By Brooks Barnes
The New York Times
DreamWorks Animation first captivated children in movie theaters. Then it branched into TV, piping cartoons based on hits like "Madagascar" and "How to Train Your Dragon" into homes through outlets such as Nickelodeon and Netflix.
Now DreamWorks has partnered with a technology company, Fuhu, on an even more immediate way to reach itty-bitty eyeballs, a highly coveted audience: a tablet computer for children that the studio will be able to program much like a cable channel. "We could push out a new character moment every day of the year," said Jim Mainard, head of digital strategy and new business development for DreamWorks.
DreamWorks and Fuhu, which makes the popular Nabi line of children's tablets, plan to introduce the product, called the DreamTab, at the International Consumer Electronics Show, which starts Tuesday in Las Vegas.
The tablets will be sold with a range of DreamWorks-branded accessories, including headphones, protective bumpers and carrying cases. An 8-inch version of the DreamTab will arrive in stores in the spring. Pricing is still being determined but will be less than $300, a Fuhu spokesman said. A 12-inch version is also planned.
Fuhu's strategic goal with the DreamTab is differentiation - coming up with a way to persuade parents to buy its product over a competing one. DreamWorks is hoping to find a new way into the home, deepening its reputation as an innovative content creator and funneling more viewers to its programs and movies and selling more merchandise.
"By teaming with DreamWorks to create a device that will have original content - original content that is automatically and frequently updated - we are not following consumers, we are getting ahead of them," said Jim Mitchell, Fuhu's chief executive.
There are all sorts of branded tablets, of course. Fuhu in October introduced a special-edition Disney Nabi and Nickelodeon Nabi. But neither of those offered original and exclusive programming like the DreamTab will. Unlike some other tablets, the DreamTab will not lock children into a DreamWorks-only world. The studio's video content and games are the most prominent, but users can also stream shows from Nickelodeon, Disney and Cartoon Network.
Nancy Bernstein, a movie producer who is in charge of creating what she calls "character moments" for the DreamTab, insists that the effort is not simply an advertising opportunity for the studio. Turn on the tablet, for instance, and penguins from the "Madagascar" franchise might greet you with a silly dance. Depending on how parents have set the timing controls, "Shrek" characters might appear in a skit to announce that it is time to power down.
"All of this animation was custom-created," Bernstein said in a demonstration at DreamWorks' headquarters here.
Some parents might disagree with her definition of advertising. Will dancing penguins make DreamTab users more interested in seeing "The Penguins of Madagascar" when it arrives in theaters next year? The studio, led by Jeffrey Katzenberg, would be nave not to hope the answer is yes.
The DreamTab's technology is quite hefty. The devices will enable children to send instant messages and emails to their parents' smartphones, for instance. Mitchell emphasized that his company had gone to "incredible lengths" to make the DreamTab compliant with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, a federal law that restricts the ways companies collect information on children younger than 13.
The DreamTab is not a toy. Switched into parent mode, it provides roughly the same computing power as an iPad, the companies said.
"If you give a kid less, they will spot it immediately as less, and they won't like it," said Mainard of DreamWorks. "We wanted to give more."