Inside the studio that had an even worse year than Sony

Penguins of Madagascar

To fix a dismal 2014, DreamWorks needs to start listening to its fans.

Hollywood is ending a dismal run at the box office in 2014, and perhaps no studio had a worse year than DreamWorks. The animation studios’ latest release, a spin-off from its Madagascar trilogy, Penguins of Madagascar, opened over Thanksgiving weekend to a chilly $36 million at the domestic box office, a far cry from the hoped for $45 to $55 million it was expected to bring in. Thus far, it has made just $70 million domestically. And let’s not forget the forgettable Mr. Peabody and Sherman, released back in March of this year, which forced the studio to absorb a $57 million dollar write-off. Penguins was yet another film in a series of flops that DreamWorks has had to deal with. 

Amidst failed merchandising deals with Softbank and Hasbro—not to mention falling stock prices—things are not looking good for the studio. And you thought Sony had a bad year.

DreamWorks is more than capable of producing stellar animated films that appeal to both kids and adults, creating original and and heartfelt stories that don’t lean on witless jokes or desperately depend on celebrity voices as a selling point. The most recent standouts from DreamWorks, 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel, released earlier this year, prove the studio capable of such—not only from a financial standpoint, but perhaps more importantly, from a strong and healthy fandom. While How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel differ from the original books by Cressida Cowell they’re based upon, it would come as no surprise that the film drew, in part, on fans of the book series.

How to Train Your Dragon was written in part and directed by Chris Sanders. Does that name sound familiar? It should. Sanders was behind a number of Disney’s most well-received properties, working on the stories for Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. He also wrote the screenplay for Mulan, and not only created the idea for Lilo and Stitch but also wrote and directed the film. Clearly this guy knew what he was doing when he took hold of the reins for Dragon. All of Sanders’ films are audience favorites, and the How to Train Your Dragon series is no exception.

It’s best to preface how popular the original film is from its Rotten Tomatoes score: a soaring 98 percent. Back in 2010, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Tom Horgen said, “What we have here is an exhilarating epic that mixes comedic and touching moments with some of the best action sequences ever created with CGI animation.” Its sequel was, arguably, even better received amongst critics. As Variety’s Peter DeBruge wrote, “If necessity is the mother of invention, then DreamWorks’ desire to extend the Dragon franchise has propelled the creative team in the most admirable of directions, resulting in what just may be the mother of all animated sequels.” According to Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, How to Train Your Dragon 2 “surpasses the original.”

Pinpointing just what makes a film work well for an audience is not easy. It’s nearly impossible when taking each member’s personal likes and dislikes into account. But looking at Dragon fans’ online engagement with the film, it’s clear these moviegoers have DreamWorks’ number. Take, for instance, one of the many Reddit comment threads about How to Train Your Dragon: “This is only my personal opinion, but I honestly believe this is the best thing DreamWorks has ever done… Kung Fu Panda and Megamind are fun little movies, but this felt like a film… [It] made me believe DreamWorks was capable of some great things.” And perhaps most tellingly: “It was all heart. No telegraphed, winking innuendo solely for the adults, no nauseating sweet pandering to ‘the kids.’”

But perhaps what is most important is what Dragon didn’t do, avoiding common DreamWorks tropes such as celebrity stunt casting, “obnoxious pop culture references,” and, most importantly, the “zany talking animal” fallback. Looking back at the studio’s animated releases, 15 out of their 30 films are, indeed, fueled by hyperactive talking animals. Dragon avoided those pitfalls by maintaining the wildness of its dragons through a distinct lack of anthropomorphism. Though that didn’t prevent people from falling in love with the dragon sidekick, Toothless; USA Today’s Claudia Puig called him “one of the most adorable on-screen critters since Babe.” Animal lovers, in particular, took Toothless to heart, with Twitter users boasting of the physical similarities between Toothless and their black cats.

Additionally, the How to Train Your Dragon series is more in tune with some of DreamWorks’ earlier works, like The Prince of Egypt, in its willingness to offer a darker and less sanitized tale for its younger audience. (Spoiler alert: The protagonist loses part of his leg in a dragon battle at the end of the film.) Dragon was a return to the studio’s original intention to create more adult-oriented animated films, rather than being “explicitly kid-friendly.”

But fans of Dragon don’t just talk about the films: They’ve used them to create tapestry designs, drawings, paintings, gifs, cosplay, cosplay, and more cosplay. As with everything fandom, there are also dozens of Tumblr pages devoted the series, one of the more amusing ones being Awkward Dragon Moments. When we’re talking fan fiction related to DreamWorks, every single film the animation division put out pales in comparison to the number of works branching from the How to Train Your Dragon universe on fanfiction.net: Compare the 10,000 entries for the Dragon titles to the Madagascar series, which accounts for a paltry 303 entries, or the Shrek films’ middling 896. Over at AO3, Archive of Our Own, another fan-run site for fan works, there’s an additional 1,500 works devoted to How to Train Your Dragon.

How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel, currently 2014’s most successful animated film, are so rewarding on a fan and audience level that the studio is struggling to repeat the same success; however, Dragon is still not the highest grossing film DreamWorks Animation has put out. Shrek 2 pulled in just about $920 million dollars, which more than covered the studio’s $150 million dollar budget for the film. In fact, DreamWorks highest-grossing movies are all sequels. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted was the most successful film in the Madagascar trilogy, earning just about $747 million worldwide, compared to Madagascar’s $532 million. Shrek the Third even topped Shrek 2 internationally, with a grand total of close to $799 million.

When it comes to original properties from DreamWorks, Dragon performed well compared to its compatriots, ultimately compelling the studio to expand beyond its initial entry. But that doesn’t work if your studio can’t make a film successful enough to launch a franchise. Remember Turbo? Neither did I until I looked it up. Turbo, the tale of a snail who wants to essentially become a sprint runner, showed dismally, pulling in enough to barely cover its production costs; it was a factor in the resignation of DreamWorks Animation marketing chief, Anne Globe, who had been with the company for 17 years. DreamWorks’ Rise of the Guardians did so poorly that it led to a veritable “reset” of the entire DreamWorks animation sector, as well as a staggering layoff of 350 workers.

If you’re looking strictly at the numbers, Dragon is not DreamWorks most successful film, but when looking for the film that most struck a chord with viewers and continues to garner adoration, Dragon is the clear winner. The steady audience base for the original movie and its sequel has even bolstered the studio to steam past its plan of making Dragon not just a trilogy, but a four-film franchise. This is an unprecedented move: Even their most lucrative property, Madagascar, only garnered a trilogy—with Penguins of Madagascar starring minor characters from the original films. While critics warned that Penguins of Madagascar was “too juvenile and generic to be of much interest to anyone older than nine,” fans also criticized the studio’s decision to dump three of the original voice actors, including John DiMaggio of Futurama and Adventure Time, instead adding celebrity voice talent.

These are the same mistakes that the company always makes. If it wants to learn from its terrible 2014, DreamWorks needs to start “rewriting the script”—and quick—as according to Barron’s, the studio’s “nightmare shows no signs of ending.”  To reclaim DreamWorks’ mission to, in the words of CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, “tell great stories and inspire audiences,” the studio needs to look at why some its films actually resonate with audiences and others continue to fail. 

Photo via DreamWorks/YouTube