DreamWorks: Toons too alike

'Hedge' a so-so performer for studio while 'Flushed Away' disappoints

It’s not the glut of animated pics but the glut of animated pics about wise-cracking animals that caused the downturn in average box office for toons this year, Jeffrey Katzenberg said at the UBS media confab in New York on Tuesday.

“The thing I did not anticipate that was more problematic than the volume of product was the sameness of product,” the DreamWorks Animation CEO told investors. “That is what has created a bit of animation fatigue.”

This year featured a number of toons that many critics complained were tough to distinguish, such as “The Wild,” “Open Season,” “Ice Age: The Meltdown” and DWA’s own “Over the Hedge,” potentially wearing out auds. Only pics that broke out were “Meltdown,” “Cars” and “Happy Feet.”

“Hedge” was only a so-so performer for DWA, grossing $335 million worldwide. Company has already had to take a writedown on its second release, “Flushed Away,” which has made $83 million so far and looks unlikely to break $150 million.

Asked about his company’s partner on the latter pic, Blighty’s Aardman Animations, Katzenberg indicated that it’s unlikely they’ll continue working together after disappointing B.O. for “Flushed” and last year’s “Wallace and Gromit.”

“We have agreed to sit down” after the first of the year and look at future prospects, he explained. “Having said that, I’ll add just two things: We’re only going to continue in a business where we make money and feel confident about that. And second, our slate is already committed through May of 2010.”

Exec said he thinks his studio’s future releases will stand out more from the competition. Studio has two “Shrek” sequels, a “Madagascar” sequel and four original pics in the works for the next 3½ years.

Katzenberg seemed particularly excited about 2008’s Jack Black starrer “Kung Fu Panda,” noting that interest in merchandise licenses is already high.

“It’s getting the most enthusiasm of any property we have seen to date,” he said.

Company recently completed a secondary stock offering triggered by Paul Allen to cash out some of his stake. Chief financial officer Kris Leslie said that could allow DWA to engage in more strategic financial moves, such as buying back shares.

“The secondary offering freed up our capital structure,” she said. “We will now look at investing in the company in ways that offer the best value for our shareholders.”