Yesterday, it was announced that DreamWorks Animation‘s “How to Train Your Dragon 3,” the latest installment of animated fantasy films loosely based on a series of novels by Cressida Cowell, would be pushed back a full year, to June 9th, 2017. From the outset, the move looked simple enough: not only would it give the filmmakers more time to hone the story (something that the sequel, released this past summer, could have definitely used) but it would also get it the fuck out of the way of Pixar‘s sea-set sequel “Finding Dory,” which also opens in the summer of 2016 and will probably rake in more money than anyone can count. But it also speaks to the larger issue of DreamWorks Animation, formerly a chief competitor to Disney and Pixar that churned out blockbuster franchise after blockbuster franchise but now seems to be creative and financial disarray.
Maybe DreamWorks’ current position isn’t that much of surprise, considering how it started off on such shaky ground. As the crown jewel of DreamWorks SKG, the first major studio started from the ground-up since United Artists, it was meant to produce highly profitable, zeitgeist-capturing fare, mostly thanks to DreamWorks’ chief partner Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had overhauled Disney’s ailing animation division and overseen the so-called Disney Renaissance of contemporary classics (“Aladdin,” “Beauty & the Beast,” “The Lion King“). Katzenberg poached a number of talented chief creative people from Disney, promising them lavish rewards when the studio started making money (these rewards, it should be noted, failed to ever materialize, even after the windfall of eventual hits like “Shrek“), and setting about on the animation division’s splashy debut: “Prince of Egypt,” an epic retelling of the biblical story of Exodus. Because if it’s one thing kids love, it’s a animated epic (complete with forgettable Elton John songs) based on stories they probably slept through in Sunday school.
“Prince of Egypt,” by all accounts horribly micro-managed by Katzenberg and the victim of its own inflated hype, failed to perform at the box office, and Katzenberg took it very personally (and it was very easy to read his own story into the biblical passage he had chosen, as he had led a group of animators away from an evil pharaoh named Michael Eisner). It’s also interesting to note that “Antz,” a crudely animated computer-generated film produced by Pacific Data Images, actually ended up getting to the theaters before “Prince of Egypt,” even though it was put into production much later. This mostly had to do with Katzenberg’s deliberate attempt to fuck over John Lasseter and the team at Pixar, who had been working on “A Bug’s Life” at Disney while Katzenberg was there. Despite Katzenberg’s best efforts, “A Bug’s Life” ended up doing much better at the box office.
After “Prince of Egypt,” Katzenberg struggled to hold onto his domain of the traditionally animated film, even while all signs suggested that the format was on its way out. He struck an uneasy alliance with the British animation studio Aardman, creators of the Oscar-winning “Wallace & Gromit” short films, which was a relationship fraught with strife (reportedly he was incensed with how “British” everything was) and the critical acclaim didn’t translate to the kind of box office Katzenberg was looking for. Finally, with “Shrek,” a project that had been developed on and off since DreamWorks SKG’s inception (initially it was worked on by a team of motion capture tinkerers called the Propellerheads that included J.J. Abrams and future DreamWorks powerhouse Rob Letterman), Katzenberg had his blockbuster. On a budget of $60 million and somewhat more thrifty animation from PDI, it made almost $500 million. (This success would be somewhat hampered by the back-to-back, traditionally animated disasters of “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” and the even-more-costly “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.”)
From “Shrek” on, DreamWorks Animation had a fairly stable line-up. Sure, the movies never reached the emotional or creative heights of the average Pixar project (or for that matter, the zeitgeist-capturing sensationalism), but they did make tons of money. The “Shrek” franchise proved ridiculously lucrative, and in addition to three sequels was buttressed by two holiday specials that are still aired regularly on television, an even-better-than-the-real-thing spin-off (“Puss in Boots“) and a theme park attraction at Universal Studios. “Madagascar,” “Kung Fu Panda,” and “How to Train Your Dragon” proved to be solid, cross-platform franchises. Aardman left for Sony, where they are seemingly much happier, and DreamWorks Animation spun off from DreamWorks SKG, an independent company with only tangential ties to its former home (it too migrated from Paramount to Fox and recently bought back its back catalog).
Recently, though, the once-Pixar-challenging DreamWorks Animation has faltered. In July, right before the ultimately disappointing numbers had come in for “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” the company reported a loss of more than $15 million in the second quarter. It was the second quarterly loss for the company and the cap to an abysmal string of failures that started with “Rise of the Guardians” in November 2012 (it lost the company $87 million), continued with 2013’s “Turbo” (whose write-down was so costly and complicated that it was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Comission) and climaxed with this year’s “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” ($57 million write-down). Even the caveman comedy “The Croods,” which opened in March of 2013 and was seen as something of a hit (a sequel is currently in the works), ultimately lost money for the company. The last time the studio actually turned a profit on one of its animated films was “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” way back in June 2012. And you wonder why, just a few weeks ago, they made the hasty announcement that “Penguins of Madagascar” would swap places with sci-fi comedy “Home,” bumping that movie up half a year and giving them their first real chance at success in more than two years.
DreamWorks Animation is a company that is smallish in size but has, under Katzenberg, oversized ambition. The studio is always snapping up new characters or libraries of characters (like the “Rocky & Bullwinkle” stable, Felix the Cat, and the Troll dolls) and attempting to diversify, which includes everything from putting DreamWorks Animation characters on Royal Caribbean cruise ships and designing a multibillion dollar entertainment complex in China. The animation studio isn’t much bigger than Pixar (although they have done much to create outposts for further production), and yet they’re ambitiously releasing three feature films each year in both 2014 and 2015 (in that same two-year period Pixar will have released two movies total). They’re stretching themselves awfully thin, especially when, like clockwork after each announcement of DreamWorks Animation’s dismal earnings, a small platoon of animators is summarily dismissed.
There’s also the problem of over-saturation. Not only is the marketplace flooded with the kind of computer-generated wizardry that, when the first “Shrek” was released, was still something of a novelty (with A+ work being produced by Sony, Blue Sky, and independent studios like Reel FX), but DreamWorks and its Katzenberg-mandated emphasis of sucking the juice out of every potential hit seems to be cannibalizing itself. When “How to Train Your Dragon 2” opened in theaters, it had already been preceded by two television specials based on the property, a number of short films and a television series that had been airing on Cartoon Network since 2012. That’s a lot of dragons. It’s easy to see the fatigue. Similarly, a “Penguins of Madagascar” television series has been airing since 2008, with an additional spin-off based around the lemur characters from the movie set to debut on Netflix later this year. Each new cog in each franchise is indistinguishable from one another; all that’s left is a noisy, computer-generated blur. Even the bombs aren’t free from being milked dry: there was a one-season “Monsters vs. Aliens” show (and a lavish Halloween special) and a “Turbo” show has been airing on Netflix since December (there are “Croods” and “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” TV spin-offs coming too). This is the kind of methodical synergistic opportunism that Katzenberg, for all that he gave to Disney, was also instrumental in. We can thank Katzenberg for “The Lion King” but we can also blame him for direct-to-video garbage like “Cinderella III: A Twist in Time.”
The problem, of course, is that DreamWorks Animation can’t just be turned around, the way Disney was whipped into shape after they acquired Pixar and installed its chief creative principles (including Katzenberg’s old sparring partners John Lasseter and Ed Catmull) into new roles within the larger company. Katzenberg is portrayed, especially in Nicole Laporte‘s terrific, gossipy history-of-DreamWorks tome “The Men Who Would Be King,” as a monomaniacal force of nature, someone who goes after something even when everyone suggests that it’s not the right path, whether it be a continued commitment to traditional animation or singing the virtues of 3D, even after the marketplace seemed to reject it. There might be minor rearrangements, like swapping in “Penguins of Madagascar” for “Home” (or shuttering the expensive, but potentially groundbreaking 2D/3D hybrid “Me and My Shadow” project), but DreamWorks’ fate is sealed. There are a number of new properties the studio will be rolling out, including a supernatural adventure called “B.O.O.” and a Bollywood-influenced extravaganza called “Mumbai Musical” directed by the great Kevin Lima, who helmed “Enchanted” and “Tarzan” for Disney (not that that means anything: “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” was directed by Rob Minkoff, whose last animated movie was “The Lion King”).
But there are just as many WTF-worthy projects too, including a feature based on the popular Troll dolls and an animated adaptation of the popular book series “Captain Underpants.” Of course, there are also tons of sequels (“Kung Fu Panda 3” in 2015, “The Croods 2” in 2017, “Madagascar 4” and “Puss in Boots 2” in 2018), which are far from the surefire smashes that they once seemed. “How to Train Your Dragon 3” is now positioned for release after a handful of new DreamWorks Animation properties. Even if it isn’t as big a hit as the studio wants, it now seems to be expertly poised to stop a steady stream of bleeding should these movies under-perform which, given the studio’s recent history and the nature of the marketplace, they’re almost certain to do. “How to Train Your Dragon 3,” in its new date, will serve to keep the studio afloat.
Maybe the most radical approach to reforming DreamWorks Animation would be removing Katzenberg, or at least reducing his abilities. His reputation as a micromanager hasn’t lessened and he seems to be spreading himself too thin (just like a number of his most popular properties). Maybe getting some new blood in the studio would lessen the creative stagnation (most of the DreamWorks Animation movies that have lost money just aren’t very good) and get them back on course. But Katzenberg would never do that. He covets the studio and he still wields it against his former employers whenever he can, even when that gets him into trouble (he ran into controversy when he stacked the decks against Disney and Pixar at the annual Annie Awards by having every DreamWorks Animation employee enroll as a member).
He doesn’t make many friends along the way. The year the first “How to Train Your Dragon” was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, I visited another animation studio. When I asked a group of animators who they wanted to win, one shot back: “We all want ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ to win. But we don’t want Jeffrey to get the Oscar.” The movie ended up losing the Oscar. In fact, the last time a DreamWorks Animation movie won the Best Animated Feature Oscar it was in 2005. The movie was “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” a production that Katzenberg endlessly fretted about and ended up being the last Aardman movie the studio would release. Katzenberg was worried about the movie’s Englishness; it ended up winning a Best Animated Feature Oscar.