Walt Disney Co. has 1,200 accomplished animators -- and the rest of Hollywood wants them.
DreamWorks SKG, Warner Bros. Studios and Hanna-Barbera Inc. are considered the most likely contenders vying for Disney's talent. There also are smaller houses such as Rich Animation Studios in Burbank, Calif., that will struggle to retain their place in the widening animation pie.
Although it has yet to make a film, DreamWorks could be the most formidable of the three. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who revived Disney's animation division, has his heart set on creating a similar machine at DreamWorks.
Even the most loyal Disney animators say Mr. Katzenberg could give the company a run for its money. He has already enlisted 85 artists since forming DreamWorks in October with director Steven Spielberg and record executive David Geffen.
"I'll give him credit. He's brilliant. He knows animation," said Nancy Kniep, an animator who said she plans to stay with Disney. "If the pay was right, he could entice [animators]."
Warner Bros., which in years past was the toughest competitor for the Disney juggernaut, also could play a significant role. Warner long has concentrated on television animation but is planning to create a feature-film group.
Tim Sarnoff, a senior vice president for Warner animation, said the company plans to hire "a gazillion" artists over the next five to 10 years for features. The television artist work force alone has tripled since 1989, going from 120 to 300.
Getting and retaining artists, however, will be tricky, Mr. Sarnoff acknowledged.
"I don't believe payment alone is going to retain people. I think opportunity will keep people," Mr. Sarnoff said. "What will keep the artists here is the way we manage and the way we create shows."
Industry analysts say smaller animation houses may be squeezed out as Disney, DreamWorks, Warner and Hanna-Barbera fight it out.
Can any studio stop the Disney machine?
"What goes up, must come down," said Fred Seibert, president of Hanna-Barbera. "Nobody stays on top forever."