Vancouver animation company rolls the dice on financing its own feature film

Ratchet & Clank’s opening weekend box office results fell well below expectations

Rainmaker's Ratchet and Clank was produced in Vancouver and largely financed locally

For the past five years, Vancouver’s animation and visual effects industries have grown and thrived. It seems almost every big-budget feature film coming down the pipe has at least one Vancouver company among its credits.

So, what’s wrong with this picture? 

Nothing, if you wish to rely on others hiring you for their projects. When it comes to feature films, animation and visual effects are largely service industries, providing American studios what they need. Rainmaker Entertainment, however, wants to move in a different direction.

Ratchet & Clank, a computer-generated animated feature that opened April 29 on 2,890 North American screens, not only came from Rainmaker’s West Broadway studio, it was largely financed by Rainmaker. The movie, based on the Sony PlayStation video game that has sold more than 28 million units, earned US$4.8 million in its opening weekend.

“This is fairly new for Vancouver,” said Rainmaker president and chief creative officer Michael Hefferon of the film’s financing. “Vancouver companies have been seen more on the service side, but that has quickly changed. With all the people who have come to Vancouver to work, in addition to the tremendous talent base that’s here, it wasn’t long before IP [intellectual property] content developed early on in the TV side. For a theatrical feature film, we are one of the first to fund and get a major film off the ground.”

Hefferon won’t mention the film’s total budget but did say that Rainmaker put up $10 million for the film, providing $15 million in production spending. 

Chinese investment company CNHK Media contributed 30% of the financing; as a Canada-China co-production, China’s Original Force studio made about 30% of the film’s content.

In making Ratchet & Clank, Rainmaker worked closely with Insomniac Games – which released its latest R&C game on April 12 – to ensure that gamers would recognize the look and sounds of their favourite game. 

Insomniac had someone at the Vancouver studio throughout the production. Former Insomniac writer T.J. Fixman wrote the film’s first draft, and while Hollywood heavies John Goodman, Sylvester Stallone, Rosario Dawson and Paul Giamatti provide voice talent, the title characters and some others are voiced by the same people involved in the games.

“This is a franchise that is extremely loved by its fans, and we needed to capture the essence of what made the game work, and make that work for the film,” said Hefferon. 

To ensure this, during early production three years ago, Rainmaker made a short teaser as an audience test. In the first 24 hours, it got a million views, a total that quadrupled after four days.

Despite having a built-in audience, Rainmaker’s move still presents risk. Unlike television, where risk is mitigated by presales, feature films, with bigger production and advertising costs, can be sink-or-swim. 

Ratchet & Clank’s opening weekend box office results fell well below expectations. Rainmaker announced May 5 that because of the shortfall, the company determined it prudent to apply a $10 million impairment charge to its first-quarter 2016 income. In the press release, Heffron said Rainmaker was “disappointed with the North American opening release results. … Although support from the Ratchet & Clank fan base has been positive, the turnout for the film was not sufficient to overcome the highly competitive marketplace for [its] opening weekend.”

But Rainmaker, while still providing service work, is committed to go the feature film route again with its next project, Sly Cooper, also based on a PlayStation video game franchise.

“Our focus is finding strong, already-branded content,” Hefferon said. “I don’t see us doing original IP, certainly not right off the top, as people may not know Rainmaker, and we want our audience to get to know us.”

In addition to feature films, Rainmaker’s 360 employees are busy on at least a half-dozen other projects, including ReBoot: The Guardian Code, based on the original Mainframe Entertainment series.