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UTV boosts animation ambitions

Conglom greenlights trio

CANNES — UTV, the Indian film and TV conglom backing M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening,” has given its animation ambitions a leg up with the greenlighting of a trio of cartoon features.

Company is ramping up its UTV Toons division into an industrial scale production-line capable of spitting out features on an annual basis. The Mumbai-based facility is to grow from 300 staff at present to 1,000 and company is looking to recruit top line managers to oversee the expansion and Hollywood-level creatives to guide the movie development process. All three new movies will be fully digital, 3-D animations.

First up is $9 million “Alibaba,” retelling of the classic children’s tale, directed by Soumitra Ranade (“Jajantarum mamantaram”) and set to be delivered in the last quarter of 2008.

That will be followed by $12 million-$14 million “Arjun,” drawn from the Hindu epic “Mahabarata.” Pic is helmed by Arnab Goswami and skedded for completion in mid-2009. Third pic is “Dream Blanket,” a “Mulan”-like tale directed by Simi Nallaseth, previously an animator on “Ice Age.”

“The cost of tentpole live-action movies in India will hit $15 million in two or three years as talent costs and aud expectations of quality rise. We are aiming to make animations as big as multi-star movies,” said UTV CEO Ronnie Screwvala. “These films will take Asian themes and target South Asian auds both within the region and worldwide.”

By Indian standards UTV will also innovate by hiring star voice talent — and voicing a minimum of six language tracks.

“We expect to fully finance our pictures, but will look for the kind of co-production partners which can bring in ancillary distribution and marketing skills,” Screwvala said.

Conglom is in the process of spinning off its entire movies division — which is earning revenues from “The Namesake” and “I Think I Love My Wife” — into a stand- alone company that will be listed on the AIM division of the London Stock Exchange next month. UTV expects to retain 75% of the business.

Company is in Cannes promoting Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan-starring historical romancer “Jodha Akbar” and John Abraham-starring football film “Goal.”

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