Katzenberg assesses future of D’Works Animation

DreamWorks' new distrib relationship with Fox means more movies

DreamWorks Animation is at a watershed moment.

“Rise of the Guardians,” which debuted over the Thanksgiving weekend, ends a seven-year distribution deal with Paramount Pictures. DWA now begins a relationship with 20th Century Fox, through which DWA has dated 12 toons through 2016. There are more to come, with studio topper Jeffrey Katzenberg and chief creative officer Bill Damaschke having introduced 17 titles, in various forms of development or production, at a recent gathering of 2,300 staffers at the Gibson Amphitheater in Universal City.

Katzenberg, Damaschke and “Rise of the Guardians” helmer Peter Ramsey talked with Marc Graser last week on the DreamWorks Animation campus in Glendale, Calif., about the move to Fox, DreamWorks Animation’s commitment to 3D and toon technology, as well as the final pic with Par.

On DreamWorks Animation’s future

Katzenberg: “It’s a very optimistic time for us. We are going from two movies to three movies a year starting in 2013. Without a question, it’s the most ambitious and exciting slate of movies that we’ve had. I think our best years are ahead of us. We’re excited about the business.”

Why three movies a year?

Katzenberg: “We’ve built to that. This has been 18 years coming. We feel there is an audience for it and an appetite for it, and we have more stories to tell than we have the bandwidth to make. It’s a little frustrating. … We have a movie project that may be one of the most favorite ideas we’ve ever had and a brilliant screenplay, and we’re saying, ‘Well, is it 2016 or ’17?’ The good news is we’ve got a full slate. The bad news is we have to wait longer than we like for something that we love.”

Fox is getting its money’s worth

Damaschke: “Many of those films have been in the works here for many, many years. That’s 10 years of work, and we were thrilled to be with Fox and finally be able to announce them and date them.”

Mixing originals with franchises

Katzenberg: “We think people are still interested in original ideas. In the next 18 months, we have five original movies. No animation company has had five original movies in the past five years — not us, Pixar or Disney.”

The tentpole philosophy

Katzenberg: “Not every film lends itself to it. We try and identify those films very early on and then frankly, build into the movie enterprise the skill sets and the bandwidth and provisions to be able to support it.”

Damaschke: “We do talk about franchises a lot here. But there are many different sizes. There are franchises that are multiple films. There are great franchises where there’s a movie and a TV show. There are great franchises where there’s one film, consumer products or live shows. We always think about what kind of franchise is this and what works for it organically.”

Katzenberg: “We will wait and see what the outcome is (at the box office for “Guardians”). The audience gets to decide (its future). There are clearly more stories that can be told. There are more stories that Bill (Joyce, author of the source material) has written. But we’re a long way from a decision.”

The studio is analyzing what went wrong with the “Guardians” launch — a film, helmed by first-time director and longtime storyboard artist Peter Ramsey, that was well-received by critics and garnered an “A” CinemaScore from moviegoers but opened to a disappointing $32.6 million during a record-breaking holiday frame for the U.S. box office. Analysts are calling it one of the most disappointing releases in the company’s history. DreamWorks Animation isn’t shying away from that, but remains confident the film will still find an audience the way other animated fare like Warner Bros.’ “The Polar Express” and DWA’s own “How to Train Your Dragon” did after opening to lower-than-expected bows.”

Monday-morning quarterbacks

Katzenberg: “We stumbled out of the gate. There’s no getting away from it. Whenever something doesn’t hit the bull’s-eye there’s a degree of hurt involved. But everybody around here remains hopeful. … There’s no company that does more post mortem on every part of its movies, both the making of them and the marketing of them, than we do. We’ve done it aggressively on movies that have worked, and we’ll do it just as aggressively, if not more so, on this, to try to figure out where and what we could or should have done differently. But it’s too early. We’re happy to second guess ourselves, but not yet.”

International rebuttal

Katzenberg: “The international will be successful. (The film) got off to a good start (in China) and then we lost our theaters in the second week. That was really more the issue there. Russia got off to a super strong start and is doing very well. South America, Argentina, Colombia, all are very very strong. As always with these things, there are different places where it’ll play out stronger than others.”

A twist on popular mythology

Ramsey: “The whole idea behind the project was based on the books by Bill Joyce, who had the idea of presenting slightly different versions of these characters that everyone’s always known (while speaking) the language of big tentpole action films through texturing, lighting and the compositions and choice of shots. … We really wanted to take a step forward in terms of the look and feel of the movie to create something that is a bridge between animation and live action — something that you really hadn’t seen before. We didn’t want to try to do anything that was very photorealistic. We wanted to tell a story that could only be told through animation. Our characters are these big bold larger-than-life characters.”

Ramsey: “We’ve had a year and half where we’ve been screening versions of the movie to recruited audiences. If there was any sort of issue, it would have come up, but there never has been.”

How the pic hooked the studio

Damaschke: “Bill (Joyce) always described (the characters) as the original superheroes. For us, it was all about fulfilling the promise of that idea, and presenting them as bigger than life and heroic. They do all the things we know that they do, plus they have in many cases an implied backstory that’s in the movie and in the books.”

Does the world know what a tooth fairy is?

Damaschke: “We did think about it. We care a lot about the international audience. In the making of this movie, we had charts by character and by country of what their recognition (factor) is. A lot of the characters exist everywhere. For some of the characters, the function of what they do exists, but in a different form. For example, the Tooth Fairy in Spain and in France is a mouse that collects the teeth of children and leaves gifts or candies, so to try to embrace that bigger mythology of tooth collection around the world, we have a brief appearance of a mouse character in a European segment of the film.”

‘Guardians,’ dimensionally

Ramsey: “It’s been the same process that’s evolved at the studio over the past several years, which is using (3D) as a tool to increase immersiveness and depth, rather than throw ping pong balls at you. It’s used as a storytelling tool. Our stereographers construct with me a 3D script to track every scene in the movie according to its emotional context — and we either increase the stereo or increase the depth if we want more of a feeling of uncertainty or fear or danger. We decrease it when we want moments of intimacy and want to be close to the characters.”

Katzenberg: “We’ve had the same group of stereographers and artists working on the past nine movies. They’re taking this residual knowledge
and experience, and (they) keep growing. Each time they’re challenging themselves to keep pushing the 3D work.”

The state of 3D

Katzenberg: “3D has had its ups and its downs and its sideways. Right now, it’s OK. Internationally, it’s spectacular. In the domestic market, people are much more cautious to commit the extra dollars to see a 3D film. They need to be told by word of mouth, by critics, by others that it’s worth it.

It got off to a spectacular start in 2009 with a couple great movies. Our first couple of entries, ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’ and ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ were held in extremely high regard by the audience and the critics. And then certainly ‘Avatar’ set the high benchmark for everybody. Then, unfortunately, a bunch of stuff came along that really disappointed the audience and devalued the extra investment that the audience is being asked to make. It’s been a hard road back from that. The animation business has probably done the best job of mostly offering pretty high quality.”

Ramsey: “Look at a guy like Ang Lee and what he does with it (in “Life of Pi”). It’s clear it’s not a gimmick. You can really create a completely new experience with it. You can push it a lot further. It would involve changing the actual grammar of cinema, but (3D is) kind of a medium in its own right. Even within the boundaries of where we are now, we can do a lot more.”

Bigscreen event planning

Damaschke: “It’s got to feel like an event, and something you really want to experience, at least initially in a theater with your family and your kids and your parents and your friends, and then many times after that in some other form. It’s about the same foundational things that always existed: great stories, great characters and surprising, amazing worlds that people have never been to before.”

Katzenberg: “(With 3D), what we need to do is make it worth it for people to go to the extra expense. If they don’t want to or can’t afford to, we still want them to be able to see our movies. We’ve always said that no matter what, we would always offer a 2D experience.”

Damaschke: “Engaging and appealing characters that are relatable and going through something relatable, world’s they’ve never seen before.”

Katzenberg: “Each film has its own challenges and (its) own opportunities. The fact that something (can be) pre-sold and known maybe is an advantage in the marketing of the movie, but is a disadvantage in the making of the movie in that you still have to surprise (the audience) with something new and different and special. How do you make (a film) unpredictable with something they’re very familiar with?”

Why toons draw talent

Ramsey: “People are drawn to something new. It’s fresh and it’s uncharted territory for a lot of filmmakers who haven’t looked at it before. It feels like a renaissance, but at the same time a real flowering. A lot of people see a lot of exciting things happening, and it’s just the energy. In any artistic thing you do, there are some limitations. Here, you do get a chance to stretch.”

Damaschke: “We started with the rich and unbelievable backstories of these characters, and then we had the beautiful and inspiring artwork that Joyce had done, the very illustrative book-type art. We were trying to figure out how to take all of that and make it a cinematic experience both from a storytelling perspective and look perspective.” The studio was able to crack the story when filmmakers realized “it’s great you have all of these reinvented characters everybody knows, but the character most people know hardly anything about and that we can actually tell a real story through is Jack Frost. It all came together around that character.”

Reflecting on DWA’s past

Katzenberg: “It’s been a bumpy road. We’ve had our ups and our downs along the way. But there’s nothing more exciting, nothing more fun (than) to come through these gates every day and be surrounded by people who genuinely love what they’re doing. The average age here is 29 years old and I’m unfortunately more than twice their age. To be out and about on this campus and interact with them every day makes me feel like I’m their age. It keeps me young being surrounded by these people — these artists and filmmakers and technicians and rocket scientists and engineers and software programmers and fine artists and botanists. You can’t imagine the diversity of skill sets. We speak 38 languages on this campus.Whenever there’s a visitor coming here, there’s a pretty good chance we speak your language.”

Ramsey: “There really is a rocket scientist here. (He) was going to work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on nuclear weaponry or he was going to take this job here in software development, and he took this job.”