‘Monsters’ Has More to Fear Than Aliens

Katzenberg’s latest toon faces a big budget, 3D … and old rival Pixar

Last Updated: March 26, 2009 @ 6:34 PM

The recent announcement that Pixar’s next release, “Up!,” would be screening at the Cannes Film Festival in May presumably did not go over very well with DreamWorks Animation’s Jeffrey Katzenberg — especially as he stands at the ready with this weekend’s release of the highly anticipated “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

For years, Katzenberg has used the Croisette as a launching pad — and parade grounds — for such films as “Shrek” and “The Bee Movie.” In one memorable publicity stunt, Jerry Seinfeld leapt off the roof of the Carleton Hotel in a bee suit — secured by wires.
 
Chalk one more up for Pixar, which has been in a nonstop tug-of-war with DreamWorks for the animation mantle ever since the two studios went head-to-head with two bug movies in 1998. Setting the tone for who would be trumping whom in this latest race, Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life” beat out DreamWorks’ “Antz” at the box office. (see accompanying chart).
 
Indeed, over the years, Pixar has largely prevailed, which means Katzenberg has a lot a stake with “Monsters.” The film — about a group of monsters who band together to save the Earth from an attack by aliens — is the company’s first-ever 3D release, and Katzenberg has been tub-thumping even more vigilantly than usual, proclaiming that, with the advent of 3D, a “revolution” is at hand.
 
He has motivation to talk big: No less than his company is riding on the success of the film, seeing as going forward, all DWA movies will be made in the 3D format as opposed to being made as 2D movies and converted afterwards. The switch puts an even larger burden on the budget — the 3D process adds another $15 million to production, so that “Monsters” cost about $175 million — plus another hefty sum to market.
 
And Pixar had to go ruin the party.
 
The rivalry between the two studios, at least from the DreamWorks side, has always been intense, made all the more so by Pixar’s cozy relationship with Disney — which unceremoniously axed Katzenberg after a decade’s worth of service in 1994. (Before buying Pixar in 2007, Disney distributed Pixar’s movies.)

At one point, several years ago, Katzenberg ordered a raid on Pixar talent, telling one executive, “We need to get those guys — we need to hurt ‘em.” Needless to say, the ploy was unsuccessful. Like its Silicon Valley cousin Google, Pixar is known as a comfy, creative beehive, and is not a company people like to leave.
 
Disney — which, in another perverse twist, just signed a distribution agreement with DreamWorks Studios, Katzenberg’s erstwhile sibling company, run by Steven Spielberg — was also a fierce competitor with DreamWorks in the 1990s, until Disney’s animation division petered out with films such as “Hercules” and “Tarzan.” Recently, Disney re-entered the game, since being retooled under the direction of Pixar’s Ed Catmull.
 
Now, as if stealing Cannes weren’t enough, “Up!” — about a curmudgeonly old man and a young boy who find themselves on an airborne adventure around the world — has also snagged DWA’s traditional, sweet-spot May release date. “Monsters” was slotted for March in order to avoid James Cameron’s 3D behemoth “Avatar,” which was originally scheduled for this summer. By the time “Avatar” moved to December, too many merchandising and other deals had been locked to move “Monsters.”
 
March is hardly a dead zone. Kids are out of school on spring break, and DreamWorks is hoping that “Monsters” will do the kind of business that other animated toons have done in this time slot, such as Fox’s “Horton Hears a Who!” and the “Ice Age” franchise. But still: It’s hardly the summer popcorn season. 
 
And then there’s Cannes. That “Up!” will not only be screening at Cannes, but opening the gala, must be particularly vexing to Katzenberg, who more or less invented the idea that Cannes was the perfect place to launch a cartoon.

In 2001, when “Shrek” was the first animated film to be screened at the festival since “Peter Pan” in 1953, co-director Victoria Jenson recalled: “Here we are, sitting in tuxedos and evening gowns, wearing borrowed jewels, and everyone’s watching Shrek take a poot in the water.” Following its French debut, “Shrek” went on to make $484 million in global ticket sales.
 
With its sterling track record (“Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” “Ratatouille,” etc.) and Oscar wins, Pixar remains the darling of animation, a company beloved by film critics, the media, and film geeks, alike — perhaps to a fault. Like all companies, the studio has its share of internal dysfunction, but almost none of it makes it into the press.
 
DreamWorks has certainly had great success — “Shrek 2” remains the highest-grossing animated film of all time, and it has mined lucrative franchises in “Madagascar” and “Kung Fu Panda” — but early films such as “The Road to El Dorado” and “Sinbad” were huge flops. And its reputation is for producing commercially driven films, as opposed to the artist-driven films that Pixar pumps out. Partly this is owed to a cultural difference; at DreamWorks, movies are made more by committee — Katzenberg is a big believer in “group think” — whereas at Pixar, directors are the films’ true auteurs.

Calls to DWA and Paramount, which is releasing “Monsters,” were not returned.
 
Last month, Pixar cemented its reign as the king of animation with an Oscar win for “WALL-E,” an event that occasioned another DWA jab. When Jack Black, the star of  “Kung Fu Panda,” presented the best animated film Oscar, he said that every year he stars in one DreamWorks Animation project and then uses all the money he makes to bet on Pixar at the Academy Awards.

The camera quickly shot to Katzenberg, who was laughing heartily for the benefit of 36 million viewers. But, as one DreamWorks source quipped: “Inside, he was so not laughing.”
 
“Monsters” is Katzenberg’s greatest effort yet to prove that DWA is every bit as dominant as Pixar, though it may be his hardest sell yet. Although he’d predicted that 5,000 3D theaters would be ready in time for “Monster’s” release, in fact there are less than 2,000. And theaters will be charging a $3 premium on tickets, as opposed to the anticipated $5, meaning that gross receipts will be slightly deflated.
 
To overcome this challenge, DreamWorks and Paramount’s marketing strategy has been to “eventize” “Monsters” in a way that is surprising even to those who are familiar with the company’s always extravagant advertising pushes.

In addition to the de rigeur Happy Meal tie-ins and “global tours” for the film’s stars, DreamWorks spent $9 million on a 3D Super Bowl TV spot. Although Katzenberg hyped it as “perhaps the biggest media-advertising event in history” –and it did cause a stir of anticipation — the commercial was largely ridiculed for using the ancient red-and-blue-glasses trick, when the 3D effect of the movie itself is supposed to be state-of-the-art.

And last week, Time-Warner magazines, such as People, Sports Illustrated, and Entertainment Weekly, were stuffed with fat, 3D advertorials. This, too, wasn’t flawlessly executed — one subscriber complained that it was “so blurry, you couldn’t see anything” — but it ultimately served its purpose.
 
“Monsters” is tracking high with older men and women, as well as young girls. (Unlike “Kung Fu Panda,” which was directed at teenage boys, “Monsters” is more girly, with a female lead.) DreamWorks is expecting a $55 million opening weekend, but some rivals concede that it could do as well as $60 million-plus, which is on par with what “Ice Age: The Meltdown” did a few years back.
 
If all goes as planned, you can bet that at next year’s Oscars, Katzenberg’s laugh won’t in any way be forced.

Nicole LaPorte’s book about DreamWorks  will be published by Houghton Mifflin in the spring of 2010.