Letter From Hollywood

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PEOPLE HAVE always been seduced by the notion that film producers are among the lowest of life forms, so one can only sense a frisson of perverse pleasure at the sight of two Hollywood studios spoiling for a fight over their respective screen visions of an insect colony.

We're not talking high art here, of course, but we are looking at one of the most technically advanced, and potentially most lucrative, corners of the movie market: the computer-animated cartoon. Disney - who else? - pioneered the genre with the charming runaway hit Toy Story a couple of years ago, and had hoped to score again with A Bug's Life, a tumultuous tale of little beasties, which is due for release in the US next month.

But then it emerged that DreamWorks, the newest of the Hollywood studios, had pipped Disney to the post. Antz, a tumultuous tale of similar creepy- crawlies, came out here a fortnight ago and has turned into a box-office hit. Worse still, it turns out that a second computer-animated DreamWorks picture, Prince of Egypt, is on its way at Christmas.

Could it be that Disney's big annual production for all the family is going to get squished by its rivals like a bug on a pavement? Tempers have certainly been fraying, and the man who runs the company behind Disney's computer technology, Steve Jobs of Pixar Animation, has been intemperate enough to suggest that DreamWorks stole the idea for Antz lock, stock and barrel.

The two films, it is true, have more than a little in common. Both use celebrity voices to bring the ant-heroes to life and inject comic verve. Both have central characters who dream of going their own way rather than following the rest of the ant-heap. And both finish up with the ants fighting for survival against another breed of critters - termites in Antz and grasshoppers in A Bug's Life.

Nor has it escaped public attention that the man in charge of DreamWorks's animation line-up is Jeffrey Katzenberg, who knows Disney inside out for the simple reason that he used to work there, heading its film studio before joining forces with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen four years ago. Not only did Katzenberg leave Disney on bad terms, but he also poached a dozen top executives and around 40 animators.

So is this straight rivalry, or is it plagiarism? Steve Jobs contends that the story was originally pitched to Katzenberg at Disney; DreamWorks says such accusations only make Disney look ridiculous.

It would be cheering to conclude that such competitive banter can only be good for the film industry. After all, Disney has enjoyed a stranglehold on animation pictures for as long as anyone can remember, single-handedly dictating how they should look, what kind of stories they should tell, and how they should be marketed. DreamWorks's incursion into Disney territory follows 20th Century Fox's similar foray into the conventional animation arena with last year's Anastasia. These are commercial challenges that have been a long time a-coming.

But the nature of this competition ultimately tells a more sobering tale about entertainment. In reality, Disney's power over our imaginations is not diminished at all; it is merely being copied by others for commercial, rather than artistic, advantage. At the same time, Disney is hungrily expanding its interests to embrace every aspect of the entertainment and media worlds.

Disney has become a model, not only for animated films but also for corporate strategy. Understandably, its Hollywood rivals want a piece of the action. DreamWorks is particularly well-placed to eat into the Disney formula. Not only can it draw on Katzenberg's direct experience, but it can also tap into the family values represented by a film-maker like Steven Spielberg. This may be good news for Hollywood's investment professionals, but for the consumer it looks less rosy. The formula is slick and well tested, but it is the same one oozing out from all angles.