During the summer of 2013, there will be six animated (or live-action/animated hybrid) entries. At a glance, it would seem like healthy competition as each of the major current players are offering an official entry into the summer box office sweepstakes. You've got 20th Century Fox taking a shot at proving they can do more than Ice Age sequels, delivering the somewhat on-the-nose-titled Epic over Memorial Day weekend. Pixar unleashes their official summer entry, the Monsters Inc. prequel Monsters University on June 21st. Universal delivers its trump card with Despicable Me 2 over July 4th weekend while Dreamworks releases its snail-racing comedy Turbo on July 17th, a frankly unusual release date for them, but no matter. Sony delivers The Smurfs 2 on July 31st while Disney offers up the previously straight-to-DVD entry Planes on August 9th.
A seemingly normal summer slate, except that due to recent inside baseball business, four of those animated films actually belong to two studios. After several mostly successful years with Paramount controlling distribution and marketing, Dreamworks Animation got swooped up by 20th Century Fox in August 2012. Heck, Fox has already distributed their first official Dreamworks Animation property, The Croods, which opened just three weekends ago. It was a somewhat unexpected move, as 20th Century Fox has been doing pretty well with Blue Sky Studios, the production house behind the insanely successful Ice Age series. Moreover, while Paramount has decided to make a go of it with their own animated content (such as the Oscar-winning Rango from two years ago), Warner Bros. could have frankly used a powerhouse animation slate as they have mostly failed to capitalize on big-screen variations of their various DC Comics television franchises or The Looney Tunes.
But no matter, off to 20th Century Fox Dreamworks has gone, which does two things right off the bat. First it gives the house that Katzenberg built the full might of 20th Century Fox's overseas box office magic. Paramount is no slouch in this department, but I'd argue that Fox is second-to-none when it comes to cashing in on the emerging overseas market (random example, the Justin Timberlake/Amanda Seyfried sci-fi economic parable In Time earned $36 million in the states but $137 million overseas). It's no surprise that The C roods, an original film as opposed to a sequel, is already roaring past the $325 million mark after seventeen days, seemingly on course to match the upper-level Dreamworks entries (again, Paramount is no slouch, as Madagascar: Europe's Most Wanted earned $742 million last summer). 20th Century Fox was among the first (if not *the* first) to start treating America as just another market to be targeted among many others worldwide.
The second major shift this causes is that it immediately establishes just who the titans in modern day American animation are. This is no longer a multi-pronged competition with Pixar and Disney fending off Dreamworks/Paramount while 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Sony fought to establish their foothold. Now Paramount is basically out of the game for the (very) near future while Dreamworks (which has by far the most recognizable characters and potent animated franchises outside of Disney/Pixar) and 20th Century Fox have created a massive tag-team of sorts that combined are a very real threat to Disney/Pixar. And, most importantly, it leaves the would-be contenders on unequal footing, with Universal's Illumination and Sony Pictures potentially fighting for scraps while they attempt to establish their foothold beyond one of two major successes. Dreamworks was always the likely top contender, with viable franchises and brands via the Madagascar animals, the Shrek universe, and the expanding mythologies of How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda. Now it's not even a contest between Dreamworks and Fox. They are now, for the moment, one animated mini-empire.
Point being, the second and third-place animation studios just teamed up, which automatically makes them a strong bet to challenge the Mouse House. Yes, Universal scored huge with Despicable Me and The Lorax (both of which were the first two non-Pixar/Disney or Dreamworks animated features to cross $200 million domestic) and Despicable Me 2 could be their Shrek 2 moment. Sony Pictures Animation has two solid successes in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and last September's Hotel Transylvania, but it has yet to achieve the kind of worldwide success of its brethren outside of the established property adaptation of The Smurfs (which, it should be noted, grossed a ridiculous $563 million worldwide two summers ago).
With this new deal between Fox and Dreamworks, the animation landscape has shifted. It's no longer about Disney/Pixar versus a handful of studios who are attempting to depose them as rulers of the animation kingdom, but rather Disney/Pixar vs. 20th Century Fox/Dreamworks vs. everyone else fighting for scraps against the two relative titans. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next few years. But this deal was indeed a proverbial game-changer in the realm of American animation. Stay tuned, folks.