Studio bears down with 'Panda' on slate

For the first time since it became an independent company, DreamWorks Animation has a full development slate that will help satisfy the company’s two-picture-per-year release schedule through at least 2009.

“We’re transitioning from our start-up phase,” DreamWorks Animation chief operating officer Ann Daly told Daily Variety.

As part of that transition, the company’s 2008 calendar is now set, with Jack Black vehicle “Kung Fu Panda” joining the recently announced “Madagascar 2.”

Influenced by cartoonish live-action pics like “Kung Fu Hustle,” “Panda” will star Black as the voice of a lazy panda prophesied to save the Valley of Peace.

Pic will be directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne. Melissa Cobb will produce from a screenplay by Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab.

A healthy development slate could soothe investors, who have soured on the public company since it overestimated sales of “Shrek 2″ in homevideo and didn’t give Wall Street early warning of the problem, leading to an SEC investigation and shareholder lawsuits. Success of “Madagascar,” which has grossed nearly $500 million worldwide, has already started to improve perception of the company.

Studio’s recent pics have cost close to $130 million and execs have said they expect that trend to continue. With just two big-budget releases per year (along with one direct-to-video pic per year starting in 2008), DreamWorks Animation has a relatively risky business model compared to more diversified live-action studios, but it has the benefit of producing exclusively in a genre that tends to do well on DVD.

For 2009 and beyond, DreamWorks Animation has four potential projects in the hopper: “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Rex Havoc,” “It Came From Earth!” and “Route 66.”

“Historically, we end up producing what we develop, although we’re not irrevocably committed to the projects,” Daly said.

“How to Train Your Dragon” is based on the children’s book by Cressida Cowell in which the son of a Viking chief must capture a dragon in order to be initiated into his tribe.

Pic will be directed by DreamWorks vets Lorna Cook (“Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”) and David Soren. Adaptation is by Will Davies.

“Rex Havoc,” based on the classic horror comicbook, is about a monster hunter called upon to battle aliens who have disrupted cable TV service. Rex assembles a team of monsters to help including Ick!, Dr. Cockroach, the 50,000 Pound Woman and Insectosaurus.

Pic will be directed by Conrad Vernon (“Shrek 2″) and Rob Letterman (“Shark Tale”). Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky are penning the script.

“It Came From Earth!” is a reverse alien invasion story told from the perspective of Martians when human astronauts arrive.

Pic, which doesn’t yet have a director, is written by Josh Lobis and Darin Moiselle.

“Route 66″ is the story of Mulligan, a giant golf ball statue on the side of legendary Route 66. When Betty, a giant blueberry who hovers above a produce stand on the other side of the street, is carted off one day, Mulligan steps down off his pedestal and sets off to find the love of his life.

Pic was written by Conrad Vernon (director of “Shrek 2″) and Harlan Williams from a pitch by Vernon, Williams and Rej Bourdages, the head of DreamWorks’ story department.

“Rej was my roommate at Sheraton College, where I studied animation,” said Williams, who is also a standup comic. “I waited for the right thing and this idea germinated in my head for a long time.”

All of the pics in DreamWorks Animation’s pipeline bear some resemblance to “Shrek,” with main characters that can appeal to kids but a wry sense of humor and double entendres that can amuse adults.

Next year, DreamWorks Animation releases “Over the Hedge” and “Flushed Away.” If either is a big success, studio will likely put a sequel into production for 2009, where it would be joined by one of the pics in development.

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