'AstroBoy' to help gauge ImageWorks' usefulness

In a seven-figure deal that marks a policy shift for Sony Pictures Entertainment, “Dinosaur” co-helmer Eric Leighton has inked to direct the studio’s first all-CGI movie, “AstroBoy.”

In recent months, Sony considered selling off Imageworks’ f/x facility, but found no takers. Facing a dearth of viable suitors and having seen the impressive CGI sequences created for the “Stuart Little” sequel, Sony brass is now eyeing Imageworks as a possible Pixar-esque studio that would hopefully produce the B.O. — not to mention merchandise licensing — riches enjoyed by Disney/Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.” and DreamWorks’ B.O. monster, “Shrek.”

The studio’s parent company, Sony Corp. of America, has recently been rethinking its commitments to content creation: It agreed to sell its stake in Spanish-lingo broadcaster Telemundo; halted development of new TV shows at Columbia TriStar Television; shut down a facility that digitally mastered its pics; and held preliminary (though quickly aborted) talks with MGM about a merger of movie studios.

“AstroBoy” will be produced by Don Murphy (“From Hell”) and his Col-based Angry Films banner, and by Jim Henson Pictures prexy Lisa Henson and Henson production exec Kristine Belson.

SPE vice-chairman Gareth Wigan is personally overseeing the project’s development and production. Imageworks has already begun tackling test footage, and a greenlight is thought to be imminent. A release date is planned for some time in 2004.

Rocket powered

Todd Alcott (“Antz”) and Ken Kaufman (“Space Cowboys”) penned the “AstroBoy” script, which tells the tale of a permanently youthful robot boy modeled after the deceased son of a research scientist. Originally intended to be kept a secret, the Pinocchio-like character becomes a publicly renowned superhero — complete with devices like laser-firing fingers, uncanny hearing and jet-powered boots — all eventually used to repulse an alien invasion of Earth. Pic’s protagonist was originally created by the late Japanese comic artist Osamu Tezuka; film will be based on characters created by the Tezuka Corp.

Leighton co-helmed Disney’s expensive CGI pic “Dinosaur” with Ralph Zondag, cutting his teeth supervising animation on Disney pics like “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach,” both under helmer Henry Selick. While the “Dinosaur” budget was $150 million-$200 million, easily qualifying the film as the most expensive of all time on a cost-per-minute basis, the “AstroBoy” budget is as yet unset, say insiders.

“AstroBoy” also marks several reunions. Project reteams scribe Kaufman with Henson, for whom he penned Columbia Pictures’ 1999 film “Muppets From Space,” as well as Murphy and Henson, who are also developing “Parasyte,” based on Hitosi Iwaaki’s comicbook series of the same name.

Leighton, like Kaufman, was repped in the deal by United Talent Agency. Leighton was also repped in the deal by attorney Melanie Cook at Bloom Hergott Diemer & Cook.

(Marc Graser contributed to this report.)

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