$35 million budget puts 'TMNT' on road to profits

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Imagi interview: Although CG animation typically means stratospheric budgets, "TMNT," which Warner Bros. opened to a very animated $24.3 million, cost only about $35 million to make.

With the picture clearly on its way to being a highly profitable title for Warner Bros., The Weinstein Co. and Hong Kong based Imagi Animation Studios, I welcomed the opportunity to focus on the business decisions behind reimagining the 1990's theatrical franchise. For those insights I spoke Monday to Thomas K. Gray, president and CEO of Imagi USA and a producer of the film with H. Galen Walker and Paul Wang. Written and directed by Kevin Munroe, "TMNT" was executive produced by Francis Kao, Peter Laird, Gary Richardson and Frederick U. Fierst. The movie is based on characters created by Laird and Kevin Eastman.

"When I joined Imagi back in 2004, the head of the studio, Francis Kao (who founded Imagi Studios in 2000) noticed that I had 'Turtles' in my resume," Gray told me. When Gray was heading production for Hong Kong based Golden Harvest in the early 1990's he had been the architect of the original "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" film franchise that wound up grossing over $256 million domestically. "So he said, 'What do you think about doing 'Turtles' in CG?' My first reaction was, 'That's an interesting thing. Yeah, why not?'

"That kind of started the wheels turning. Why not? We could do this film for a budget that would be relatively inexpensive. If we had to do it live action, I daresay it would probably be close to (costing) in the hundreds of millions of dollars. So from our studio point of view, we were a young studio, we were looking for our first major picture, we thought, 'Yeah, let's make this film in the $30-$35 million range.' It actually came in at $35 million."

Looking back at how the project's costs were kept so low, Gray explained, "You know, people say, 'Well, you outsourced to Hong Kong.' Well, we actually outsourced to the U.S. because it is a Hong Kong company, which is pretty unique. They did a couple of series called 'Zentrix' in early 2001 and 2002. They made 26 22-minute half-hour (shows) and sold them to M6 out of France, which was distributed overseas. We then were contracted to do 'Father of the Pride' by DreamWorks as Jeffrey Katzenberg had seen 'Zentrix' and liked the work we did. We owe and credit DreamWorks a lot for helping us set up our pipeline and set up the quality controls that they have in their system.

"We have a lot of proprietary software now, but we were (using at the time standard software like) Maya and RenderMan. As I say, Jeffrey raised our level of quality. So when this picture came around to be a project we were already set (up so that) we could do a major picture on time and on budget. The picture was set up in 2004. We obtained the rights back from Mirage Studios and then set out to find a director. That director turned out to be Kevin Munroe, who we had met just doing the interview process around town. We liked that Kevin came from the comic book arena, that he had done CG on at least television for Disney and we felt that he had a very good take on it, much like we felt back in 1990 (that) Steve Barron would be the guy to make the 'Turtles' (first live action film). Steve had come off those wonderful MTV videos of 'Beat It' with Michael Jackson and A-ha, where he had used rotoscope. So that was a very fortuitous decision back (then). We felt strongly that Kevin not only had the creative instincts, but he was also a big fan of the project."

Munroe worked closely with "Turtles" creator Peter Laird, Gray explained, "to try to come up with a tone of the film that was closer to the original comic book -- a little darker, a little grittier, maybe what we call 'less Cowabunga' -- but ultimately the one driving issue was to make it for the fans. Those fans were with us 17 years ago and we wanted to please them (today) more than anything and that was the ultimate goal. Once the film was set up for production, we went around looking for somebody to pick up the picture for worldwide distribution. We got very, very strong reaction from Harvey Weinstein and Warner Bros. so it was decided between the two of them that they would pick up the negative cost of the picture.

"They didn't exactly pay the entire amount, but it was sufficient for us to go forward. But they were very strong in their belief that they could help bring the Turtles back. It was decided between them that Warner Bros. would take the U.S. domestic release and marketing chores and that Harvey would have international. And that Harvey would then sell it to the majority of the countries overseas to independents and that in those countries where they felt Warner Bros. would be stronger -- such as the U.K., France, Italy, Spain and Japan -- Warner Bros. would take the distribution in those countries."

A March 2007 domestic release date was set up two years ago, he said, "because we felt that historically that was the 'Ninja Turtle' date. All three 'Turtles' opened in the early '90s on that date and we would probably have our best chance of success (then) as opposed to waiting for the summer or some of the peak holiday playing times. It has always been (in) the 'Turtle' style to open out of holidays and then go into holidays and that's exactly what happened. We were very pleased with the opening results for 'Turtles.' I think it demonstrates that the fans have come out and supported the film. We are tracking A- on CinemaScore and we believe that now the McDonalds campaign is kicking in along with (the campaign by) Ubisoft, the gamer. Their game came out across all platforms on March 20 and it's doing very well. The toys are (selling) extremely well at the Wal-Marts and Toys R Us during the season that is out of Christmas.

"So all things are firing on the 'Turtles' as we go forward. Next week will be an interesting test as we come up against (Disney's opening of the animated feature) 'Meet the Robinsons.' We think that our strong word of mouth will help us get through that period and into the school holidays. So overall we feel that the gamble to bring the 'Turtle' franchise back at this time certainly has paid off. Overseas we are just under way in several countries. But we are very positive (based on) the early results from Singapore, Australia, the U.K. and some Eastern European countries have already gone day and date. So we look as school holidays come in to gather strength."

As for a sequel to "TMNT," Gray observed, "I think this is certainly something we are considering, but we want to get further down the line (before making a decision). I talked to our partners at Warners and Weinstein about how they feel about it. It's tremendous to bring this series back. It's certainly a vindication for the series that while the 'Turtles' have been in somewhat of a hiatus, they have never completely gotten out of the mindset of our core fans as well as the new generation. After we finished the last three films -- the last one was released in March of '93 -- it really didn't look like the franchise was holding much strength after we'd gone from $134 million for the first, $84 million for the second and $42 million for the third. The budgets were rising in the other direction from $10 million to $16 million to $21 million. So obviously you say to yourself, 'I think we've run this course for this session.'

"Then the 'Turtles' kind of went and dried off. They stayed a little bit in syndication on television. They were passed down (a) generation by people that bought the VHS. And then there were several tries and attempts from various people to try to reactivate the 'Turtles,' but nothing really ever got any traction with anybody until Al Kahn, who's the head of 4Kids, approached Mirage about coming back on television on the Fox stations about three and a half to four years ago with new animation (that was) a little bit grittier (or) 'less cartoony.' It was kind of a hybrid. They pushed the envelope a little more because it was more reflective of what's on kid's television. And that in itself kept the franchise perking along albeit to a very young demographic. (4Kids) really believed with Mirage that they could bring this back. They put it on Fox Television Saturdays and it's now branded as For Kids Television on Saturday mornings on Fox."

It was that new television exposure that really introduced the "Turtles" to today's generation of youngsters. "As we started to put the film together," he added, "we started picking up on the Internet that there was a groundswell of fans who are now 20-somethings, who started giving us a great deal of support that, 'Hey, if you come back with CG we'll definitely support it.' And that all ended up climactically at last year's Comic Con in San Diego where Kevin showed seven or eight minutes (of footage from the movie) and it was almost a religious experience. They were all 20-something fans. And that's when we got really excited about the film's potential upside.

"I think that manifested itself with opening day figures, which were in the $8.5 million range. The evening shows started to show great strength. So that was really our core belief that while the film is a young person's picture, we would have another quad coming in that we didn't have the first time around, which we affectionately refer to as our Alumni Association."

Nonetheless, there were risks associated with attempting to revive the franchise theatrically: "Clearly, there's always a risk especially for a young company's maiden voyage. Clearly, we took a risk. But, again, we were hopeful. Our leadership in Hong Kong was very aggressive in believing in the franchise and coupled with the support of Warners and The Weinstein Co. in the form of a negative pick up to a certain degree our financial risk was certainly there, but we mitigated it by the deal, which is always a comfort level. We did end up in the $35 million (budget) range, which people look at and say, 'My God! How could they do this?'
"It's actually very simple in the sense that we outsourced the picture to America. That means the front end -- the writing, directing, the storyboard artist, the pre-visualization, the color correction -- was all done here (in the U.S.) with the best of the best. We used the top line guys that have very, very A Class credits. And then we did our postproduction here at Warner Bros. So those (things) were done at the highest level. The middle part, which is the compositing and rigging and animation and everything that goes in the middle, was all done in Hong Kong, which (was a big savings in the cost of) man hours. We have a studio of 450 animators in Hong Kong that are earning an annual salary (that's), perhaps, a sixth of what the studios would be paying here in this country. They are all young graduates that have just come out of the poly-technicals of Hong Kong's top universities and the tremendous Hong Kong work ethic and the fact that they are a day ahead of us lends itself to very good economics."
Most important, he emphasized, is that "the salary structure is a fraction of what it is here. They are paid a substantial amount of money for this type of profession in Hong Kong so it is not that we're running some backstreet (operation). We have a state-of-the-art facility there. The most incredible savings are in the middle part of the picture. If you had to do it here, this film would clearly be $130 million. So it's not that we're putting out a call for everyone to do the same thing. It just happens to be that this is a Hong Kong company that has wider ambitions and they're using the resources of the U.S., but they also have that enormous advantage of work ethic and scale rate in Hong Kong. So it's an unbeatable situation.
"It's almost (like) when I was at Golden Harvest making Jackie Chan films for very little money and shooting (them here) and there was an economy of scale in those savings. So we're just doing what comes naturally for us. We looked at it and we didn't want to compete with the big boys (like) DreamWorks, Pixar, Blue Sky, Fox and Sony by doing the same kind of films -- these happy talking animal movies -- which has been pretty much everybody's m.o. for the last couple of years. We wanted to take it to another level with a little bit grittier darker superheroes aimed at the gaming market, which is 8 to 18, mostly male -- but we're picking up an enormous amount of females because that is the trend everybody's seeing. Even in '300' you're getting a tremendous amount of females going to what was traditionally a male dominated film. Those quadrants are now totally getting obliterated because of gaming."
That's conditioned Imagi's approach as it moves forward now with upcoming features like "Gatchaman," a hit property in the '70s, and "Astro Boy." "It's best not to try to do the same thing, but to try to more or less do something at the leading edge," Gray observed. "And we plan on doing that for the next several pictures until we see a change in the direction of the marketplace. We have the ability to change very quickly and to go in a different direction. We are trending upwards to PG-13, which will be 'Gatchaman.' Kevin Munroe is doing that. We're delighted that Kevin is so into that one and now (that he's) coming off a big hit we think that's helpful.
"Colin Brady, who did 'Everyone's Hero' (an uncredited 2006 directing assignment) comes from a great background of working on (the 1999 video game) 'Toy Story 2' at Disney. He's been around and he has a very, very good take on how to bring 'Astro Boy' back. 'Astro Boy' was the seminal work out of Japan in the '60s. It was done by a Japanese company as somewhat of a post-atomic holocaust look at the world when Japan was just struggling to come out of the post-war issue. It was a metaphor for how Japan was reacting to the losses it sustained in World War II. It became an endearing character to the Japanese and then it spread around the world.
"We think that through CG we can bring this back in a new updated version with some of the characteristics of the original series and we strongly feel that the greater China, Korea, Japanese movement that's been dominating Saturday morning cartoons has really helped us get 'Gatchaman' and 'Astro Boy' into a position where there's a fan base that have come (from Japanese video games) and now with the rise of anime and manga around the world we are probably on the beginning of a new trend. 'Manga' is comic book in Japanese. 'Anime' just means animation in Japanese. But the style of these two entities artistically is what we're seeing around the world as a growth area."
These graphic styles haven't been as accessible in the West, he said, "probably because of the storytelling. We're used to more conventional storytelling than the Japanese. But the anime style we feel is a real growth area and we're greatly influenced by that in our films. We really were influenced by Frank Miller (and his) work on 'Sin City' and now on '300.' That inspiration was (from) somebody that we greatly admire and we've worked some of that into 'Ninja Turtles' to give it more of a gritty feel. (In 'TMNT') there's a scene with a fight on the rooftop in the rain that everybody is commenting about. That is so photo-realistic that people have said, 'Was that live action?' It's pure CG, but it shows you where we can get to.
"I don't think we ever want to replace live actors and there's always a place for live pictures, but I think what we're seeing is that CG is just going to be another storytelling technique like any that we had before and through that process of CG we're able to tell stories from our side that would be prohibitively expensive in live action. If we had to do 'Turtles' the old way in rubber suits and the budget (for) set construction and the time (it would take) we would be talking about a film that would stand up in today's marketplace in the $120 to $150 million (range). So CG allows us to bring the franchise back at a very high quality, but at a price that is economical for all concerned whether it be the distributor or ourselves as producers. It's not a call to make things cheaper, it's just a call to use the best resources at the right price."

Filmmaker flashbacks:
From Apr. 17, 1989's column: "'Speed Zone,' the title of producers Albert S. Ruddy and Andre Morgan's latest film, also seems an apt description of the production pace they've set for themselves in the past 18 months.

"During that time, their Ruddy & Morgan Prods. has turned out three very different types of pictures. First on the list was the romantic adventure 'Farewell to the King,' directed by John Milius and starring Nick Nolte, released domestically through Orion earlier this year. That was followed by the action comedy 'Speed Zone,' opening domestically through Orion April 21, directed by Jim Drake and starring John Candy and Donna Dixon. 'Impulse,' a police action drama directed by Sondra Locke and starring Theresa Russell and Jeff Fahey, is now shooting for worldwide release through Warner Bros.

"Ruddy, who's been working nights lately filming 'Impulse,' took a few minutes out the other morning to talk to me about that and the fast-approaching 'Speed Zone:' 'We did, as you know, 'Cannonball Run' and 'Cannonball Run, Part II' and we wanted to do a kind of a loose sequel. 'Speed Zone' is, in effect, another permutation of 'Cannonball Run.'

"'It was a project we had wanted to do for a long time. We developed the screenplay with Michael Short, Marty Short's brother, and we then got it to John Candy, who worked on the screenplay with Michael Short and Joe Flaherty...'

"The picture was, he adds, 'a sophisticated deal' that was shot in Canada and produced by Canadian producer Murray Shostak as a Canadian film. As things turned out, Ruddy says, it didn't cost less to shoot in Canada. 'Frankly, I think we anticipated more of a savings to tell you the truth,' he observes. 'First of all, the Canadian dollar rose against the American dollar form when we conceived of shooting up there to when we shot there. And then unfortunately -- although you always anticipated this to some degree -- we ran into a lot of bad weather. Had we shot the movie in, say, Arizona or Georgia, we would have saved at least three or four days...'

"Nonetheless, the picture came in at $13 million, an enviable price in an era of $20 million average budgets..."

Update: "Speed Zone" got off to a slow start at the boxoffice, opening April 21, 1989 to $1.5 million at 1,195 theaters ($1,234 per theater). It wound up grossing only $3.1 million domestically. Ruddy, however, went on to produce many hits, including the best picture Oscar winner "Million Dollar Baby."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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