Suspended Animation

When Pearse Cullinane left Dublin to work for Fox Animation Studios in Phoenix, he hadn't counted on losing his rights in a right-to-work state. These days the only line he's drawing is in the sand.

Plenty was happening to Pearse Cullinane in the ensuing months. He was still waiting on his green card, making payments on a home equity loan on top of a mortgage, buying new furniture, leasing a car and marrying a woman with three kids. And he developed "itchy feet" when he heard Fox was opening up a new soundstage in Sydney, Australia, home of Rupert Murdoch.

"I've got family there, I'd like to see my brothers, and they were looking for people at the studio," marvels Cullinane. "Mind you, this was before I even filed a suit. I went to Fox and said, 'Get me my visa, get me a flight, I'll brush the floors, anything,' just to get into a new studio. I would've been in heaven; a city I really love, give me an average Australian wage -- 600, 700 bucks a week -- and I'd be happy. What an easy way out that would've been for them. All my benefits would still be intact, I'd still work for Fox. Why wouldn't you do that? They never got back to me."

The February purge was imminent, but the writing was on the wall as early as January.

Pearse Cullinane was intimately involved in the creation of Anastasia.
Pearse Cullinane was intimately involved in the creation of Anastasia.

Joyce Grossman is Retention Expansion Outreach Program manager for the City of Phoenix (or "REO not Speedwagon," as she calls it). It's her job to encourage businesses to stay in Phoenix once they're here.

"I had been with them doing a routine visit, just before that announcement broke. They indicated that corporate already made a decision that they could do cartooning cheaper offshore and they're taking it into Southeast Asia now," Grossman says. ". . . what I found is that [Fox Animation Studios] were being forced, costwise, to get it down to nothing. They gave no indication that they were about to lay off workers, just that they weren't growing."

Just think of all the devastation one little cartoon about the end of the world has caused.

To hear Fox Filmed Entertainment's bean-counters tell it, Titancost $80 million to make, a deceptive figure because it tallies in the true $55 million cost and piggybacks the losses incurred by Bartokand the downtime when the studio had no movie projects after bagging Planet Ice. If the meter were still running, they'd probably toss in the $12 million it cost to shut its Phoenix studio for good.

It mattered little that most animation studios carry a crew of 600 and take two to three years to produce one full-length film, and Fox's Phoenix studio did it in fewer than 18 months with a third of the personnel. Nothing screams savings on a ledger sheet louder than eliminating hundreds of jobs, especially since this studio was championed by Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Bill Mechanic, who was fired a week before the Phoenix studio closed.

Titan's dismal $22.5 million in U.S. box office receipts gave Rupert Murdoch the most recent excuse to can Mechanic. Other recent disappointments approved by the former chairman were Anna and the King, Fight Cluband The Beach. It also mattered little that the "robust first quarter" that Fox boasted of one month after Mechanic's ouster was because of films in production during Mechanic's tenure -- X-Men, which has grossed $144 million, and Big Momma's House, which has collected more than $114 million.

Appearance is everything.

Titan's crash-and-burn takeoff inspired a July 24 article in the New York Timesthat stopped just short of officially declaring traditional 2-D animation a dead cause and cited the lukewarm public reception to other recent efforts: DreamWorks' The Prince of Egyptand The Road to El Dorado, and Warner Bros.' The Iron Giant. DreamWorks recently laid off a good number of animators, with Warner rumored to be closing a studio.

No one knows what kind of golden parachute Don Bluth and Gary Goldman received from Fox, but they are back to the drawing board, looking to the Internet to distribute their films and recruiting new talent, young animators who'll work cheaply and live like gypsies until 2-D animation bounces back into public favor.

Then there's Arizona, which is losing the infusion of revenue from the studio and its employees. After the first layoffs, Linda Peterson Warren, director of the Arizona Film Commission, was told the studio planned to restructure to be more efficient. She heard of the studio closing the night before it happened.

"Few studios close after two films, but if you're Rupert Murdoch you can do whatever you want, and I cast no aspersions in his direction," she nods diplomatically. "They just had this incredible outlay without a return on investment. Maybe [Murdoch] just didn't have the faith in the future."

Instead, he sank money into the soundstages in Australia, where the incentives were wildly attractive to filmmakers. ". . . we can't throw subsidies or incentives at filmmakers that will lure them to our jurisdiction," says Warren. "And Canada does that in spades and has really stolen a lot of production away across those northern borders. Australia, too, they can make those powerful decisions. We don't have those resources, and we're feeling that."

It's all about the bottom line.

Pearse Cullinane's bottom line has been reached, and he's now sinking below it.

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