DreamWorks Animation's Shrek-Inspired Visit to Santa

DreamWorks Animation updates an annual Christmas tradition

A visit to Santa at the local mall is getting an overhaul this Christmas, with some help from DreamWorks Animation and its biggest star, Shrek. Jeffrey Katzenberg’s independent film studio is bringing DreamWorks DreamPlace to eight U.S. malls starting on Nov. 6. The attraction, DreamWorks executives say, will allow parents and kids to personalize their visit to the North Pole and do away with the lines and crowds. “We worked very, very hard to make sure that this was really aesthetically pleasing,” says Paul Kurzawa, DreamWorks Animation’s head of retail development and entertainment, on a tour of a prototype in Los Angeles.

DreamWorks DreamPlace is a modern take on Santa’s village—a 2,000-square-foot Bavarian-style cottage decked out in Christmas ornaments and covered with LED screens that depict an animated Shrek greeting visitors from a window. Technology will make the visit a more engaging experience. The letter to Santa has been replaced by an online wish list that works like a wedding registry. Instead of standing in long lines, families will book appointments for a virtual sleigh ride to the North Pole. Six semitrailer trucks will be required to deliver each of the cottages to the various malls; the structures can be changed for different holidays, such as Halloween.

For the studio, DreamPlace is a chance to diversify beyond the hit-or-miss movie business and boost its brands and sales of character-related merchandise. DreamWorks Animation, hobbled by film writedowns, will also get to reintroduce a popular character. The five Shrek films have grossed $3.51 billion worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo, but the last Shrek film was released three years ago. “This is an opportunity for us to get Shrek back out there and refresh the brand a little,” Kurzawa says.

The attraction may also draw shoppers to malls such as the Glendale Galleria in California, one of the first locations for DreamWorks DreamPlace. Mall visits declined 14.6 percent in the U.S. during the 2013 holiday shopping season, according to consultant Media Horizons, as consumers do more shopping online. A visit to Santa is still a holiday ritual for many families—and malls are the typical destination for that. “If you are going to see Santa Claus, you are pretty much going to see him in a mall,” says Scott Morey, executive vice president at General Growth Properties, which will set up DreamWorks DreamPlace in five locations.

Kurzawa saw a chance to reinvent an experience little changed since it was conceived by James Edgar, owner of the Boston Store, who donned a Santa suit and sported his own white beard almost 125 years ago, according to The Christmas Encyclopedia.

DreamWorks’ North Pole journey starts at home. Parents download an app or go to a website to schedule a visit and create user profiles for their kids. Wish lists can be shared via social media, allowing family and friends to purchase items at the mall.

Once inside the cottage, guests discover Santa isn’t present and that a virtual Shrek will take them to the North Pole. An animation simulates the experience of flying on a sleigh, which shakes on cue, with mist and wind blowing. On arrival, the kids are guided into a workshop with knickknacks, cookies, and Santa’s notes to himself. Santa sits on a purple velvet couch. Cameras capture the kids’ reactions, and parents later have a chance to buy the photos. Once the visit ends, guests exit into DreamWorks Animation gift shops.

The host malls are paying DreamWorks a license fee for as many as seven years to house the cottages, says MaryAnne Gilmartin, chief executive officer of Forest City Ratner in New York, which will install DreamWorks DreamPlace in two locations. Gilmartin declined to comment on the cost of the leases except to say it’s “significant.” For mall owners, the value is in spurring foot traffic and sales, along with “an incredible data dump,” she says. “In this case, Santa will know your name.”

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