Saturday, 9 March 2013

Woody in the Poorhouse

Walter Lantz was the last cartoon short producer still in business when his studio finally shut down in 1972. He stayed in business because cartoons were his business. At Warners, MGM and Paramount, cartoons were an after-thought and as soon as cutbacks were needed, their cartoon studios were cut.

It always seemed that the Lantz studio was coping with a low cash flow. He closed his studio temporarily in the late ‘30s and late ‘40s because of it. Lantz sounded off in Boxoffice magazine about the lack of cash. This was published November 3, 1956.

Walter Lantz Talks of Popularity Of Cartoons and the Rising Costs
NEW YORK—"Despite the fact that shorts are very important to a film program—comparable to the comic sheet in a daily newspaper — exhibitors refuse to pay any money for them," Walter Lantz, head of Walter Lantz Productions, which releases a program of cartoons through Universal, declared here this week.
The present film rental for a cartoon, averaging about $3.50 per booking, should be increased "to a $10 per booking minimum," because of the steadily rising costs for cartoons, which now average $35,000 per six-minute cartoon—"as much per foot as a feature film costs," Lantz said. "However, I'll be satisfied if we could just get a 50 cent increase per booking," he admitted.
12,000 TO 13,000 BOOKINGS
Exhibitors appreciate the entertainment value of cartoons and they give them more playing time than any other type of short, he commented. Lantz' cartoons now get from 12,000 to 13,000 bookings and can gross approximately $60,000 each domestically. But, with a $10,000 print cost added to the $35,000 production cost, it takes Lantz four years to get back a profit. The current number of bookings is a drop from the 16,000 bookings per cartoon in the peak years of 1946-47.
Lantz, who will celebrate his 40th year in the business in June 1957, has been with Universal for 27 years (at that time he developed the "Oswald the Rabbit" black-and-white cartoon) still makes 13 new cartoons in color for Universal each year, in addition to six he reissues through the company each year. Of the 13 new cartoons, six are Woody Woodpecker subjects, three are Chilly Willy and the other four are for experimenting with new cartoon characters. Although cartoon rentals are still a major complaint with Lantz, he has nothing but praise for the U-I sales force, which gets many repeat bookings for his cartoons, he said.
Lantz started more than two years ago making his cartoons six minutes long, instead of 7-8 minutes as formerly, and he now finds that all the other cartoon makers have followed suit. He said that the use of Cinema-Scope in cartoons was found to be "not practicable" as they cost much more and "exhibitors wouldn't give a nickel more for Cinemascope cartoons."
"If costs continue to rise, we won't be able to make cartoons for theatres any longer," Lantz predicted, in mentioning that no new cartoon producers can start out these days because of the term of years it takes to get back the original production costs and to start making a profit. There is also no way to train new cartoon artists, who have to be animators and artists at the same time. Lantz mentioned that the only cartoon makers still in the business are Paul Terry, who makes Terrytoons; Warner Bros., which makes several cartoon subjects; Famous Studios, which makes Paramount's cartoon series; MGM, with its Tom and Jerry cartoons; UPA, which makes "Mr. Magoo," and Disney, who no longer makes any new cartoon shorts.
Disney’s cartoons used to cost him $60,000 each, Lantz commented. Lantz has $250,000 tied up in new cartoons at all times but his cartoon reissues are all clear revenue, except for new prints, and his comic book business is another profit. He has no plans to make cartoon commercials for TV but he has predicted that some cartoon producers may be driven out of the business and into TV.
Budd Rogers, Lantz’ producer representative, accompanied him to New York, where the cartoon producer talked to U-I executives about the new shorts season.

While Lantz was the one concerned about the lack of money, it was the much more well-financed M-G-M that decided about the time of this story to stop making cartoons altogether because that would save a whole pile of cash.


  1. Getting Woody to TV with the Kellogg's deal in 1957 no doubt helped Lantz keep going for another 15 years -- he'd even get the show to NBC's Saturday morning lineup just prior to closing his studio -- though there's not that much the studio produced after 1957 that stands up to repeated syndication viewing.

  2. I don't know how much merchandising Lantz did once he got TV exposure, but he would have been as crazy as a 1940 woodpecker not to have expanded that end of the business.
    Didn't Paul Terry even say that TV was the saviour for cartoon studios with old negatives gathering dust?

  3. I believe that was the quote Leonard Maltin noted in his book that Terry said in a 1970 interview. The interesting thing about the timing of this interview by Lantz is that of the four major independent producers left in 1956, he was the last one to make a deal to peddle his wares directly to television.

    Terry had jumped in with CBS in 1953 with the Barker Bill Show, and ended up selling out to the network, but CBS also was working with UPA by 1956 on "The Gerald McBoing Boing Show" and Disney had begun his TV relationship with ABC the previous year. So Lantz was ahead of the three studio-owned animation divisions (Warners, MGM and Paramount) in selling directly to television to net additional income for the studio, but he lagged the other producers who could make deals on their own, for whatever reason, and was the only one of the four who couldn't (or wouldn't) swing a deal with a network.

  4. I wonder how interested NBC was in animation at the time. Other than the old 'NBC Comics', the only indication I can see that NBC wanted cartoons was in October 1957 when it began negotiating with Screen Gems for what I can only assume ended up being Ruff and Reddy.

  5. NBC always seemed to be the network least interested in kids programming, and by the end of the 1960s in situation comedy in general (really they never seemed to fully recover from Bill Paley's 1948 raid on the comedy front until Grant Tinker took over 33 years later).

    Their early cartoon efforts were stop-and-go at best; NBC basically grabbed Disney from ABC as a marketing tool for RCA color sets (and then in Year 1 paired him with Jay Ward's crew, apparently not realizing the animosity between Walt and the ex-UPAers), and their move into Saturday morning was less pro-active than reactive to CBS and ABC. They'd occasionally get a hit comedy or cartoon, but it never felt like either item was high on their 'to-do' list.