Animation house agrees three-year deal

Just two months after ending its deal with DreamWorks Animation, Aardman Features, the British toon studio behind “Wallace & Gromit” and “Chicken Run,” has signed a three-year first-look deal with Sony Pictures.

DreamWorks pulled out of its five-picture deal with Aardman in January following a hugely disappointing performance for last fall’s “Flushed Away,” a CG toon the two co-produced. Jeffrey Katzenberg-led studio had to take a writedown on the pic, which cost more than $130 million and grossed only $179 million worldwide.

DreamWorks also took a writedown on 2005’s “Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit” after grossing just $56 million in the U.S., though it took in $136 million overseas.

“Chicken Run,” the studios’ first collaboration in 2000, was the only Aardman pic to gross more than $200 million worldwide.

Sony and Aardman have not yet settled on their first movie, although Aardman execs say four scripts are already in advanced stages of development, including a “Wallace & Gromit” sequel from director Nick Park.

Deal could expand toon output for Sony, whose inhouse Sony Picture Animation puts out one CG pic every 18 months.

“Aardman Features is enormously popular around the world,” said SPE chairman-CEO Michael Lynton. “We believe that their strength is their unique storytelling humor, sensibility and style, and we plan to bring their distinctive animated voice to theaters for a long time to come.”

Aardman co-founder and exec chairman David Sproxton said: “We know from experience that we create our best work when we do it from our home base here in Bristol, using first-class talent from the nation and around the world.”

That’s a reference to Aardman’s less-than-satisfactory experience making “Flushed Away” in partnership with DWA in Los Angeles. Both sides were creatively frustrated even before the pic opened.

Katzenberg has since said he doesn’t believe Aardman’s British sensibility works well beyond a niche aud.

“Despite our love of what they do, it ultimately does not translate in the mass market,” he said in a February interview.

It remains to be seen whether Sony plans to address that concern by controlling costs, or if it thinks it can market Aardman pics better than DreamWorks did.

British studio made clear, however, that it expects to have less creative input and interference from Sony than it had from DreamWorks.

“The thing that attracted us to Sony is that they have a very broad taste, and they are distributing 20 movies a year around the world,” said Aardman chief operating officer Stephen Moore. “Their desire to restrict us was much less, so we can make movies that follow Aardman’s instinctive style.”

Aardman will work in a range of animation styles, including both CGI and the stop-motion claymation process for which it is best known. Brit studio expects to produce pics at different budgets and plans to increase its rate of output to release a movie every 18 months.

Aardman was founded in 1975 by Sproxton and Peter Lord. They were later joined by Park, who won four Oscars, including two for “Wallace & Gromit” shorts and one for the feature.

Studio is producing animated series “Creature Comforts,” based on a 1990 short film, for CBS.

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