Toon studio adds cruises, promotions to strategy

Jeffrey Katzenberg is due for a vacation.

The DreamWorks Animation chief is wrapping up one of his busiest years, with the toon studio releasing three films for the first time and producing several holiday specials featuring its growing cast of characters.

Over the weekend, Katzenberg finally boarded a cruise ship in Miami that set sail for the Caribbean. But he’s a true workaholic, and the voyage was just another business trip.

That’s because in December, Royal Caribbean will launch the first of four ships that will essentially serve as floating billboards for Katzenberg’s company.

Each vessel will feature a 3D theater that screens DreamWorks movies, starting with “Megamind”; host a water show whose cast includes characters from “Madagascar”; offer a “How to Train Your Dragon” ice skating show; and provide a DreamWorks-themed parade and character breakfasts.

The pair-up with the cruise line, announced this summer, is the latest move for DreamWorks as it continues to build its brand with family audiences and make its moniker as recognizable as Disney or Pixar.

But in Katzenberg’s ongoing quest to one-up his former Mouse House digs any chance he gets, he’s managed to lock down the world’s largest cruise ship, the Allure of the Seas — essentially a floating city that can carry as many as 6,300 passengers and provides DreamWorks with a very captive audience to court.

DreamWorks has been forced to step up its creative game — especially on the corporate partnership front — considering the company has fewer assets to play with than Disney: It doesn’t have a well-known mascot to get auds excited (the boy sitting on the moon while fishing is the company’s only icon). Nor does it have a theme park or own TV networks through which it can promote its properties.

Instead, it’s had to mostly rely on “Shrek’s” green ogre, the zoo animals from “Madagascar” and a kung fu-fighting panda as spokes-creatures.

Katzenberg has said in the past that DreamWorks must “be innovative” and “find new ways to do business” in order to appeal to moviegoers and get them to open their wallets in and outside of the megaplex.

As a result, the studio has made sure its characters are everywhere, locking down high-profile pacts with the likes of Walmart, McDonald’s, NBC, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Samsung to promote the characters on everything from limited-edition Oreos and Happy Meals to holiday specials, TV shows and the sale of new 3D TVs.

• While Walmart had already pushed DreamWorks’ pics in the past, in March the retail giant agreed to devote considerable real estate within its stores to build a fleet of 2,500 Viking ships and exclusively sell “How to Train Your Dragon” merchandise. Five weeks after “Dragon’s” bow in theaters, licensed merchandise had run up about $60 million for DreamWorks, boosting the company’s first quarter.

• NBC is the home for DreamWorks’ TV specials, with the network airing “Scared Shrekless” around Halloween and the “Kung Fu Panda Holiday Special” this Thanksgiving. “Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins From Outer Space” and “Merry Madagascar,” which bowed last year, are getting repeat plays this year.

• DreamWorks inked a two-year worldwide marketing deal with McDonald’s that began with “Shrek the Third” in 2007 and has since been extended.

• Theme park attractions based on DreamWorks’ characters are housed in Universal’s theme parks.

• And Samsung is packaging 3D Blu-rays of “How to Train Your Dragon” and the four “Shrek” films in starter kits to sell its 3D TVs, the same way it used “Monsters vs. Aliens” last year.

DreamWorks sees these deals as opportunities to “tell a story and establish characters that start out in a movie theater but then have the opportunity to live on beyond the movie theater,” according to Anne Globe, head of worldwide marketing and consumer products for DreamWorks Animation. “That has many ways they can take shape for audiences. Certainly a sequel is the most common form of continued storytelling, but we’ve had terrific success with other opportunities that offer audiences a way to connect with our characters.”

And not just in the U.S. All of the exposure is helping put the spotlight on DreamWorks’ characters around the world.

“Shrek Forever After” may not have performed as well as the studio had hoped Stateside, but the film wound up as DreamWorks’ highest-grossing international release with around $500 million. And that’s sent profits soaring, up 103% in the most recent quarter alone.

The “Shrek” films have earned $3 billion for DreamWorks since the first bowed in theaters in 2001.

But corporate tie-ins are only successful if the properties are entertaining.

And when a film strikes a chord with auds, Katzenberg is quick to make sure each property becomes big business all by itself.

“How to Train Your Dragon” has been designed as a trilogy, with the next pic set for release in 2013. But in the meantime, there’s a traveling arena show, similar to “Walking With Dinosaurs,” in the works, as well as the launch of a virtual world and weekly animated TV show planned to bow on Cartoon Network in 2012.

Nickelodeon similarly airs “The Penguins of Madagascar” series, a spinoff of “Madagascar,” which is also getting its own 90-minute touring show, produced with Broadway Across America. “Madagascar Live” starts hitting arenas in more than 70 cities in January. DreamWorks’ theatricals arm previously fumbled with an expensive Broadway adaptation of “Shrek” — Katzenberg’s answer to Disney’s “The Lion King” and “Mary Poppins.”

Now DreamWorks has an actual fleet of cruise ships at its disposal — something that’s long worked for Disney, through its own growing cruise biz, and Nickelodeon, through a deal with Norwegian Cruise Line.

“We’re always looking for new ways to engage our consumer and expose them to our characters and bring them to life in a new and unique way,” Globe says of why DreamWorks Animation wanted to add a cruise line to its list of partners. “At the end of the day, we’re both in the business of entertainment, and (Royal Caribbean) was interested in doing something new with our characters that we’d never done before.”

DreamWorks will certainly have more films and characters to promote as it pursues plans to release five movies every two years. Tie-ins typically take a year or two to broker.

Although the “Shrek” franchise has run its course, a $45 four-disc DVD and Blu-ray set, entitled “Shrek: The Whole Story,” will hit stores Dec. 7.

After this year’s trio, it will release “Kung Fu Panda: The Kaboom of Doom” and “Puss in Boots” next year. Two new properties — “The Guardians,” which unites Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy; and stone age comedy “The Croods” — as well as “Madagascar 3″ are skedded for 2012.

“Truckers,” an upcoming project scripted by “Slumdog Millionaire” scribe Simon Beaufoy about a race of tiny people who struggle to survive inside a department store, should give DreamWorks more opportunities for corporate tie-ins.

“For us, this whole franchise strategy is fundamental to our business,” and bottom line, given that DreamWorks’ revenue stream depends on how many films it has in theaters and what their licensed merchandise and spinoffs can generate, says Kerry Phelan, head of worldwide licensing and consumer products for the studio.

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