Veli-Pekka Lehtonen HS
The stakes are high. For the games company Rovio, much is riding on an animated feature film: The Angry Birds Movie. The giant production has now been completed and the feature will premiere practically everywhere in the world in a few weeks.
This means that cinemagoers across the world, from China to South Africa and from the United States to Azerbaijan, will decide the future of the Espoo-based company.
Five years ago, Rovio was a great Finnish success story. The company made effective use of the boom in mobile devices and mobile gaming at the beginning of the 2010s. It created dozens of games, but its success was based on just one game.
For a few years, Angry Birds was highly popular around the world. According to press reports, players of the game included talk-show host Conan O’Brien, British Prime Minister David Cameron, pop star Justin Bieber, author Salman Rushdie and actress Angelina Jolie, among millions of others.
Rovio was thriving – the company cooperated with the likes of NASA and Star Wars. The company kept growing and its cash flows kept increasing. The Angry Birds logo was used to sell soft toys, clothes, playgrounds and food products. At the height of its power, the company aspired to become an entertainment giant along the lines of Coca-Cola and Disney.
Then the mobile business changed, and Rovio began to lose its appeal. Many of its games did not succeed as expected, its operating result decreased and hundreds of employees were made redundant.
Several years in the making, the giant feature film is an attempt to bring the Angry Birds brand and the company back onto the growth track.
The Angry Birds Movie also has the potential to transform Finnish cinema.
Many entertainment experts think that the film comes much too late: the game is no longer fashionable.
“I’ve been wondering whether we are too early,” says film producer Mikael Hed to Helsingin Sanomat.
He is the main man behind the ambitious Finnish film project. His family exercises power in Rovio through ownership. Hed is the former CEO of the company and is now in charge of its film studio in California.
Hed answers the phone from his car while commuting from Manhattan Beach to Sherman Oaks in Los Angeles in the morning. He has lived in California with his family for a year and intends to stay there for another year.
Hed loves to talk about Angry Birds, but he chooses his words quite carefully and is not very willing to talk about any risks related to the project. Instead, he lists recent Hollywood films about themes that are not exactly topical: The Peanuts, The Smurfs and Iron Man.
“We could have waited for ten years as well. I believe that a good product speaks for itself,” says Hed.
Rovio made the film in an exceptional manner: the company funded the entire production. For this reason, its success is crucial to the company. The film is by far the largest project in the history of the company.
Its production cost USD 73 million, or around EUR 65 million, exclusive of the cost of production and distribution, which Rovio estimates at more than EUR 100 million. Making films, particularly animated ones, is labour-intensive. Most of the budget for the film consisted of fees.
“We funded the film on our own, without taking out any loans,” says Hed.
Major international films are usually funded in a different manner. The owner of the brand licenses the brand to an external company, which makes the film and bears the risk for its success. The owner of the brand is paid a commission on ticket and other sales.
“Making a film in that manner is crazy,” says an industry insider to Helsingin Sanomat about the Angry Birds film.
“We thought we’d keep the commission as well,” says Hed.
With regard to marketing, Rovio is partnering with Sony, which is responsible for the international distribution of the film.
Never before has anyone done anything this crazy in Finnish cinema. What is almost equally crazy is that this major film production is headed by Mikael Hed, a businessman with no experience in the film industry at this level. His father, Kaj Hed, is a major owner of Rovio.
Mikael has also made choices purely as a fan – a fan of George R. Martin and the Game of Thrones books and television series, Hed took the opportunity to sign Peter Dinklage, a key actor in the series, for the film.
“Signing Dinklage was definitely my idea,” says Hed.
“He’s perfect for the role of Mighty Eagle. He has a dark, deep voice, which is why I wanted him for this role. The role also suits his style of acting. In the Finnish version, Mighty Eagle will be played by Tommi Korpela.”
Hed is the Executive Producer of The Angry Birds Movie. “Executive Producer” is Hollywood for supervising the production and the way in which the Angry Birds are used in the film. He profusely praises his team, directors, producers and cast.
The possibility of making an Angry Birds feature film was discussed at Rovio for years. For a long time, the company was convinced that animated clips were enough. “The thought of an animated feature film seemed impossible at first,” says Hed.
In 2010, a major American film studio approached Rovio to enquire about film rights. Rovio was interested in the idea of making a film. The company saw it as a way to bring more stability, continuity and longevity to their business operations. In popular culture, entertainment brands are often kept alive through films, which bring publicity and aid the sale of merchandise.
Rovio wanted an entertainment brand that would be more than just a game. Hed was looking for a major Hollywood deal as early as 2010. However, as he puts it, “the commercial terms didn’t match”. According to Hed, Hollywood wanted too much control, so Rovio decided to make the film themselves.
Hed soon met producer David Maisel, who had founded a successful film production unit for the toy giant Marvel. John Cohen, a Hollywood producer of major animated feature films, became another key figure, as Rovio liked his production methods. Rovio wanted to build an efficient production unit that would operate outside traditional studios.
“The one who pays the bills also determines the creative content,” says Hed.
The Angry Birds Movie is such a large project that it is difficult to compare it to other Finnish films. Its production budget is almost tenfold that of The Unknown Soldier by Aku Louhimies and more than a hundred times larger than that of Letters to Father Jacob, one of Klaus Härö’s most famous works.
More comparisons: in 2015, the public subsidies granted by the Finnish Film Foundation for all films totalled around EUR 25 million.
Many animated feature films in Hollywood have cost much more than The Angry Birds Movie. Hed emphasises that the film was produced more efficiently than competing titles. According to Hed, however, the film must not be called cheap.
“It’s not a nice stamp. The level of quality here is the same as in other projects. The only difference is that our production model is cost-effective.”
The actual planning of the film began in 2012. The planning team consisted of Hed and Mikko Pöllä, who was the Creative Director of Rovio at the time. He is now also known as the writer of the Black Widows television series. Cohen joined the team a little later.
In autumn 2012, the three men held daily hour-long Skype meetings to draw up the storyline.
“We wanted to tell the story of Red – a character who doesn’t fit in. We also wanted the film to be rewarding for the players of the game. As well as that, we gave thought to how much the film can deviate from the game,” Pöllä explains.
Creating a world for Angry Birds for the film was also important, and potential sequels were taken into account.
“One of the bullet points was, of course, that the main characters would not be killed,” says Pöllä.
Jon Vitti, a scriptwriter of The Simpsons fame, was later hired to continue with the script.
The main character of the film is a bird called Red. He is familiar to those who have played the game. The bird is such an essential element of the Rovio story that he can even be mistaken for the company’s logo.
In the film, Red must attend an anger management programme. He meets other birds familiar to players of the game. And, much like in the game, a group of pigs soon invades the island of the birds. The pigs want to steal the birds’ eggs.
According to Hed, Rovio decided long ago not to give its birds wings or legs before the film.
“We had also decided not to further develop their personalities before the film,” says Hed.
The film was not modelled on any particular production.
“You cannot avoid influences, though, as all stories have already been told. However, I’m pleased that we found our own voice, sense of humour and way to use language for the film. This animated feature film cannot be mistaken for a work by another studio,” says Hed.
Games seldom translate into good films. According to Hed, this is because the approach has been wrong.
“Games companies have thought that games are the centre of the universe and others should make films. The result shows if the makers lack passion and the desire to strive for an excellent product.”
Hed believes that, after seeing the film, people will no longer see it as just an extension of the game.
Many have doubted the project over the years. When Sony was hacked in late 2014, correspondence between Sony and Rovio was leaked among other emails. The messages revealed how news about Rovio reducing its personnel had scared Sony’s managers. Hed had sent an email to Hollywood to reassure them.
“No one here remembers the emails any more. Hollywood has a short memory,” says Hed.
Even though The Angry Birds Movie has not yet been shown anywhere, many types of interpretations have been offered, including ones accusing the film of being racist. Based on the trailer and advertisements, the birds have been seen as reserved conservatives and the pigs have been seen as Muslims.
Hed is aware of these political interpretations.
“Some people online are wearing a tinfoil hat,” says Hed and points out that similar interpretations are given to all major movies.
Hed emphasises that The Angry Birds Movie is aiming for as wide an audience as possible, people of different ages around the world. The film will also put Finland in the spotlight.
“The film is owned and funded by Finns. If it makes a profit, the state will be able to collect tax revenues. The brand originates from Finland and the characters and the world were created in the country. In other words, this is very much a Finnish product,” says Hed.
As a production, however, the film is not that Finnish. It was initially planned in Helsinki and Los Angeles. It was produced and the characters and the setting were created in Los Angeles and Vancouver, and the actual animation was carried out by Imageworks, a subsidiary of Sony, in Vancouver. The film was directed by Hollywood directors Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly. It was produced by Cohen and Catherine Winder.
“Designed in Finland, made in America,” Hed sums up.
A small section of the film was animated at Rovio in Finland. This scene lasts for around 60 seconds and tells the backstory of Mighty Eagle. According to Hed, the film was animated in Canada because the country has production incentives – that is, tax reliefs – in place for companies making films. This also explains the relatively small budget. Hed would like to see a similar system implemented in Finland.
There are no visual references to Finland in the film. However, Hed points out how, at the beginning of the film, the Sony logo is followed by the Rovio Animation logo, which features Finnish lake scenery and music played with a kantele, a traditional plucked string instrument native to Finland.
“The logo will be used again in any sequels.”
According to Hed, Rovio is interested in playing a stronger role in the Finnish film industry. He says he has given thought to the further development of Finnish cinema. “If we need to make films in Finnish but have no funding, we have a problem.”
Hed thinks Finland should start a long-term programme to enable Finns to make ten or even fifty times more films than they are producing now.
Rovio has ambitious plans. The company intends to produce more major films and be both a games company and an animation studio in the future.
This strategy means more Angry Birds films and possibly films about other topics.
However, the company first needs to see how the first Angry Birds film is received.
“We may have more news in June or thereabouts,” says Hed.
But will the film bring Rovio back onto the growth track? Will it find viewers around the world? American families with children will play a key role: will they opt to see a Finnish production when The Angry Birds Movie hits the cinemas on a wide front on 20 May 2016?
The film will undoubtedly be more successful in Finland than in other countries. It is expected to be one of the most popular movies of 2016. Sony believes that more than 200,000 Finns will see the film.
Globally, however, it may be overshadowed by other family films. Two sequels are predicted to be the greatest hits of summer 2016: the fifth Ice Age film and Finding Dory, a sequel to Finding Nemo.
To break even, The Angry Birds Movie must earn nearly EUR 400 million at the box office internationally, according to the traditional calculation method. This figure is an estimate, as the agreements between Rovio and the distributors and presenters of the film are business secrets. The cinema gets around 60 per cent of the price of a ticket, and the rest goes to the film-makers and the distributor.
However, DVD sales, streaming and television broadcasts later generate major revenues for film-makers, and makers of family films in particular.
According to Hed, the break-even point for the Angry Birds film is “much lower” than that for films produced by larger competitors. He estimates the break-even point at less than EUR 300 million for Angry Birds.
“Reasonable success in the cinemas is sufficient for us.”
The Angry Birds Movie will premiere in Finland on 13 May 2016.