Pixar and DreamWorks Animation have dominated the kid-friendly world of animated films for more than a decade, but thanks to hits like “Ice Age,” Fox has emerged as a major force in one of the film industry’s fastest growing fields.
Over the next two years, the studio could solidify its place alongside those two pioneers with the release of "Epic," an original story with Beyonce voicing the lead, and "Rio 2," its second potential blockbuster franchise.
The News Corp.-owned studio renewed animation chief Vanessa Morrison’s contract on Wednesday, a vote of confidence for her role in a decade of blockbusters from the division and its Blue Sky Studios subsidiary.
The studio’s latest movie, “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” is closing in on $450 million at the global box office and is on track to pass more milestones before its theatrical run ends. The “Ice Age” franchise has now grossed $2.3 billion worldwide, giving it few peers in the world of franchises, animated or otherwise.
In the animation space, only DreamWorks Animation’s “Shrek” has earned more, with $3.5 billion in grosses across five movies.
“Artistically, and financially, all of our successes have been undeniable,” Morrison said. "People love these movies around the world and that is the ultimate validation and the ultimate reason why we make these movies.”
Blue Sky Studios, led by Chris Wedge, Brian Keane and Carlos Saldanha, and Fox Animation have a far lower profile than Pixar or DreamWorks Animation, both of which have been run by industry icons — Steve Jobs and Jeffrey Katzenberg. And they haven't yet received the critical adulation or awards recognition of their larger competitors.
“They want to have hits, but I don’t know what their perspective is on storytelling,” one rival executive said.
Since Fox formed an animation department around the Greenwich, Conn.-based studio, it has yet to miss at the box office. Even "Robots," though not a smash hit, still brought in a healthy $261 million. And it is one of six Blue Sky Studios films to top the box office its opening weekend.
Only one release, “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” failed to win its opening weekend. It fell $1 million short of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” The third “Ice Age” film still went on to be the most profitable in the company’s history, grossing $886 million worldwide – $50 million more than “Revenge of the Fallen.”
Morrison (right) sees no reason her studio should be viewed as less successful than her more-established competitors. “We are absolutely one of the top animation studios out there,” she told TheWrap. “There’s no evidence to the contrary.”
And, for now, the competition is welcoming another player.
“We always hope that the animated genre will find success because computer-generated animated movies, particularly 3D movies like [“Ice Age”], are good for all of us,” the rival executive told TheWrap.
This summer, Pixar, DreamWorks Animation and Fox each released a film within about a month of one another, and despite that overlap, they all fared well.
DreamWorks Animation’s “Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted,” the first to open, will soon pass $500 million at the global box office while Disney/Pixar’s “Brave” has topped $250 million. And then there’s “Ice Age,” which like its predecessors, has found a huge audience in foreign territories.
“When you look at animation, its one of the few categories that’s still really healthy,” Tony Wible, an analyst with Janney Montgomery Scott, told TheWrap. “It’s a lower-risk category. Yes, there is more competition, but creative windowing can almost assure you’re going to have a hit.”
Studios have taken notice.
Universal signed in 2008 an exclusive deal with Illumination Entertainment, run by former Fox Animation chief Chris Meledandri, who oversaw the first string of Fox/Blue Sky hits. His studio has made one film a year since 2010, two of them hits, “Despicable Me” and “The Lorax."
Sony has had an animated division since 2002, but it is ramping up its offerings, and Columbia chief Doug Belgrad just discussed a mandate from Michael Lynton to expand the studio's family offerings.
Paramount has relied heavily on DreamWorks Animation and other outside producers over the past several years, but is expected to increase its in-house production.
And there are new companies outside the studio system, like DQ Entertainment, which is working on a “Jungle Book” movie, and Tradition Studios, a subsidiary of Digital Domain Media Group, which also owns the James Cameron-founded Digital Domain Productions.
What separates DreamWorks Animation and Pixar from Fox — longevity — is also what separate Fox from these other up and comers.
Not only has “Ice Age” continued its firm grip on the box office, but the studio has launched a second franchise – “Rio.” The first movie, starring the voices of Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway, grossed $484 million and the second one is slated for 2014.
Before that, Fox will distribute Blue Sky’s “Epic," formerly titled "The Leaf Men," which chronicles a teenage girl caught in a battle between forces of good and evil.
Morrison described it as the most ambitious film the studio has undertaken.
"It has that special look of a world that you recognize but with a tactile reality that technology allows us to do right now," she said.
Individuals with knowledge of Blue Sky and Fox say growth and expansion could be on the way — beyond its current clip of one movie a year.
“'Ice Age,’ ‘Ice Age 2,’ ‘Robots,’ ‘Horton,’ ‘Rio,’ ‘Ice Age 3'…we’ve been blessed in the sense that now we have a legacy behind us,” Morrison said. “Those are a lot of movies. A lot of movies that people put their hearts into.”