October 2, 1998

Of Ants, Bugs, and Rug Rats: The Story of Dueling Bug Movies

By Michael Fleeman

LOS ANGELES - First space rocks. Now ants.

In the next few weeks, two computer-animated movies about ants will be released. DreamWorks' ``Antz,'' led by the voice of Woody Allen, is out Oct. 2, and the Disney Co.'s ``A Bug's Life,'' featuring the voice of Dave Foley (``NewsRadio'') as the lead ant, is to be released nationwide Nov. 25.

Z (Woody Allane, left) laments to his best friend Weaver (Sylvester Stallone) about his lot in life in "Antz."

This would all be only mildly interesting in a year that already has given us two comet-asteroid movies, except for one thing: the involvement of Jeffrey Katzenberg, the executive who left Disney amid much ill-will and co-founded DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.

Follow the ant trails and it raises questions of whether Katzenberg knew about Disney's ``A Bug's Life'' when he was cleaning out his desk as studio chief there, and whether he rushed out a rival insect movie at DreamWorks to sting his former employer.

In recent weeks, the off-the-record sniping among those involved in both movies has reached a background roar in Hollywood. Katzenberg has denied knowing about Disney's movie when he approved ``Antz.'' Executives for the producers of ``A Bug's Life'' declined to comment. The directors of the two films expressed ignorance about the competition.

``We concentrated on making our film the best film that we could,'' said John Lasseter, who directed ``A Bug's Life.''

``We had been working on our film for about a year and a half when we found out they were starting theirs. We were disappointed, but we concentrated on making our own film.''

Lasseter declined to discuss any other issues linked to the rival movies, saying: ``I would frankly just like to talk about our movie.''

Eric Darnell, one of the two directors of ``Antz,'' said that Katzenberg offered suggestions about story and character, but that the movie never wavered from its 7-year-old premise about a little critter with big hopes.

``The last thing I wanted to do is make decisions about our film by making second-guesses about what is in somebody else's film,'' said Darnell.

When examining the saga of the dueling ant movies, however, it hard to ignore the startling coincidences and behind-the-scenes workings.

It begins on Aug. 23, 1994, when Disney issued a press release announcing the resignation of Katzenberg. Two days later, Lasseter, of the computer animation house Pixar, pitched the ``Bug's Life'' story to executives other than Katzenberg at Disney. Lasseter was already working on another film that Disney was excited about - ``Toy Story'' - and the ant movie was greenlighted on the spot.

The idea had other things going for it. Disney also coincidentally had long been considering doing an animated ant movie. As far back as 1988, Disney was developing a project that went by various titles, including ``Army Ants'' and just ``Ants,'' but it had gone nowhere.

When Lasseter came to the table, the ant project was jump-started.

Just what Katzenberg knew about the Disney ant movie is a subject of great debate. He has denied in published reports any knowledge of the film until after DreamWorks started its own animated ant movie. But he refused to comment to The Associated Press about the matter.

Still, he was at the Disney studio after his resignation to finish old business, and saw a rough cut of Lasseter's ``Toy Story,'' the computer-animated film that would be released in 1995 and become one of the biggest hits in Disney history.

By Sept. 30, 1994, Katzenberg was off the Disney lot, leaving bad feelings and litigation in his wake. He filed a $250 million breach-of-contract lawsuit, which was settled late last year.

In October 1994, Katzenberg joined forces with Spielberg and Geffen to form DreamWorks SKG, and the following year the idea for an animated ant movie was pitched to then-DreamWorks executive Nina Jacobson (now, ironically, working at Disney) by PDI, a computer animation house and a rival to Pixar.

Like Disney, DreamWorks also had a similar project in the pipeline, this one a live-action film about insects. The PDI pitch was based on a 1991 story by Tim Johnson about a little ant caught in a huge bureaucracy who believes life can offer much more.

Jacobson brought the idea to Katzenberg, who approved the project. By 1996, ``Antz'' was in high gear, with Johnson and Darnell of PDI directing.

``We did know about 'A Bug's Life,''' said Johnson in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where ``Antz'' premiered last weekend. ``All we knew is that they had a film.''

He said it wouldn't be unusual for more than one ant project to be in the works at the same time.

``It's computer animation. It's a new industry. It has limitations: It doesn't do skin, hair and clothing real well,'' he said. ``Take away skin, hair and clothing and you have crabs and insects.''

Even though ``A Bug's Life'' got a jump in production on ``Antz,'' it was ``Antz'' that was first to be completed, unexpectedly early, opening another chapter in the ant saga.

``Antz'' was initially slotted for March 1999, but DreamWorks pushed it up to October, ensuring that ``Antz'' would be the first computer-animated bug movie of the fall, beating ``A Bug's Life'' by several weeks.

The scheduling of ``Antz'' was also seen by many in Hollywood as retaliation against Disney for slotting ``A Bug's Life'' for November against DreamWorks' animated feature, ``The Prince of Egypt.''

DreamWorks changed ``Prince of Egypt'' to Dec. 18. Disney then moved its ape remake ``Mighty Joe Young'' against ``Prince of Egypt,'' before pushing ``Mighty Joe Young'' back a week to Dec. 25.

How much of these scheduling machinations are due to hurt feelings or just good business sense - or a little of both - is not clear. Also, the fact that ``Antz'' is coming out first doesn't necessarily mean it will do any better than ``A Bug's Life,'' as Disney well knows.

The Disney-released ``Armageddon'' came out several weeks after the other Earth-in-peril picture, ``Deep Impact,'' but ended up grossing more and went on to become the summer leader - although both did very well.

In what may by the final twist, both ant films must contend with yet another animated film, the big-screen adaptation of the popular Nickelodeon show ``Rug-rats,'' which is set for release Nov. 20.

Said ``Rugrats'' executive producer Albie Hecht: ``I think we have the family event movie of 1998.''

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