Hollywood grooming Lassie for a comeback
LOS ANGELES - She's an American icon with her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
But it has been four decades since she had her own prime-time TV show, on which her courage, loyalty, and knack for saving the day endeared her to millions of baby boomers.
Can Lassie really come home again?
A Hollywood studio is hoping so. DreamWorks Animation, creator of the Shrek and Kung Fu Panda movies, plans to put the charismatic collie back in the public eye, along with Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and other decades-old characters.
Lassie, who will celebrate her 75th anniversary in December, is still the world's most famous dog. Introduced in a 1938 Saturday Evening Post short story, and then popularized in a best-selling novel, the fictional dog became the star of the 1943 motion picture Lassie Come Home, opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall, after catching the eye of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer. Six more films followed.
By 1954, she had her own TV series. The CBS show Lassie, in which the canny canine managed to save Timmy each week from a burning barn, falling tree, or runaway automobile, aired for nearly 20 years before going global in syndication and reruns.
"She's heroic, she's loyal, she really is man's best friend," said Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks Animation's chief executive. "She's the single most recognized pet in the world."
Indeed, a survey conducted by the research firm Penn Schoen Berland last spring found that Lassie had an 83 percent brand awareness among those polled in the United States. The words most associated with her: classic, smart, loyal, brave, hero, and heartwarming.
But familiarity doesn't necessarily translate into ticket sales. Witness the recent flop of the big-screen reboot of Walt Disney's The Lone Ranger - and early failed attempts to make new movies out of old TV brands such as Sgt. Bilko, McHale's Navy, and Car 54, Where Are You?
Efforts to revive Lassie's Hollywood career have had mixed results. A 1994 Lassie movie from Paramount Pictures made $10 million in U.S. theaters. An Anglo-Irish remake of the 1943 movie, released in 2005 and starring Peter O'Toole, was critically acclaimed but didn't do much business at the domestic box office.
A Canadian company produced an updated Lassie TV show in the late 1990s, with Timmy and his widowed mom living in Hudson Falls, Vt. The series didn't gain much traction and sparked outrage from some Lassie fans, who complained that it was tampering with an American icon.
But Lassie has one advantage over other aging properties: The character is still "alive." The 10th-generation descendant of the original Lassie - a male collie named Pal, trained by the late Rudd Weatherwax - still lives in the Los Angeles area and makes occasional appearances at dog shows.
DreamWorks paid $155 million last year to acquire the Classic Media library of titles, which, along with Lassie, included such properties as The Lone Ranger, George of the Jungle, and Frosty the Snowman.
The Classic Media library will help form a new crop of TV shows for Netflix and other outlets, as DreamWorks moves beyond simply producing a few animated movies a year.
Although some analysts are skeptical that DreamWorks can teach an old dog new tricks, Katzenberg points to the success Marvel Studios has had in reviving comic-book characters such as Thor, Captain America and the other "Avengers."
There is no Lassie TV series or movie in the works yet. Instead, the studio is developing a multimedia marketing plan to reintroduce the dog.
Lassie will make appearances at dog shows, charity events, and children's TV shows, and will do promotions through social media, Francis said. Lassie already has her own Facebook page.
DreamWorks may also introduce a new line of Lassie-branded pet food, toys, and accessories, which also could generate additional licensing revenue for the studio, he said.