DreamWorks Animation’s feature animation group will be run by co-presidents of feature animation Bonnie Arnold and Mireille Soria, NBCUniversal said today as it unveiled its new exec structure. It comes a day after parent Comcast completed its $3.8 billion deal to acquire Jeffrey Katzenberg’s studio.
As part of the movement, DreamWorks Animation president Ann Daly will step down and serve as an advisor during the transition. Arnold and Soria will serve under the leadership of Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley, and the group will be added to Universal’s portfolio of film labels and production partners.
The one glaring omission from the studio’s announcement is Chris Meledandri, the Illumination Entertainment master that has pumped up the studio with some of its most successful franchises — Despicable Me and Minions. Meledandri had been compared to John Lasseter by Jeff Shell chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group in describing the executive’s relationship with the studio, and it was long thought that DreamWorks animation would come under his purview. So, Meledandri will continue on his own path with Illumination — at least for the time being. A source told Deadline that the situation with Meledandri is, as yet, unresolved and that the exec will have some involvement but will not run be running the division as contracts are already in place with Arnold and Soria.
Over the long haul, any serious involvement by him would likely point toward a creative re-orientation at DreamWorks; but that might blur the lines between Universal’s two animation operations, possibly reducing their value as distinct brands.
Meledandri’s outside PR person had no comment, however when asked by Deadline about Meledandri and any role he might have, Teri Everett, an NBC Universal spokeswoman, told Deadline: “Now that the deal is closed, we’ll be working with Chris on the most effective path forward for Illumination and DreamWorks Animation.”
Illumination has been hard at work gearing up with Paris-based Illumination Mac Guff for several new films –Despicable Me 3, Sing and Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas via its distribution and financing deal with Universal. Together, they recently released the box office hit The Secret Life of Pets which has garnered a whopping $674M worldwide to date.
On Tuesday, Meledandri was said by one person briefed on his plans to have shifted his attention toward Sing Illumination’s animated musical, which is set for release Dec. 21, and that film will make an appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival next month.
Still, Meledandri’s absence from Universal’s statement on the changes was a bit of a shock, given earlier reports that he would be that Lasseter-like czar, overseeing the integration of the two operations. It now appears that any deep involvement by Meledandri with DreamWorks will wait until after that company has completed its pending releases for Fox, where a deal calls for two DreamWorks movies next year.
A former Fox animation executive, Meledandri’s Illumination, which he started from scratch, is now strongly competitive with his alma mater; immediate involvement with DreamWorks might well have complicated the studio’s ongoing Fox relationship. In fact, there has been no lack of institutional rivalry between DreamWorks and Illumination.
DreamWorks and its founder Katzenberg have been fiercely proud of their record in building a robust operation that operating, and grew, in the face of Disney’s overwhelming presence. But Illumination executives tended to see DreamWorks as pampered (as with the free on-campuses lunches), insufficiently attentive to original stories, and increasingly pre-occupied with licensing and ancillary businesses.
Meledandri is also known as a hands-on creative executive who takes pride in his deep involvement, film-by-film. To have spread his attention to DreamWorks at the moment might have cost attention to Sing, a star-heavy film that finds Reese Witherspoon, Seth McFarlane and others voicing an American Idol-like talent competition.
Meanwhile, as we have long known, former DWA CEO Katzenberg will become chairman of DreamWorks new media, which will oversee NBCU’s ownership stakes in AwesomenessTV and NOVA. He also will serve as an adviser in the transition. The SEC filing announcing the close of the deal said Katzenberg received a payout package worth more than $391M from his shares and options. Daly, meanwhile, got $39.8M.
Also set: Margie Cohn, head of Animation TV, will lead the integrated DreamWorks and Universal television animation business, reporting to Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman Jeff Shell. Also reporting to Shell will be NBCUniversal Brand Development president Vince Klaseus, will lead the combined Universal and DreamWorks Animation games, digital and consumer products organization.
Yesterday, the filing showed that DWA spent $1.2 million in the quarter out of a $17.3 million bonus plan to keep employees while waiting for the deal with Comcast to close, and stay for the following six months.