DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg

Courtesy of the New York Times

DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg

September 21, 2016

GOULDTHORPE | DreamWorks Dreaming

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One of my favorite animated films of all time is DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt, and one of my favorite animated sequences of all time is the opening song “Deliver Us.” Right from the beginning the movie delivers a powerful and visceral experience, adapting one of the most famous Biblical stories in a sincere way that captures its heart and essence. With beautiful music and visuals, it holds a special place in my heart. That’s why it pains me to admit that I have mixed feelings about DreamWorks Animation: I admire a lot of work that they’ve done, and I feel like they’ve impacted the industry in beneficial ways. At the same time, their missteps have been many, and I feel like they’ve been losing their edge for a long time. Given the fact that they’ve been making the news lately, I want to take this time to meditate on DreamWorks and their importance.

I’d like to start with a little history for those unfamiliar with the studio’s origins. According to their website, DreamWorks SKG Pictures was founded in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen (whose last initials combine to create the “SKG”). It incorporated Spielberg’s studio Amblimation, while at the same time Katzenberg siphoned off some top animation artists from Disney.  Their first feature was released in 1997, the live-action film The Peacemaker. A year later, they released their first two animated films: Antz and The Prince of Egypt. In 2004, the animation department was spun off into its own public company, fittingly titled DreamWorks Animation. Some of their most famous works include Shrek in 2001, Madagascar in 2005, Kung Fu Panda in 2008 and How to Train Your Dragon in 2010.

With this basic picture in mind, I want to start discussing their major contributions, and there are plenty to talk about. First I want to focus on Antz, a computer-generated film released in 1998, only three years after the release of Toy Story; DreamWorks forayed right behind Pixar into the heart of computer animation. Antz also set a bold direction for the studio with its content. The characters use mild swears such as “damn,” “ass” and even “bitch,” while an intense battle scene shows characters getting dissolved by acid and having heads torn off.  Contrast it to A Bug’s Life, released a month later, which had a similar premise but revolved around much more family-friendly fare. That contrast is everything. While Disney flirted with some darker material in the 1990s, DreamWorks plunged right in and exposed audiences to a darker and grittier world… even if it came at the expense of commercial success. Antz received a PG rating in an era where PG actually carried more weight than it does now. That principle actually changed a few years later, though, thanks in fact to DreamWorks.

Shrek Forever After movie image

Courtesy of DreamWorks

When Shrek was released in 2001, DreamWorks struck gold. Worldwide, the film earned back more than eight times its budget, making it a commercial success and sparking one of the biggest franchises in modern culture. Remarkably, it did this with a PG rating. Now I mentioned previously that the PG rating used to carry more weight. PG used to be reserved for films that were far beyond a typical child’s film. To give you an idea of the boundary, here are some examples: The Lion King, featuring the brutal murder of Mufasa, is rated G; All Dogs Go to Heaven, which included a terrifying scene where the main character is trapped in a skeleton boat floating along a fiery river in the depths of hell, is rated G; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which includes themes of lust and religion and the hypocrisy of law, the murder of a mother and attempted drowning of her child, an attempted genocide, and the nightmarish “Hellfire” sequence, was rated G. There was a reason why animation companies fought hard for a G rating: the common knowledge dictated that people wouldn’t go see a PG animated film. It had been proven with The Black Cauldron, Disney’s first attempt to produce a PG animation that ended in commercial and critical failure. Shrek changed that though. With his crude humor and yet heartfelt story, the ogre managed to surprise the industry and set up DreamWorks as a viable opponent to Disney. At the same time, studios reversed their positions, and clamored for PG ratings to establish their films as “more mature,”  a trend that can be easily observed today.

What followed next was a strong decade for DreamWorks. Every few years they sparked franchises that turned into staples of family entertainment. Meanwhile, Disney floundered up through 2005, with a line of critical and commercial flops. Their rush to imitate DreamWorks during this time frame is unmistakable, with darker themes being explored, attempts at irreverent humor, and even a full CGI movie, Chicken Little — which is arguably Disney Animation’s worse film. Disney never quite nailed that formula. Meanwhile, Pixar was also doing fantastically well. As a result, Disney purchased Pixar in 2006, and Walt Disney Animation Studios underwent a massive overhaul. They ended the decade back on their feet with Tangled, but DreamWorks was still a massive force to be reckoned with.  This is especially exceptional considering that they were an independent studio, outside of the six primary media conglomerates. They were the rogue studio, signing exclusive distribution deals in China, flirting with television productions, and capturing the hearts of audiences.

Which brings me to a question that perplexes me: what happened? DreamWorks has shrunk back from that bold vision, giving us coldly calculated fare aimed to target children. The studio has not brought out a successful new franchise since 2010, instead opting to milk its existing properties beyond their expiration. They are currently in the middle of producing a Puss in Boots show for Netflix. Considering that the DreamWorks iteration of Puss in Boots first appeared in Shrek 2, that means it’s a show based on a movie that was a spin-off of a sequel. The penguins from the Madagascar franchise have had their own series and their own movie, neither of which are connected.  How To Train Your Dragon has had a second movie, a third film in production, and six seasons of a lackluster show. Now I’m not inherently opposed to sequels and spin-offs if they have a story to tell or a world to expand. The problem is, DreamWorks does neither effectively with their derivations.  For several years in a row they churned out three films annually; meanwhile, Pixar only releases one or two films annually, as well as Disney. Could it have been the ridiculous production pace that wrecked their quality? A genuine lack of inspiration? Either way, the studio got hit in the pocketbooks. In 2014, they marked a loss of $300 million. In 2015, they closed one of their two campuses, and put out only one movie, the critically mixed Home. They managed to chalk up a profit of about one million that year, but considering they operate in an industry where revenues are measured in hundreds of millions it’s not at all impressive.

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Courtesy of Illumination Pictures

It all culminated at the end of last academic year, when a huge wave went through the animation industry: Comcast had reached an agreement to purchase DreamWorks Animation. The deal concluded about a month ago, with the final price set at nearly $4 billion according to Deadline.  Not only did this end DreamWorks’ run as an independent studio, but it also brought it into the same umbrella as companies such as Universal and Illumination. For those not familiar, Illumination is a relatively young studio known for Despicable Me, Minions and The Secret Life of Pets. In a few years, we’re probably going to see the effects of this new familial relationship in artistic styles and story structures.

So what are the benefits and dangers of this situation? Well, to start with the positives, DreamWorks has a much more solid backing behind it now. With financial stability guaranteed, the studio may end up taking more risks that could give us a genuinely bold vision again. On the other hand, the news stories are not looking very promising. Again according to Deadline, Steve Burke, who is chief at NBCUniversal, has outlined plans for DreamWorks. They include upping production to four films a year, reviving the Shrek franchise for a fifth film, and a goal to focus on theme park attractions and merchandise. If a company wants to make money off of a successful movie, I have no qualms with that. Heck, it’d make me a hypocrite for having so much Zootopia merchandise.  I do take issue, though, when merchandise and licensing becomes the goal of a film production, displacing the film itself.  When licensing takes priority, artists are given a backseat to let market analysts take the wheel. That’s when we get things like twerking trolls (see the teaser for their upcoming feature). And now the latest news, coming from the LA Times, is that NBCUniversal is cutting 200 jobs at DreamWorks, nearly 10 percent of the total workforce. The cuts seem to be concentrating on legal, HR, marketing, and other staff in those areas. The artists themselves seem unaffected so far, but that may be because Trolls is nearing completion. As production wraps, we may see cuts begin to strike at animators and writers.  NBCUniversal and Comcast must tread carefully, else they squander the premium they paid for DreamWorks.

I want DreamWorks to be good again. I want them to return to being a force to be reckoned with, I want to see these bold films returned to the screen. I want to see them test Disney, because with that competition both companies will put out better content. That’s a boon for audiences! In the end, I hope DreamWorks will be delivered to a better future.

David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at djg284@cornell.edu. Animation Analysis will appear alternate Wednesdays this semester. 

3 thoughts on “GOULDTHORPE | DreamWorks Dreaming

    • I’ll be honest, the way things are going I agree. DreamWorks’ upcoming productions are Trolls, Boss Baby, and then Captain Underpants. I’m not feeling very confident about these properties…

  1. I feel like what DreamWorks should have done to become more successful was to find its soul in movie making again. Point in case, after the Shrek franchise was finished DreamWorks had little to no other current franchises to profit from. In a way Shrek ruined DreamWorks because it made their creative team rely too heavily on corny humor and slapstick comedy. Granted they did it tastefully in Shrek but when future animated films were pushed out many of them simply tried too hard or lacked a heartfelt premise due to an emphasis on comedy. Then came the homerun of How to Train Your Dragon which should have changed everything. While not a stand out commercial success it should have had enough critical and fan acclaim to make DreamWorks realize the course correction they needed to better produce their movies. It had an outstanding plotline, relatable characters and character interactions, and slight humor which was never over emphasized. In short, DreamWorks had re-discoverd/found their story-telling soul. Instead however slapstick comedy was once again put in the front of their movie industry and combined with the company trying to outstretch their reach in the number of films it produced resulted in monetary and critical failures such as Penguins of Madagascar. Granted the sequel made to How to Train Your Dragon brought it back to better storytelling, but by then the losses had already been made. While I still have some hope for the future of DreamWorks now that it’s been bought by Comcast I still fear of the risks the company may take retreating into already disastrous ground. Perhaps the deal will work out like it did for Disney and Pixar. Hopefully they’ll manage to find their footing again someday and uplift the movie industry with it.

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