Ah, Illumination Entertainment. Well known for films such as Despicable Me, The Lorax, The Secret Life of Pets, The Minions and Sing.
What’s that? You don’t particularly care for any of those movies? You think they’re cheap knockoffs of DreamWorks style movies? Well Illumination doesn’t care because after only 7 films they have made a combined total of $1.9 BILLION. (x)
Holy crap! How did a low budget animation studio become a recognizable brand name in almost no time at all?
The biggest reason, of course, is marketing. Illumination makes sure their films are very well advertised (just look at the Minions marketing blitzkrieg). But the reason why their films have consistently remained successful is because they have a clear identity. They all have simple animation and character designs, they all have pop culture references, they all have their own brand of humor, and they’re all fun family films that don’t require a whole lot of thinking for. Basically, all Illumination films have a similar theme and tone.
By contrast, look at DreamWorks Animation (their current sibling company now that NBC Universal has bought them both). DWA’s profits have always flip-flopped, and by the time they were purchased by NBC they were in serious financial trouble, having to lay off hundreds of employees. Why? Because they’ve never been truly consistent. DreamWorks can range from beautiful works of art (How To Train Your Dragon) to generic kids stuff (Monsters vs. Aliens) to “WTF am I watching” (Bee Movie). When most people think of DWA they think of snarky, in-your-face movies with pop culture references, so when they’re faced with a How To Train Your Dragon or Kung Fu Panda, it’s enough to cause whiplash. And while Illumination movies tend to be generic, they also tend to be cute, harmless, and safe. DreamWorks can just come across as bizarre. You can watch more on how DreamWorks has an identity problem HERE.
By contrast, Pixar has a clear identity of making high quality, heartwarming, clever and original content that has given them massive success. They do get some backlash for making more generic or lower-quality films (The Good Dinosaur is their lowest grossing effort) and for making too many sequels, but not too much to the point where they get into financial trouble.
Laika also has a clear identity: unconventional, artsy stop motion flicks. This has won them massive critical acclaim, but not a wide audience appeal. Warner Bros. Animation, which has always struggled to find its audience and rake in money at the box office (their only theatrical feature length original film to win any prestige is The Iron Giant), has mostly settled on making LEGO movies, which has proven to be a hit.
I think identity is also a huge indicator of how Disney has gone through peaks and valleys during its 90 year reign. At their core, they’re a company that retells classic stories for a modern audience, and when the audience would change with time, so would they. One of the reason the early 2000’s was a bad decade for Disney was because, in addition to being overshadowed by Pixar, their movies were all over the place. Different animation styles, tones, and themes, and weird premises. Now, the animation is cleaner, softer, and more detailed, their genres and premises are simpler, and they deal with themes that are relevant to today’s society, such as female empowerment, mental health concerns, and prejudice.
In today’s age, animation companies are brands, and the audience comes to expect something specific from them; if they don’t get what they asked for, they won’t support it. It sucks that animation companies aren’t allowed to explore and have a wider range like live action companies, but until animation gets more respect as a medium, that’s going to happen for awhile. Identity can make or break an animation studio, because you can end up as a reigning champ like Pixar, or wind up being bought out and STILL end up in trouble like DreamWorks.