Pic to feature voices of Ritter, Brady, Elfman

Clifford the Big Red Dog is making his bigscreen debut courtesy of small-screen content provider Warner Home Video.

Over the past couple of years, the studio video division has quietly worked with Scholastic Entertainment to finance production of the first animated theatrical film based on the 40-year-old children’s book series and the PBS TV and Artisan video series. Now WHV, in concert with its film studio sibling, is quietly overseeing theatrical distribution and marketing of the 73-minute “Clifford’s Really Big Movie.”

Pic features the voice of the late John Ritter as Clifford in one of his final performances. Directed by Robert Ramirez, the movie also features the voice talents of Wayne Brady, Jenna Elfman, John Goodman, Wilmer Valderrama, Judge Reinhold, Kel Mitchell and Jess Harnell.

Animated in traditional 2-D style, the movie has been playing strongly enough since Feb. 20 in the first four test markets — Atlanta, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Austin, Texas (plus three screens in New York with marketing limited in that city to print only) — that the studio is going to add 19 more markets April 23, reaching a third of the country overall and probably expanding beyond that soon after.

That success, which could boost sales of a DVD release planned for the fall, almost certainly will lead to the studio developing more projects for theatrical release, according to Ron Sanders, WHV exec veep and general manager, U.S.

Scholastic has worked with WHV for years on video projects such as “The Babysitter’s Club” and “The Magic School Bus.”

“I really felt that Clifford could have legs as a movie,” said Scholastic Entertainment prexy Deborah A. Forte.Seth Willenson has acted as Scholastic’s producer‘s rep with Warner Bros. on the project, which began with Scholastic approaching Warner several years ago.

WHV also is involved with the release of the recent hit Imax movie “NASCAR 3-D,” which the studio eventually will release on DVD.

Sanders said the video division will try to take advantage of opportunities with properties it may acquire that have theatrical potential. It is working with other units within Time Warner to find properties and franchises that could be developed for both DVD premiere movies and/or theatrical releases.

In the case of the division’s “Scooby-Doo” animated movies produced exclusively for DVD, Sanders said it would have to be demonstrated that theatrical release of those films would result in enough of a bump in DVD sales to offset the extra costs of a theatrical release’s production and distribution.

Although creating a market-by-market spot marketing campaign can be more expensive than doing it all at once, a national campaign can represent a $15 million risk. Sanders said since it was unclear how “Clifford” would play in theaters, the company decided on a platform release.

Media campaigns in the first four markets have been full-fledged efforts with TV and print advertising.

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