DreamWorks Chases Profits with 'Hedge'

After box office flops like Wallace and Grommit in the Curse of the Were Rabbit, executives at DreamWorks Animation are hoping their newest offering, Over the Hedge will prove to investors that they're worth their salt, and stock price.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of the most talked about companies in Hollywood has to work hard just to live up to expectations.

DreamWorks Animation has a movie coming out today called Over the Hedge, and investors will be watching to see if it can produce a hit.

The company was founded by the director Steven Spielberg, Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, and music mogul David Geffen. It became a publicly-traded company in 2004. As NPR's Kim Masters reports, that means that each new film has to satisfy stockholders, as well as fans.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

In Over the Hedge, a group of naïve forest critters makes first contact with suburbia. The film features many star voices, including Gary Shandling as a nervous turtle, and Bruce Willis as a street-wise raccoon who introduces his friends to junk food.

(Soundbite of movie “Over The Hedge”)

Unidentified Speaker: What is that?!

Mr. BRUCE WILLIS (Actor): (As RJ) That, my friend, is a magical combination of corn flour, dehydrated cheese solids, BHA, BHT, and good old MSG - aka, the chip, nacho cheese flavor.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MASTERS: DreamWorks is taking a gamble by opening the film against The Da Vinci Code. Box office tracking suggests that film will have an enormous opening. DreamWorks is obviously hoping Over the Hedge will present a family-friendly alternative. And some Christian groups, upset about The Da Vinci Code, are urging filmgoers to support Over the Hedge, instead.

But even if the film opens strongly, entertainment industry analyst Richard Greenfield thinks Over the Hedge has other challenges ahead.

Mr. RICHARD GREENFIELD (Entertainment Industry Analyst, Fulcrum Global Partners LLC): It's facing off on opening weekend against The Da Vinci Code. On week two, faces X-Men III, and within three weeks of its release faces Cars.

MASTERS: That's Cars, as in the next movie from animation juggernaut Pixar. And that's not all. Overseas, Over the Hedge will open in some key markets against the World Cup.

Mr. LOWELL SINGER (Managing Director & Senior Research Analyst, Cowen and Company): It's going to be a very difficult summer.

MASTERS: That's Lowell Singer, also an entertainment industry analyst. He thinks Over the Hedge needs to have an opening of about $50 million, which is a lot in a weekend when another film is going to suck up a lot of ticket purchases.

Singer thinks Over the Hedge might not get near the number posted by the greatest DreamWorks hit, Shrek. But it can pull in a reasonable amount before Cars rolls into theaters.

Mr. SINGER: Something like Over the Hedge needs to do 80 to 90 percent of its overall box office, or will do 80 to 90 percent in its first three weeks.

MASTERS: DreamWorks is coming off a tough year. DVD sales of Shrek 2 were not as strong as expected, and Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit may have won an Oscar, but it flopped at the box office.

Analysts worry about Over the Hedge and the next DreamWorks movie, Flushed Away. That film was made by Aardman, the British company behind Wallace & Gromit. Given Aardman's previous failure to connect with American audiences, Greenfield is nervous not just about how the movies do in theaters, but later on DVD.

Mr. GREENFIELD: The problem is that this is not just an '06 event. If these two films in '06 fail to live up to expectations, it will have a carry-over effect and pressure 2007, as well.

MASTERS: In light of all this, Greenfield thinks DreamWorks stock, trading in the mid 20s, is overpriced. Singer disagrees.

Mr. SINGER: I suspect that, over time, we're going to see the quality of the output from DreamWorks improve, in terms of critical response to their films. I think they're getting better at making two movies a year than they were a couple of years ago. And I think, over time, we'll see that reflected in the box office performance.

MASTERS: Next year could mark the beginning of that trend. DreamWorks will have Shrek 3 and Bee Movie, which stars and was co-written by Jerry Seinfeld.

Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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