‘Ice’ heats prospects for Fox toons

Nothing but Blue Sky for CGI arm

What a difference a weekend makes.

With a stunning $46.3 million debut for “Ice Age” on March 15-17, Fox and its Blue Sky Studios instantly became serious players in the CGI animation universe.

Now Blue Sky is rolling into production again with “Robots,” a collaboration between Blue Sky’s Chris Wedge and childrens author William Joyce (“Rolie Polie Olie”). Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel are working on a screenplay draft for the project which takes place entirely within the world of robots.

Extensive visual development and CGI tests have been going on over the last year, according to Fox Animation prexy Chris Melandandri. While the project’s greenlight was not directly tied to the success of “Ice Age,” “It certainly is something that gives it additional momentum,” he says.

Melandandri says it’s too early to guarantee an “Ice Age” sequel, but Fox will certainly explore the idea. He emphasizes that Fox toppers Tom Rothman and Jim Gianapulos have been extremely supportive during the toon projects’ long production and development process.

“Ice Age” should ease any lingering doubts as to the viability of CGI pix, although the sector’s prospects had brightened considerably in the wake of last year’s trio — DreamWorks’ “Shrek,” Disney’s “Monsters, Inc.” and Par’s “Jimmy Neutron.”

The latest heat from “Ice Age” will undoubtedly spur further spending on computer-animated pics, even though development generally takes at least two years. Already, Sony is pushing “Astro Boy” into production, and CGI specialist ILM is expected to animate either Universal’s “Curious George” or “Where the Wild Things Are.”

For Fox, the success is a sweet payoff for years of patience in animation. “Anastasia” launched in 1997 with moderate success, but “Titan A.E.” was a major disappointment in mid-2000; studio topper Bill Mechanic ankled and Fox shuttered its Phoenix-based ani studio within a few weeks. Fox also saw a flop last year with “Monkeybone,” a mix of live action and animation.

With little fanfare, Fox bet its ani future on Blue Sky, the moderate-sized animation studio in the sleepy town of White Plains, N.Y., a 40-minute train ride from Manhattan. “Ice Age,” the tale of wisecracking animals nurturing a human baby, is believed to have cost a relatively modest $65 million.

As a result of delivering an unqualified hit, Blue Sky has moved into the same league as Pacific Data Images (which created “Antz” and “Shrek”) and Pixar (which animated “Toy Story” and its sequel, as well as “A Bug’s Life” and “Monsters, Inc.”)

But in a sobering counterpoint, Disney announced March 18 that at least 250 animators will be laid off this year for two reasons — its shift to hiring on a per-project basis and the industry’s tilt toward CGI.

“In the past, all animation was dominated by Disney cell animation,” says Jeff Kleiser, prexy of CGI house Kleiser-Walczak. “The success of ‘Ice Age’ tells the industry once again that computer-generated movies can be successful, even if they don’t come from Pixar and PDI. The only CGI pic that hasn’t worked is ‘Final Fantasy,’ and that had more to do with its story than its execution.”

Kleiser says that over the past week, his phones have been ringing off the hook. Indie financiers are suddenly interested in doing lunch, as are reps for the majors.

But for the moment, it’s Blue Sky that has the heat.

Founded 15 years ago, Blue Sky began as commercial f/x specialists. A first foray into film came with Paramount/

MTV’s “Joe’s Apartment,” for which Blue Sky created the CGI cockroaches set against a live-action background.’

But it was “Bunny,” an ani short created by Chris Hedges, one of Blue Sky’s founders, that brought the company to Fox’s attention. Fox had sold its inhouse ani shingle, V1, near the time “Bunny” came out in 1998, and invested in Blue Sky.

“They saw something in Blue Sky that was different,” says John Bunkin, who line-produced “Ice Age” and serves as Blue Sky’s full-time associate producer. “We had a look that was unique to the industry. They recognized the talent of Chris and his team.”

Fox execs read the “Ice Age” script in 1998 and Mechanic greenlit the pic in September 1999. Blue Sky spent the next 120 weeks developing and producing the pic, with Hedges directing an ani staff that grew from 65 people to nearly 170.

“To be honest, there were nervous hands at Fox as to whether we would be able to produce it,” recalls Bunkin. “We had weekly meetings with the studio. About halfway through, the studio could see that we were actually getting the work done, on time and on budget, and that it was looking good.”

Bunkin also gives kudos to Fox for an exceptional promo campaign. “Fox orchestrated a brilliant marketing push, playing trailers in front of ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Jurassic Park III,’ ” he notes. “That helped create family awareness, but we of course backed the marketing up with what we thought was a great film with a lot of humor.”

(Marc Graser contributed to this report)

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