2011 may have been the last good year for DreamWorks Animation’s feature-film sector. 2010 was a banner year for the company, with the series-launcher How To Train Your Dragon and the series-ender Shrek Forever After doing blockbuster business in theaters—Shrek 4 to the tune of more than $750 million worldwide, with Dragon at nearly $500 million. Even Megamind, released that year and considered a borderline flop, still pulled in more than $320 million. But in spite of that financial bounty, 2011 still felt like a play-it-safe year, with only two DWA films, both of them tepid, functional-but-unexceptional franchise installments: the Shrek spin-off Puss In Boots ($554 million worldwide) and Kung Fu Panda 2 ($631 million). That’s an ongoing problem for animation studios producing huge-budget, high-end features: With a minimum two-year turnaround time, it’s hard to be responsive to the market, or to quickly jump on past successes.
By 2012, when DWA started releasing the more daring projects that grew out of its 2010 success, the company was already starting to have problems selling its vision. Fully half of its features since 2012 have underperformed significantly at the box office, with Rise Of The Guardians, Turbo, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and Penguins Of Madagascar all requiring large writedowns for the company. In fact, Turbo did so poorly, and DWA timed its writedown announcement so questionably, that the SEC is still investigating the studio, and shareholders launched a class-action suit against DWA, claiming deceptive projections for the film. (The lawsuit was dismissed a few days ago, with a judge saying executives can be overly optimistic about a film’s chances without committing fraud.)
DWA’s latest strategy looks smart conceptually, with a plan based around alternating play-it-safe franchise installments (Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, How To Train Your Dragon 2, Penguins) and adaptations of popular, well-known properties (Mr. Peabody) with more ambitious projects, either original scripts (The Croods, Megamind, Turbo) or adaptations of much less-known works (the Dragon films, Guardians, and the new Home.) It’s a covering-the-bases plan that in theory should let the studio rake in guaranteed money while gradually boosting its profile and clearing the way for bigger and better, more name-making, and more artistically expansive projects—including the kind that could launch still more franchises.
But so far, the plan hasn’t worked out in practice. For one thing, the tie-in films haven’t been the easy money DWA was counting on. For another, DWA films are expensive even by animation standards, with an average production budget in the $135 million range. The studio relies on each of its films making immense profits: Seemingly anything below $400 million box office is considered an underperformer and a writedown candidate, thanks to the studio’s blockbuster-only model. There’s no room for failure when the studio only puts out two films a year, and both of them have to be ballpark-escaping home runs to keep DWA solvent. A single low-earner can be devastating. An erratic run like the one that’s plagued the studio since 2012 is financially crippling—and makes potential investors leery.
2014 was DWA’s worst year yet. The company posted losses in the first quarter ($42.9 million) and second quarter ($15.4 million), only turning a mild profit in the third quarter ($11.9 million) thanks to the tremendous success of How To Train Your Dragon 2. The studio scrambled for short-term gain by swapping the release dates of the riskier Home with the seemingly surefire Penguins, which spun out of the long-successful Madagascar franchise, and continues the story started in the popular TV show. But even Penguins performed well below expectations, with an anemic $83 million domestic take undermining its more successful overseas sales.
All of which leaves DWA in dire shape. In late February 2015, the company posted fourth-quarter 2014 net losses of $263 million, leading to a significant stock drop. DreamWorks Animation had already been struggling to recover: Two attempts to sell or merge the company in 2014—to a Japanese consortium in September and to Hasbro in November—both fell through. The company laid off 18 percent of its work force and sold its Glendale, California studio on a lease-back plan. It’s significantly restructured its upcoming film slate. It’s diversified more extensively into TV animation, with a handful of series based off its films. It’s expanded into the Chinese market, with a joint local production venture called Shanghai Oriental DreamWorks Film & Technology Company. It partnered with Netflix to create more original streaming content. It acquired the popular YouTube channel AwesomenessTV for distribution purposes, then turned around and sold a 25 percent stake to Hearst in December.
But DreamWorks Animation is still invested heavily, even primarily, in its film slate, and that’s become a much shakier investment than it was even three years ago. The new release Home suggests a reason: The company doesn’t have any sort of distinct vision or identity. The current franchise/originals split suggests a leadership that wants to do a little of everything, which makes sense in a big-picture way. But it’s harder to justify when it comes in the form of two major, make-or-break financial gambles every year.
And the strategy is just the latest in a long series of branding shifts for DreamWorks. It started out trying to simultaneously imitate Pixar (with Antz mirroring A Bug’s Life and Shark Tale mirroring Finding Nemo) and Disney (with the traditionally animated, fable-based Road To El Dorado and Sinbad, among others). It found its feet and its big profits with 2001’s Shrek, which temporarily gave it a brand as the house of self-aware, playfully crude snark—a not-always-beloved market niche, but at least a distinct and identifiable one, compared to Pixar’s sincerity and Disney’s own branding struggles at the time. Back then, Disney felt like a creaky old uncle with a lot of stories to tell about the past, while Pixar was the bright-eyed upstart with big dreams. DreamWorks was the rude, cool cousin who could make fart noises with his armpits, knew more than anyone else in the room about pop culture, and hung out with that smart-ass (literally, considering Shrek) Eddie Murphy.
But then came DreamWorks’ abortive partnership with Aardman Animation, with a five-picture deal that only produced Wallace And Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit and Flushed Away before the two companies dissolved their partnership. The Shrek sequels piled up. There was no sense of a house style, visually or narratively, except in the tendency toward manic, motormouthed characters with “edgy” attitude and the DreamWorks smirk. After every groundbreaking hit (Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, the first Dragon), the company rapidly revealed a plan for a lengthy series of sequels, making those hits seem less original, creative, and surprising in hindsight.
And by changing authorial direction every few years, the studio has left filmgoers with no clear sense of what they’re going to see if they go to a DreamWorks movie. Viewers may be loyal to a specific series, but not to the brand as a whole. That brand has some major earners and major successes under its belt, but it has no stability. For kids, that’s unlikely to matter; they can be relatively easy sells on anything that looks familiar or fun, and they aren’t likely to care who produced it. But for older viewers—parents looking for a tolerable family experience, the coveted tweens-and-twenties segment, actual adult animation fans, roughly anyone with a memory and a sense of what separates one animated film from the next—DWA keeps promising the moon (possibly the one in its iconic logo), then shooting much, much lower. For every experimental, vision-driven film like the beautifully complicated, Oscar-nominated How To Train Your Dragon 2, DWA has put out a calculated, precious, genial time-passer like Home.
Home isn’t at all a bad movie. Its story hits the expected modern beats about the family ties, biological or improvised, that ease loneliness and confusion. It has a creative, colorful plot, about an obnoxiously oblivious alien who’s estranged from his species, and his friendship with a little girl who was separated from her mother when the aliens’ species took over Earth. Late in Home’s final act, when the alien has to make some difficult decisions, the film even summons up some significant emotional power. (Even if it does throw in a standard-issue Disney Death.)
But leading up to that ending, Home is one frantic, messy movie, a cautious, mechanical crowd-pleaser overstuffed with emotional mom moments on one end, elaborate potty humor on the other, and Rihanna’s dance music somewhere in the middle. The film looks like DreamWorks Animation’s release strategy writ large: Pack in everything, cover all the bases, and hope something hits. Lowbrow humor and frantic action dominate the film in a way that makes the emotional core seem strangely pandering: “You’ve put up with urine-drinking jokes, head-farting jokes, urinal-cake-eating jokes, and alien-shit jokes for 90 minutes now, parents. Here, have some sweet character-bonding time to take the taste out of your mouth.” It’s simultaneously too emphatic and too ingratiating. There’s always a sense of frantic desperation to DWA’s protagonists. That flailing, hungry need to be liked extends to the films as well. And it extends to their marketing strategies, which often focus heavily on celebrity voices and explosive moments rather than story or tone.
Home’s animation is a similarly confused blend of simplicity and complication. Oh and his alien counterparts constantly change colors in ripples reflecting their mental states, and their widely varying floppy head-appendages express a variety of emotions. But while these details probably took an immense amount of work and attention, they’re grace notes compared to the film’s simplistic overall design and garish jellybean colors. How To Train Your Dragon 2 was all about complicated texturing and rich environments that have nothing to do with Home’s flat, slick, cheap-looking surfaces. Throw in Penguins’ even more cartoony style and over-the-top action-humor for the recent-DreamWorks-releases trifecta, and the three films all feel like they’re lacking even a basic sensibility in common—in design, intent, narrative style, or execution. There’s no element to point to and say, “This is what makes a DreamWorks Animation movie,” much less, “This is why it’s worth going to see a DreamWorks Animation movie.”
That’s not to say that DreamWorks Animation would be better off cranking out the same film over and over. But focusing on a tone, an audience, an intention, or even just a reputation for consistent excellence would all help DWA even out the financial roller coaster of unpredictable hits and misses. Alternately, it might be helpful to follow the Disney/Pixar/DisneyToon model, and draw a distinct line between the studio’s kid-friendly, unchallenging content and the features aiming at a larger, older audience. DWA’s business diversification is a necessary move. So is getting costs down, so every film doesn’t have to be a world-spanning, $700 million mega-success to keep the company afloat. (Cost-cutting and average budget reduction is part of the thinking behind the layoffs, restructuring, and schedule-rejiggering.) But beyond that, a basic business concept applies: People want to have some idea what they’re buying.
To the degree that DreamWorks has a brand right now, it’s a brand of inconsistency and uncertainty about who its films are meant for, and what it wants to do with them. It’s a brand of flopsweat and desperate calculation. Home may be a bright spot on the company’s dark horizon: Pundits are already warring over whether its unusually strong opening weekend means it’s ready to turn the company around, or whether its 47 percent second-week drop means it’s leading DreamWorks toward another eventual writedown. And Home is DWA’s only scheduled 2015 movie, so no matter what it makes, it’s unlikely to provide the solid boost the company needs to get back on steady financial grounds.
DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has suggested he wants to take a more hands-on approach in supporting the company’s films. That needs to start with a reconsideration of what DreamWorks wants to be. Not just whether its best self and worst self can coexist onscreen, packed uncomfortably close together within the same movie, but whether there’s a way to define what a DreamWorks movie is, in a way that will make the company name into an asset, rather than a question mark.