Low overhead helps small firms save big

Not every budding animation company wants to be the next Pixar.

In fact, a number are opting to do without the production pipeline altogether, preferring to follow the business model of independent live-action films: Develop a promising script, coordinate financing and distribution on a territory-by-territory basis, hire the right director, and then put together the best team to tackle the project.

“Because there’s been a huge change in the availability of hardware and software, there are these wonderful studios all around the world in search of films. So instead of building a studio, we felt that if we could find partner studios to work with, then we could actually release more films,” explains Exodus Film Group president Max Howard, who will be presenting “Igor” as a work in progress at the Annecy animation festival.

With financing lined up via a private equity fund and distribution in place through a deal with the Weinstein Co., Exodus tapped Paris-based Sparx to animate Chris McKenna’s “Igor” script, a twist on Frankenstein’s thankless supporting character. According to Howard, Sparx boasted veterans of Disney’s former Paris animation studios, a useful sister site in Vietnam and the European artistic sensibility he wanted for the toon. (By contrast, Exodus picked Beijing-based Xing Xing to make its upcoming “The Hero of Color City,” to be directed by Becky Bristow, while a Tyler Perry project being written now will likely go the 2-D route with a different partner studio altogether.)

Vanguard Animation, which plans to unveil its “Space Chimps” at Annecy, handles production a bit differently, assembling a team from scratch to execute each new feature. In the case of 2005 carrier-pigeon toon “Valiant,” Vanguard set up shop in the U.K. to take advantage of local incentives. With “Space Chimps,” which opens July 18 through Fox, the company put together a team in Vancouver.

“We weren’t looking to piggyback on someone else’s pipeline,” asserts Vanguard co-founder and president John Williams. But neither was it cost-effective to maintain the overhead of a permanent studio or staff. “We buy the brand-new latest stuff and then sell it at the end,” he says.

Vanguard is finalizing the script for its next feature, an action-adventure version of a contemporary Oz story with “Corpse Bride’s” Mike Johnson attached to direct.

With brisk production windows of just 18 to 24 months for each project, indie toon producers don’t have the luxury of finding the story as they go along. “At the main studios, it’s easy to start doing image development because there’s always an inhouse crew, but then you end up finding an image you like and trying to back your story into it,” Howard cautions.

Working under such disciplined conditions, even a modest hit pays for itself. As examples go, Howard points to “Hoodwinked’s” $109 million worldwide haul. “If you place those numbers against a Pixar or a DreamWorks movie, it would have been seen as a disaster,” he says. “But place it in the world in which it was done and produced, and it’s considered a hit movie.”

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