November 14, 2019

'Spider-Verse' Director Peter Ramsey Reveals How You Can Survive Studio Politics

Before director Peter Ramsey won an Oscar for co-directing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, he made DreamWorks' underrated animated film, Rise of the Guardians. Here's what went wrong.

All of us have a favorite movie or TV show that we're extremely passionate about, but for whatever reason, it didn't do well. A studio released it quietly with zero support, or shelved it for years without explanation. For me, that's Season One of AMC's The Terror.

And for director Peter Ramsey, that project would probably be Rise of the Guardians, which he made and was released in 2012 by DreamWorks Animation. The movie was a notorious flop and was poorly received by critics, even though its creative team was amazing. I mean, Roger Deakins was even a visual consultant! So what happened?

As part of an ongoing series on animation, Vulture recently sat down for an interview with Ramsey. Over the course of the discussion, he talks about the atmosphere at the studio during production and how DreamWorks' marketing likely influenced how the film was received. Let's dive in to some of his most important quotes.

Rise of the Guardians
Credit: DreamWorks Animation

Was it the studio's fault?

There was no way anyone could have predicted Guardians' failure. The team was working with an established IP, and DreamWorks was coming off a string of animated hits. Still, some might automatically blame the studio.

As Gregory Ellwood wrote for UPROXX at the time:

The first sign was when the $145 million budgeted Guardians didn’t pop on pre-release tracking as expected. Family films are always hard to gauge, but when it hit theaters on Wednesday, it placed third with just $4.8 million. That was far behind The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Pt. 2 and Skyfall. By Sunday, Guardians fell to fourth with just $32.6 million over five days. That’s the smallest opening frame gross for a DreamWorks Animation film since 2006’s disastrous Flushed Away. Puss in Boots made $34.6 million last October, but that was over three days.

Ellwood also pointed out that DreamWorks was in the process of switching distributors, from Paramount to 20th Century Fox. Back then, Ellwood didn't think this was the cause of the flop.

But Ramsey's interview sheds some new light on the situation. He says:

We later learned, of course, that there was a lot of bad blood between the higher-ups at both DreamWorks and Paramount. I don’t know if it was a personal feud between Jeffrey Katzenberg and Brad Grey (RIP) or what it was. I’m sure it was some kind of business arrangement that had gone sour. All I know is that there was a lot of animosity during the period when our movie was coming up.

As a result of this political infighting, the film got released on a holiday weekend against a Bond movie and a Twilight sequel that were already out in theaters for a few weeks. The film's marketing also didn't accurately reflect Guardians' story or target audience.

Was it the right film at the wrong time?

Another issue with Guardians was that the audience wasn't as ripe for a story of this kind in 2012. The movie contains a big cast of mythic fantasy characters and a lot of big ideas.

Ramsey now compares the movie's narrative approach to today's big comic-book adaptations.

A lot of these things are unconscious and reacting to the material in the moment. But comics themselves draw on so many different forms and genres and influences. The modern comic-book tone has that same, you know, child-with-a-thousand-fathers thing going for it. It morphs and adapts to the moment. That might be the genesis of that feeling, but we always wanted Guardians to feel like, "Okay, any kid who’s ever believed in these guys, this is the epic version of that — they’re gonna see it all."

Today's audiences are definitely more primed to see a story like this.

Rise of the Guardians
Credit: DreamWorks Animation

What can filmmakers do in these situations?

The main takeaway from this interview is that Ramsey's heart and intent was in the right place during the grueling three-year process of working on Rise of the Guardians. He and his team wanted to tell a story that resounded on an emotional level with both a young audience and adults.

Ramsey says DreamWorks "didn’t get it for a long, long, long, time — and then they finally did."

Even though the studio didn't understand the kind of movie they were making, the team stood by their creative ideas. And it's because of this authenticity that the movie continues to find audiences today and has a fairly big cult following.

"There’s something about taking people’s feelings about childhood and their dreams seriously that just resonates on a really deep level," Ramsey says. "The movie has a ton of shortcomings in my view, but it got something right, apparently."

Gather a team who is as passionate about your project as you are. Get great people whose experience will add to your vision. Tell your story. Then, even if you get saddled with a reluctant studio and bad marketing, there's still a good chance that audiences will find you!

Rise of the Guardians
Credit: DreamWorks Animation

What's next? Check out our other animation coverage

If you want to become a professional animator, read our primer. Then you need to know how to edit an animated movie. And look at how Pixar has evolved over the years    

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