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Filmism.net Dispatch February 3, 2013

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I want to talk about Dreamworks Animation and the creative bankruptcy of Hollywood. I don't mean to pick on a particular studio, but through those arched gates on Flower Street next to the Los Angeles River in Glendale is where it's the most obvious.

Most other studios still make movies based on good ideas that come from writers and directors who make movies for the art of it, because some stories have an urgency to be told rather than fill a gap in a pre-programmed schedule.

Fox Searchlight is a good example of a studio with a few releases each year that have come about from the result of actively courting extraordinary and unusual movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild or Hitchcock, either in funding or acquisition.

I didn't realise this fully until Rise of the Guardians, but a ticket to a Dreamworks Animation film is like a trip to McDonald's for dinner. Now, it's not that there weren't aspects of Rise of the Guardians I liked (just the same as there were a few chuckles to be had in Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted). But they start to feel like a blur and you soon realise Dreamworks Animation is a factory designed not to tell stories but move product.

It's not quite that their movies are all the same, it's not quite that they all share similar moral frameworks and creative hallmarks, they're all pitched from the point of view of an American teenager or they have plenty of magical chase scenes and characters learning life lessons about accepting themselves. It's not that they're pitched in such a specific direction or all in 3D or all computer animated or tied up with a slew of licensing deals.

Or maybe it is. The whole thing has the air of a Henry Ford-inspired production line with a procession of identical products along a chain, anywhere from initial idea to market readiness. They're moving through a system built for pre-packaging with a factory floor of CG animators, script doctors, colourists and marketing executives applying polish or branding to contribute to the sales potential of the widget. Even the presence of creative powerhouse Guillermo Del Toro as executive producer couldn't bring in punters.

Dreamworks Animation head honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg told a Hewlett Packard trade show in July 2012 that his company is in the 3D CGI animation business, full stop. Might that change? Rise of the Guardians didn't break even theatrically on its $145m budget, returning $246m globally. Doesn't sound too bad, but as this report shows, it was enough to threaten the value of the company.

Might we be sending Katzenberg a message to look further north to Emeryville, where Pixar has proven they can make accessible, funny and warm stories that stand on their own? Is it time he put his cookie cutter away?

I was also reminded this week about the curious phenomenon of so many movies about the same subject coming in pairs. Click these links to see two films about about magicians, Now You See Me and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. What's more, it's not the first time we've had competing magician movies, with Chris Nolan's The Prestige and the Ed Norton-starrer The Illusionist.

I also caught up with the military action thriller everyone's talking about, Zero Dark Thirty. The verdict? It uses very high filmmaking quality to make you think it's in a worthier genre than it actually is.

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