Kennan asks…

I read in your blog about how you started writing the script for Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything before the bankruptcy and before the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

How do you think the success of the pirates theme among children these days will help Big Idea’s newest film?

 That's a good question.  There are more than a few folks who think the timing of a VeggieTales pirate movie is serendipitous, considering the interest in "all things Piratey" sparked by a certain trilogy of big budget movies based on a theme park ride.  So… does that mean the veggie pirate movie is a sure thing?

Well, for starters, anyone who uses the words "movie" and "sure thing" in the same sentence doesn't have a very good feel for the film business.  The only real "sure thing" in the movie business is that you never know what's going to happen when a new film opens on a Friday night.  The veggie pirate movie could certainly benefit from an interest in pirates, but, since it's a movie based on an existing franchise, it seems likely attendence will be effected more by the level of enthusiasm for VeggieTales in general than for pirates specifically.  The success of The Simpson's Movie had much more to do with the popularity of the TV show than a widespread desire to see a cel-animated movie about a small town trapped under a glass dome due to an environmental crisis.

So I think the real question is – is VeggieTales currently popular enough across America to successfully launch a feature film?  Many fans have written me describing what they perceive as a decline in the quality of VeggieTales videos since Classic Media took over the brand in 2003.  Will that perception affect turnout for the movie?  Ask me that question January 12th.

Speaking of movies and perceptions, we just picked up Ratatouille on DVD.  That's a really nice film – wonderfully animated and gorgeous to look at.  But several blogs are abuzz with the notion that it underperformed, and rumors abound that Pixar and Disney are both concerned.  After peaking with Finding Nemo, each subsequent Pixar film has grossed less than the one before, a trend now extending through Ratatouille.  So what's happening?

Well, perhaps kids aren't as interested in visiting a world of cooking rats as they are a world of talking cars.  Perhaps the summer was too crowded with big, noisy movies for a movies about an aspiring rat chef to get much notice. 

Here's an interesting notion.  CGI films are, in one sense, "synthetic" movies – movies where every single object must be designed and constructed by an artist, as if nothing existed in the "real world" that could be placed in front of a camera.  The fun part of making "synthetic" movies is that you can take the audience places that only exist in the imagination – places they've never been before. (George Lucas has a pretty good sense of this, as his films have become increasingly "synthetic.")  The less fun part about "synthetic" movies is that as the bar gets set progressively higher (compare Toy Story to Ratatouille or Antz to Shrek 3), these movies become monstrously expensive.  Both Shrek 3 and Ratatouille cost $150 million to produce, which would have made them, just a few short years ago, among the most expensive films of all time.

So another way to look at Ratatouille is as a $150 million movie about a rat who wants to cook.  George Lucas spent not much more than that on each of the last three Star Wars movies, which took us to worlds we'd never seen populated by creatures we had never before imagined.  Pixar spent $150 million showing us a rat preparing a meal.  (Yes, I agree that Pixar's story was better crafted than George's, but let me finish my point.)  My point is, a $150 million film needs to overwhelm an audience with spectacle and scale – worlds they've never seen before.  Replace the rat with a socially-disadvantaged child, shoot live-action, and the Ratatoullie script could have been shot for $4 million – if not less.

So Pixar paid a $146 million premium to produce their film with a rat as the protagonist instead of a child.  Now, I'm not trying to pick on Pixar, I'm just making a point.  Simply producing a film "synthetically" does not mean the audience will treat it like a tentpole blockbuster. (Witness "Final Fantasy.")  Especially as more and more CGI films flood the market, further raising the bar on visual quality.  (Witness "Surf's Up," "Over the Hedge," "Open Season," etc.)

There are those who will say "story will always win in the end."  As a writer, I really wish that were true.  But the fact of the matter is, Pirates of the Carribean 2 and 3, Transformers, Spiderman 3, Star Wars Episodes 2 & 3… all outperformed Ratatouille.  Heck, Shrek 2 is among the top 5 grossing films of all time.  "Story always wins?"  Apparently not!

So what are we to learn from all this?  It isn't just about story.  If your film has the budget of a tentpole blockbuster, it needs to feel like a tentpole blockbuster.  Even the trailers.  And no matter how great the story is, a trailer featuring a rat in a French restaurant does not feel like a tentpole blockbuster.  Shia LaBouf running from giant robots does.  Small rat cooking doesn't.

Which brings me back to The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything, a small "synthetic" film based on a children's video series.  Does it stand a chance?  Is there an audience for "small" CGI films in a world awash with $150 million spectaculars?  "There's always room for small films," you say, "just look at Napoleon Dynamite, or Facing the Giants, for heaven's sake!"

Yes, but Napoleon Dynamite was produced for $400,000.  Facing the Giants – $100,000.  A CGI feature film of any quality cannot be produced for much less than $10 million, which doesn't really make it a "small film" in the economic sense of the word.  So is there a place in the world for "small" CGI films?

Honestly?  I hope so, but I have no idea.  Ask me January 12th!