DreamWorks Animation's New Hire Leaves Warner Bros. Looking for a Top Executive

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Chris DeFaria

Sources say President and Chief Content Officer Toby Emmerich will seize the chance to hire an outsider who will expand the WB film studio’s animation slate.

The departure of Warner Bros. animation chief Chris deFaria for the top job at DreamWorks Animation is seen as a blow to Warners but sources say newly promoted WB film studio president and chief content officer Toby Emmerich will seize the chance to hire an outsider who will expand the studio’s animation slate.

DeFaria, whom associates describe as brilliant and very tough-minded on budgets, not only ran animation at Warners, but also had a key role overseeing visual effects across the board. He was credited as an executive producer on Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. (When Cuaron won best director at the Oscars in 2013, he thanked deFaria among other Warners executives.)

Sources say Universal Filmed Entertainment Group Chairman Jeff Shell and Chris Meledandri, the head of the studio’s red-hot Illumination Entertainment (Sing and Secret Life of Pets), aggressively courted deFaria, 57. While deFaria is said to have creative ambitions, a Universal insider says Meledandri — who had been ambivalent about the extent of his involvement at DWA — is now prepared to have meaningful input (he took the title of senior adviser while de Faria is president of DreamWorks feature animation group). Meanwhile, deFaria will have some role in Universal live-action movies.

"Chris deFaria is ideally suited for this role,” said Universal chairman Donna Langley, to whom deFaria will report. "He has excellent creative instincts, a strong business sense, deep relationships and most importantly, a proven ability to harness technology to push the boundaries of animation and innovative, hybrid filmmaking."

DeFaria, who voiced Peppermint Patty in Charlie Brown specials in the late 1960s and early 1970s, made his mark in physical production by pushing the limits of technology. He will join DreamWorks once his work on Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One (which features extensive visual effects) is completed.

A Warner Bros. insider says whoever is hired from outside the studio will work with Courtenay Valenti, who had overseen the Warner Animation Group with deFaria. The WAG think tank was formed in 2013 to develop material from talent including Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie).

The first full-fledged WAG offering, Storks, was a modest performer, grossing $180 million worldwide. But Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara has much higher hopes for The Lego Batman Movie (Feb. 10) and a series of planned films set in the Lego universe. Emmerich, whose previous purview at Warners' New Line division did not include animation, is looking for a top executive to help him build out that slate.

"Chris leaving Warner Bros. is a loss for me personally and professionally as we have been in the trenches together on numerous projects for over 16 years," says Lego producer Dan Lin. "However, WAG is not about one person — it has always been about a strong executive team at Warner Bros. helping filmmakers realize their bold, original vision and I'm certain they will carry on with that mandate."

When executed correctly, animation is perhaps the most reliable genre at the box office for the major studios. Universal’s 2016 was saved by Illumination, with The Secret Life of Pets grossing $875 million worldwide and Sing at $360 million and still performing strongly. The unit has spawned new franchises (Despicable Me 3 is set for this summer) and Shell has aimed to add a strong second label with the $3.8 billion purchase of DWA last year, hoping to mirror the success that Disney has enjoyed with Disney Animation and Pixar.

"We're climbing that animation mountain,” Shell told THR recently. “If we can create that machine, not only do we have profit, but we lessen our volatility in the movie business."