Comcast, the cable giant and owner of NBCUniversal, is talking to DreamWorks Animation about an acquisition for “more $3 billion,” the Wall Street Journal reports tonight citing “people familiar with the matter.”
If that’s true, then DWA shares could soar on Wednesday: The company has a market value of $2.34 billion based on Tuesday’s closing stock price of $27.12. The matter is likely to come up Wednesday morning when Comcast talks to analysts after it releases its Q1 earnings report.
The story says it’s still not “immediately clear” what role, if any, DWA chief Jeffrey Katzenberg would have under a new arrangement with Comcast. It’s believed, though, that he would remain with the Glendale-based studio to run it as a distinct operation.
DWA declined comment.
Last month Katzenberg told an investor gathering that he could imagine a combination of his company and Viacom’s Paramount with a financial partner. “We could bring a lot to that business,” he said.
But there’s a stronger case to be made for a link-up with Comcast, assuming the sides can agree on valuations. The cable company effectively would tear a page from Bob Iger’s playbook at Disney: He has succeeded by picking up companies including Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm that develop popular franchises. Disney then markets and repurposes them worldwide through its theme parks, television networks and consumer products operations.In this case, DWA offers franchises including Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek and Madagascar that Comcast could deploy in its own parks and networks. Katzenberg also has been planting seeds in China, and in February Kung Fu Panda 3 became the Middle Kingdom’s top-grossing animated film ever. Meanwhile, Comcast’s Universal plans to open an $8 billion Hollywood theme park in 2019 in Beijing.
An interesting subplot: Comcast already has a hugely successful animation unit with Illumination Entertainment, the Chris Meledandri-led studio behind the blockbuster Despicable Me/Minions franchise. It has two originals pics set for release this year – The Secret Life of Pets and Sing – and a third Despicable Me film set for June 2017. The most recent film in that series, 2013’s Despicable Me 2, pulled down more than $970M worldwide. But that was topped by last year’s spinoff Minions, which made $1.16B to become the second-biggest-grossing film of all time. It also has Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! lined up for the 2017 holiday season and has dated three “Illumination Entertainment Franhise Films” for July 2018, 2019 and 2020.
While it has generated hit after hit, Illumination has focused its ambitions over the years. Originally meant to be half financed by Universal — the studio eventually and smartly staked the whole thing — there have been suggestions it could be spun off like DreamWorks Animation was. There also were expectations the family film label would move into live action. Meledandri said he and his cohorts are so pleased with their animated efforts, and the collaboration and support from Comcast and Universal’s Jeff Shell and Donna Langley, that there is no reason to change anything in success.
A Comcast tie-up would be a corporate reunion of sorts for DWA and DreamWorks, which is part of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners that was set up in December. Comcast’s Universal Pictures will handle the marketing and distribution for Amblin in a multi-year pact covering four to seven films. That deal kicked in immediately – the first pic is DreamWorks’ The Girl on the Train, which opens October 7 — despite DreamWorks’ distribution contract at Disney, which runs through August 2016.
That means that a settlement had to be made, and that dynamic is similar to the DWA-Fox distribution deal. Signed in 2012, it runs through 2017.
Meanwhile, Katzenberg likely would relish the prospect of escaping Wall Street’s withering gaze. He has been trying to persuade investors that DWA has a bright future following a string of movie losses that led to what he calls a “dramatic reset of the business” last year. He cut the number of annual movie releases to two from three, shook up management, and laid off about 20% of the workforce.
Katzenberg has diversified the business by expanding television production, licensed merchandise and location based entertainment. DWA shares have appreciated 4.3% during the past 12 months.
But many company watchers remain skeptical.
Last week, Cowen & Co’s Doug Creutz lowered his profit estimates over “significant concerns” about two upcoming DWA films — Trolls (out in November) and The Boss Baby (due next March) — as rival studios release more tentpole and animated films.
“We think that being the fourth- or fifth- or sixth-best animated studio — behind Disney Feature Animation, Pixar, Illumination and, arguably, Blue Sky and/or Warner Bros — is not a good place to be,” Creutz says.
Another bear, CLSA’s Vasily Karasyov, also cut hit forecast for DWA this month. He believes its recent release, Kung Fu Panda 3, will end up with worldwide box office sales of $540 million. That’s “$125 million below what the Street expected before the title came out,” he says.
DWA’s talks with Comcast are believed to be more serious than its 2014 merger negotiations with Hasbro. The toy maker called off the negotiations after Deadline broke the news, and Hasbro’s share price fell.
Erik Pedersen and Patrick Hipes contributed to this report.