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The Comcast-DreamWorks Deal is About More than ‘Synergy’

The Comcast-DreamWorks Deal is About More than ‘Synergy’

That good ol’ corporate buzzword is being bandied about as the largest development in the animation industry so far this year has been announced. Just what exactly does that mean, and why is there so much more to the deal than that?

Comcast has tendered an offer for DreamWorks Animation in the region of three and a bit billion dollars. Despite the remarkableness of that figure (cheap!), it’s slightly disappointing that the foremost independent animation studio will be disappearing into a corporate monolith. 

The upside is the much vaunted ‘synergy’, wherein DreamWorks’ vast library of characters and properties (including the ones acquired when it bought Classic Media a few years ago) could be potentially given a new lease of life now that the company is on a more stable financial footing. Jerry has written an impassioned plea that outlines the predicament of some of animation’s greatest historical properties.

Synergy is not all that’s interesting about the deal though. While Comcast seems determined to swallow everything it can, the rationale is a little bit more complicated than that. The vast changes in the entertainment industry over the last ten years has wrought an enormous amount of corporate musical chairs as extremely large companies attempt to keep pace with the changes. They missed YouTube entirely (allowing Google to swoop in and acquire the startup,) and despite hitting a record number of subscribers a few years ago, cable companies are facing a precipitous drop in numbers thanks to cord cutting. The latter reality was a large factor in Comcast’s decision to buy NBCUniversal back in 2011. Previous owner General Electric could see the writing on the wall and was willing to divest to Comcast, which was flush with cash and eager to buy. (They had previously approached Disney who’s board politely told them to clear off.)

The fragmentation of viewing habits, the rise of non-traditional sources of screened entertainment, and the enormous increase in the volume of content that is produced has resulted in the degree of consolidation we are currently witnessing. With its purchase of DreamWorks, Comcast will now have two animation studios under its belt (Illumination being previously purchased by Universal.) The combined effort will rival other Hollywood animation powerhouses of Disney (Disney Animation, Pixar), and Fox (Fox animation, Blue Sky.) Sony, Warner Bros, and Paramount look set to be left out in the cold since they have but one animation studio of their own.

As for what we can expect of the animation, my guess is more of the same, regardless of Chris Meledandri assuming creative control over the sibling entities. Large studios have long settled into a rhythm with regard to their creative output and with schedules announced years in advance, we already know what to expect for the foreseeable future. Whether we will see any exciting developments remains to be seen.

I’m somewhat of a pessimist in this regard seeing as DreamWorks has been in a creative funk for a while, and Illumination has been as reliant upon Despicable Me-based concepts as DreamWorks has on Ogre-based concepts. What could be an area of interesting development is DreamWorks deal with Netflix. The original content that’s being produced under the multi-year deal now has the potential to include the Univeral library of characters which would be a terribly exciting prospect if it comes to pass.

All in all, the deal is a bittersweet conclusion to a the saga that was an independent DreamWorks Animation. At least now the studio has a stable corporate backer to free it from some of the more strenuous financial obligations, and with Jeffrey Katzenberg transferring to more of a backseat role, there is the potential for a change in creative direction that could breathe fresh air into the organization. That said, the little studio that could was regularly a thorn in the side of its competitors and could be relied upon to raise the bar and keep them on their toes. That era will now draw to a close, and a new DreamWorks will begin a new life with new responsibilities and obligations. We wish it well, but remain sceptical that the industry and big-budget films in particular will be creatively better for it.

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