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From American Girl to Trolls, a conversation with DWA's Shawn Dennis

April 23, 2013|By Richard Verrier
  • Shawn Dennis was recently hired to build the Trolls franchise for DreamWorks Animation.
Shawn Dennis was recently hired to build the Trolls franchise for DreamWorks… (File Photo )

In 1959, Danish fisherman and woodcutter Thomas Dam couldn't afford to buy Christmas presents for his daughter. So he carved a doll based on the legendary Scandinavian troll. This doll wasn't the scary, somewhat evil troll of Scandinavian lore, but a friendly, welcoming creature, one that would inspire one of the most popular toys of the 1960s. With their shocks of colorful hair and googly eyes -- and the initials DAM stamped onto the bottoms of their feet -- the dolls are still coveted by collectors around the world. In 2003, they made the Toy Industry of America's list of most treasured toys of the century.

Now, the trolls are about to make a comeback in America -- at least that's the hope of Glendale-based DreamWorks Animation, which recently acquired the worldwide rights to classic Trolls dolls from the Dam family, which will remain the licensor of the Trolls in Scandinavia.

The Times recently spoke to Shawn Dennis, the former American Girl veteran who was recently hired to build the Trolls franchise for DreamWorks Animation.  It's the latest push by DreamWorks to exploit classic characters. The company last year acquired the rights to Veggies Tales, Lassie, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Lone Ranger and other properties after buying New York based Classic Media.

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So what motivated this Trolls deal?

This is a clear indication of how DreamWorks is looking at the business very differently. As I came on board, we started talking about building a sustainable girls franchise and it became quite clear to me that we really needed to own the entire IP (of the Trolls) so we could engage with girls globally. Because it's a 57-year-old property, it's kind of fun to re-invent and re-introduce something that already has such a high awareness.

Trolls are considered collectibles today. Do they have much relevance to younger audiences?

When you say the word "trolls," people immediately link to the fun they had with them as a kid. I can't tell you how many trolls dolls I collected when I was a kid. Their open stance and big wide eyes have a kind of universal global visual appeal, no matter what country you're from. You just think, "That's the cutest damn thing you've ever seen!"

Our job will be to reintroduce them to a whole new generation. What we will be doing is revealing that mythology and the story that was never there. We never knew who they were, where they came from and what their powers were. We're going to be adding adding a lexicon and a language to the color of their hair, their stance, their often naked butts, their big bright green, orange, orange and blue hair. It's a blank slate for us to create a story in.

So what are you plans for the franchise?

We're planning a movie (tentatively schedule for June 2015), we're planning a television show, we're planning a very unique digital experience, with online and interactive apps and books -- we're looking for all ways to inspire people with the story.

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What about toys?

This will have a very broad merchandising element to it. That's why we bought this. This will be year in and year out. The merchandise won't just come out before a movie and then go away again. The game plan for the merchandise will be innovative and true to the brand standard. We are beginning discussions with all the leading toy manufacturers and the largest global retailers about a broad consumer products approach that will cross every category, including toys, stationery, apparel and gaming.

You had considerable success building the American Girl franchise. How will that experience help you with the trolls?

I came here because the senior executives here really demonstrated a strong commitment to shifting the studio from movie makers to franchise builders.  I'm taking my deep understanding of girls and what's meaningful to them and building that into the DNA (at DreamWorks).  I know what makes girls tick and I know the trolls will be a sweet spot for girls.


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