Digital Domain to test its legs on 'Cranes'

After years of talking about producing its own features, f/x giant Digital Domain has chosen the period romance drama “A Thousand Cranes” as its first pic. The company has also hired Cari Thomas to serve as director of feature development.

The Venice-based f/x studio, founded in 1993 by CEO and prexy Scott Ross, director James Cameron and creature creator Stan Winston, says it plans to produce two f/x-heavy pics per year, with budgets of $50 million-$80 million each. Thomas is overseeing the development of three possible pics.

Cameron and Winston resigned from their board posts in August.

“Audiences want to see tentpole visual effects films,” Ross said. “But these types of films have been extraordinarily expensive to produce in the past. We want to make them cheaper, and figure out ways to use technology to drive costs down.”

Thomas, who joined DD in 1992, served as visual effects line producer on “Apollo 13″ and “Titanic,” and also worked on “Armageddon” and “Interview With the Vampire.”

“Cari understands the marriage of great storytelling with world-class visual effects. Working closely with CAA was instrumental in finding Diane Lake to write our first inhouse feature,” Ross said.

Lake will pen Japan-based romance “A Thousand Cranes” from a treatment by Ross.

Hefty budget

Although no cast or director has yet been tapped, pic’s expected budget is around $70 million, Ross said. Production is expected to begin early next year.

Lake’s most recent credits include scripting the NBC miniseries “Picasso,” produced by Davis Entertainment, with Dustin Hoffman attached to star, and “Nancy,” a biopic on activist, writer and socialite Nancy Cunard, with Harold Becker set to helm for Paramount Pictures.

“Diane has created some wonderfully evocative love stories, rich in character, texture and romance,” Thomas said. “She is a great choice to write ‘A Thousand Cranes.’ “

F/x studio has expressed interest in developing features since its inception, but the hiring of Thomas marks its first major step in that direction.

DD has no plans to ink an exclusive distribution deal with a studio, instead saying it wants to take projects to studios that would be able to best market them. It plans to finance the pics inhouse and through outside distributors.

The venture is an expansion of its operations into film production, not a relinquishing of its f/x, commercials or interactive businesses, Ross said.

F/x prod’n leap?

DD’s move may also prefigure a leap into features by other larger, independently owned f/x houses, including Pacific Data Images, Manex and Cinesite. PDI co-produces animated pics (“Antz,” “Shrek”) with DreamWorks.

“A lot of us are saying we have to produce our own films,” Ross said. “But where a lot of people are going into animated pics, we want to make live-action special-effects films.”

DD is creating visuals for MGM’s “Supernova,” Fox’s “The Fight Club” and “Lake Placid,” and most recently completed work on “EdTV.”

It also contributed to “What Dreams May Come” and “Armageddon,” both Oscar nominees for visual effects. It won for its work on “Titanic” in 1997.

DD’s commercial division is also producing spots for Coca-Cola, GM, Universal Studios Florida, Nike and Budweiser. Its interactive arm is creating CD-ROMs for Lego and Mattel.

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