not release a film he himself directed after firing the original director, leading himself to bankruptcy. Watching The Bad and the Beautiful, I was reminded of the animated film The Thief and The Cobbler and its infamous production.

Cobbler

The Thief and The Cobbler was entirely hand-drawn, quite the feat both today and back when it was released.

For quite a long time, The Thief and The Cobbler held the record for the longest production time for any animated feature in the world, starting production in 1964 and finally being released in 1992-5.  The film was the pet project of Richard Williams, best known as the animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, who spent his time constantly reworking and making changes to the film as he jumped between several production companies. Much of the time spent on the film was gathering funding for the film and showing it off to other filmmakers, but despite nearing a finished product in 1991 and having names like Vincent Price on the project, he was still over budget and running behind the schedule that was placed on him. After showing an almost finished copy of the film to the heads at Warner Bros., they decided to sell off the rights of the film to a much less experienced company as well as removing Williams from production in general.

persistence of vision film poster

Persistence of Vision, a documentary detailing the production history of The Thief and The Cobbler.

What this resulted in was three versions of the film being released worldwide, the first being released only in Japan and bearing the closest resemblance to William’s original intentions. A second release was produced by Allied Filmmakers and released within Australia with added musical numbers and vocal tracks for the film’s originally silent protagonists Tack (The Cobbler) and the Thief, as well as changing the title to The Princess and the Cobbler. Probably the most well-known (And most criticized) version of the film was Mirimax’s release in 1995. The name was further changed to simply Arabian Knight, with several more cuts made to the film and the addition of celebrity names like Matthew Broderick to the main cast. The US release of the film would eventually bomb in the box-office, barely making $300,000+  off of it’s $24 Million budget. While the film saw a few VHS and DVD releases here and there, there was no truly “complete” version of the film available until the mid-2000s when the “Recobbled Cut” was released on Youtube. Produced by a fan of William’s work by the name of Garrett Gilchrist, the Recobbled Cut took the highest quality versions of the film released to the public along with salvaged and incomplete footage that went unused in earlier productions, along with redrawn versions of incomplete scenes.

Executive meddling is something that exists in all forms of film production, and is something that one will have to embrace and/or deal with when trying to make it in the big leagues of the film world. You can either work your way to the top (Like Jonathan Shields) or slowly make a name for yourself and try to aim for the top (Like Richard Williams), but one screw-up and you’re back at the bottom calling old friends and former acquaintances to see if they will work for you on one last project.

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