DreamWorks Animation Turns 25: "A Fairy Tale Like You've Never Seen" 
Martha Galvan

DreamWorks Animation Turns 25: "A Fairy Tale Like You've Never Seen"

As the studio celebrates a quarter-century of game-changing movies about beloved characters from Shrek to Toothless — amid "a lot of pain" through ownership shifts — filmmakers are expanding their canvas ("taking a genre and twisting it") and the studio leans hard into TV's global animation boom.

When Margie Cohn first came to DreamWorks Animation to build its nascent TV business in 2013, she thought she was heading a department of about five people — the team who sat near her office on the studio’s Mediterranean-style Glendale lot. Soon, however, Cohn learned that a group of writers who were gathering every day beside the campus’ burbling central fountain also were under her purview. “The people at the fountain actually didn’t have a place to sit yet, just some bullpen where they couldn’t really work,” Cohn says. “And they were working for me, I just didn’t know.” Cohn is now the president of all of DreamWorks Animation, and in a sign of how quickly the studio’s television business has grown and become central to the company, TV these days represents approximately 40 percent of the studio’s roughly 2,000 employees. And when TV writers sit by the iconic fountain these days, it’s just to get a little fresh air.

The studio has evolved dramatically since it originated in 1994 as a division of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen’s DreamWorks SKG, with Katzenberg at the helm. And the pace of change has only accelerated since Katzenberg sold DWA to Comcast’s NBCUniversal for $3.8 billion in 2016, stepping away from the company he built upon broadly appealing CG-animated feature franchises like Shrek, Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda that have earned more than $15 billion at the worldwide box office.

With DreamWorks marking its 25th anniversary this year, the focus at the studio is squarely on the future, in an age when new, content-hungry streaming companies are fueling growth and competition.

Cohn, who had spent more than 20 years at Nickelodeon before Katzenberg hired her, took over the studio’s top job in January, when a reorganization put film and TV under one executive. In the three years since Katzenberg’s departure, DreamWorks has cycled through a series of leaders, first co-presidents Bonnie Arnold and Mireille Soria and then Chris De Faria. (Chris Meledandri, CEO of Universal’s other animation studio, Illumination, serves as an adviser to DreamWorks and is directly overseeing updates of the company’s valuable Shrek and Puss in Boots properties.)

As features endured changes in leadership and the studio was absorbing hundreds in layoffs, Cohn quietly worked to fulfill an ambitious deal DreamWorks signed in 2013 to provide more than 300 hours of programming to Netflix. Among her department’s wins: collecting Emmys for series like Guillermo del Toro’s Trollhunters and earning a Netflix shareholder letter attaboy that called Boss Baby: Back in Business one of the streaming service’s “biggest kids series ever.”

“Margie is an outstanding business leader who operationally built the television business out of nothing,” says Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman Donna Langley, “and delivered award-winning, high-quality shows that stood alongside the DreamWorks features for many years.”

Cohn’s film strategy is just coming into focus, with her first two green lights announced Oct. 7, movies that reflect her intent to run a studio that draws from a broad range of visual techniques and from DreamWorks intellectual properties. She expects to make two films a year in the budget range of How to Train Your Dragon: Hidden World ($120 million) and one every other year in the $25 million to $35 million range. “I am leaning into the fact that we don’t have a house style,” Cohn says during a September interview in her new, not-yet-decorated office on the lot. “Being more filmmaker-driven, so not making only one kind of movie. I’ve done television for so long; my instincts are just so finely honed at this point. I’m developing my feature gut.”

One untitled 2021 film, to be directed by first-time feature filmmaker Elaine Bogan, will tell the origin story of the characters in Spirit Riding Free, a DreamWorks series for Netflix about the adventures of a girl and her horse that was itself inspired by the company’s 2002 Oscar-nominated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Cohn’s other feature green light is The Bad Guys, an animated take on a heist film, directed by French animator Pierre Perifel and based on a best-selling Scholastic book series.

“Historically, something that has been done well here is taking a genre and twisting it,” says Kristin Lowe, who joined the company in February — in the newly created job of chief creative officer of film — after 14 years at Universal Pictures. “Kung Fu Panda is the comedy animated spin on a Kung Fu movie, and Shrek is sort of a fairy tale like you’ve never seen a fairy tale. We love that as a paradigm.”

The newly announced features come as DreamWorks’ most recent film, Abominable, posted the best opening for an original animated movie this year, when it bowed Sept. 27 to $20.6 million domestic (it’s earned $76.3 million worldwide, $37.9 million of that domestically). The studio’s How to Train Your Dragon franchise concluded its film trilogy in February under director Dean DeBlois after earning $1.6 billion at the worldwide box office, spawning two TV series and a series of graphic novels and collecting three Oscar nominations (two for animated feature and one for score), with another likely this awards season. More sequels are on the way, with Trolls World Tour opening in April and Boss Baby 2 set to arrive in March 2021.

In television, the studio has new shows based on Universal properties — Fast & Furious: Spy Racers and Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous — both heading to Netflix, as well as the final series in del Toro’s Tales of Arcadia trilogy. “I don’t think Universal was really focused on our TV business during the acquisition,” says Peter Gal, who was named DreamWorks chief creative officer of TV in February. “They were really focused on features. And then when they looked under the hood, they were like, ‘Oh, wow, this is a business we don’t have, this TV animation business.’ They’ve been unbelievably supportive by saying, ‘Yes, let’s dive into our Universal IP. Let’s look at how we’re expanding that and expanding our audience.’ ”

In 2001, when Cohn was working at Nickelodeon, “I’ll never forget seeing Shrek in a theater and thinking, everything has changed,” she says. “It just felt so contemporary, irreverent, sharp in a way that I hadn’t seen before. And yet, it was still epic and moving, and the animation was mind-blowing. Seeing a Starbucks joke in an animated movie felt very hip at the time.”

At the time, DreamWorks was standing in opposition to that other giant animation studio just three miles away — Disney — and to Disney’s upstart competitor and eventual corporate sibling to the north, Pixar. Katzenberg founded DreamWorks after presiding over a renaissance at Walt Disney Animation Studios in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the era that delivered hits like The Lion King and Aladdin, which Disney’s live-action arm is now harvesting for another generation of moviegoers. At DreamWorks, Katzenberg was freed of some of the Burbank studio’s hallmark credos.

“The spirit of DreamWorks was different from my experience at Disney,” says DeBlois, who started as a storyboard artist at the megastudio in 1994 and decamped for DreamWorks in 2007. “They seem to be bolder here. I found myself in early meetings saying, ‘Really? Can teenagers be carrying around sharpened weapons? Are we going to get letters from parents?’ And that was just sort of the Disney training. There was a little bit of caution-to-the-wind aspect here.”

Disney’s recent move to hold back its content for its soon-to-launch streaming service, Disney+, has created new opportunities for DreamWorks, Cohn says, noting that her studio is now supplying shows to Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. “They opened up more real estate on the other streamers for us to sell to,” Cohn says. “You want good stuff? Come to DreamWorks.” Another potential home for the studio’s content, NBCUniversal’s own streaming service, Peacock, will launch in the spring. “I would be very surprised — at a company that values symphony so very highly — if we all weren’t involved somehow in providing content for Peacock,” Cohn adds.

Besides Disney, the other looming entity at DreamWorks was always Katzenberg himself — publicly, he was an impresario for the company, dreaming up wild stunts like flying Jerry Seinfeld onto the Croisette at Cannes in a bee costume to promote 2007’s Bee Movie. Behind the scenes, he inspired a mixture of loyalty and agita with his obsession over detail.

“Jeffrey is the most disciplined, the most relentless driver of the limit between the movie and the audience,” says del Toro, who would participate in test screenings for features he was consulting on, like Rise of the Guardians and Kung Fu Panda 2. “He said to me, ‘Watch the squirm meter. If a kid starts squirming, we’ve got to know why we lost his attention or her attention.’ ”

Even multiple executives later, Cohn still has the unenviable task of following Katzenberg’s big personality. But she has different tricks up her sleeve — she studied fine art at the State University of New York at Binghamton and relates to filmmakers and animators, del Toro says, like an artist. That includes when they demand near-feature-quality animation within the tighter budgets and time frames of television, a challenge the studio has been able to meet in part by outsourcing all the animation on its TV productions to studios abroad. “She was extremely susceptible to the idea of pushing the animation on our shows,” del Toro says. “Margie understands artistically and fiscally where we’re going.”

Del Toro’s next animated movie, Pinocchio, is being made at Netflix, he says, because it’s dependent upon a stop-motion technique that DreamWorks doesn’t use, but he maintains an office on the DreamWorks lot and last year signed a multiyear deal with the studio to continue to write, produce and direct films and TV. The management ups and downs haven’t rattled him. “I have a little island over there,” he says. “I haven’t felt a shift in the sands, you know? I can say safely that the series have operated with the most genteel note system anyone has ever seen. I get maybe one note per year.”

As Netflix has begun to build its own animation department and the animation business is robust around the world, one of Cohn’s biggest priorities is fostering and retaining talent. The TV department and DreamWorks’ shorts program, which released its first two films last year, have served as a kind of farm system for the studio. “When I jumped over into TV and started directing, I was instantly expected to start learning every single department,” says director Bogan, who began at the studio as a story artist in 2005 and worked on the Netflix shows before stepping up to helm the untitled Spirit feature this year. “Everywhere from script through storyboarding, animation, layout, lighting, final mix. All of that stuff I had to understand in a very short amount of time. And I just got to do it over and over and over until I felt comfortable.”

Part of the lure for talent in recent years has been DreamWorks’ broad range of animation and storytelling styles. Katzenberg used to have a saying around the studio when CG animation was cutting edge: “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.” “Now, everyone is doing it,” says Tom McGrath, who directed the Madagascar films and Boss Baby and is at work on Boss Baby 2. “Everyone’s using the same tools. So the big worry is that all these films start to look alike. Some studios do the same thing, over and over and over again. And that’s the brand. Diversity [of storytelling] can be risky, because then people go, ‘Oh, DreamWorks made that?’ ”

The How to Train Your Dragon series established a new model at DreamWorks of movies driven as much by emotion as wit. When then head of creative production and development Bill Damaschke (who left the studio in 2015) recruited Abominable director Jill Culton from Sony Pictures Animation to DreamWorks in 2010, it was with the promise that she would be free to work outside of what had become her new studio home’s trademark — comedies like Shrek and Madagascar that are laden with pop culture references. “I kept telling [Damaschke], ‘I’m not really sure I tell those kinds of stories,’ ” Culton recalls. “He said, ‘No, no, no, come see an early screening of How to Train Your Dragon.’ I saw the movie and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, they are making movies in the style that I felt like I could tell.’ And so I felt like there was a place for me.”

Retaining that ethos was sometimes tricky amid the turbulence of recent years, particularly during layoffs in 2014 and the 2015 closure of the company’s PDI studio in Redwood City, California, that preceded the Comcast acquisition. “There was a lot of pain for people,” Cohn says. “That was really hard because DreamWorks is a culture that’s tight.”

But Cohn believes her company has turned a corner. “Once the acquisition happened, we became part of a very secure business,” she says of Comcast. “They own theme parks. They have a consumer products business. Their marketing and distribution is one of the best. They were able to leverage their catalog to help us negotiate new deals. Suddenly we didn’t feel tenuous anymore.”

***

Antz to Abominable, 25 Years of Big Dreams and Deals

DreamWorks has danced with multiple studio and creative partners to build its blockbuster (and Oscar-heavy) résumé.

Oct. 12, 1994: The animation studio is founded as a division of Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen’s DreamWorks SKG.

Oct. 2, 1998: DWA’s first movie, Antz, featuring Woody Allen as the voice of an anxious worker ant, grosses $171.8 million worldwide.

March 21, 1999: DWA wins its first Oscar, best original song for “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt.

May 18, 2001: The animated fairy tale Shrek is released; it will go on to capture the Academy’s first animated feature Oscar and to launch DreamWorks’ first franchise, ultimately ending up with five films (including Puss in Boots) that gross more than $3.5 billion worldwide — so far. Shrek is among the DWA properties now under Illumination chief Chris Meledandri’s purview, and star Eddie Murphy tells THR, “I would do [the character] Donkey forever. I think Shrek is one of the best things I was involved in.”

May 19, 2004: Shrek 2, which remains the studio’s highest-grossing film at $919.8 million worldwide, arrives in theaters.

Oct. 27, 2004: The animation studio is spun off into a public company with Katzenberg at the helm and Spielberg and Geffen remaining in reduced roles as investor-consultants.

Jan. 30, 2006: DWA enters a distribution agreement with Paramount Pictures, which has acquired former parent and distribution partner DreamWorks SKG.

March 13, 2007: With Katzenberg as an early champion of stereoscopic 3D, DWA announces that it will release all its movies in 3D, starting with 2009’s Monsters vs. Aliens.

May 17, 2007: Jerry Seinfeld alights on the beach at Cannes in a fuzzy bumblebee suit to promote Bee Movie in one of Katzenberg’s signature marketing moments.

2010: The studio begins its relationship with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who will go on to consult on multiple film franchises, including Kung Fu Panda, and create DWA series Trollhunters for Netflix.

July 23, 2012: DWA acquires Classic Media and with it characters Casper the Friendly Ghost and Mr. Peabody & Sherman.

Aug. 20, 2012: After bidding by Sony and Fox, DWA enters a distribution agreement with Fox for worldwide theatrical, home video and international TV. May 1, 2013 DWA acquires AwesomenessTV, which started as a YouTube channel for teens and preteens.

June 17, 2013: The studio signs a deal with Netflix promising more than 300 hours of new programming. (Below, Katzenberg celebrates series Turbo FAST’s premiere with Ted Sarandos in December of that year.)

April 28, 2016: Comcast announces NBCUniversal plans to acquire DWA for $3.8 billion, with Katzenberg stepping aside.

Nov. 13, 2017: DWA creates a shorts program that will serve as a kind of boot camp for filmmakers.

May 2, 2018: The company signs a deal making Hulu the exclusive U.S. streaming home for future theatrical releases.

July 16, 2018: A Netflix earnings report singles out The Boss Baby: Back in Business as one of its “biggest kids series ever.” The studio currently has 20 series streaming on Netflix, with another six set for 2020-2021.

July 27, 2018: DWA sells AwesomenessTV to Viacom for $25 million plus debt, a steep discount from the digital company’s 2016 valuation of $650 million and from the roughly $100 million DWA paid for it.

Jan. 9, 2019: DWA TV head Margie Cohn is named president of the studio, replacing Chris DeFaria in a reorganization that puts the company’s film and television units under one exec.

Feb. 22, 2019: Universal releases its first DWA movie, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, a likely Oscar nominee and possible winner.

Sept. 22, 2019: After its Toronto Film Festival premiere, Abominable opens at $20.6 million domestically, 2019’s best bow for an original animated film.

This story appears in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.