Sony Pictures Animation Chief Kristine Belson Sees COVID-19 Helping Stimulate Demand For R-Rated And PG-13 Titles

Kristine Belson, president of Sony Pictures Animation, Features and Series, at CES in 2019. Ross D Franklin/AP/Shutterstock

Kristine Belson, president of Sony Pictures Animation, Features and Series, predicts more animated titles will aim for older audiences as a result from an overall boom in interest caused by COVID-19.

Speaking Thursday at the Collision From Home virtual conference, she said animation, which has managed to prosper during the pandemic, will accelerate its current trend toward diversification.

“I don’t think you’re going to see more family animated movies because that’s very saturated,” she said. “There will be more R-rated animated movies.” While Sony hasn’t yet made one, she added, “There are a couple we’re working on and we’re really excited about releasing our first one. I think you’re going to see PG-13 animated movies, which is something you haven’t seen before. Harder action-adventure sort of stuff.”

While Sony has been in feature animation for nearly two decades, it saw a breakthrough in 2018 with Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. The film racked up $375 million in global box office and won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, and landed on many critics’ top 10 lists.

Belson said the past few months have gone “surprisingly well” as her group has made the transition to remote work and coped with the limitations of COVID-19. Unlike live-action production, which depends on a number of crew members and locations, animation work has been able to continue, albeit in a very different way.

Unlike some tech companies, which have told employees they can work from home indefinitely as they reconsider office space entirely, Belson’s unit will not go fully virtual due to the nature of the work. “There’s just something different when you’re all in a room together,” she said. Video conferencing and digital tools are effective, but “you can’t hear laughter as well.”

As far as production during COVID-19, she said, “There are areas we’re trying to work through.” Voice recording has been able to continue thanks to innovation. “We’ve made real headway,” she said, citing specially rigged iPads sent to talent at their homes.

Belson said the experience of recording, similar to many interactions during the pandemic, has had a strikingly intimate quality. She cited a recent recording session with one female star of Connected, Sony’s next animated release planned for October. “We’re in her closet because the closet’s better, it’s more muffled with the clothing and everything,” she said. “There are all of these unintentionally funny things coming out of this situation.”

Musical scores, however, pose a challenge. “How do you replace 100 musicians all together in the same space?” Belson wondered. Test screenings are also proving vexing given the uncertainty of the theatrical experience. “Audience testing is something we’re trying to figure out,” she said. “It’s so valuable for us to get feedback from audiences in a theater.”

As with voice talent, Belson said she feels more of a personal connection with the animation group as a result of video conferencing and the intensity of the COVID-19 experience. “I actually feel that I know everybody that I work with a lot better than I did,” she said. “We’re in everybody else’s homes. I’m in their bedrooms. I’m seeing their kids, I’m seeing their pets. Their spouses are coming in and giving them a sandwich for lunch. And we’re talking about what we’re going through.”

Reverting to business as usual once a vaccine is in place and the pandemic recedes into memory will not be an option, the executive said. Commuting, for one thing, “can be soul-crushing,” especially for LA-based workers.

“We’re learning a lot about working remotely, and we’re going to apply that,” Belson said. “Going forward, I don’t think everybody needs to be in the office five days a week. We can take a hybrid approach. In every meeting and gathering that we have, some people can be on campus and some people can be remote. … I do think a change is going to be felt.”

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