A Variety story published last week all but confirmed that Oriental Dreamworks (ODW) is dead in its current form.
Dreamworks Animation’s new owner, Comcast NBCUniveral, is attempting to restructure its ownership stake in Oriental Dreamworks, of which it currently owns 45%. The remaining parts are owned by Chinese stated-backed companies like China Media Capital and Shanghai Alliance Investment Ltd.
Dreamworks still has one film on its current slate that is planned for production by ODW — Everest — and it is still slated for release in September 2019. The studio, which was launched with great fanfare in 2012, was involved in the production of four earlier Dreamworks films: The Penguins of Madagascar, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Home, and Kung Fu Panda 3.
The studio, much like Dreamworks’ other divisions, was expensive to operate. Per Variety, “In animation circles it was sometimes said that DWA was the only Hollywood company to go to China and operate with higher costs than in the U.S.”
Oriental Dreamworks reportedly laid off 40 artists in Shanghai earlier this month. The studio, which at its peak in 2014 had 250 employees, has been floundering for some time, long before Comcast entered the picture. The studio tried diversifying into live-action films as early as 2014, though it has been unable to get those projects off the ground.
Today the operation employs under 100 people. Other Chinese studios have reported receiving an increase in resumes from Oriental Dreamworks animators.
A source close to the company told Variety that Universal doesn’t need an animation studio in China: “It’s not because it’s not an important or successful business, it just duplicates what they already have in China.” It’s unclear what that means since Universal does not have an animation studio in China, though perhaps the source was referring to the distribution side.
Dreamworks, Universal, and Comcast have all declined to comment on the status of the studio. However, majority stakeholder China Media Capital (CMC) released a statement on Monday addressing the Variety report:
The Chinese animation industry has been actively adjusting in coordination with the restructuring in Hollywood. CMC will conform to the market changes and continue to seek overseas collaboration with leaders in production, creativity and distribution…We will maintain a stable headcount of over 100 staff.
Variety pointed out that last October, the Chinese government launched an antitrust investigation into Comcast-NBCUniversal’s acquisition of Dreamworks. It’s unclear what impact that probe may have had on Comcast’s current desire to divest itself of Oriental Dreamworks.
Much more can be said about Oriental Dreawmorks — and it’ll probably be said by someone at some point — but at this juncture, it’s simply interesting to observe how Jeffrey Katzenberg’s entire animation empire was basically a house of cards. Nothing he created was built to last because there was never a strong foundation, creatively or otherwise, underpinning any of his ideas.
Once DWA started faltering creatively, Katzenberg started making outlandish bets on the future — the future is 3D filmmaking! the future is China! — to help distract investors from the fact that the company was adrift without a captain. The charade worked long enough for him to squeeze out a few hundred million for himself, but what remains today of Dreamworks that actually has any value is meager to say the least.
If you’re keeping track, here are some of the changes that Comcast-NBCUniversal has made at Dreamworks since it bought the company:
- CANCELLED Tim Minchin’s Larrikins (March 7, 2017)
- Mireille Soria OUT As Dreamworks Animation’s Co-President (December 22, 2016)
- DELAYED How to Train Your Dragon 3 Until 2019 (December 7, 2016)
- LAYOFFS: Around 170 Employees (December 2, 2016)
- CANCELLED Croods Sequel (November 12, 2016)
- Began SHUTTING DOWN Operations at India Studio (November 10, 2016)
- LAYOFFS: Around 200 Employees (September 16, 2016)