Evan At A Crossroads, DreamWorks Continues to Innovate

Over the last few moths, I’ve come to develop quite a bit of respect for DreamWorks. I mean, OK, their films aren’t always the best, but they are the largest independent animation studio in Hollywood and that’s something you have to respect on some level.

As I discussed a while ago, DreamWorks has started to innovate as they prepare for the possible end of their distribution deal with Paramount. Besides the deal with Netflix, they announced last week that they will also distribute exclusive content to the Nintendo 3DS games console.

That’s a bit intriguing isn’t it? Why would a studio choose to distribute on a games console?

Well, if that’s where your audience is, it makes sense to cater to their needs. DW certainly has been upping the ante as of late, signing deals with hotels and fast food companies in addition to launching TV shows of the their films. All of this translates into driving more demand for their properties and hence bringing them more money as a result.

All of this was combined quite nicely in a column by Marc Graser et al in Variety today as they break down DreamWork’s current position and the many potential options it has as the company faces a less than certain future.

One thing is clear though, DreamWorks has survived a lot longer than many other animation outfits, so it’s safe to say that

Do You Think Internationally When Developing A Series?

Sam Register discussing Warner Bros. animation at MIP Jr. 2011

 Via: MIPBlog

Do you think you should?

If not, why not?

Going on right now, MIPCOM is pretty much the convention/expo/gathering when it comes to selling shows to international buyers. Thousands come from all over the world to Cannes to see, hear, meet and schmooze about TV programmes. It’s also preceded each year by MIPJr. a similar event for kids shows that is ostensibly the same format as it’s big brother.

MIPCOM is an important part of the global TV ecosystem because it allows content producers to sell that content to others. It’s much cheaper (and easier) to simply sell the rights to a local player and have them handle re-dubbing, marketing, scheduling, etc. Essentially what you get is money for your show with relatively little effort.

So should you develop your show with this event in mind?

Or rather, should you have an international mindset when developing a TV show or film?

The answer is you probably should, not to the extent that you design your entire show around the international market, but you should be aware that certain things don’t play too well in the foreign markets, such as:

  • Westerns – The only place with a wild west is America, most other countries have nothing comparable so they aren’t nearly as interested
  • Military – DreamWorks discovered that as half-decent a film as Monsters Vs. Aliens is, it did relatively poorly internationally because of the heavy military theme didn’t resonate as loudly with foreigners as it did with Americans.
  • You get the picture

The important point is that if a show skews too heavily towards American culture, it might be a difficult sell abroad, resulting in the network being more reluctant to buy it given that international sales are normally necessary to make money.

Of course the opposite is true too. You shouldn’t base you’re entire show around what the international market wants but you should at least be aware that your show will likely be sold abroad at some point and adjust your development accordingly.

The most popular TV shows out there are so for a reason, and that is that they have universal appeal regardless of the culture you live in. The simple reason this is so is because they make culture irrelevant. Think of SpongeBob, where you live has nothing to do with the show, Bikini Bottom could be anywhere in the world!

Just keep an open mind, that’s all!

PS. Dave Levy wrote a great book on pitching and developing TV shows

PSS. Don’t forget to read Steve Schnier’s informative The Pitch Bible Blog

What DreamWorks Artists Do After Dark: The Documentary

You may remember hearing a while back about a project called Moonshine. It’s basically a book of art collected from various DreamWorks employees that they created outside work hours.

Well, as a follow-up to the excellent book comes this short documentary which looks at the artists themselves and how they create their work and what inspires them.

Directed by Alexis Wanneroy & Christophe Lautrette it’s well worth 6 minutes of your time today.

J. Katzenburg Places A Smart Bet on Netflix

The latter half of 2011 hasn’t exactly been very kind to either DreamWorks or Netflix. The former saw it’s stock slide after poorer than expected first quarter results and the latter has been taking a hammering from just about everyone after they raised prices and then announced that they were splitting their streaming and DVD services across two separate companies.

Despite these setbacks, things keep moving along which leads us to yesterday’s announcement that DreamWorks has agreed to make it’s entire catalogue available on Netflix starting in 2013.

While there’s not much to say about the deal itself (you can read the entire press release or Variety’s take on it for the details), the very fact that it was made is significant for the simple reason that DreamWorks is the first major studio to sign directly with Netflix.

Until now, that major studios have treated Netflix almost like an annoyance that keeps reminding them that the media landscape is changing beyond their control. Collectively, they’ve tried to keep as much of their content off of Netflix as possible. Heck, they’ve even tried to keep DVDs off the service by instituting the pointless 28 day delay for new releases.

DreamWorks is the first to realise that they can stand to benefit from simply having their content available for people to see. New releases from Disney will likely disappear from Netflix as the Starz deal expires in Marc, and if that’s still the status quo come 2013, DW will be in a market where it’s main competitor is not.

This is the kind of innovation DreamWorks needs to invest in if it is to continue to exist as an independent company, indeed, I called for it just a few months ago when Paramount broke off talks to continue their distribution deal.

The proliferation of Netflix on mobile and TV platforms also ensures that DW’s content is everywhere they are and reaches the largest audience possible. It doesn’t matter if the quality is not top-notch, the convenience factor of being instantly available will override that in a heartbeat.

A lot of industry folks will be watching these developments very closely because if it turns out to be mutually beneficial to both companies, you can expect a lot of similar deals to follow.

DreamWorks MUST Remain Independent: The 7 Reasons Why

 Via: Wikipedia

Although DreamWorks Animation is already independent, it does distribute it’s films through Paramount, who in return, collect a fee from the gross receipts. Such an arrangement has worked well until now, just one short year away from the end of the current agreement.

There has been a lot of talk about DreamWorks being either acquired or selling itself to a larger corporation as a way to ensure its survival. Of all the big guns, only Warner Bros. seemed likely as they don’t already have a theatrical animation division but the noises from inside that company suggest they are not interested. The question is: Why would DreamWorks feel the need to be part of one of the larger studios anyway? The answer is money, but instead of analysing that reason, I offer you X reasons why the studio must remain independent.

  1. Katzenberg is not a quitter. He built DW up from nothing and I doubt he would like to sacrifice his independence to be under the boot of a board of directors again. He’s taken the company this far, there are few reasons why he can’t take it further.
  2. When you’re number 2, you try harder: Yes, it’s an old Avis slogan, but it rings true. If you’re number 2 in the market, you will try harder than the leader when it comes to your products. DreamWorks isn’t quite there yet, but last year’s How To Train Your Dragon was infinitely superior to Toy Story 3.
  3. It’s been done before: Back in the late 40s, a relatively small animation studio lost their distribution deal with RKO. They managed to haul a distribution team together and form Buena Vista. A distributor I think you all should be familiar with.
  4. An independent keeps everyone on their toes: As an independent, you have to do your best every time.That means others must compete on at least the same level of quality. If one player ups their game, everyone must. Corporations have a habit of getting comfortable in their shows which can lead to a stagnation of quality.
  5. The money is in the long tail: Walt Disney himself knew it was better to create a good film that would be popular for a long than one that would be a flash in the pan. Good films make money for decades after they’ve been paid for. DreamWorks can rely on this for income provided their films are up to scratch (see point 4)
  6. It’s a tougher road , but the ultimate rewards are better: No-one likes to take the hard road, it’s more work for what appears to be less reward. However, that burden of responsibility will ultimately result in a stronger company as everyone shares in the responsibility for success.
  7. It affords more freedom to experiment: Right now, on the cusp of the digital revolution, DreamWorks has the freedom to go in directions that were never possible before. As an independent, it has the freedom to try and experiment with new distribution and sales models to see if they work. DW can has the chance to become the industry leader in the digital age, an opportunity that should not be passed up.

People I Respect: Jeffrey Katzenberg

This is the first in a series of posts in which I explain why I respect certain people in the animation industry and why you should do the same.

Via: Talking Movies (click through for a great interview by Fergal Casey)

Love him or hate him, you cannot deny the fact that even thinking about American, theatrical, animation from the last 30 years will bring his name to mind.

While it can be said that Jeffrey Katzenberg is a bit of a bully, such a description could also be used for Walt Disney. Both men are/were not afraid to provoke strong emotions from their staff if he thought it would get the best from them.

Katzenberg’s influence over the Disney animation unit from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s is stupendous. The period, colloquially called the ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’ period saw a resurgence of the theatrical animated film after hitting rock bottom in the 1970s.

Why do I respect him? He’s focused, he knows what he wants and he is good at getting people to create his vision. Too often we see a film that was created with a vision in the mind of the director but who clearly could not communicate that to his crew.

Katzenberg can pick out good stories not just ideas. Look at the Disney renaissance films, no two are alike. They shoot off in all directions and hit a bullseye every time. John Lasseter and the guys at Pixar were clearly paying attention as they followed a similar path until the late-2000s.

Since leaving Disney, he has moulded DreamWorks Animation into a formidable competitor to Pixar. While the films are slightly less polished compared to the Apple guys in Emeryville, they are undoubtedly successful and last year’s How To Train Your Dragon was a sure sign that Katzenberg is narrowing the gap with the industry leader.

For his track record, his ability to inspire and his ability to manage artists on a par with Walt Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg is someone I respect in the animation industry. His placing in the list reflects his penchant for [multiple] sequels.

Guest Post: Kung Fu Panda 2

Today’s post is a guest review of Kung Fu Panda 2 by Emmett Goodman. Emmett is a graduate from the Pratt Institute in New York and is a notable member of ASIFA-East. His personal review blog is here and his sketch tumblelog is here.

Via: All Movie Photo

A terrific movie, and a job well done. Kung Fu Panda 2 is both entertaining and artistically sophisticated. It has some of the same flaws as the first film, but what it excels in mostly make up for those flaws.

Dreamworks Animation is (at least in my eyes) improving more and more as their movies progress. KFP 1 had some of the usual Dreamworks traits I dislike (such as over-abundance of celebrity voices, emphasis on the actors, sub-par dialog), but it abandoned pop-culture references in favor of a solid story, and took the time to give the movie a unique and distinct look. I could never truly appreciate movies like Shrek, Shrek 2, Shark Tale, or Madagascar, because their stories were too transparent and there was too much emphasis on who was voicing the characters than the characters existing on their own. Also, you could tell the stories were no good as they were overflowing with pop-culture references (which only contributes more to the transparency). Starting with Over the Hedge, the studio started stripping some of these flaws, but they were stripped even more with KFP 1. It seems to have improved with further movies, and KFP 2 cements that fact even more for me.

I can’t praise the artistry of this movie enough. The opening of the movie (along with a personalized version of the Dreamworks Animation logo) is animated in a style suggesting metal puppets. I can’t speak for how clear the influence of authentic Chinese art is, but there is definitely something different in the look of the film than the previous. Something very tactile in the design. Poe’s memories are animated in 2D, and are so beautifully realized, that I wish there was a whole movie in that style.

The story this time is just as solid as the first film, but with more operatic tones. After the end of the first movie, Poe (Jack Black, panda) is now a respected member of Master Ishu’s (Dustin Hoffman, red panda) Kung Fu clan, and is tasked with protecting their village. However, a powerful dynasty has come under attack by its exiled prince Shen (Gary Oldman, peacock), who seeks to not only take over China, but his primary weapons threaten to destroy Kung-Fu tradition. Now the way I say it here, it probably sounds cliché, but in the movie the story is taken very seriously. Poe recognizes a symbol on Shen’s minions (wolves), which unleashes a forgotten nightmare. The story takes an emotional turn for the main characters (which for an animated film/show, is music to my ears). Poe and the Furious Five are dispatched to confront Shen and stop his bloody revolution. In the course of the story, we really get to see the inner workings of Poe’s relationship with his friends/comrades, his adoptive father, and how what made him an outcast in the first film now makes him a unique warrior.

My few criticisms? Poe’s flashback of self-realization, with all the clips from the previous films seemed a little out of place, but it was at least long enough to get the point across. I think they should have used fewer previous scenes, and maybe drawn some out a little longer instead. Also, I was a little uncertain about the acting in the scene where Poe confronts Shen about his own demons. Too preachy.

I must also speak about the directing of the movie. Jennifer Yuh Nelson is not the first woman to be involved in directing an animated feature from a major studio, but she is the first Asian-born female director to receive sole-credit in directing one. And I have to say she does a fantastic job. It is true that there are few female directors or creators in the animation industry, which is very sad to me, because I know several super-talented female artists, and many who are successful in independent animation. Hopefully, many more will be able to follow Jennifer Yuh Nelson. And some day, the lines will be blurred even more.

I am also thankful that no references to Grandmaster Flash have been made in these movies, due to the name “Furious Five.” As much as I like references to contemporary music, they wouldn’t fit into these movies.

Movies like this give me something to appreciate about commercial animated features. With all the criticisms I’m surrounded by these days, its nice to see something that impresses me.

Why Did Disney Stop Making TV Shows Based on Their Films?

Via: Wikipedia

Whatever happened to all the TV series’ that Disney used to put out after a theatrical film was released? Is it a practise that died off with the turn of the century? It’s hard to tell, but the untimely death of the traditional animation unit may have been something to do with it.

The fact occurred to me this morning as I was scrambling around for something to write about. My postulation is that they simply don’t make the kind of films that lend themselves easily to such treatment any more. For one, CGI is now king, and creating a CGI TV series can be much, much harder than a traditionally animated one, especially if you are geared up and staffed for the latter.

Disney has decided that it either isn’t worthwhile creating a CGI TV show, or that the kind of movies they have put out recently do not lend themselves easily to the concept (read: CGI). Films like Chicken Little, Bolt and The Princess and the Frog are not quite flexible enough to be capable of the tweaks that are necessary for the small box. Tangled has a similar problem, but that could be overcome in a way not unlike The Genie in Aladdin. I am quite certain that the closure of the traditional animation department also contributed to the end of such programmes.

As much as I abhor the practice and its nagging habit of denying the place of an original, creator-driven show, you can’t deny that the quality of the Disney movie-shows was decently high, both animation and story-wise. It also kept costs that wee bit lower and the studio was able to eliminate the risk of a series if they used a successful film that came with a ready-made audience.

I am not advocating a return to the practise, I’m just pointing out that it did provide some benefits to the animation industry as a whole. DreamWorks must have recognized this as they have taken up the mantle in recent times, with shows based on Madagascar 2, How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda. Of course, DreamWorks is an independent studio, so there is much more pressure on them to maximize their creations to the hilt and TV can be a very lucrative way of extending the life of your films.

As I’ve mentioned before, ideally, theatrical films would be much easier to make and to predict the performance of if they were based on a TV show. SpongeBob did it to great success so why can’t someone else replicate the same? That is something studios should focus even more on in this day and age.

Studios ‘Stealing’ Ideas and Why Animators Need to Know Their Rights

Via: List.co.uk

This morning, I read over on AWN that some guy, by the name of Terence Dunn, is suing DreamWorks for stealing his idea for Kung Fu Panda. Although everything is still at an early stage, this could shape up to be an interesting fight.

This is, of course, the worst fear of many animators, they pitch an idea to a network or studio, get turned around, and then just like that, see a project that’s eerily similar to their own being announced.

My recent post neglected to mention this whole area of copyright law as I regretfully forgot about it. Basically, you cannot copyright an idea, only actual creations. If you come up with the idea to make a show about, oh, I don’t know, an Octopus Pirate, then you can’t simply go around suing everyone if they come up with a show about a pirate who’s also an octopus.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t defend your legal rights, if someone misappropriates your idea, you are certainly entitled to seek compensation. The point is that it is possible to be over-zealous. Think back to the lawsuit from a few years ago regarding SpongeBob Squarepants. Some guy (who has a Wikipedia page?) sued Viacom for stealing his idea for a talking sponge.

The guy’s argument was that in 1991, he created and flogged some sponges with a markered on face. If only he had read Jerry Beck’s excellent Nicktoons book, he would have noticed a comic, drawn by Stephen Hillenberg and featuring a character called Bob the Sponge that was dated 1989. It’s too bad that tons of court time were wasted on a frivolous lawsuit like this although I’m sure some lawyers somewhere are quite happy about the whole ordeal.

In a lawsuit such as the one mentioned at the beginning, the discovery phase will help uncover any and all information that both sides will need in order to build a case. For Dunn, it will hinge on whether or not his idea passes a series of tests that will determine whether or not his concept could be considered the same as Kung Fu Panda. Things such as the plot, character descriptions, design, tone of the story and so forth will be scrutinized in microscopic detail. In addition, the full details of any and all meetings with DreamWorks staff will be similarly torn apart in the quest for the proof needed.

Does the guys suit have merit? Perhaps, it’s still way to early to tell. The reason it’s in the news today is that the court has ruled that Dunn can look at DreamWorks books in order to determine how much he could be owed in damages. This is a bit of a silly move because, at least in my mind, what he is owed should not be motivating him at this stage of the lawsuit if he is truly in the belief that his idea was stolen. It should be blatantly obvious to everyone that Kung Fu Panda was a successful film (with 6 more announced?!) and there should be no doubt in his or anyone else’s mind that should he win, he would be in line for a substantial payout.

There is a good chance that DreamWorks will settle, especially if it looks like they will lose. As in most cases like this, it is much cheaper for them to offer the guy a certain (not unsubstantial) amount that puts everything to rest and allows things to carry on much as they did before.

It’s important to remember that situations such as this are extremely rare. Studios and networks are well aware of the potential for crippling damages if they are shown to have blatantly ripped off some-one’s idea, as a result, they are much more inclined (and motivated) to either acquire the original idea and develop it themselves, or take the basic concept (a kung fu panda) and turn it into their own creation.

Like I said at the beginning, you cannot copyright an idea (yet), only actual creative work. Lawsuits such as those mentioned above are all the more reason for animators to familiarize themselves with copyright law and what rights and limitations are set out within.

Animation and the 2011 Academy Awards

It is a wee bit early, I know, and apparently that is something not lost on Steve Hullett over at the Animation Guild Blog either, as he notes how Dreamworks is already sending out the consideration mailers for How to Train Your Dragon.

The interesting thing is that DW is putting the film up in both the animation and best feature category, which is certainly an interesting development. It has been shown again and again that animation is not treated as seriously in Hollywood as it should be (hint: animation is a lot more profitable) but in recent times, in spite of the Academy’s addition of a ‘Best Animated Feature’ category, there have been some inroads made by the artform into more prestigious categories.

It all kicked off with Wall-E and it’s supposed deservedness of inclusion in the best feature category. That didn’t materialise (put it down to Wall-E being a robot), but surprisingly, that was not the end of the story. More than one eyebrow was raised last year when UP managed to bag one of the coveted best feature nomination slots. In the end it lost out to The Hurt Locker.

So it is perhaps not much of a surprise to hear that DW is waving the flag for Dragon. Personally, I think it is the best animated film released this year (thus far and from a Hollywood studio). Many will argue the case for Toy Story 3, but that is a sequel, if the first, two, superior films didn’t pass muster, I can’t see it doing so either.

I don’t think this means that we will see an animated films in the running for best feature every year. It is certainly safe to say that the best film released would not necessarily get the nod. Persepolis is a shining example of an animated film that is more than worthy of a best picture Oscar only for it to get the shaft.

Of course, it would be fantastic if we saw a few more animated features specifically aimed at adults rather than children. Walt Disney certainly felt (albeit with much anxiety) that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was good enough for adults.

If there was a serious market for adult animation, then there are plenty of reasons why we should see an animated film in the running for best feature. For now, let’s hope that How to Train Your Dragon makes a good show of it while it can.

Initial Thoughts: Dreamworks Developing Troll Movie

Some toys are notoriously subject to fadism, where they seemingly overnight become massively popular before rapidly fade into the background rarely to be seen again. Remember Furbys? Yeah, like that.

It comes a as a bit of a surprise to hear that Dreamworks is developing a new film based on the (surprisingly mature) line of Trolls dolls. Things could go either way for the film. Some of you out there may well remember the 80s, where it seemed like every cartoon on TV was using a line of toys as their inspiration.

Creativity suffered as a result, writers and animators were limited by what the toy companies dictated the characters could and could not do. While people remember those cartoons with fondness today, in the grand scheme of things, they don’t hold a candle to the likes of SpongeBob Squarepants.

Personally, I believe that cartoons should drive the merchandising. They are a stronger starting point and allow for a far wider choice of products, or at least potential products. This case, however, is probably more closely related to Toy Story than anything from the 80s. There is an established set of toys (read, everyone in Toy Story besides Woody and Buzz) who can be worked into almost any story and have a line of merchandising ready to go.

It would have been ideal if Dreamworks would have decided to develop an entirely new set of characters. Time will tell which celebrities are drafted in to voice the little guys. Anyone want to give odds on Tom Cruise? The film has only just been announced so there are still a few years until we even see anything close to resembling animation. That’s an awful long time in animation and a lot can happen in the meantime.