How Dan Lin’s Arrival Has Reanimated Netflix Animation

Earlier this month, Netflix Animation held a town hall to introduce Dan Lin, the 51-year-old producer of “Sherlock Holmes” and “It,” to the streamer’s animation team in his new role as chairman of Netflix Films.

Lin, who had worked with some of the group before on “The Lego Movie” franchise, shared his history and talked about his credentials and what did and didn’t work in the past. More importantly, he shared his ideas on what Netflix Animation should be going forward. He spoke about making movies that were bigger and bolder, with a cohesive community of artists instead of a scattered collection of disparate productions and vendor studios.

Those that attended the event left feeling energized — for the first time, perhaps, in a long time. “I left his town hall more encouraged than I have been in months,” said a filmmaker who was in attendance. “He has a clear direction, loves animation and wants to support the creators.”

Lin arrives at a time when Netflix’s animation unit has made the streamer the unsung titan of feature animation in Hollywood, although a pivot to releasing films made by outside companies rather than developing movies in-house has dismayed some creatives. But filmmakers TheWrap spoke to feel the division could benefit from a more hands-on leadership and a heartier approach to development and production — something Lin could provide, and seemed to signal he wants to do as he takes over.

Recently, Netflix Animation has been slow to greenlight new projects — there are plenty in development but far fewer in production — as the studio looks to fill its pipeline with animated films from Sony (the upcoming “K-Pop: Demon Hunters”), DreamWorks (like this year’s “Orion and the Dark”), Skydance (as part of a new patch between the production company and Netflix) and others.

And Lin faces the challenge of making animation more of a priority at Netflix. Multiple sources told TheWrap that Ted Sarandos, the co-chief executive officer of Netflix, has traditionally shied away from the streaming giant’s animated films, even though they are often some of the platform’s most popular movies. While Lin is still finding his footing at the company and hasn’t explicitly detailed plans for the main film slate or the animated side of things, many feel that he will guide Netflix Animation towards more projects developed and produced internally.

Lin and other Netflix executives declined to comment to TheWrap for this story.

LEGO Movie
“The Lego Movie” (Warner Bros.)

Former film chairman Scott Stuber, who departed last month, frequently clashed with the top brass over how to distribute Netflix’s movies — with Stuber wanting to prioritize the theatrical experience. Since Lin joined, he has been “running 100 miles an hour,” Sarandos said on the company’s quarterly earnings call last week. “Our strategy remains variety and quality and [Chief Content Officer Bela Bajaria] is doing an amazing job of bringing new, fresh thinking to our content and our content organization. Bringing Dan on board is a great example of that.”

In Lin, Sarandos gets an executive with expertise in live-action and animation, and an advocate for animation who can clearly express the needs and wants of the animation department. And animation is increasingly a draw for Netflix subscribers — according to the company’s own calculations as of December, 60% of the then-247 million Netflix households worldwide (nearly 150 million homes) watch Kids & Family content every month on Netflix. While that number includes non-animated Kids & Family content, the majority of it is animated features.

Lin has the credentials. He was the guiding force of “The Lego Movie” and its subsequent spin-offs and sequels where he collaborated with filmmakers like Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, Chris McKay, Charlie Bean and Mike Mitchell (whose “Kung Fu Panda 4” is a current box office champ). Also, crucially, Lin worked with Animal Logic, the Australia-based animation and visual effects, on “The Lego Movie” franchise. In 2022 Netflix acquired Animal Logic, who went on to handle the animation for “The Magician’s Elephant” and last year’s mega-hit “Leo” (the latter, an Adam Sandler-fronted tale of a school pet, had the biggest viewership debut ever for a Netflix animated film). Animal Logic’s L.A. hub was located at Lin’s Rideback Ranch.

His appointment to Stuber’s old job has been received by a collective sigh of relief by the Netflix Animation community. Even filmmakers who worked with Lin on movies that never materialized are still buzzing from the experience.

“I adored working with him on ‘Lego Billion Brick Race,’” said Jorge R. Gutierrez, talking about the “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”-style road rally movie set in the Lego universe that never came to fruition at Warner Bros. “Wicked smart and has amazing taste. Can’t wait to see what magic he conjures up at Netflix. I’m thrilled Dan’s here!”” Gutierrez, who recently made “Maya and the Three” at Netflix, is in development at the streamer on upcoming projects.

Animation creators said Lin is someone who has not only worked in animation before but who understands the animation process. Screenings will ebb and flow — it might not be a successive line where each screening gets considerably better. From working with filmmakers like Lord and Miller, Lin is comfortable with iterating on ideas until they are absolutely perfect. In animation you break things down and build them back up. According to one filmmaker, Lin is very comfortable with this.

Building on recent success

“Leo” (Netflix)

Lately, Netflix has been surging ahead of more seasoned animation competitors like Disney and Universal’s DreamWorks Animation — and have become more bullish about challenging their competitors.

When Disney’s “Wish,” a big budget spectacle dedicated to 100 years of Walt Disney Animation, went up against Netflix’s “Leo,” a smaller, more budget-conscious musical starring Adam Sandler, they were courting failure. But it was “Wish” that wound up as a disappointment and “Leo” turned into an unabashed smash (Sarandos has said that a sequel is already in development). Disney and Netflix will go head-to-head again this summer when Netflix’s “Ultraman: Rising,” a new take on the beloved Japanese superhero, streams the same weekend that Pixar’s highly anticipated “Inside Out 2” debuts theatrically.

Netflix’s animated output comes thanks to a canny combination of artful in-house development; clever partnerships with studios like Sony Pictures Animation, Aardman and DreamWorks; and occasionally acquisitions. Netflix recently forged a partnership with Skydance Animation that will deliver the streamer, at the very least, a steady flow of movies beginning with this fall’s Oscar hopeful “Spellbound,” a musical about a princess whose parents are turned into monsters. Other upcoming features are in the works from superstar filmmakers Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) and Rich Moore (“Wreck-It Ralph”).

Other projects Netflix has in the hopper are “Thelma the Unicorn” from recent Oscar nominee Jared Hess and Lynn Wang; “That Christmas,” a holiday film written by Richard Curtis (based on the children’s book of the same name); and a new “Wallace and Gromit” project from original creator Nick Park and Aardman.

The day after the town hall at a more informal morning meeting attended by Lin and Bajaria, several sequences from upcoming Netflix animated films were screened for a smaller group of filmmakers, partners and executives. They included moments from highly anticipated films from Chris Williams (the follow-up to his Oscar-nominated “The Sea Beast”) and one of the upcoming Roald Dahl-based projects. Netflix bought the Road Dahl Story Company in 2021 but so far the only thing that has been released are a series of Wes Anderson live-action short films.

The filmmakers briefly talked about their movie, giving a sense of what audiences can expect. Lin watched, listened and was receptive, according to knowledgeable insiders. He vowed to deliver the marketing might for these animated features that Netflix regularly devotes to its live-action fare.

For those who were there, it was encouraging to hear. Marketing spend and a general awareness of the product are hugely important for the filmmakers.

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