Sullivan Bluth Studios was an American and Irish animated film production company established in 1979 by animator Don Bluth. Bluth and several colleagues, all of whom were former Disney animators, left Disney on September 13, 1979 to form Don Bluth Productions, later known as the Bluth Group. This studio produced the short film Banjo the Woodpile Cat, the feature film The Secret of NIMH, a brief animation sequence in the musical Xanadu, and the video games Dragon's Lair and Space Ace. The Bluth Group went bankrupt in 1984, and Bluth co-founded Sullivan Bluth Studios with American businessman Morris Sullivan in 1985.
The studio initially operated from an animation facility in Van Nuys, California, and negotiated with Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment to make the animated feature An American Tail. During its production, Sullivan began to move the studio to Dublin, Ireland, to take advantage of government investment and incentives offered by the Industrial Development Authority (IDA). Most of the staff from the US studio moved to the new Dublin facility during production on the studio's second feature film, The Land Before Time. The studio also recruited heavily from Ireland, and helped set up an animation course at Ballyfermot Senior College to train new artists.
After The Land Before Time, the studio severed its connection with Amblin and negotiated with UK-based Goldcrest Films, which invested in and distributed two additional features, All Dogs Go to Heaven and Rock-a-Doodle. In 1989, during the production of All Dogs Go to Heaven, founding member John Pomeroy and many of the remaining US staff members returned to America to form a US wing in Burbank, California. The studio found itself in financial difficulty in 1992 when Goldcrest withdrew funding due to concerns about the poor box office returns of its most recent films and budgetary over-runs in its in-production films, Thumbelina, A Troll in Central Park and The Pebble and the Penguin. Another British film company, Merlin Films, and Hong Kong media company Media Assets invested in the studio to fund the completion and release of the three partially completed films.
Bluth and Gary Goldman were drawn away from the studio when they were approached in late 1993 to set up a new animation studio for 20th Century Fox. Sullivan Bluth Studio's films continued to suffer losses at the box office, and the studio was closed down in 1995 after the release of their final feature, The Pebble and the Penguin. Don Bluth and Gary Goldman went on to head up Fox Animation Studios in Phoenix, Arizona to work on Anastasia and Titan A.E.
Amblin and Spielberg / Sullivan Bluth (1984–1988)
During Bluth Group's period working with Cinematronics, Don Bluth met Morris Sullivan, a mergers and acquisitions broker and enthusiast of traditional animation, who quickly saw the potential in the studio. When the studio declared its second bankruptcy, Sullivan stepped in to assist, combining his experience of the business world with Bluth and his crew's talent to form Sullivan-Bluth Studios (later dropping the hyphen to become Sullivan Bluth Studios). Moving out of the smaller Studio City facility and into a dedicated building in Van Nuys, California, the studio opened in 1985.
In its early days, the studio worked on a number of smaller projects such as commercials while seeking a suitable feature film project. In 1984, as the studio was preparing to move to its new headquarters, Bluth was approached by Steven Spielberg with an idea for a feature film about a mouse family emigrating to America, An American Tail. Bluth and Spielberg worked together to develop the story for the film, and production began in earnest later that year. With backing from Spielberg's production company Amblin Entertainment, and distributors Universal Pictures, the film was released in November 1986, accompanied by a major publicity campaign. An American Tail was very successful at the box-office, grossing $47 million in the United States and becoming the highest-grossing animated film on an initial release.
During production on An American Tail, Morris Sullivan drew plans to move the majority of the studio's operations to Ireland to take advantage of a scheme set up by the Industrial Development Authority encouraging filmmakers to invest in the country by offering grants, tax benefits and lower operating costs. Difficulties with American trade unions that arose when Bluth offered his employees wages below union rates during the financially tense production of An American Tail may also have influenced the decision to relocate. The IDA offered Sullivan Bluth Studios the largest grant in the country's history to relocate to Dublin, in return for a 5% government ownership of the studio. This, along with Sullivan's own investment, funded the foundation of a large and sophisticated new animation studio near Dublin's Phoenix Park. The studio opened with a staff of 85, mostly handling the ink-and-paint process, but expanded to employ over 300 people, including some 100 staff relocated from the California studio, and to cover all aspects of the animation process and even film processing. To build up this workforce, the studio brought young Irish people to the USA studio to train, and Bluth helped to set up an animation course at the nearby Ballyfermot Senior College. Despite the majority of operations eventually being moved to the Dublin studio, an executive office was retained in Burbank, California to maintain ties with US producers and distributors.
During the move to Ireland, production had started on the studio's second feature, The Land Before Time. Again, Amblin and Spielberg backed the production, with additional input from friend of Spielberg and Star Wars creator George Lucas, who had worked with Spielberg on the initial story treatment. The movie had been rushed into its early production stages even before the release of An American Tail to meet an Autumn 1987 release date, a very tight schedule for a feature-length animated film. However, between delays caused by the disruption of the move to Dublin, and the unwillingness of Amblin and Universal to fully commit to the project until An American Tail's release, production fell behind by several months, and it was Spring 1987 before it reached full stride.
Spielberg and Lucas' control over the story and production of The Land Before Time was notably greater than with An American Tail; substantial changes to the story were imposed mid-production, and around 10 minutes of footage, an expenditure for the studio of over $1 million, was removed. Production was completed in 1988 for a November release, the film vying for box-office receipts with Disney's Oliver & Company. The Land Before Time received positive reviews by the critics and broke the record for the highest-grossing animated film on its opening weekend, and would have retained the record for highest overall gross ($48 million) had Oliver & Company not surpassed it ($53 million).