Comcast’s $3.8 billion acquisition of DreamWorks Animation raises many questions, given that Comcast-owned Universal Pictures already has a successful animation unit in Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment.
Comcast’s current plans call for DWA and Illumination to co-exist as two separate brands, similar to Disney’s arrangement with Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Insiders tell TheWrap that going forward, Meledandri will have an elevated role that includes oversight of DWA projects. Comcast will employ Meledandri as a godfather of sorts to its animation operations, similar to how Disney empowers John Lasseter as the chief creative officer of Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios and DisneyToon Studios.
Meledandri will have to be up to the task, as DreamWorks Animation CEO and co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg will segue to a new role as Chairman of DreamWorks New Media, which will be comprised of the company’s ownership interests in Awesomeness TV and NOVA. Katzenberg will also serve as a consultant to NBCUniversal, though he will no longer be a film executive at DWA.
In a statement issued Thursday morning, Katzenberg clarified his role, saying he’s “incredibly excited to continue exploring the potential of AwesomenessTV, NOVA and other new media opportunities.”
DreamWorks Animation’s film are currently released by 20th Century Fox under an output deal that runs through the end of 2017. Industry observers have raised concerns about DWA and Illumination jockeying for future release dates, but because there are still 19 months remaining before the DWA-Fox deal expires, Universal doesn’t need to immediately address that potential issue. There’s plenty of time to work out an arrangement suitable to both animation companies.
DreamWorks Animation currently has four films dated for release before the end of 2017 — “Trolls (Nov. 4, 2016), “Boss Baby” (March 10, 2017), “Captain Underpants” (June 2, 2017) and “The Croods 2” (Dec. 22, 2017). All of those films are currently slated to be released by 20th Century Fox, though it’s possible that the terms of the studio’s contract with DWA could change now that it’s under new management.
DWA has two additional titles, “Larrikins” and “How to Train Your Dragon 3,” that are slated for 2018. Under the safe assumption that Universal will take over distribution of “Dragon 3,” each installment of that hit franchise would be released by a different studio, as Paramount handled the original before 20th Century Fox took over the sequel.
Comcast could always make a play to end DWA’s contract with Fox earlier than expected, but the cost may be too prohibitive, and Universal isn’t hard up for animated releases, as Illumination has “The Secret Life of Pets” and “Sing” hitting theaters this year, with “Despicable Me 3” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” due in 2017.
As of right now, there are no layoffs planned at either DWA or Illumination, since neither brand is expected to consume the other.
Additionally, there are no release date changes expected, though the DWA deal means that Universal will likely double its animated output beginning in 2018. That should only benefit the studio’s bottom line, rather than pose a logistical problem. Disney and Pixar typically space out their released by 3-5 months, with nine of the last 10 Pixar films debuting in May or June, and five of the last eight Disney Animation releases falling in November.
The Comcast-DWA deal has repercussions throughout Hollywood, as 20th Century Fox will have more open slots, though it’s unclear whether it will ramp up live-action production or lean harder on its own animation units, Twentieth Century Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios, which recently teamed on “The Peanuts Movie.”
Again, it’s still very early in the process, as Comcast only announced the DreamWorks Animation acquisition on Thursday morning. Comcast senior VP Steve Burke, who is the CEO of NBCUniversal, will no doubt meet with Meledandri, Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman Jeff Shell, Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley and their minions (for lack of a better word) to hammer out plans for the future.
Representatives for DreamWorks Animation did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment on Thursday.
[Meriah Doty contributed to this report.]