HOLLYWOOD — Atop the Nickelodeon studios in Burbank is a larger-than-life cavalcade of the cable network’s signature animated characters. SpongeBob SquarePants is up there. So is Dora the Explorer, as well as a handful of others. Joining them soon, network executives hope, will be Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private — the raucously comic penguins from the DreamWorks Animation film “Madagascar.”
Thanks to their Viacom Inc. connection (Dreamworks’ films are distributed by Viacom-owned Paramount Pictures), the two entertainment powerhouses are teaming up to produce a new computer-generated animated comedy series for television that spins off the half-billion-dollar worldwide grossing success of the DreamWorks film. In the kind of synergy other corporations may wish upon a star for, the new series, whose working title is “Penguins,” is slated to premiere in early 2009 — just a few months after the sequel, “Madagascar: The Crate Escape,” hits thousands of theaters nationally.
For Nickelodeon, the new series is part of a major ramp-up in production at the already humming animation studio. Next year, the 28-year-old company is poised to crank out some 225 half-hour cartoons. The expansion represents a broader network strategy to maintain its enviable winning streak as the No. 1-rated cable company for nearly 14 years — a feat performed in the face of increasing competition from other entertainment outlets, notably crosstown rival Disney.
Of the more than 40 original animated series the studio has launched since 1991, few have come with bigger expectations than are now being carried by the quartet of wisecracking penguins. Nickelodeon is no doubt looking for the kind of phenomenal success it has enjoyed with “SpongeBob,” “Dora” and “Rugrats,” which together have raked in billions of dollars in product sales.
Even though SpongeBob and Dora debuted before the turn of the millennium, both are still going strong, but like the Rugrats before them, they are not invulnerable to the shifting viewing habits of their core 2- to 11-year-old audience. In short, the studio could certainly use another franchise hit, one that a schedule can be built around — and the wobbly little penguins just may make that kind of splash.
“These movies from Pixar and DreamWorks are very, very popular with kids and families, and Nickelodeon is very smart to capitalize on it,” said Brad Adgate, an analyst at the ad firm Horizon Media in New York. “I think they’re saying, ‘Hey, let’s just give the kids what they want.’ “
Although there will be minor adjustments here and there, the penguins will largely look, talk and act the same way they did in DreamWorks’ hit movie. The challenge, of course, will be converting side characters into compelling main ones. In the movie, the penguins, who fancy themselves a CIA-style strike force, were trying to bust out of Central Park Zoo and return to Antarctica — only to be sidetracked to Madagascar.
In the TV show, the four will effectively will rule the zoo — Julien, King of the Lemurs, and his extensive entourage will be there to muss their feathers — and mostly stay within New York City when embarking on their top-secret missions.
“They’re almost like four brothers; they’re like the Marx Brothers,” said Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of DreamWorks Animation. “They can take the littlest thing and blow it completely out of proportion, and it’s just hilarious.”
The seeds for the collaboration were sown in December 2005 when Viacom snatched up DreamWorks for $1.5 billion. Shortly thereafter, the two giants of children’s entertainment were searching for the appropriate project on which to collaborate, Katzenberg said.
After running through a number of creative options, the spunky penguins who managed to steal some of the limelight in the star-studded movie won out.
In fact, the penguins project is the first joint animation effort between the two companies, but more are coming. They already are at work on a television spinoff from DreamWorks’ upcoming “Kung Fu Panda,” which is scheduled for release in June 2008. The animated movie stars Jack Black as a chunky panda who dreams of becoming a kung fu master.
Although the two companies are under the same corporate umbrella, that didn’t mean one wouldn’t be left out in the rain when it came to creative decisions. Initially, it seemed as if DreamWorks, which, after all, invented the characters, was going to call the shots, but the relationship didn’t turn out that way.
“It’s been a 180-degree reversal for us,” Katzenberg said. “We originally thought that we were going to take a very hands-on approach, but we were just blown away by their creative team. We’re really acting as advisers and consultants.”
Nickelodeon executives had no less praise for DreamWorks.
“It’s almost a perfect marriage, since we’ve led the surge on the TV side and they’ve led it on the feature-film side,” said Mark Taylor, Nickelodeon’s senior vice president. “I think they’ve been appreciative that we’ve taken what they’ve done and embraced it as opposed to trying to find a way to do it different, faster, cheaper or whatever.”
A good working relationship helps Nickelodeon sharpen another potentially formidable weapon in its seemingly eternal struggle against Disney. The company with mouse ears, which has its own block of highly successful animated programming for children, has been making particular gains against Nickelodeon in the so-called “tween” demographic (ages 9 to 14).
Nickelodeon executives believe the new penguin series will pack on competitive muscle for the network not only with its likable story lines, but also with its rich and vividly detailed CG presentation.