Monday, September 9, 2013

Staying Afloat

The boy on the moon has been having some trouble lately...

2013 hasn't been a stellar year for animation in general - regardless of the breakout performance of Illumination's Despicable Me 2 and some other notable happenings - it's actually a rather dour one, from layoffs to the VFX industry problems to DreamWorks' reaction to a certain film's box office performance...

In February, DreamWorks announced that up to 350 people were going to be let go and that a film on their upcoming slate was sent to the back burner. DreamWorks had plans to release three animated films this year, much like 2010 when they did so for the first time to enough success. In 2010, How To Train Your Dragon was a sleeper hit and then some. Shrek Forever After did good here, but became the biggest installment in the series in foreign markets partially thanks to 3D. Megamind on the other hand was viewed as something of an underperformer, but nothing too disappointing.

2011 and 2012 saw DreamWorks sticking to the usual two-a-year routine, this year was going to see three films from the studio: The Croods, Turbo and Mr. Peabody & Sherman (which was slated to open on November 1st). What happened?

Rise of the Guardians, the second 2012 release, was a box office dud.

Regardless of what happened, whether it was poor marketing or poor timing, Rise of the Guardians turned out to be a bump in the road for the studio. If one film could lead to such layoffs and the cancellation of a project (Me and My Shadow) that was less than 2 years away and already in production, then I think DreamWorks should rethink their business model a bit...

Rise of the Guardians would also be the last DreamWorks Animation film released under the Paramount distribution deal, and Paramount tripped up the marketing on a lot of their films: Guardians' marketing campaign was their biggest disaster, selling the whimsical, often dark fairy tale-esque story as an action-packed Avengers wannabe for little kids. The already-bland title didn't help, either. Why wasn't the film called The Guardians of Childhood? What goes on in these title-changing people's heads? (I'm looking at you too, Disney and Warner Bros.)

So you'd think that under 20th Century Fox, things would look up, right? The Croods was one hell of a rebound, making a lot here (the press immediately wrote it off as a disappointment when it opened with $43 million, short of the $50 million expectations) and a whole lot more worldwide, and it was backed by an overall effective marketing campaign. Not a great one that ensured a Kung Fu Panda-sized opening (when will DreamWorks ever score a non-sequel $55 million+ opening?), but one that certainly paid off. Having all of late March, April and even May to itself was a real advantage.

Unfortunately, the hope train slowed down to a snail's pace. Literally.

Turbo, I will admit, was at least backed by an aggressive marketing campaign that did get the word out. The problem is, the film just didn't appeal to adults or anyone else. The concept seemed too ridiculous for anyone over the age of 10 to take seriously, and worst of all, Despicable Me 2's momentum couldn't be stopped. It was unwise to open the movie at the time, DreamWorks should've opted for a late August release or perhaps an autumn release. Opening with a weak total, Turbo won't reach $90 million at the domestic box office and it may fail to double that sizable $135 million budget worldwide (it's not out in every other country yet). More layoffs ensued.

Next year gives us Mr. Peabody & Sherman, How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Home. We know which one will be the hit. Peabody is guaranteed to do okay given the source material and how much more marketable it sounds (it doesn't sound generic like Turbo), Home is a gamble with a terrible title.

2015? The Penguins of Madagascar, B.O.O. and Kung Fu Panda 3. The sequels/franchise films will do well, B.O.O. can do okay but it's being sandwiched between Paramount Animation's Monster Trucks and Pixar's Inside Out. It has to be more than just average in order to do well amidst that summer's animation tsunami. If Turbo was some great film, it would've done well despite being crammed between Despicable Me 2The Smurfs 2 and Planes. If anything, DreamWorks should release this in August.

2016 has Mumbai Musical, which is going to go head to head with whatever Disney Animation has ready for the March 2016 slot (it's probably going to be Zootopia given how far along it's gotten), How To Train Your Dragon 3 will make bank, obviously. Trolls? Easy sell, so it should do well enough. Maybe. Are people willing to show up for a musical based on the Good Luck Troll dolls?

But it seems like DreamWorks wants to do this 3 films a year thing every year starting with 2014, now that Mr. Peabody & Sherman was moved from this autumn to the spring.

So what keeps DreamWorks above water?

It's the films, because the films are what they've really got.

Regardless of what one might think of the quality of the DreamWorks films, it must be acknowledged that DreamWorks is pretty gutsy for an independent studio that's not backed by a big safety net. If you look at the other studios, like Sony Animation and Blue Sky and Illumination, they're backed by known distributors but they don't spend much more than $100 million on their films because they know what the ramifications will be if one of them were to underperform. I commend them for that, actually. Look at Blue Sky. Epic didn't do so hot, but thank goodness they didn't spend more than $93 million on it.

On the other hand, DreamWorks spends more than $130 million on each film of theirs. Not a very smart move each time out, considering that they aren't owned by Disney or a mega-empire like that. Disney can handle a flop, which is probably why they let their animation studio and Pixar spend over $150 million (Pixar goes big with roughly $200 million) on their films, because there's still that aforementioned safety net that'll catch the two studios if they were to fall, not to mention lots of merchandise. Disney's marketing department also tries to make sure that these films do well, and their marketing machine is probably much bigger than that of the other studios'. (Though I question what they are doing.)

DreamWorks justifies their budgets, as their films do look great for the most part. They have top talent there, too. But... Is this overspending good for the company? Not quite...

It's surprising that they've had two money-losers recently, after a string of highly successful films. Everything released from Shrek The Third (mid-2007) to Madagascar 3 (last summer) has done well or made a profit. Sequels are essential because they need them, but luckily in this day and age, DreamWorks is beginning to put actual effort into their sequels. Jeffrey Katzenberg also jumped all over 3D, and went about it the right way (one thing I can actually praise about him) until 3D itself saw a collapse. Sad thing is, DreamWorks put their all into the 3D for their films. It was also a smart move due to 3D's success in foreign markets... But the domestic market does matter too. A good $200 million overseas gross couldn't save Rise of the Guardians and it won't save Turbo either, as the films needed to take in more than what they made here.

Reality has sunk in for them, now that two films of theirs have lost money. Now what do they do? They have three solutions to their little problem...

DreamWorks purchased Classic Media for a paltry $155 million last year, acquiring many beloved properties that they can distribute on home media and make some profits. They're also going to mine the different franchises for new ones, as they are planning to make a film based on Lassie. Classic Media also owns the likes of the UPA filmography (please DreamWorks, release it all on a collector's Blu-ray set!), Jay Ward cartoons, Filmation cartoons and several other things. Good investment for them.

DreamWorks also plans on expanding on their theme park plans as well as launching a family-oriented television channel. I admire these decisions, because with that and the live shows, DreamWorks could build up some sort of a safety net. I'm not saying that Katzenberg is aiming to make DreamWorks a Disney-sized empire, but expansion is nice. Fox's upcoming Malaysian theme park could also help, though they seem more interested in their own properties (i.e. the Alien franchise, Night at the Museum, Life of Pi) and Blue Sky Studios. Should DreamWorks opt for a theme park here in the states? Europe, maybe? It could happen, and it could be pulled off. But what else could DreamWorks do to justify spending so much on their movies each time out?

DreamWorks Oriental isn't just making animated films, they're actually making live action China-friendly films. Remember that project I talked about? The Tibet Code? Much to my surprise (how that slipped past me, I don't know), that's actually a live action film! Anyways, given how big China's market is and how big DreamWorks' films are there (The Croods actually had to pulled from theaters to let other Chinese animated films get some spotlight at the box office!), revenue from these kinds of films can keep them afloat. Other markets could also boost these films too, given 3D and whatnot. While I may not admire Katzenberg for his animation sense, I do admire his shrewd ways of running a business.

Now... Aside from possible safety nets and things to fall back on, what can they do about their films?

Well, if they are gung-ho about releasing three in a calendar year for the next 3-4 years (or possibly for a very long time), well they better crack down on both the quality of the films and the quality of the marketing.

Did Turbo really need to be a 96-minute long, $135 million movie for theaters? If anything, that could've made for a more inventive and even bizarre short film (given that concept) or a television series. Oh wait, a TV series is coming. Maybe that might help the film in the long run...

Maybe if DreamWorks made that snail tale a decidedly lighter film (with a smaller budget), it could've been a profitable gap filler for them so that they could move on to bigger things with ease. Maybe they should scale back on some films, go small scale and actually do what the other big studios (even Disney and Pixar) aren't doing. It would allow them to experiment more. Maybe DreamWorks should give hand-drawn another go (they almost partially did so with Me and My Shadow, but they had to indefinitely postpone it), but something with a smaller budget than their usual endeavors. The hopeful optimist in me suggests that someone will make a successful hand-drawn film, spurring Disney executives to invest in the medium.

DreamWorks very much wants to be more than just a studio, with the theme parks, live events, TV shows based on their hit films and the plans to create a channel (great idea). I think Katzenberg and the brass know that relying on big budgeted animated films is a strategy that could cause more harm than good, so these new routes are probably going to be taken. If anything, DreamWorks should strategically pursue building their company, making them more than just an animation house. They're the only ones who are really in that position, so there are opportunities there.

As for the channel... How about original programming? Instead of relying on feature films to kick off new shows, why not create an all-new show? Disney opted for that in the mid-1980s (partially for the wrong reasons) and look what happened? Disney proved with shows like Adventures of the Gummi Bears and Darkwing Duck that you can come up with original characters for successful shows, while relying on others that were based on pre-existing Disney characters (i.e. TaleSpin's Jungle Book cast) or other properties. DreamWorks could possibly reboot Classic Media properties for new cartoons, either for their channel or another network. What about actually giving those properties' early incarnations re-runs on their channel or another one?

It's all right there for them.

I mean, what are they going to do if another film of theirs doesn't recoup its costs? What if Peabody and Home struggle next year? Today's box office climate requires your film to either do well on opening weekend or to make a very good amount of money domestically. It's time that DreamWorks prepares themselves, they need to thrive. Their slate is both ambitious and risky in many ways.

1 comment:

  1. I really like these ideas! I'd love to see a DreamWorks theme park (they should build it close to Budapest; Hungary, and Eastern Europe really needs a good theme park)!

    And since they own Filmation properties, it would be really funny if they make a TV show, or a short with extremely limited, so-bad-it's-good animation! :D