Back in 2012, DreamWorks Animation helped spearhead an ambitious venture in China. Partnering with Chinese Media Capital, they launched Oriental DreamWorks. They began helping with pipeline work on several DreamWorks films, and had a heavy hand in Kung Fu Panda 3. Eventually though, the ambition had been for the studio to make its own movies, blending the technical expertise of DreamWorks artists with Chinese culture.
That strategy began to shift in 2016 though, when Universal purchased the studio. Sure enough, earlier this month Universal's share in Oriental DreamWorks was bought out by CMC Capital Partners. It has since been rebranded as Pearl Studio, with the hope to build it "into one of the world’s leading creators of high-quality animated content for every screen and platform." Its first expected release will be Everest, which has been in the pipeline for some time now and is due out in 2019.
This marks the end of an era in a way. When Katzenberg's DreamWorks first agreed to this deal, it was one of the first major collaborations between Hollywood and China. The Chinese government had been notoriously selective about which films were allowed into the country, but by utilizing Chinese resources studios found that they could access a large market, with a burgeoning population and increasing economic prosperity. It had been seen as a goldmine.
In practice, however, the goldmine was a golden goose - and the eggs were quickly extracted. Studios wanted to appeal to American and Chinese audiences as easily possible, but it became difficult to tell stories that everyone could relate to when the authoritarian Communist administration also needed to be pleased. Movie quality suffered overall, and when the government began cracking down on ticket fraud, the Chinese box office stumbled in 2016. As other studios lost interest in Chinese collaboration, it did make sense for Universal to rethink their commitment to Oriental DreamWorks. They already have powerhouse Illumination, and with DreamWorks also under their belt, they didn't need a third animation studio.
This could also be part of the beginning of a new era though... because despite that dip in 2016, the Chinese box office is again growing strong. Between 2016 and 2017, the country's gross sales jumped from $6.59 billion to $8.6 billion. By comparison, the 2017 box office in the United States was just under $10.7 billion, and the global box office was $39.9 billion. So China still wants to see movies, and they are still watching movies. A fundamental shift though, is that more movies are coming from within their own borders.
Last year, Wolf Warrior 2 became a huge success, grossing over $870 million worldwide. That was more than Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Pirates of the Carribean, or Wonder Woman. Entirely Chinese produced, it made history as the first non-Hollywood movie to become one of the 100 highest grossing movies of all time. The Middle Kingdom has definitely broken into the blockbuster business, and I'm certain we can see more in the future.
The animation front doesn't have quite that kind of success story yet; last year's Rock Dog fell flat in its attempt. However, Pearl Studio has a fair shot at winning over audiences. Universal will carry Everest overseas, so it does have a powerful distributor behind it. Not to mention the buzz around Over the Moon, a production between Pearl and Netflix, which boasts Glen Keane at the helm. It will be exciting to see how Pearl ends up unfurling in the coming years, with these very promising projects coming our way.
Last November, Nintendo fans around the world got some big news. The Wall Street Journal reported that Nintendo was close to an agreement to bring the Super Mario Bros back to the big screen. Primary among the candidates was Illumination, the Universal-owned animation studio. A few days ago, the story was stoked again by Nintendo's president, Tatsumi Kimishima. As reported on GameInformer.com, Kimishima hopes to reach an agreement soon, and foresees a film released in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
If the deal goes through, it would be incredible news. Nintendo has been protective of their characters since the infamous 1993 live-action Super Mario Bros. Critics and audiences alike detested it, and the movie grossed only half its budget. It is now held up as a cautionary example about how films based on video games are doomed to fail. That trend has not changed much after twenty-five years. Movies like Prince of Persia and the more recent Assassin's Creed falling into obscurity. However, The Angry Birds Movie from 2016 managed to bring in almost $350 million from a $73 million budget. Some profit is still to be had...sometimes.
A Super Mario Bros. movie has a better chance of succeeding, though, than many other titles. While some games like Prince of Persia may not be widely-known, Mario's reputation embedded deep in popular culture. Mario also has the advantage of relevance. Angry Birds might have been more successful, but struggled with connecting audiences to a fad game that had peaked four years prior. Meanwhile, Nintendo released Mario Odyssey this past year, and the hype has been strong. Mario Odyssey has been a massive commercial success, and earned several awards. Not to mention that the Mario franchise is more kid-friendly. It's easier to sell tickets to a general family audience than to a niche adult market.
If Nintendo partners with Illumination, the chances of box office success grow stronger. Illumination has proven they can do one thing really well: make high-grossing blockbusters. Their Despicable Me 3 is set to be the highest-grossing animated movie of 2017, and the fourth-highest grossing film of the year. They're also no strangers to adapting others' works. Illumination released The Lorax in 2012, and is currently finishing up a new version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!. Not to mention the ties that Nintendo already has with parent company Universal. For two years already, Universal has held a license to build theme park attractions based off of the Mario franchise. A film license would only solidify that connection.
Of course, besides talk of profits and synergy, there's also the artistic question. Would Illumination make a good Super Mario Bros. movie? The Wall Street Journal did point out in November that this has been a sticking issue in negotiations. People close to the talks have said that Nintendo wants to "feel confident it will be involved enough in the creative process." Luckily, Shigeru Miyamoto has been part of the negotiations. He is the original creator of the game and a current "creative fellow" at Nintendo, and there are high hopes he'll land a producer role. If that ends up coming to pass, it'll be something that Super Mario Bros. 1993 didn't have...
If the deal goes through, and the final product ends up doing well, Universal may hit a goldmine. Their plan for a monster-based cinematic Dark Universe hit a snag in 2017... but if they land Nintendo movies, that would be a powerful way to compete with the likes of Disney and Warner Bros. The current media business revolves around licensing and consolidation after all. Disney has made some power moves with Lucasfilm and the recent 20th Century Fox purchase. Universal could definitely parry well with a Nintendo deal... but "could" is the keyword here. Strategy is important in show business, but making good film is necessary for execution. There's a lot of excitement, and it's now a waiting game to see what plays out.