Friday, February 15, 2013

At long last, Dreamworks Land! Dreamworks SKG plays the long game to chase Disney's cultural cachet.

"It's a giant advertisement for a movie studio."  That's the thought that crosses my mind whenever I find myself once again journeying to Disney Land with family in tow on another sunny Sunday morning.  My family and I have season passes and according to the Disney web site we've visited 33 times just in the last membership cycle.  Disneyland and Disney World are not only considered 'the Happiest Place on Earth' but also the defining ultimate destination for family recreation.  For those who don't live in places like California or Florida where Disney has one of their theme parks, a trip to Disney is often considered somewhat of a once-in-a-childhood event.  But at the end of the day, it is no different than any other large-scale amusement park one can find in countless places around the world.  They have neither the fastest roller coasters nor the bumpiest bumper cars.  In fact, the entire Disney corporation, all of its theme parks and merchandise and tie-ins are basically in service of advertising an entertainment company, a movie studio.  When you consider what the Disney name means for so many people, so many children and parents, how it operates as a kind of cultural legacy, that's an incredible achievement. And now, at long last, it looks like Dreamworks is getting into the game as well. I missed the the story back in July, about Dreamworks finally getting their act together regarding amusement parks.  The first one is apparently coming to New Jersey, with another in Shanghai and three more announced today for Russia.  This is a step that I've frankly wondered why they didn't do sooner.

The one advantage that Disney has over its animation rivals is the whole 'heritage' thing.  In short, when our kids are born, we eventually get to a point when we decide they are old enough to watch The Little Mermaid or The Lion King.  We view the various Disney parks as some kind of family vacation-mecca, the proverbial 'happiest place on Earth'.  No matter how big the Ice Age franchise gets or how often Illumination scores for Universal, the other studios don't have that cultural cachet that the Disney 'classics' have.  Over the last fifty years or so, the Disney brand, partially fueled by the theme parks have turned even box office bombs like Pinocchio and Fantasia into retroactive phenomenons and proverbial milestones in terms of the entertainment choices we make for our kids.  If I told you (falsely, but bear with me) that my five year old daughter has never seen The Little Mermaid or Sleeping Beauty, you might be shocked or presume that I keep televised entertainment to a bare minimum if not cutting it off entirely.  But if I told you that my five year old daughter has never seen the first Shrek or the first Ice Age, would any single reader bat an eye in shock?  Dreamworks knows this.  They know that characters like Mickey Mouse, Simba, or Princess Aurora aren't just animated film characters but integrated parts of our pop culture.

Disney has spent decades slowly-but-surely making sure that their films aren't just viewed as 'this season's big animated release' but rather cultural milestones to be integrated into the lives of most American families.   Dreamworks has the characters to attempt the same trick.  What they need is the will and the patience to see it out.  They have the popular marquee characters to build a theme park and/or brand identity around.  They have Shrek and Fiona, the animals of Madagascar, and Po from Kung Fu Panda.  They have a mythology in the making with How To Train Your Dragon and high hopes for the upcoming racing snails movie Turbo.  They have popular films with characters that aren't necessarily iconic (think Antz or Monsters vs. Aliens), all of which can be the staring blocks for the kind of brand domination that Disney has enjoyed for the last seventy years.  Disney Land opened in 1955, or about seventeen years after Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.  We are coming in on the fifteenth-anniversary of Antz and Prince of Egypt, which kicked off Dreamworks Animation. They've already done the cruise ship tie-in gimmick, but now they are diving into full-throttle into theme parks.

Now of course Disney was the only game in town for around 55 of those years and they arguably had the luxury of not having their stock take a nosedive every time one of their new films didn't open like Shrek 2 (and then not crawl back up once said film did $600 million worldwide anyway).  I don't know if the current quarterly profits era will allow Dreamworks to work out the kinks for this kind of long-term investment, but I'm happy that they are giving it a go.  So what do you think about all of this?  Would you be interested in taking your kids to a Dreamworks-themed park where kids could rub shoulders with Puss in Boots and/or Princess Fiona?  Will families of future generations ever view Dreamworks cartoons as proverbial mandatory viewing the way today's families view the Disney library?  Sound off below.

Scott Mendelson

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