In a landscape of billion-dollar superhero box office grosses and nine-figure streaming megadeals, animation is often treated like an ugly stepchild when it comes to counting Hollywood success stories.

“We feel like Marvel is our competitor for family audiences, in a lot of ways. We’re not as sexy to some,” says Margie Cohn, president of the Universal-owned DreamWorks Animation.

Yet in the past year, considering the punishing human and economic toll the world has endured at the hands of the coronavirus, DreamWorks Animation has proven unusually resilient. It boasts the longest-running movie of the pandemic, “The Croods: A New Age,” which is still in theaters after close to 20 weeks and is set to surpass Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” in domestic earnings. The unit has also bolstered its output with a personal best of nine streaming shows to hit screens since the pandemic began, using intellectual property from the Universal library like “Jurassic Park.”

This moment for DWA is something of a promise fulfilled after a slow start.

NBCUniversal’s $3.8 billion acquisition of the company in 2016 raised eyebrows, given the conglomerate’s existing (and lucrative) Illumination Entertainment, the label behind the “Minions” franchise. Initially, DWA struggled to differentiate itself and justify its hefty price tag.

“Jeffrey hired her for a reason,” says Donna Langley, Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman, referring to DWA founder Jeffrey Katzenberg bringing on Cohn in 2013. “She’s one of these executives who don’t get the credit they’re due. I cannot imagine that studio weathering the storm of the past 15 months, from the first weekend of the pandemic with ‘Trolls,’ to having to manage her creative teams and artists through such unorthodox methodology, without her.”

DWA’s wild 2020 began with the unwitting history-maker “Trolls: World Tour,” a sequel to the 2016 Justin Timberlake romp that grossed nearly $350 million worldwide. The DWA film would become the first in a series of Universal Pictures titles to shatter the traditional theatrical window and debut on paid video on demand. Though the move initially enraged global exhibitors, the project would come to represent an unprecedented treaty that would allow Universal to offer 17 days of exclusivity in theaters before taking its movies to PVOD. Released on March 11, 2020, the “Trolls” sequel brought roughly $80 million in direct profit to Universal after six weeks in the home, while also feeding a nation of content-starved viewers locked inside with their kids.

“We had really ambitious goals for 2020, and it is miraculous that we accomplished all of them,” says Cohn, who is entering her third year at the helm of the studio after starting out leading its TV division. “Considering the environment, we did pretty well.”

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DreamWorks Animation chief creative officer of TV Peter Gal and president Margie Cohn Cohn: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages

Cohn recalls getting word from NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell, Langley and UFEG vice chairman Pete Levinsohn that “Trolls” was about to go rogue.

“We like to take risks and to be bold. I trust Jeff Shell, and I trust Donna and Pete Levinsohn. They said, ‘Let’s hold hands and jump off this cliff together.’ I put out my hand, and so did my filmmakers,” Cohn says. “To see families stuck at home, and that this big event movie was going to be available to watch, made it feel like we were doing something to help. I was calling agents and telling them this. Everyone thought it was a good idea. No one was saying, ‘What’s in it for me? What about my bonus?’ It felt like the right property at the right time.”

More impressive — and a major indicator of what the theatrical film market needs to survive as screens begin reopening and the population gets access to COVID-19 vaccines — is the performance of “Croods: A New Age.” The prehistoric family adventure, another franchise, released its second installment over the Thanksgiving holiday. At the time, the country was reeling from an infection spike and a haphazard vaccination rollout.

The “Croods” sequel — which features the voices of Emma Stone, Kelly Marie Tran and Ryan Reynolds — would open at No. 1 over the five-day holiday weekend, bringing in $14.2 million. The number was a distant echo of the usual holiday grosses, but considering only 38% of North American cinemas were open, it was a respectable result. The movie didn’t stop there. Week after week it racked up slow and steady grosses. That endurance impressed industry observers, because not only was the nation gripped by a public health catastrophe, but the film was also available for digital rental at the same time it was in theaters. To date, “The Croods: A New Age” has earned more than $160 million worldwide.

“It’s still in theaters, and it’s still making money. It shows you that families really want quality entertainment that they can enjoy together,” says Cohn. “I love me some ‘Wonder Woman,’ but our box office is bigger than hers. That’s a testament to what people are looking for.”

DWA has also been the benefactor of NBCUniversal’s still-undefined battle plan for the streaming wars. Though the division does mount productions for the Comcast-owned Peacock service, 2020 saw DWA launch programming for Apple TV Plus and Hulu and continue fulfilling an overall animation deal at Netflix. The company’s recent releases include “Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts,” “Wizards,” “Jurassic World Camp Cretaceous,” “Gabby’s Dollhouse” and “Madagascar: A Little Wild.” Thanks to the largely digital nature of animation production, Cohn estimates that DWA spent only about a week in the dark after the country stopped going to the office.

“We were very lucky,” says Peter Gal, DreamWorks Animation’s chief creative officer in TV. “Our studio was in a great place, and we had really experienced people who had worked together for years. I think that helped a lot with the transition to work from home and keeping our production teams happy and engaged.”

The division has more than 20 active series in production and is anticipating that the number will grow in the coming months. While it continues to provide content for competitors, DWA points specifically to the resonance of “Camp Cretaceous” in offering new ways to tap into enthusiasm for the “Jurassic
World” franchise.

DWA is also in exploratory talks about live action-animation hybrid projects and is engaged with creatives on how to enter the booming adult animation space, creating its own version of a “Sausage Party” or “Big Mouth.” In addition, it will mine other Universal Pictures series for spinoff projects in the vein of “Camp Cretaceous.”

“We’ve been concentrating on building our pipeline of movies to build new franchises. That’s the future, and we’ve already staked out a few release dates. What, in this highly competitive world, should DreamWorks Animation be doing? By 2022, you’ll start seeing what our plans are,” Cohn says.

Having adapted to this new world, Cohn is still looking forward to the day DWA can return to the office.

“One of the things DreamWorks is all about is its culture. The people in charge of campus and communications and leadership training, they were so busy. We didn’t stop doing all of that, but we couldn’t be with each other,” she says, lamenting the plight of the juniors in her corporate family, “especially the young people who are mentored by being in the room.”