Annecy: Sony Animation Boss Teases New Films, Talks 'Smurf' Misstep: "It Tanked"

Kristine Belson - S 2015
Courtesy of Subject

Kristine Belson

“It was truly heartbreaking. In retrospect we had the wrong date," she said of 'Smurfs.' "Honestly, we underestimated what a big hit 'Boss Baby' would be.”

Sony Animation president Kristine Belson teased three unannounced projects from new directors that will be added to the upcoming slate during her keynote at the Annecy Animation Festival.

The projects include a family road trip comedy from Gravity Falls actor Mike Rianda; the prehistoric origins of the “universal love story” between man and dog from commercial director Jon Saunders; and comedy about a billionaire forced to grow up when he takes on the orphaned children of his former foe from Kubo and the Two Strings story creator Shannon Tindle.

She clarified that the dog and man film is not an Aardman project, which the studio has worked with before.

Belson noted that all three are first-time feature directors – though the trio are all white males, a possible criticism that she addressed: “As diverse as the slate is, and the movies are diverse, I can’t pretend the filmmakers behind them are, and that’s something we feel strongly about working on,” she said.

The three projects will be scheduled for 2020 or 2021.

In a surprise move, their calendar will be blank for 2019, Belson said, with no films set to be released that year. She framed it as a positive thing, saying that it means “one of our movies got more time.”

The Angry Birds sequel will come out in 2019 and fill that space, which, even though it’s animated, is a Sony studio film and doesn’t come from the animation arm. 

Sony Animation is also looking at acquiring an independent project, which would be released during that year.

The small studio will also be making a big play in the digital space, to find different kinds of content, financial and distribution models.

“We feel strongly that to not look beyond the traditional theatrical distribution model would be a huge mistake. The way that audiences view movies is changing fast and to cling to these antiquated notions that the only way for an audience to experience our animation is in a theater would be foolish,” she said.

It will develop several projects under what she called the “All Content Slate." That includes R-rated animated films, which Belson termed “lower-budget, older-skewing films that push the boundaries,” citing the recent Sausage Party success. Depending on how they shake out, those could get a big or small screen release.

What is set for online is its two musical limited-series shows. “These are digital plays for sure. These will wind up on Netflix or Amazon," she said. “It’s kind of odd for a studio division like ours as we are a major distributor. It’s a little weird that we would go and make a deal with Netflix,” she said of the not-so-gentle streaming giant.

Hotel Transylvania will be released in summer 2018, and the studio hopes it will be come their tentpole. "It's our biggest franchise and the studio has big plans for it. They want to blow it up, and that maybe will become our transformational movie," she said.

Helmer Genndy Tartakovsky with be back behind the camera for the third installment of that franchise, having returned to the Sony fold after having parted ways following the failure of the Popeye project.

“Getting him back took a little doing,” Belson admitted.

The new Spider-Man animated film with Miles Morales replacing Peter Parker as the titular character will have “a very different form than any other animated movie. We had to break and rebuild the pipeline to embrace the visual language of the comic, which you could never do in a live-action movie,” she said. It will be decidedly different from former incarnations of the arachnid superhero, since the designers "embraced the visual language of the comic."  

Of their upcoming Emoji Movie, Belson said it was “the fastest greenlight in the history of Sony.”

Belson also addressed the failure of their big Smurfs: The Lost Village reboot, which opened April 7. She said the studio loved the movie and felt it played well with audiences, and everyone expected a hit to reinvigorate the franchise began with 2011’s Smurfs film that earned $564 million worldwide.

“It tanked,” she admitted. “It was truly heartbreaking. In retrospect we had the wrong date … Honestly, we underestimated what a big hit Boss Baby would be.”

When the studio saw the impending doom it tried to move the released date, but “we were locked in by these really big promotional partnerships and the penalties for moving the dates were massive.” It kept its slot and opened to only $14.1 million and hovers around the $200 million mark. The film is expected to break even after home distribution but is a disappointment for the studio.

The current distribution model and marketing isn’t working, she said, pushed by the “oversaturation” of the animated film market, adding: “But that would be a whole other keynote."