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‘Turbo’ Puts DreamWorks Animation Into Overdrive

After stalling out at the box office this summer, DreamWorks Animation’s racing snail “Turbo” is getting a second chance at revving up a new franchise when “Turbo FAST” launches as the production company’s first original series for Netflix this Christmas.

The launch is a key moment for DWA, which is looking to diversify beyond a movie business that “Turbo” proved can be rocky. The Netflix deal encompasses a whopping 300 hours of programming over the next five years, or 78 episodes across 12 series.

While the company has spun off characters from films like “Madagascar,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Kung Fu Panda” as TV shows for kids cablers Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, it saw Netflix as an opportunity to take more creative control — and ownership — of its franchises.

“We don’t necessarily have to tailor the show to fit any particular audience that a network attracts,” says Marjorie Cohn, the former Nickelodeon programming executive who took over as DWA’s head of television in July. “We can go after the audience the movies attract, kids first and their families.”

Turbo FAST” and the DWA shows that follow have been designed to serve as a marketing template on how to build a franchise. A hit show will help sell more mobile games, toys and other merchandise — all of which can lead to the greenlight of a film sequel. While the $135 million-budgeted “Turbo” earned only $82 million Stateside and $282 million worldwide, DWA CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg says the film is profitable for the company when toy sales and homevideo results are factored in.

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Netflix could provide DWA with an outlet to engage its family fanbase between theatrical releases, which would help eliminate a dropoff in consumer product sales after a film has played out at the megaplex.

Cohn says it’s been fairly easy to come up with ideas for series, turning to elements like characters or locations that may have been seen only briefly in a film, but connected with audiences on a certain level (think the penguins of “Madagascar”).

“Turbo FAST,” which features budget-friendly 2D animation rather than 3D, is set in a new environment with characters from the film paired up with new ones. “So much is left on the table when you’re making a film,” Cohn says. “We now have more time to explore those elements and create a more fully developed world.”

In addition to the benefits of fully owning its series, DWA is able to bypass the burden of having to answer to notes from a network. “Networks have more processes in place, and standards and practices, things we don’t have for this show,” said “Turbo FAST” executive producer Chris Prynoski, who also runs Titmouse, the animation studio that’s producing the show. “We’ve had to police ourselves on what we felt was good for kids. Sometimes we even ask if we’re being harder on ourselves than standards and practices (would be).”

With “Turbo FAST,” Netflix is deviating from the streaming service’s binge-viewing release pattern. DWA will supply batches of episodes when they’re ready. The first five installments of the first season of 26 will be released Dec. 24, with each half-hour broken into three 11-minute segments (that take six months to produce), similar to “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

Beyond “Turbo FAST,” DWA has yet to disclose which other characters will get their own series, though “Croods” is already known to be in production. If a movie “has been super successful, there will be a television show of some kind,” says Cohn. Other shows can be gleaned from properties from the library of Classic Media, an acquisition DWA made last year that includes iconic characters “Casper the Friendly Ghost” and “Lassie.”

It’s all part of a new world for DWA — one in which Cohn has gotten used to the notion of no longer saying a show “launches.” “We now say it’s ‘posting,’ ” she says.

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