The War Between Ants
Studio: Infinite Studios
Release Date: 9/20/Y8
Director: John-Paul Davidson
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and mild language
Theater Count: 2,652
Runtime: 95 minutes
The subject interviewed are the animators at PDI/DreamWorks and Pixar
1998 was a big year for animation, creating many milestones as two non-Disney distributed animated films grossed over $100M domestic; Paramount/Nickelodeon’s The Rugrats Movie and DreamWorks Animation’s The Prince of Egypt. Disney also had a bang up year as their second film in their deal with Pixar, A Bug’s Life broke Thanksgiving records and hopped over $160M domestic being the biggest animation of 1998, and Mulan also did $120M domestic. 1998 also had another big animated movie about ants titled Antz, from the newly formed rival DreamWorks which grossed $90M. The most interesting thing about Antz is it opened a month before A Bug’s Life but both films have similar plots, and spawned a tale of rivalry and drama.
In 1994, former Disney chairman of the film division, Jeffrey Katzenberg quit Disney after a feud with Disney’s CEO at the time, Michael Eisner, over the position of president of the film division. Katzenberg left, as Eisner convinced the board not to pay Katzenberg’s contract bonus. Katzenberg teamed up with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to form DreamWorks SKG, a new film studio, with an animation division set to rival Disney.
Katzenberg used ideas that he suggested at Disney to make their film lineup, from collaborations with Aardman, The Prince of Egypt and Sinbad. In 1996, DreamWorks teamed up with and bought 40% of Pacific Data Images (PDI) to make computer animated features, and began working on their first film: Antz scheduled for March 1999.
However, this started a ripple in the animation pool, that soon became a tsunami. Pixar, who had just made the biggest film of 1995, the computer animated Toy Story which grossed over $190M domestic, making it the third biggest animated movie at the time, where dismayed to hear this as their next film was A Bug’s Life which was called Bugs at the time.
The director of A Bug’s Life and former Pixar CEO, John Lasseter and Chairman and Apple guru Steve Jobs accused Katzenberg of stealing their idea as Lasseter was close contact with Katzenberg, as the two were known to be solid friends as Katzenberg helped the Pixar deal. Lasseter alongside co-director Andrew Stanton told Katzenberg, shortly after Toy Story opened about Bugs in detail. Stanton mentions that Lasseter was excited about Toy Story, noting it’d open more doors for computer animation but noted that Lasseter noted that Katzenberg was curious when Bugs was releasing and in hindsight they should’ve been more tight lipped. As in 1995, DreamWorks initially wanted to open The Prince of Egypt as their first animated feature in Thanksgiving 1998. A year later, Disney retaliated by opening Pixar’s Bugs on the same release date which Lassiter confirmed around the same time.
Lasseter immediately called Katzenberg, asking if the Antz rumors were true, which Katzenberg confirmed. While Katzenberg never confirmed taking the idea, they’re many different stories how Antz was greenlit, some saying it came from Antz’s Director Tim Johnson in 1991, or in 1994, Antz’s producer Nina Jacobson who was a DreamWorks executive who pitched it. Regardless, Lasseter noted that Katzenberg was paranoid about the deal, and was focused more on revenge on Disney.
Katzenberg was furious by Bugs opening in Thanksgiving 1998, contacting many Disney executives to convince them to move Bugs to no avail, pushing Egypt to Christmas. Paramount’s The Rugrats Movie was also set for the week before Thanksgiving in 1998 as well making things more complicated, forcing Katzenberg to take more drastic measures.
Katzenberg moved Antz to October 1998, as well as giving PDI employees financial incentives to get it out on time in an attempt to get A Bug’s Life to move back. Writers of Antz, the Weitz brothers (Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz) noted how the pace was hectic, noting that they had to do multiple rewrites and revisions. Jobs and Lassiter were also furious as Katzenberg called Lasseter to reveal his true plan. Katzenberg would shutdown production on Antz if Lasseter moved A Bug’s Life so The Prince of Egypt could open in Thanksgiving. This infuriated Lasseter as he slammed the phone down and went straight to Jobs, who recalled Lasseter went “bullshit”.
Jobs called Katzenberg to discuss this as Jobs couldn’t change dates as Katzenberg had a plea deal. Katzenberg taught Jobs a lot of business, suggested Bug’s Life could have “animation troubles” and Jobs has a lot of pull at Disney. Jobs called this extortion leaving things between the two computer animation titans frosty. Lasseter never saw Antz at the time, noting if the film was anything else, he’d have the whole studio take a day off to see it, dismissing Antz as a shlock A Bug’s Life. This soon took a turn worse in the media as Jobs and Katzenberg would create a press frenzy, as Jobs said “The bad guys rarely win” which DreamWorks’ marketing head Terry Press fired back “Steve Jobs should take a pill”. This lead to a riff between Jobs and Katzenberg for years as Katzenberg at Shrek’s premiere went to talk to Jobs noting Antz wasn’t stolen as he would’ve gotten a percentage of A Bug’s Life due to his settlement.
What happened at the end? In addition to both films financial success, critics loved both. A key difference was tone as A Bug’s Life was more family friendly and lighter while Antz was darker and more adult in tone, scoring a PG. Antz and Egypt also set the tone of how DreamWorks would be different to Pixar, through use of celebrity voices to more adult humor. The studios would both go on to be giants in the industry, and the employees became fast friends again. Although, PDI closed down in 2015 due to budget cuts at DreamWorks. Did the battle between the ant movies shake up the world? No, but it showed the drama behind the scenes and how the studios would craft different films, and helped mainstream animation grow to large successes today.