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The One Thing That Could Save DreamWorks Animation: China

At least one DreamWorks animated film has lost money for the past three years in a row: Rise of the Guardians in 2012 had an $87 million writedown; Turbo in 2013 resulted in a $13.5 million writedown; and this year’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman caused a $57 million writedown. This is rather obviously not a sustainable trend from a business standpoint, and investors are beginning to worry about the studio’s long-term prospects. According to the business website Motley Fool, China is the studio’s best hope for survival:

DreamWorks is making a big bet on its growth in China, and if it goes well, this could be a major boost for the struggling company. The vast Chinese film and media industry continues to explode. PricewaterhouseCoopers projects a value for the industry of $6.49 billion in 2017, more than double its $3.26 billion value in 2012.

Enter Oriental DreamWorks, a “Chinese content company.” Dreamworks has made a huge investment in China by partnering with Shanghai Media Group and three other local entertainment investment companies in a joint venture that includes production studios and attractions in Shanghai, a venture in which DreamWorks Animation holds a 45% stake. The new company will not only focus on animated TV production, it will also make live-action films, live-action TV, and mobile and Internet content. DreamWorks CEO Katzenberg is optimistic about this market and said that “China in three or four years will be the No. 1 movie market in the world… I just look at it as a place of opportunity.”

Oriental DreamWorks already has multiple projects in the works which are keeping it busy. An exciting current project is Kung Fu Panda 3, the third of the Kung Fu Panda series which has been very successful for the company. If this film release in late 2015 goes well, it could be the start of a very lucrative partnership for the Chinese venture.

The other option for survival, of course, is to simply produce better films, but who wants to waste their time doing that?

  • jonhanson

    I enjoyed all 3 of the movies you listed and while I’m not going to say they were classics I will say that lower quality animated films turned profits over the past 3 movies so I’m not sure I’d say it’s as simple as saying “make better films.”

  • Pock C

    I agree, what’s the point ? It doesn’t matter where their studios are, if they do not tell good stories it won’t work.. China won’t save Dreamworks if they don’t help themselves first.. That’s a shame they don’t seem to even consider that option

  • Grevy

    Ouch! A slap at Dreamworks with that last remark. However a shame really, because it is somewhat true. Even with all the extremely talented people working at the studio. Dreamworks never have seen to been able to become a contender for the blockbuster feature-animation fillms on level with Pixar. Though Dreamworks might be Pixar’s only real opponent. I do hope they get there, Pixar (Disney) needs a bit of competition.

  • Amir


    The One Thing That Could Save DreamWorks Animation:


    • Bizzenboom

      Medium never effects overall quality.

      • jonhanson

        I’m not sure I’d say never, things go best when the medium matches the message.

    • megadrivesonic

      it be cheaper too

    • jonhanson

      Saying 2D animation would save DreamWorks is as silly as saying 2D animation would save it.

    • Paul M

      There’s always Genndy…

  • William Bradford

    OR simply settle for ONE movie a year. UNLESS of course someone risked a few modest “adult” animated films, until eventually audiences got more and more accepting of the concept, and then they could branch out the audience more. As a Vancouverite I was disappointed Pixar shut down there Canada studio, but frankly I think they have a much more sustainable outlook: do fewer projects and make sure your expenses maintain equilibrium with your profits. There’s lots of areas I wish studios like Pixar took more risks on: but there annual film output isn’t one of them. ’15 doesn’t count because they skipped this year

  • Mister Twister

    A better (best) business strategy than outsourcing would be making better films, not relying on old property or dumbing things down for the smallest children. Or relying too much on pop culture.

    • tt

      or celebrity voices, which cost a lot

  • Rabadash

    Note to Dreamworks: BRING BACK TAI LUNG!!!

  • It’s sad, but it seems like Katzenberg has really lost his passion for making truly great animated flicks. Now all he seems to want to talk about are emerging markets, multiple viewing formats, serialized spin-offs, CG and 3D. (No, wait, he recently announced 3D’s impending death, didn’t he? It’s kinda hard to keep up.)

    Katzenberg’s work at Disney speaks for itself: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King — all of ’em all-caps CLASSICS. Then he seemed to have gotten a taste for Academy Awards and critical acclaim and started trying to make ‘serious’ cartoons based around the storytelling formulas he’d unwittingly helped create while making the aforementioned classics. The result? The beautiful but laborious Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Pocahontas, etc.

    Katzenberg’s early work at DreamWorks continues this race for ‘respect,’ resulting in The Prince of Egypt, Spirit and Sinbad. Again, beautiful but laborious. Oh, sure there some goofy comedies in there (Antz, The Road to El Dorado, Chicken Run), but according to the DreamWorks biography, The Men Who Would Be King, these films were NOT the focus of Katzenberg’s attention at the time. According to that book, it was only AFTER Shrek made millions of dollars worldwide and the critics started applauding Shrek (and, by extension, DreamWorks) for its decidedly UN-Disney attitude that Katzenberg started stumping for CGI and maximum ‘tude.

    Since then, DreamWorks’ — and Katzenberg’s — animated output has been a mixed bag. Everyone seems to LOVE a few of ’em. (For me it’s How to Train Your Dragon and large portions of The Croods, Rise of the Guardians and the Kung Fu Panda flicks). Everyone also seems to HATE a few of ’em. (To quote Thumper, “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”)

    The only thing modern-day DreamWorks’ films seems to have in common are franchise potential and press releases touting new animation technologies. For every Croods there’s a Turbo. For every ROTG, there’s a Peabody & Sherman. Katzenberg has some amazing talent at his studio. Who ISN’T counting the seconds until Dean DeBlois’ How to Train Your Dragon 2 is released?! Yet he unintentionally dilutes the DreamWorks brand every time he releases some cheap expensive cash-in on a decades old idea (Peabody & Sherman, the upcoming Hot Stuff) or greenlights a film based on its merchandising and spin-off possibilities (Turbo, Shrek XXII, damned near every Madagascar pic, etc.).

    My childhood — no, make that MY ENTIRE LIFE — was forever changed by Katzenberg’s Disney films of the 90s. The man has talent, vision and an uncanny ability to inspire those around him. I only wish he’d give up this relentless chase for world domination and gazillions of dollars and just go back to what he was clearly so, so good at — shepherding the creation of amazing animated films.

    • Matt Gill

      The unfortunate part of all of this is that Katzenberg’s contribution to the 90’s era of Disney animation has been way overplayed by JK himself in an effort to rewrite history to feed his massive ego. Whilst he might certainly have had the drive and tyrannical attitude required to reinvigorate the story and animation departments his actual contribution to those great films was minimal at best, besides management level hissy fits. Lion King – the film JK eventually claimed was all his own work – was the B movie at the studio for almost all of its production run, pretty forgotten until it became a hit.

      The simple fact is JK has, with the entirety of Dreamworks Animation’s history, shown his true calibre as a studio head and it is really about time those classic films of Disney’s second golden age were credited to the blood sweat and tears of far greater men and women. Without Howard Ashman, Ron Clements, John Musker, Gary Trousdale, Kirt Wise and especially Roy Disney, those films would never have been made.

    • MagcargoMan

      The Road To El Dorado was good, what are you talking about?

  • Barry Munkton

    “The other option for survival, of course, is to simply produce better films, but who wants to waste their time doing that?”

    Amid, why don’t you start making great films? I’m sure the studios want to hear your ideas.

    • AmidAmidi

      Not my job.

    • L_Ron_Backfromthegrave

      This type of argument holds no water because we all criticize things we aren’t involved in (ex: politics.) At least Amid is knowledgable about the subject of animation. If Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart can express criticism about the US government without having any experience in politics then Amid should be able to do the same with animation.

  • Jacob

    Unfortunately, better movies do not always equal better profits.

  • Merlin

    From what I’ve read over the past few years, the modest box-office results of these films had a lot to do with poor marketing and bad release-date choices, though I’m not very knowledgeable about such things. But the quality of an animated film seems to have often little to do with its financial success if its well-marketed and somewhat passable. Of course, DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon was a sleeper hit mainly due to its being great, but that rarely happens. Also, I thought Rise of the Guardians and Mr. Peabody and Sherman were good movies, if not perfect. I haven’t seen Turbo.

  • Joe Blow

    Why not do both?

  • RickyButler89

    yeah, surely the first plan should be to stop making films that nobody wants to see

  • Toonio

    China will be the last nail on Dreamworks coffin. Once the chinese get a hold of all DW pipelines and know how, it will be the end for DW. Look at what is happening with all those high speed trains being made in China

    • jonhanson

      Animated movies are not the same as trains. China already has American movie cameras and yet the world hasn’t embraced China’s cinema the way it has embraced America’s.

      Not to say that things won’t change but it’s going to take more than pipelines and software.

  • Fried

    They do, it’s called Nut Job, Free Birds and Escape from Planet Earth and everyone hated them.

    • DangerMaus

      One of the problems with “The Nut Job” is that the main character was thoroughly unlikeable. He was so unlikeable that even when he “turned” it wasn’t enough for a person to gain much empathy for him. Also there
      were some strange colour choices where he would turn purple for no reason.

      You know something has gone wrong when the original 2D animated short and the early 3D short are both better than the main feature.

      I thought that “Escape from Planet Earth” wasn’t too bad, but I saw that one on Blu-ray, not at the theatre. Maybe it just works better on a smaller screen.

      I haven’t seen “Free Birds”. Guess I’ll have to rent it to see what is so horrible about it.

      • starss

        …… there was a 2D animated short of The Nut Job??!

        • DangerMaus

          Yes, on the Blu-ray as one of the extras. I’m pretty sure it was not traditionally cel animated, but the characters are flat, not 3D models. I don’t have the disc to check it, but if IIRC the short was done in a sort of sepia colour.

          People can correct if I’m wrong but I’m pretty sure the proof of concept short was 2D animated. The thing is I’m not sure how industry pros define “2D”. To me, 2D is any “flat” character animation regardless of whether it is traditionally animated on cels or done in computers. For example, My Little Pony: FiM is 2D to me even though it is animated using Flash.

    • Bob Harper

      Those weren’t against the grain, just lower budgets. They all aimed for the same target audience. I think William means, correct me if I’m wrong, is targeting a different audience. Like Miyazaki, Chomet and Bakshi. I’m of that mindset, but what I want to do is more low brow like Beavis and Butthead and South Park.

  • Céu D’Ellia

    Actually, no. The CEOs love to believe they know everything about do great films, more than any poor artist.

  • DangerMaus

    According to Motley Fool the best hope for Dreamworks survival is to be part owner of a propaganda machine for the Chinese government. How wonderful and what an aptly named organization. You go Katzenberg. It’s not like we can expect anything good to come out of China as far as films go. Having a vibrant, healthy creative industry requires freedom of thought and freedom of expression. The two things that the Chinese government are the most afraid of. The latest crackdown going on there demonstrates that, for all of the superficial sheen of economic advancement, China is still run by a bunch of vicious thugs that are actually afraid of free thinkers which is what most artists and writers are.

  • DangerMaus

    LOL. Good one. And I suspect so true.

  • JodyMorgan

    Hasbro would agree with you there.

  • Fried

    Using “un-American” as an excuse is one of the most backwards ways and blindly patriotic things to say. It should not be used in the same way as “immoral”.

  • Sinornithosaurus Millenii

    “I’d also like to know which DWA films “everybody” is supposed to hate.”

    Shark Tale

    • tt

      how about Bee’s Movie?

  • Steven Bowser

    I was under the impression that they made 2 films a year, one that makes money and one that doesn’t. I just assumed that one is by a more experienced crew and one is by young blood and it gets less tlc. But I don’t know how much of that is totally made up in my head.

    • jonhanson

      I’m pretty sure the idea was always to make two films that make money. Animation doesn’t operate on the kind of margin that makes what you’re describing a great idea.

  • DangerMaus

    The idea of a great film coming out of China makes me laugh.

  • Revy

    Dreamworks has the most talent per square inch of any studio in the industry, and they can’t put together a movie worth a damn. It’s astounding, quite frankly.

  • Bob Harper

    I want to make features in that vein. My influences from early on have been Monty Python, Mel Brooks, The Zucker Brothers and comedians like Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and George Carlin. My animation influences are primarily Terry Gilliam and Jay Ward cartoons.

    Presently I think Archer, South Park and Louis CK are the funniest shows on TV and the recent funniest movies for me have been Grand Budapest Hotel, Bad Grandpa, This is the End and Edgar Wright movies.

    So my “voice” is skewed more R rated. i know I can produce a funny R rated 2D animated feature for a niche audience and keep my budget under $200,000.

    • DangerMaus

      Oh. I get you. Have to admit that out of that list of comics the only one I ever had an affinity for was George Carlin. I’m not a big fan of stand-up. My dad was a fan of Monty Python, but I never really got it. I always found the stupidity of “The Carry On” gang funnier when it came to British comedy.

      I have found some of South Park funny in the early years. I tried watching Archer but it just didn’t click with me. Anyway, good luck. I hope you meet your goal.

      • Bob Harper

        Thanks. Comedy is tough and not everything clicks with everyone, but I have to believe that animation can be used to reach all sorts of audiences, not just the family friendly films that dominate the American studios. I’ll try to do my part and am making head ways into that arena.

  • Paul M

    Personally I’d like to see more quality in TV animation more than in big studio movies. For every Legend of Korra, Gumball or Adventure Time there are dozens of flaccid ‘toons without an ounce of spirit, wit or sophistication.

  • Fried

    “Experimental” will never catch on to a large audience, that’s why it’s called experimental. The instant it does, it becomes mainstream. Experimental will only appeal to a niche crowd, even films like 2001: Space Odyssey which are considered classics are still only appreciated by a certain crowd of people.

    If anyone approached you for millions to do an experimental film, which is always a huge risk, I’m sure you would be on edge about greenlighting it, too.

  • Race to the Bottom.

    If by “Save Dreamworks Animation” you mean, “Get rid of all the US Animators, and hire cheap Chinese labor”…..then, I guess you’re right.

    If you believe that Oriental Dreamworks is *only* making content for the Chinese market, you’re a fool. They’re making Kung Fu Panda 3. You think thats *only* going to be released in China?

    First Sony moves production to Canada. Next Dreamworks will lay off hundreds in Glendale, and close down Redwood City. We’ll pretty much eliminate California animation altogether in efforts to drive down cost.

  • jonhanson

    Gotcha. It certainly seems like a pattern has emerged, I was just skeptical that it’s a conscious decision. I mean it would be another thing if they put out one big budget and one medium budget a year so they could handle one of the films underperforming but they seem to at least hope all their films pay off.

    • Steven Bowser

      I just assume one is by more experience people who are allowed to put more t.l.c. into their film and one is by less experienced people who are more pressed for time and have less money. But I’m just speculating and reaching for answers to questions I don’t understand. :P

  • Oriental is technically an ‘ok’ term to use as long as it is not used to directly refer to people. That’s why you can still go to ‘Oriental restaurants’ or buy ‘Oriental rugs’.

  • Chancey

    [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “Defamatory, rude, or unnecessarily antagonistic comments will be deleted.”]

  • T Lerms

    Wonder who it is that they expect will be able to pay 15$ for a movie ticket when the only jobs left in North America are low wage retail, fast food, elderly care, and chemical spill cleanup work…

    • KLA

      This is why you go in the mornings when tickets are $7.

  • Williams

    Another solution: Someone with creative know-how AND money needs to buy Dreamworks and kick Jeffery out!

    The money part being KEY.
    – Disney
    – WB
    – Paramount
    …heck, even Google could afford them!