Working the Dream; Now Showing: DreamWorks' Ambitious Plan to Rule the World of Animated Movies

Article excerpt

Byline: Johnnie L. Roberts

Roll the previews of movies that DreamWorks Animation plans to release in the coming months and years, and you'll see an impressive array of vastly different worlds it has imagined for the big screen. In "Madagascar," which arrives May 27, the cartoon animals travel from their Central Park Zoo home to lush jungles in Madagascar. "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit," set for release this fall, conjures up a pest-plagued working-class British neighborhood. Two years from now, the studio revisits the Kingdom of Far Far Away for the third installment of "Shrek." Then "Bee Movie" (starring Jerry Seinfeld, who's also writing and producing it) brings to life an anthropomorphized world of bees. By the end of the decade, DreamWorks animators will go back to a mythical time to tell the story of a kung fu-fighting panda.

But what really fires the imagination of DreamWorks executives is bringing to life another world, one in which they're the undisputed kings of the animated-movie business. For years that goal has seemed far, far away, particularly after a decade of fits and starts for DreamWorks SKG, founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. But after the blockbuster success of "Shrek 2," the trio took the studio's animation unit public last year in one of the most successful IPOs in show business (since then, its stock price is up 34 percent). Now DreamWorks Animation is planning another stock offering this month, and setting its sights on becoming a widely recognized megabrand, wringing vast profits from not just movies, but everything from Broadway productions to bedsheets. "It's all going to come together," Katzenberg proclaims.

Will the dream work? Katzenberg has plenty of motivation. He seemed to have the magic touch while at Disney in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he oversaw production of huge successes like "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King." But in one of Hollywood's most bitter divorces, Katzenberg was fired by Michael Eisner, now Disney's lame-duck CEO. That set the stage for DreamWorks' launch and its bid to take on Disney and its now estranged partner Pixar, the Steve Jobs-run studio behind "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo," among others. DreamWorks' early animation efforts were something of a nightmare. Its first release, "The Prince of Egypt," a Biblical epic, encountered a storm of religious criticism and, as The Boston Globe put it, fell "short of the promised land." It was still using traditional hand-drawn animation, too, just as Pixar was mastering the use of computer animation. Katzenberg and his team had to sprint hard to catch up.

Katzenberg now likes to say of DreamWorks that "we're an Avis to Pixar's Hertz" (and there's the occasional insinuation that Pixar's boss is distracted by other things like iPods and Macs, while Katzenberg's focus is solely on animated movies). But just trying harder isn't the goal--he wants to be bigger. DreamWorks' plan includes churning out two animated films each year, a formidable task because each one takes up to four years to complete. Another move: direct-to-video movies. The studio hit two home runs last year with "Shrek 2" and "Shark's Tale," which generated a combined $597 million at the box office. Now the studio is looking for a repeat this year with "Madagascar" and "Wallace & Gromit."

Will quality suffer? It's a valid question, considering that Pixar has turned out consistent hits in part by limiting its release schedule to no more than one a year, giving in-house aces like two-time Academy Award winner John Lasseter time to polish the films to a bright shine. But Katzenberg believes he achieves quantity and quality by broadening his moviemaking talent pool. …