DreamWorks Animation’s Margie Cohn

Margie Cohn, the president of DreamWorks Animation Television, discussed binge-worthy content and girl-centric shows in her MIPJunior keynote, which was followed by a Q&A with World Screen’s Anna Carugati.

Cohn’s keynote speech was titled “Creating Timeless Content in Ever-Changing Times,” but she stressed at the opening of her address that “there never has been, nor will there ever be, a formula for creating timeless content. Indeed, whenever content gets formulaic, you can be pretty sure it’s not going to be timeless.”

DreamWorks Animation Television was founded in 2013 with a business plan that initially consisted of “a piece of paper with a bunch of names on it: titles from DreamWorks IP and the Classic Media library, which mostly consisted of older cartoons and comic-book titles.” From that initial outline, DreamWorks Animation Television clinched a landmark deal with Netflix for 300 hours of animated content. “We had a staff of about five people at the time,” Cohn said.

While that deal was daunting, Cohn recalled, she knew the business had some clear advantages, notably, “we had overall series commitments for multiple seasons, not season-by-season orders. This not only gave us a pipeline but also meant there’d be no renewal anxiety. It also enabled us to tell complete, layered, immersive stories with narrative threads that pull through from beginning to end.”

The second major advantage, she added, was the trove of IP. “When you’re trying to break through the clutter, having known, globally beloved IP is a huge advantage for creating awareness and paves a path for building franchises. DreamWorks wanted to expand from a feature-film studio with two movies a year to a broad entertainment company. And Netflix not only wanted a deep dive into originals for kids but to expand globally.”

The Netflix deal, Cohn continued, allowed the studio to “keep our brand box big and not be squeezed into a narrow personality. Having no brand style allows our television series to go even further and reinvent what’s already been seen on the big screen.” It also meant the company did not have to “target the narrow ad-sales demo, and there would be no commercial breaks in our epic stories. Instead, we could focus on the specific audience we felt was best suited for a given series, from boys to girls to genre lovers and, best of all, we’d make shows for people of all ages who just love animation.”

On linear, animation has been pigeonholed into two groups, Cohn said—edgy adult series or kids’ shows. “We wanted to make sure that some of our programming existed outside of those boxes. We wanted to create good shows, period.”

The overarching strategy, she noted, was, “How do we get them to binge?” Kids have been binge-watching for years, Cohn explained, but in the past it was all repeat viewing. “Instead of watching a 90-minute movie again and again, they are being taken on extended journeys of new and surprising storytelling.”

Embarking on the output required for the Netflix pact, DreamWorks Animation Television knew it needed to innovate its own production models. As it built its team, the company sought out qualified showrunners “who could adapt to the brave new world of streaming. We found creators who wanted to make what they love.”

One of the biggest challenges in the streaming world, Cohn noted, is creating awareness. “We use every tool at our disposal to build awareness. There’s the DreamWorks Animation YouTube channel, the reach of our NBCUniversal parent company, the DreamWorks Animation fan base, the social channels we create for each of our shows, our sister channel Universal Kids, the Comcast Xfinity ecosystem and much more.”

The company has series on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Universal Kids, and a presence on free-to-air broadcasters worldwide, with a slate of new series in production and development. “After five years exclusively in the streaming world, we’re now bringing shows to linear. Kids don’t care about the delivery platform, they just like good programming they can watch on the screen of their choice.”

Cohn used her keynote to announce three new originals for Netflix in 2019 and 2020: Archibald’s Next Big Thing, Gabby’s Dollhouse and Rhyme Time Town.

After her address, Cohn sat down for a Q&A with World Screen’s group editorial director, Anna Carugati. The interview kicked off with a discussion about what kids are looking for today against a backdrop of infinite entertainment options. “Their tastes haven’t morphed that much, but they’re looking for what they want, and they’re going to find it.” Cohn talked about the current trend toward shows focused on girl power. “We thought, we should talk to girls about adventure and who their heroes are. What they want is very different from just taking a boys action show and slapping a girl in the middle. We made a list of attributes: doing the right thing, being a good friend, being smart and sassy—and having good hair is still incredibly important!” (Beyoncé emerged as a clear favorite among young girls describing their idea of a superhero, Cohn said.)

Discussing gender-neutral content, Cohn said there’s always been a demand for that kind of programming from linear networks—“it attracts a 50-50 audience and then you get your biggest ratings. And boys and girls often have similar experiences, through a different filter. We try to offer a variety of types of people, boys and girls. You can have a really active girl, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a super physical boy as well. We’re not just reversing [roles]. We’re representing the huge variety of personality types, body types, ethnicities.”

Carugati asked Cohn about messaging around appropriate behavior and respect. “Social-emotional issues and learning are where we spend most of our curriculum. And then just quality of life. We have some shows that talk about how failure helps you learn and become better. We have a lot of really good modeling. And most of all, we like to show people supporting each other and not tearing each other down.”

On mining the deep portfolio at DreamWorks and NBCUniversal, Cohn noted, “We have an amazing franchise group. NBCU is known for Symphony, which is their marketing cooperation where every arm of the company comes in and supports something. So there is a franchise team that oversees everything. There are some obvious suspects, like Fast & Furious. When NBCUniversal acquired DreamWorks, I couldn’t get into an elevator or our studio without [someone] asking if we were going to develop Jurassic World, for example. People are pitching me [potential franchises] all the time. For a franchise, you have to find something that is relevant for the younger end of the audience. It can’t be watered down—it should feel just as vibrant and fulfill all the qualities of the original.”

Talking about building the television animation studio from scratch, Cohn noted, “The ability to create everything from the ground up, and to do it the right way, was a gift.”

Carugati then asked about the challenges of marketing a show that is on a streaming service. If something is good, it will generally be found, she said, but “they may find it and forget about it.” Building L&M campaigns has been particularly challenging for streaming shows. “Linear networks have always been able to make something important. It’s not the same environment” as SVOD.

The major challenge going forward, according to Cohn, “is keeping the volume under control and the quality level as high.” The opportunities lie in greater synergies with the wider NBCUniversal group. “We feel that can open up new IP and relationships and partnerships that will make everything bigger.”