Friday, June 5, 2015

Backwards and Forwards: DreamWorks' Current Status


DreamWorks is doing quite fine, it seems...

According to Deadline, DreamWorks' shares are up and analysts seem to be okay with how they're doing at the moment. It isn't all doom and gloom, what with an unexpected box office hit out now (Home) and the Netflix/consumer products end building the bottom line...

The studio has a new plan...

"DWA execs acknowledged that they bet wrong by making animated films for adolescents. “Where once it was common to see 10 year olds at animated movies, the age cap has been lowered in recent years,” Mogil says recounting the company’s view. DWA noticed the shift in 2011 when Kung Fu Panda 2 opened the same weekend as The Hangover Part II. The trend continued “right as the company’s slate moved older (i.e. darker).” The upcoming slate will move to “younger skewing, lighter and more comedic films."

Some personal thoughts first, before I get to the business-side of things and what these choices mean in terms of making money...

Moving away from the darker and less comedic type films isn't really the answer. Do I need to reiterate why Rise of the Guardians, a film that audiences did in fact see after word-of-mouth spread after its disastrous opening weekend, was a box office flop? Do I need to explain - once again - how marketing killed other features along with a lack of audience interest? Do I need to bring up the fact that these cost way too damn much in the first place? $350 million+ isn't a magic number you can pull out of a hat. Do I need to bring up the fact that a movie opens badly because no one wants to see it in the first place?

No, a real problem was stated in the first sentence of that paragraph. Selling movies to adolescents, or preteens... That's an audience you might want to avoid when marketing animation, because a lot of them will only go for specific kinds of animation: Stuff like Family Guy, South Park, animation that's inappropriate for kids. I know it well, I went to middle school from 2003 to 2006, and I got guff for liking G and PG-rated animated movies that were out at the time. Most of my peers were all over films like DreamWorks' "hip" flicks like Shrek 2 and Shark Tale, Family Guy, Team America: World Police, stuff that was "adult" or "grown up" to them.


Rise of the Guardians bombed, firstly, because the studio spent way too much on it, thus raising expectations to arguably unrealistic levels. It was based on a book by William Joyce and it was certainly not a familiar brand or IP. From the get-go it was pretty risky in a way...

Second, Paramount (DreamWorks is probably part of the problem, too) did a terrible job at marketing it. The campaign was mostly a misfire, it emphasized action and tried to make the film look cool and edgy, whilst making it look like a kiddie flick that was cashing in on The Avengers. Those trailers didn't appeal to adults nor did they appeal to kids (too dark, too much Bogeyman), and that's why I think it opened so badly. If the marketing had emphasized the whimsical, fantastical elements more and focused on comedy and lightheartedness, perhaps it would've opened better. A lot of critics thought it was a good film, I thought it was great, I felt the film was made for the whole family and not adolescents. It was marketed to adolescents, sure, but that's just it... Why sell it to them?

Didn't they learn from past animation misfires?

Didn't they remember the time when 20th Century Fox wasted their animation unit on Titan A.E.? An action-packed sci-fi film that was designed for adolescent boys? Director Don Bluth warned that it wouldn't do well because they were aiming for that age group, but the heads didn't listen. It was a big bomb, and it shuttered the studio for a good while. It was the last 2D animation film - sans The Simpsons Movie - to be widely distributed by Fox.

Disney did the same thing with Treasure Planet two years after that. A mega-budget film with some sizable problems to begin with, Disney opted to promote the film as if it were "To The Extreme!" One animation historian put it wonderfully: It looked like "Disney's Poochie." 9-year-old me wasn't fooled back in the day, when I first saw Jim Hawkins surfing on his solar surfer, I was thinking that they were trying way too hard to be cool. I was a Disney fan back then, and it didn't appeal to me. I regret not seeing it back then...

Rise of the Guardians is a good old-fashioned family film that deserved a better marketing push, whilst Turbo is a silly comedy that definitely skews the adolescents. Turbo at times felt like it came out of the mid-2000s DreamWorks vat, with its tired attempts at being hip or cool. On top of that, it was aggressively average and didn't take advantage of its quirky premise. Even worse, it was an idea that was approved of during a pitch session in 2010, a mere three years before the film was even released. It's as if the suits said, "It's Fast & Furious, with snails, but the plot's like Ratatouille, and there's racing... Like Cars!" Then they spent $135 million on it and it underperformed. You see what the problem was there?


Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which I still need to see, seemed to be a typical family film that happened to be well-written (going by what critics and what some people I know have said)... However, why did it cost $145 million? How many people under the age of 35 are aware of the characters the film is based on? Again... Why spend $145 million on a movie based on the Mr. Peabody and Sherman segments of Rocky and Bullwinkle? With a budget so big, the film probably needed to make a good $350-400 million worldwide to be considered a break-even... Again, why spend so much on it? Forget the marketing for a second, forget what audiences might think for a second... Why $145 million?

Mr. Peabody & Sherman, perhaps, could've been a hit at $272 million worldwide had it cost around $80 million. Ditto Rise of the Guardians, or Turbo...

Illumination, Sony Animation, and Blue Sky show that you can make good-looking animated features for less than $100 million. Quality can come from any budget, it's all in the story and writing. You don't need to spend boatloads to make something that a lot of people will call a "good" movie. DreamWorks might be reducing their feature film budgets, but they should've thought of that back when approving of films like Rise of the Guardians, Turbo, and Mr. Peabody & Sherman.

Bad decision making from the higher ups essentially slowed the DreamWorks express to a halt... It really had nothing to do with mediocre or okay movies. DreamWorks heads saw a statistic about more adolescents going to see animated films in theaters, then decided to make movies that would - in a marketing sense in many cases - go after them. Huge mistake on their part...

Moving on, even if these films weren't geared to preteens, the problem wasn't the content. It usually isn't the content, either...

If content was a problem, a lot of poorly-reviewed films that happened to be big hits would've been flops. I always wince when people say "It'll be a box office hit if it's a good movie" or "It flopped because it was bad." Your opinion of a certain film isn't shared by everyone else. San Andreas, which just opened, got mixed reviews and it opened big. Tomorrowland got similarly mixed reviews, it opened weak. A critically acclaimed film like Paddington opened low, while another - Mad Max: Fury Road - opened well.

It's what audiences want to see...


So aside from big budgets and super-high expectations, and aiming at the wrong audience, here's the nut to crack: Getting people - from kids to adults - interested from the get-go.

Opening weekends, in this day and age of extremely short release windows, are everything these days... Unless the film pulls insane legs, but that can be rare. If your film cost over $120 million, it's expected to open well because legs will do the work. With a low opening, you'll end up with a disappointing gross if the legs are the same. You'll need a miracle or strong overseas grosses to do a lot of the work.

Luckily, Pixar has never had this problem...

Disney Animation and Pixar can get away with spending $165-200 million on their films, but even then they should take it down a notch. They are smart, however, for they create films that aim to be good, timeless, and appealing to almost all of the demographics, adults especially. Also, Disney is a massive mega-empire conglomerate, DreamWorks is not... Yet?

Pixar and Disney marketing always got the "selling" part right when it came to Pixar's films, in the past this hasn't always worked for Disney's post-Eisner animated features. 2008's Bolt and 2009's The Princess and the Frog were critically acclaimed, well-liked by many animation fans, and both had excellent legs at the box office... But they both opened poorly because very few people wanted to see them to begin with. Back in 2012, I worried that Wreck-It Ralph had the potential to tank because at the time, Disney Animation had only really scored with Tangled and none of the other Lasseter films.

If your movie looks unappealing to audiences from the marketing, you're mostly in trouble. It doesn't matter if your movie is good or bad, or if audiences end up liking it or not, you got to get a big opening gross first and you're all set. Then you have to see how it all plays out from there. Movies don't linger in theaters, they disappear, Blu-ray and VOD is right around the corner, you get the idea.

DreamWorks' suits, of all things, need to consider all of this. Make good, smart films, then sell them the right way and hope audiences end up really liking them. Don't aim for one specific crowd, "cast a wide net"! In a way, the studio is lucky that Home opened with over $50 million. Why's that? The legs are actually a bit weaker than the more recent DreamWorks films. (3.2x multiplier, vs. something like Peabody's 3.4x multiplier or Turbo's 3.9x multiplier. DreamWorks usually scores above 3.5x)

With Pixar's former head of publicity there, they have potential to overhaul the way their films are marketed. Let's hope this happens, because most importantly, audiences need to be given an incentive to go individually spend $11-14 for tickets...

How till the future films be marketed now?

Katzenberg has vowed to cut production costs, but marketing is a different story. “The challenge around the genre has and will be the need to market to two different audiences, kids and moms.”

Very nice Katzenberg, calling animation a "genre". Cool. I sometimes think he'll just never "get" animation or why many animated films are iconic and appealing. His history from his tenure at Disney to now more than sums it up for me.

At Disney, Katzenberg - like many a boomer who grew up assuming animation was a kiddie thing because of the deluge of Saturday morning cartoons in the 60s and 70s, and the lack of a Snow White-esque film after Walt's death - saw animation as kiddie stuff. By many accounts he was more interested in Touchstone when he came to Disney, R-rated pictures like Down and Out in Beverly Hills and The Color of Money. After Don Bluth's An American Tail became the highest grossing animated film at the time of its release, Katzenberg got heavily invested in Disney's animation.

But he still looked down on it. He wanted to cut 'Part of Your World' from The Little Mermaid because kids got bored at a test screening, and was responsible for the tonal trainwreck that is Pocahontas, among the more kiddie elements in the other films of the era. He only seemed to get it right with Aladdin, which barely pandered, along with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which was made by Amblin and Richard Williams Animation, and released under the Touchstone banner. On the other hand, he wanted Toy Story to be super-edgy and cynical, and the resulting first workprint was something everyone hated. Thank goodness Disney gave John Lasseter and crew a chance to turn it around...

Then he leaves Disney, forms DreamWorks, the M-O is now "edgy" and "adult" stuff. Not a bad idea, but rather hypocritical considering how he dumbed Disney animation down for kids (something Walt was against doing, Walt wanted to entertain "the audience", not a "target audience") and shackled it to a formula that dried up no more than 4 years after Beauty and the Beast wowed the world. He found success with The Prince of Egypt, but his other "edgy" 2D films tanked, so he blamed traditional animation and successfully got the medium killed here in America. Very nice.

Shrek was big, now the mission was to make snarky, pop culture joke-laden films like it. Then that wore thin, so we transitioned into an upsettingly short era of films that just aimed to entertain: Kung Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon, even films like Puss in Boots and Madagascar 3! They should've stayed the course, but no, the executives saw some statistic about more preteens attending animated movies, so. Oh, and they felt like they should spend $130 million+ on each new film, despite not having a safety net to back them up or anything of the sort.

Now the motto is "kids and their moms". That all confuses and infuriates me, especially when a lot of this executive nonsense is what lead to an entire studio being shut down, over 500 people being let go, among other travesties...

Anyways, "kids and moms"...

I hope this means: Make films that are G/PG and appropriate for all ages, then get the parents interested since they're the ones buying the tickets...

But why stop there?

Getting childless adults into the theater for your family-friendly animated film is the titanium trophy that they should chase...

Frozen, Despicable Me 1 & 2, Kung Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon, anything Pixar puts out... Why do these animated films make so much dough? It's not just "kids dragging mommy and daddy into the theater", like some analysts and "experts" may want you to think. No, mommy and daddy have to say "yes" first. If kids dragging the parents into the theater made Frozen so big, then it would've made The Smurfs 2 big as well, or Alpha & Omega, or Escape from Planet Earth, or the kiddiest of kids' movies. Parents have to like what they're seeing in the ads/trailers, too.

Frozen, Despicable Me 1 & 2, Kung Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon, and Pixar films certainly did well because the parents liked what they saw in the ads/trailers, but they made huge bucks because... Childless adults, teenagers too. Everyone! All the demographics! So you win quite a bit when the parents like what they see in the trailers and ads, but again... Why stop there? Pixar and Disney Animation lock in the childless adults, so I think DreamWorks should definitely consider that too.

However, getting the parents eager to see the films is a good start for DreamWorks' road to recovery...

Still, I think focusing solely on lighthearted and comedic animated fare isn't pushing forward in an artistic sense. However, DreamWorks really needs a break for the time being after a slew of money-losers and layoffs and disastrous events. That all being said, kid-friendly comedic fare isn't always a guaranteed winner either... Again, it boils down to the marketing and audience appeal. This new strategy sounds effective enough, so they should be fine for the next three years. (The slate currently ends at June 2018.)

Now as for the "after 2018" part...

I just hope they don't shun the more Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon-esque epics for too long. I want to see DreamWorks experiment and do cool new things, make great stories that cover different genres and themes... That being said, I'd like to see them be smart with the budgets on said pictures. Just because I want something ambitious doesn't mean I want it to cost more than $100 million, I just want a story that does something new. You don't need a huge budget to do that. LAIKA proved that a few times already, Reel FX proved that with their visually stunning The Book of Life, the list goes on and on...

So again... The new strategy...

$120 million-costing lighthearted comedic animated features that'll be marketed to appeal to both kids and their parents? Sounds like a good plan for the time being. Good luck to you, DreamWorks!

3 comments:

  1. Wait, wait, did the execs really say that???? PLZ SOMEONE FIRE THEM ALL.
    I just DONT understand how pathetically incompetent DreamWorks is going! Aren't they following Disney and Pixar? Or do they just decide to do what THEY think is best? Did they not see Dragon 2 results as opposed to younger skewing films in recent years? WHAT ON EARTH ARE THEY THINKING???

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    1. There is a saying. . . "He who fights monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster."
      Jeffrey Katzenburg, and Dreamworks as a whole in its present state, is the embodiment of that quote. He founded Dreamworks after leaving Disney and his initial movies, like Antz, The Prince of Egypt, and Shrek, were the antithesis of Disney's.
      Yet today, Dreamworks is falling into the exact same trap Disney did in the 1990s: producing formulaic family movies aimed at young children.

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  2. Katzenburg is starting to sound like that AnimationEmpire guy I showed you last year. You know the one--it was the site that claimed that the reason movies like Treasure Planet and Titan AE bombed was because they didn't appeal to women. And to think this is coming from the man who gave us The Prince of Egypt!
    And with that, I leave you a question.

    How long do you think it will be before we see an American animated movie that is
    1) financially successful (earns at least 2x its budget)
    2) produced by a major studio (Disney, Dreamworks, Fox, etc.)
    3) Rated PG-13 or higher, and
    4) NOT a comedy?
    No such movie currently exists in the plans of any studio (the only upcoming R-rated animated movie with a known release date is Sausage Party, which is a comedy). But how long will we have to wait before we finally get one? 5 years? 10? 50?



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