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Small screen gamble pays off for DreamWorks Animation

Small screen gamble pays off for DreamWorks Animation
DreamWorks Animation Television is producing a series based on Universal's "Fast and the Furious" film franchise.

On the 24th floor of a Glendale office building a team of DreamWorks animators were taking pains to accurately render shiny car paint, design teen characters’ faces, and populate cities with people.

They were working on an animated TV show based on Universal Pictures’ “The Fast and the Furious” film series. The race car franchise may seem like odd source material for a kids’ TV show, with its carjackings, crime rings and scantily clad women.

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But that hasn’t stopped NBCUniversal-owned DreamWorks Animation from trying to modify the blockbuster movie series into something that will appeal to binge-watching adolescents and their parents.

“As big as ‘The Fast & the Furious’ is, there’s nothing specifically directed toward a kid audience in that franchise,” said Margie Cohn, president of DreamWorks Animation Television. “We thought we could really make something in that sweet spot that extends the franchise for the younger end of the audience.”

The “Fast” series, set to debut next year on Netflix, is one of the clearest examples of why Comcast Corp.-owned NBCUniversal paid $3.8 billion to buy DreamWorks Animation from Jeffrey Katzenberg in 2016. It’s part of a larger strategy to turn Universal Pictures properties into animated TV shows that reach new audiences online. That plan is fueling a rapid expansion of DreamWorks Animation’s television production business, which has become a major profit driver by funneling hundreds of hours of programming for viewers online.

“We see huge opportunity,” Universal Filmed Entertainment Chairman Jeff Shell said in an interview. “What started as a theory from Jeffrey Katzenberg five years ago has become an unquestionable success if you look at the number of shows we've sold to a variety of distribution partners and the number of awards DWA titles have won.”

Indeed, the unit, which in 2013 had just 75 employees, now has a staff of 800 and occupies five floors of office space about two miles from the studio’s Mediterranean-style Glendale campus. DreamWorks Animation this year renewed its Netflix deal for a second time, and expanded its reach with agreements to produce series for Amazon Prime Video and Hulu.

DreamWorks Animation was an early pioneer in the feature animation business with such irreverent hits as “Shrek” and “Madagascar.” But rising competition and a string of poorly performing films prompted Katzenberg to rethink the studio’s heavy reliance on the big screen. He launched the division in 2013 with a landmark deal to provide 300 hours of programming to Netflix in the hopes that TV’s steadier income would provide a ballast for the studio.

“While DreamWorks had the swagger, they didn’t necessarily have the resources to put this on its feet the way they needed to,” Cohn said. “When the acquisition happened, we were suddenly part of a mature company.”

Katzenberg, who left DreamWorks Animation after the sale, declined to comment for this story.

DreamWorks Animation Television President Margie Cohn, speaking at the Mipjunior conference in Cannes, France.
DreamWorks Animation Television President Margie Cohn, speaking at the Mipjunior conference in Cannes, France. (S.d'Halloy / Image & Co.)

Philadelphia-based Comcast doesn’t disclose financials for DreamWorks Animation Television. However, people familiar with its finances say the business has contributed more than $100 million in annual profit for the last two years.

The company has been ratcheting up its pipeline of TV shows, with more than 20 currently in production and roughly 50 in development, including some targeting preschoolers. Among the upcoming series are the 1980s throwback “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” for Netflix and Amazon’s “Kung Fu Panda: The Paws of Destiny.” Both are set for release next month, followed by Guillermo del Toro’s high-concept sci-fi series for Netflix, “3Below: Tales of Arcadia.”

On a recent afternoon at the Glendale studio, lighting technical director Brent Tyler offered a preview of how the “Fast & Furious” series might look. He showed off animated test footage of a black 1970 Dodge Charger speeding through a desert on his computer screen. The car’s tires kicked up dust from the dunes, coating its shiny finish with a film of dirt.

“This is the kind of stuff that would normally be reserved for a feature,” Tyler said.

Beyond “Fast & Furious,” the studio could tap such franchises as “Jurassic Park,” “Pitch Perfect” and Universal’s classic monster properties such as “The Mummy.”

When NBCUniversal bought DreamWorks, the studio already had a successful in-house feature animation producer in Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment, known for “The Secret Life of Pets” and “Despicable Me.” Adding DreamWorks Animation movies to its portfolio would enable NBCUniveral to better compete with Disney/Pixar.

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But the Glendale studio, which went through deep cuts that resulted in hundreds of layoffs, needed time to rebuild under new ownership. Certain movies, including the planned musical “Larrikins,” were scrapped after NBCUniversal took over. DreamWorks’ next film — “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” coming out in February — will be DreamWorks’ first release since June 2017.

While revamping the film business, NBCUniversal executives saw the TV unit as a key way to keep their brands in the public eye and boost the company’s theme park attractions and merchandise sales.

“You can’t always rely on a movie every year,” Shell said.

The big bet on animated TV comes as the online market for kids’ programming is about to get even more competitive. Burbank-based family entertainment giant Walt Disney Co. is gearing up to launch a much-anticipated streaming service next year that will include programming from popular divisions, including Pixar and Lucasfilm.

DreamWorks Animation has no plans to launch its own subscription streaming service. Rather, executives are banking on strong demand for kids’ shows among expanding streaming services.

“We’re not tied to any sort of linear network or limited by a specific demographic,” said Peter Levinsohn, Universal Filmed Entertainment’s chief distribution officer. “By being completely untethered, we’re free to make the right show for the right partner.”

"She-Ra and the Princesses of Power" is DreamWorks Animation Television's revival of the 1980s cartoon.
"She-Ra and the Princesses of Power" is DreamWorks Animation Television's revival of the 1980s cartoon. (DreamWorks Animation Television)

The approach appears to have paid off so far. Netflix won’t say how many people are watching its shows, but in a July earnings report Netflix said the new “Boss Baby” cartoon, which premiered this year, had become one of the service’s “biggest kids’ series ever.”

In May, Hulu (which is co-owned by Disney, Fox, Comcast and WarnerMedia) secured a deal for new DreamWorks Animation shows starting in 2020.

“We’re confident the groundbreaking I.P. DreamWorks Animation develops will continue to have relevance for today’s kids and kids in the future,” said Andrew Thomas, Hulu’s director of content acquisition for kids. “There’s a deep well for us to draw from.”

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DreamWorks is banking on new talent with projects such as “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.” The show’s 26-year-old writer and producer Noelle Stevenson said she wanted to create a girls’ show with characters who had relatable flaws and diverse body shapes, in addition to being beautiful warriors. The show’s animation style was partly inspired by classic glam rock, with its big hair and shoulder pads.

“The studio has supported everything we’ve wanted to do with these characters to prop them up and make them something special, and that has been really exciting,” Stevenson said.

Another bold bet is “3Below,” the second series in a planned trilogy of overlapping shows set in the same universe as Del Toro’s “Trollhunters.” The Netflix series follows a trio of aliens who go incognito on Earth as humans from marginalized groups — a Latino, a young girl and a senior citizen. The show’s combination of subversive humor and goofiness (one alien monster goes undercover as a corgi), is meant to appeal to parents as well as children, said executive producer Marc Guggenheim.

“There’s jokes in there that only the adults will get,” he said. “There’s a joke at Barry Manilow’s expense.”

For Cohn, who spent 26 years at Nickelodeon, the Del Toro shows highlight how much children’s programming has changed. Conventional wisdom held that kids’ shows shouldn’t strive for unfolding plots, and binge watching was considered something for adults.

“In the streaming world, it doesn’t matter if it’s a 6-year-old or a 46-year-old watching,” Cohn said. “We’re focused on making appealing, sticky programming that can be watched over and over again.”

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