Once upon a time, Jeffrey Katzenberg added a new shade to the genre of animated films with a movie called Shrek. The “anti-Disney” film was borne out of Katzenberg being shoved out of Disney (where he spearheaded films like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast as chairman), with an aim to poke fun at the cutesy nature of the Mouse House’s output. After the failures of two more traditionally animated features, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, the CG-animated Shrek became the shining example of what a DreamWorks Animation film would be—emphasis on comedy, a tad subversive, jokes only adults would get—and in addition to Shrek sequels, the studio found big success with films like Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda.
Lately, DreamWorks became a bit overly reliant on franchises. The aforementioned Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar sequels did well, and How to Train Your Dragon was a sizeable success but significantly more compassionate and emotional than the studio’s other films. After a few misses mixed in between solid franchise plays, DreamWorks went on an original film tear starting with 2012’s Rise of the Guardians—which was the studio’s poorest performing film yet despite the fact that it’s actually quite good.
The Croods rebounded nicely, but the follow-ups Turbo and Mr. Peabody & Sherman fared even worse than Rise of the Guardians, and this year’s How to Train Your Dragon 2 underperformed at home (though it did very well overseas), as did the Madagascar spinoff Penguins of Madagascar. As a result of these disappointments, a few months ago the studio removed Kung Fu Panda 3 and B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations from its 2015 schedule, leaving March’s Home as its only 2015 release.
In light of these developments, DreamWorks Animation today announced some very significant changes would be taking place. Per Variety, the studio is cutting 500 jobs across all locations and divisions of the studio, in addition to cutting back its feature film out put from three a year to two a year (one original, one sequel). Additionally, the studio is cutting back its budgets, with the forthcoming Captain Underpants to be produced outside the studio’s pipeline at “a significantly lower cost”.
How to Train Your Dragon 3 is still in the pipeline and I imagine that one will remain mostly unaffected given that it and Kung Fu Panda are the studio’s only assured franchise plays at the moment. The Croods 2 is also in development for a 2017 release, but Dragon 3 was recently pushed there as well and since DWA plans on releasing one original and one sequel a year, I imagine one of them will move. There’s no firm release dates for Kung Fu Panda 3 and B.O.O. just yet, though I imagine they’ll land in 2016.
All in all, it’s never fun to see a studio in trouble, especially with talented people at stake. I’ve long said that How to Train Your Dragon should be the shining example for DWA films and not the joke-heavy leanings of movies like Turbo and Mr. Peabody & Sherman. Will there be a significant creative shift in terms of tone for the studio’s output now, or will there simply be less films? We’ll have to wait to find out, but this is certainly a big development in the world of animated features.