Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Some DreamWorks Ideas and Rambling

DreamWorks has certainly come a long way in terms of their films and their business…

The problem is, they seem to have problems with their films on the financial side of things. Fox's marketing has failed to sell films like Mr. Peabody & Sherman and How To Train Your Dragon 2, but at the same time, I think DreamWorks can make modifications to their slate.

If you have not noticed, they are planning to release three films every calendar year. This year we already got two (Peabody, Dragon 2) and another one is coming in the fall (Penguins of Madagascar). They'll be repeating that for the next four years. Their deal with Fox ends in 2018, their last film for them - shall they not renew the contract - will be Puss in Boots 2: Nine Lives & 40 Thieves

DreamWorks' previous distributor was Paramount, they were with them for six years. With Fox, it'll be a five-year deal, and honestly, I can't see DreamWorks still working with Fox after 2018. They are, in my opinion, already screwing them over. Under Paramount, DreamWorks saw two flops - Flushed Away and Rise of the Guardians - while under Fox, Turbo and Mr. Peabody & Sherman lost money. Already two out of the gate. How To Train Your Dragon 2 will make bank overseas, but that domestic total is disappointing, no different from Kung Fu Panda 2's unexpected domestic performance. (Like that film, I thought it was superior to its predecessor.)

So what is DreamWorks to do with their film end of the business? Marketing and the snarky doom-and-gloom press (who always eye DreamWorks down like hawks) killed Peabody before it had the chance to shine, marketing held How To Train Your Dragon 2 from soaring, like a massive weight chained to Toothless… And I can only imagine why its legs are weak, especially when the first film did so well. Are audiences just unpredictable? Did families avoid this outing because it was darker and a little more violent? Is there a bit of a stretch where people are becoming super-choosy with movies? I really don't know and I really can't say… Box office is never always an exact science, even when you think you have it down pat.

The next slew of movies sound pretty comedic in tone. The only sequels that'll most likely be more serious like Dragon 2 are Kung Fu Panda 3 and How To Train Your Dragon 3. There's a possibility that The Croods 2 will deviate from its predecessor's all-out comedic tone, but who knows. Home, from the looks of it, seems very lighthearted and silly. B.O.O.? Well, it's got Seth Rogen and Melissa McCarthy in its cast. I was thinking, maybe with ghosts it could be something more in line with Rise of the Guardians and Dragon 2, but I guess not. We don't know yet. Boss BabyTrolls and Captain Underpants are likely to be more like Madagascar/Croods than Dragon 2. Not sure about the Bollywood musical or Larrikins.

I don't think DreamWorks is on the brink of collapse. They aren't, and other outlets need to understand that. Again, the Netflix deal, theme parks, live action production in China… They're making great progress, and Katzenberg is pulling a 1950s Walt Disney with these new ventures. However, I think two more things should be done…

About a year ago (it was sometime after Rise of the Guardians' run at the box office), it was announced that DreamWorks would be dialing down the budgets for their feature films, and that's good. However, $125 million isn't that much lower… Why not $100 million? Blue Sky makes films for around that much, look at how crisp Epic looked!

Of course, this is all opinion-based. I for one think that the DreamWorks 3-a-year deal is going to cause issues, in terms of quality. Heck, some studios struggle with doing one a year! Pixar had their little stumble with Cars 2, Brave being a product of a similarly troubled production and Good Dinosaur had to be delayed. I think DreamWorks should scale back a bit, they don't need to do that many movies at once. If they can maintain the quality, fine… But I don't think they've done so.

From 2010 to now, DreamWorks has had hits and misses. 2010 had the very good How To Train Your Dragon, but the dull Shrek Forever After and the lacking Megamind. The run of films from 2011 to 2012, I think, was solid. I thought Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, Madagascar 3 and Rise of the Guardians were all good, above-average films with the latter being the studio's finest in my eyes until Dragon 2 soared in. The Croods? It was just average and forgettable to me, despite the good first act and the world it's set in. Turbo? Entertaining enough, but also forgettable and devoid of anything unique or fresh, it felt like it was made from various animated movie parts. I have not seen Mr. Peabody & Sherman yet, but it got better reviews than the two films that preceded it…

Now Croods and Turbo were the only 2013 releases, there was no third DreamWorks film released that year. But wait, there was going to be one! Mr. Peabody & Sherman at one time, Me and My Shadow at another. Again, I think it's a crammed, over-switchy business model. Movies move up and down, back and forth, sometimes off the slate. I think it possibly compromises one or two movies on the full slate…

This is nothing new, for DreamWorks has been releasing two movies almost every calendar year since 2004. The only exception was 2009 for some reason, Monsters vs. Aliens was the only DWA release that year. Now imagine if How To Train Your Dragon also came out in 2009, good thing they didn't release it then. They took their time and by early 2010, they turned out a very good film! Shrek Forever After and Megamind? Not so much… When do these films get green lit? When are they thrown into production?

Megamind, for instance… I first heard of that film back in fall 2008, when it was called Oobermind, though the studio did announce the film back in spring 2008 as Master Mind. I just remember the IMDb boards predicting it would be an "Incredibles rip-off" because of the whole Antz/Shark Tale deal. Was it in some form of development before 2008? Probably, but how far back can we trace its development? Also, did a major rewrite occur a year or two before the finished product went into production? Again, sometimes these things work out and sometimes they don't. Sometimes it's best to give an idea a good amount of time to come together. Some ideas don't take too long to come together, others need a lot of time before they can get them just right. Kung Fu Panda, as far as I know, began development in late 2004 but the movie turned out quite fine in 2008. Megamind? 2-4 years, didn't turn out well. Then again, like I said, it is a matter of taste. Some out there really like Megamind or consider it to be a very good film.

Aside from the production schedule, here's what I think could also be done…

Go small.

Instead of having every film on the slate be some $100-150 million production, why not have each year contain:

A) A big "event" $100-150 million production
B) One or two smaller-scale movies to go with it? Or vice-versa?

Think of it this way. A year like 2017 has two originals and a sequel. The Croods 2 can be the big $125 million+ film, while Captain Underpants and the untitled Bollywood musical can be smaller-scale films that cost under $100 million. With a smaller budget, I think the filmmakers can be a little riskier with these stories and make movies that aren't so safe or familiar. With a $50 million budget, you can have a little Rango or ParaNorman-type film. They could be quirkier, weirder, different… They can even have out-there animation styles. Or heck, they could even be… Wait for it…

Traditionally animated!

Yeah, think about that! DreamWorks makes a roughly $50 million hand-drawn film out of Captain Underpants. Or Bollywood Musical. Or even something like Boss Baby or Trolls… Then it does okay, it can make like $100 million stateside and it won't be too much of a loss. In fact, it'd be pretty damn profitable! I'd say it's worth the risk.

DreamWorks hasn't completely cancelled Me and My Shadow, if that film was a success, it'd tell executives that there is still money to be made in hand-drawn animation along with bigger profitability margins. The timing just has to be right, and the movie has to be good or at least has to be one that strikes a chord with audiences! The Princess and the Frog, sadly, was backed by bad marketing, lots of unneeded baggage and opened against Avatar, Sherlock Holmes and the chipmunks sequel. It cost $105 million and it technically made it back, but Disney's film division was run by a numbskull at the time who barked death to 2D animation and fairy tale/princess movies because of that 2009 film's performance… That was, until Tangled came out, now the mantra was "no death to fairy tale movies". Hand-drawn animation unfortunately had to leave the American marketplace once again because Tangled happened to be a CG film, it just makes me wish Tangled was also hand-drawn so its success would've shown the ignorant executives that it's not the medium that drives audiences away.

(Executives are never to blame, I forgot…)

Back to my point… What if DreamWorks did that? Every year they have one big film, and then two smaller-scale, perhaps more personal films in-between? Let me apply this scenario to, what is in my opinion, a film that could've benefited from it: Turbo!

As far as I know, Turbo began development in 2010 after it came from a jam session where at least three ideas were pitched. The concept was something of a hard sell: A snail who wants to go fast falls into a street racer and comes out a speed machine/car-snail hybrid, and then it goes the Fast & Furious route afterwards. Now this is a weird idea; many including myself were like "What?" at first. But it could've worked.

The resulting film, I felt, was pleasant and entertaining… But dull, from the story to the visuals to just the whole feel of the thing. The film cost a big $135 million to make, typical for a DreamWorks animated film. But I keep asking myself, "What if it was a smaller-scale film that was allowed to be a little more weird?"

Many critics agreed that Turbo didn't go all out with its odd premise, and I certainly share this sentiment. The film felt restrained, as it seems like many elements in the film were decided by a committee rather than creatives. The Cars and Ratatouille vibe could definitely be felt from the trailers alone, as if higher ups said "Make it like Cars! We need a franchise to compete with that merchandise monster! But let's make it more like Fast & Furious because that's big and hip right now." What if they didn't take the premise and shackle it to the same underdog story we've heard before? Now I don't have a problem with a filmmaker covering a story that's been told many times before, but I felt that Turbo wasn't really a fresh new spin on this particular story.

Computer animation is being taken into exciting new directions lately. This autumn's The Book of Life, next year's Peanuts and Sony Animation's upcoming Popeye are launching new styles in the CGI realm that are pretty far removed from the Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks styles. I mean, imagine if Turbo was made for a lower budget, took on a style like that and had a story that was different and perhaps a little weirder or more personal or quirky. To me, that would make DreamWorks a game-changer and they'd have something really cool to add to their resume. At the same time, their movie wouldn't be a money-loser and perhaps could've made a little more!

Turbo could've been something more interesting had they dialed down the budget and went for something different with both the animation style and the tone. The Netflix show (which I confess, I have not seen) seems to go more out with weirdness than the movie did. Now the weirder, smaller Turbo may not be a good film, but at least they tried something different and if it did the same numbers that the actual film did, it wouldn't be a loss. A near-$300 million gross against a $50 million budget would've been a real victory for DreamWorks! Then the franchise comes and boom, new trend in animation begins: Smaller movies, bigger profits, everyone wins.

Now if they do this to some future originals on their slate, that would be pretty cool. I can see something like Captain Underpants being a small film with a quirkier style, and it's also going to be a January release, so they can definitely make it like that and it'd do pretty well. The Nut Job just showed that January is an ideal spot for smaller, cheaper animation like that - regardless of whether that squirrel flick is good or not. Something like Trolls, even. That doesn't have to be some big $130 million+ "event" film, let Dragon 3 be 2016's big event DreamWorks film!

If they don't opt to do this kind of thing, what could they possibly do to keep the grosses up?

Well, of course, Fox needs to market their movies better. Mr. Peabody & Sherman looked like a generic kids flick, How To Train Your Dragon 2 looked like it was more of the same and just messy. I can't fault them for Turbo, that was a tough sell and it's amazing that it did as much as it did. Why is it that animated film trailers have to be so poorly edited? Watching them is like being pulled in different directions, they're confusing, noisy and you have no clue what the tone will be like. It only works for a handful of movies too! (Pixar can get away with their slipshod domestic trailers.)

We know Penguins of Madagascar is locked to be a hit because it's a Madagascar spin-off, the teaser is fun (Fox marketing did right by this one, I think), and the penguins themselves were always show-stealers in the movies. They got their own short, they got a show that's five years old and still running. That one chunk of the franchise alone is big, and will ensure that this film will be a hit. I bet it'll outgross Dragon 2 domestically, which would be quite telling in a way.

But then we get to the next original/non-sequel, Home. I was one of the few who didn't mind the "Almost Home" short/teaser, but I did not like the proper trailer at all. Not sure if audiences will want to see it or not, but I have a feeling it could go either way. The good thing is, if its opening weekend isn't too stellar, it'll have all of April and May to itself to breathe… As long as audiences like it enough and spread enough good word of mouth to get it a roughly 3.5x multiplier. I don't see why it shouldn't, for more comedic animated films tend to score good multipliers. Movies like Mars Needs Moms and Escape from Planet Earth for instance, you'd be surprised if you saw their multipliers. Dragon 2's multiplier indicates that more violent/intense/scary family-friendly animation is a no-no amongst a lot of American families… Though Coraline and ParaNorman, which have bigger scares, really contradict this… We really can't say, but it is proven that more lighthearted fare is guaranteed to hang on.

(Another possible theory: Since Dragon 2's predecessor wasn't as intense or violent, maybe families were turned off by the sequel's amount of violent/intense scenes, plus a certain something that happens towards the end. I bet this is why Cars 2 scored the weakest multiplier for a Pixar film. It was a fairly violent, explosive spy film compared to the tranquil first film that had some surprising death scenes... That and the fact that it drove Pixar's adult audiences away.)

B.O.O.'s marketing shouldn't kick in until fall (I expect the trailer to show up in late October or maybe early November), since it comes out next summer. That being said, B.O.O. is going to have to appeal to audiences after it opens, which it should have no problem doing. At the same time, it would be nice if the film opened like The Croods did. No under-$35 million launch, this one should get past the big four-oh. Paramount's Monster Trucks and Pixar's Inside Out should not be a problem for the film, as I don't believe in the "[insert type here] movies cannibalize each other!" mindset. Madagascar 3 fared quite well after Brave came out weeks later, Puss in Boots held on like crazy despite facing The Muppets, Hugo, Arthur Christmas and Happy Feet Two! There's always that big drop on the weekend a new animated film opens, but that's more because of the loss of screens, I think.

Let's say B.O.O. opens with $40 million minimum and scores a 3.5x multiplier. Assuming this will cost $125 million to make instead of $135-150 million, it'll need to make $250 million worldwide to break even. Domestically, it scores $140 million off of its 3.5x multiplier. Solid! Overseas it makes $200 million. Great! $340 million, profit made and then some! Mr. Peabody & Sherman could've very well had done that too if marketed well - arguably with the same $145 million budget no less.

Basically, what I said about B.O.O. applies to every other non-sequel. Movies like Boss Baby, Trolls, Captain Underpants, Bollywood Monkeys, Larrikins… All need to open with above $40 million to be safe, and appeal to audiences too so they get a solid 3.5x multiplier and do good business overseas. Basically, we need more Croods-sized openings.

Problem is, those good-sized openings will only happen if Fox marketing makes all of these films look like they are worth paying for seeing in the theater! Also…

The entertainment press needs to shut up for once. (They won't, but still…)

They need to stop sounding the alarm every time a DreamWorks film tracks lower than expected, they already put a stink on these movies before they even come out: "FLOP! FLOP!" they howl! That, I think, convinces a good chunk of audiences not to see the movies! Flop is synonymous with "bad movie" to a lot of people, many people have no idea that movies like Citizen Kane, Pinocchio, Bambi and Blade Runner were box office flops. Not like they care either, it's just one way for them: Flop = bad flick. Sad but true. Movies flop for various reasons, many times it has nothing to do with the quality. Audiences flock to see good movies, bad movies, whatever appeals to them.

So if the movies appeal, the marketing is good (ensures an above $40 million weekend each time out) and the gabbers keep their mouths shut, DreamWorks will do quite well over the next four years. The 2015-2018 slate will be no problem. However, the marketing part… This leads me to my last question…

If DreamWorks' deal with Fox is not extended after 2018, should DreamWorks self-distribute their films instead of going to a new distributor?

I think so.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, as I and many others have said before, has been acting like a modern day Walt Disney in terms of business: Expansion, the Netflix deal/TV, Chinese live action film production with some animation on the side, theme park attractions… Walt did similar things in the late 1940s/early 1950s when he realized the studio couldn't get by on just lavish animated features films and short films. Nature documentaries and live action films like Treasure Island, leading to the creation of a TV series and a theme park! Look what came out of all that!

However, there was one last smart move Walt made… He founded his own distribution company in 1953…

That's right, Disney founded this very company after their problems with previous distributor RKO. Disney had enough to get something like this accomplished, and I predict by 2018, DreamWorks will have enough money and such to maintain self-distribution and marketing. They already have a lot of different arms that will help them in the long-run… The question is: Will they and should they do it?

I think so. DreamWorks would probably have a better clue of how to market their films. I read rumors that DreamWorks requested that Fox's marketing arm not reveal a certain someone in the trailers for How To Train Your Dragon 2, but Fox did anyway. Among other things, they'd probably do a better job with trailers and whatnot.

Maybe after 2018, if they go on their own with what they have behind them, they can slowly climb to becoming an entertainment giant… As of now, they are far from being in deep trouble but some things I feel could be done to improve the current problems.

1 comment:

  1. My solution for DreamWorks Animation? Buy the live-action DreamWorks studio it spun off from, and restructure it to focus on family-friendly movies.