Will Sausage Party Doom the Animation Industry Forever?

The new Seth Rogen movie Sausage Party is getting lots of attention lately for being one of the first successful adult-oriented animated films in recent history. While lots of animated movies are released every year and many of them go on to be hugely profitable, their success is generally credited in large part due to the fact that they are G- or PG-rated, an important distinction that allows them access to all four age quadrants of the movie going public in America as well as abroad.

R-rated movies, on the other hand, will often not gain access to theatrical slots in important international markets like China, and even if they do, films relying heavily on dialogue based humor generally do not translate as well overseas.

Despite these hurdles, Sausage Party opened last weekend in first place at the domestic box office with over $34 million in tickets sold. For a movie that reportedly cost less than $20 million to produce, this is a huge deal.

Wait, go back to that last number: $20 million. For an animated feature film.

Don’t these kind of movies usually cost way more?

Let’s look at the reported budgets for the last five widely released animated films:

Ice Age: Collision Course — $105 million

Secret Life of Pets — $75 million

Finding Dory — $200 million

Angry Birds — $73 million

Zootopia — $150 million

source: Box Office Mojo / IMDb

Of course, as any observer of Hollywood knows, once a certain type of movie becomes a smash hit (comic book adaptations, ultra-low-budget horror, comedies starring…you’ll never believe it…women!) everyone else in town scrambles to make their own versions of the same thing.

And that’s what makes the success of Sausage Party scary if you’re a person who actually works behind the scenes on movies.

Feature animation is usually a hugely expensive enterprise for top of the line 3D rendered films like Frozen and Shrek. Sausage Party, on the other hand, is the first example of a movie that costs only a sliver of what Disney, Sony and Dreamworks spend on projects of similar production value.

The scary question you ask yourself, if you’re a person who sits at a computer all day crafting visuals for Hollywood is…where do all the savings come from?

As one of the co-directors claimed in an interview with Cartoon Brew, a prominent animation trade publication, “We knew damn well that we could deliver a movie that looks like a $150 million dollar movie for a fraction of the cost.”

So how were the filmmakers behind Sausage Party able to deliver the same quality visuals for a tiny fraction of their contemporaries’ budgets? Could it be due to Canada’s huge subsidy program for film production? Maybe in part, but every studio has been on the receiving end of that gravy train for years.

In the interview, they mention that as industry veterans they personally witnessed lots of wasteful spending on the part of the big, mainstream studios. By focusing on eliminating those inefficiencies, they were able to dramatically reduce costs while still delivering a high quality product.

But what are those inefficiencies exactly?

As many former employees of Nitrogen Studios, the movie’s Canadian animation vendor, have alleged to the Hollywood Reporter and Cartoon Brew, one of those inefficiencies is actually paying artists for all their work.

Unlike the U.S., where until recently most mainstream feature animation has been based, places like Canada have pretty lax rules about paying overtime, especially to employees who are classified as tech workers. The idea behind this is that it is hard to figure out how much time it takes to create an original product whether it’s a revolutionary new app or a ninety-minute cartoon about talking meat. So instead of being required to pay employees for each hour that they work, as it’s done in the United States, other countries like Canada allow studios to skate on paying overtime as a way of helping them keep costs lower and more predictable.

That’s great if you’re a producer or a business owner.

It sucks for the artists who, you know, do the actual work.

Unlike on-set crews who are mostly protected by union contracts, it’s the artists grinding away day and night and not the producers who end up bearing the cost of the unpredictable nature of filmmaking when creatives at the top change their minds about a particular scene and the animators have to stay late to make it happen.

If you’re the artist who shows up to work one day and finds out that, “Hey, we’re actually gonna need you to stay every day this week til midnight. And we can’t pay you any more money for it,” you’re put in a pretty difficult position.

The stern dad in you might reason, “Hey, you knew what you were getting into when you took the job!” but anyone who has ever worked in film knows this is not always the case.

Far too often, an artist shows up for a gig and only then are told that they will have to work longer hours and, sometimes, without any extra compensation. Sure, they could bail at that point, but can they reasonably expect to find another gig that week…or the next? Artists are frequently faced with the decision to accept shitty hours and free work or immediate unemployment. Good luck if you have a family and a mortgage.

This is a problem that has plagued the VFX industry for years, even in California where there are fairly strict rules in place. Feature animation, however, has mostly been produced in-house by big companies like Disney, Sony and Dreamworks — companies whose prominence in the industry puts a fairly large target on their backs if they suddenly decide to ignore labor laws. Their employees get paid hourly with overtime and many of them also enjoy union protection.

But this will probably all change soon.

Over the last decade, Hollywood studios have been experimenting with taking their animation facilities outside the States where the rules are more lax about paying artists.

And with the success of Sausage Party, an even more attractive option to them has now been proven viable: outsourcing your entire animation process to a third-party foreign vendor who delivers at bargain basement prices. It’s a practice that, until recently, has mostly been relegated to low-grade TV shows.

The great part of having another company act as the middleman in the process of making a quality product at an astonishingly low price is that the people at the top are never burdened with the unpleasant reality of how the sausage is made. (Sorry, but you knew that was coming.)

While feature animators have largely avoided the crappy work conditions their VFX counterparts experience, that is likely to change in the near future as movie studios outsource more of their animation to low budget vendors. The competitive edge of these third-party companies will hinge on their ability to squeeze their artists to work more for less. For movie studios, it’s a win-win. After all, why pay a premium for something when you have the option to get it for way less while never having to worry about getting your hands dirty?

So while the movie has been incredibly well received by both critics and audiences, it’s easy to see why Sausage Party has left a bad taste in the mouth of the people who actually worked on it. For these artists and their colleagues throughout the industry, it looks like the party might soon be over.

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