Phil Knight's animation studio readies 'Coraline'

Phil Knight, whose Nike empire gives him an estimated worth of $7.9 billion, is bringing his muscle to showbiz, with ambitious plans for his Portland, Ore., animation studio to partner with a Hollywood major in a slate of toons.

Laika, which does both CG and stop-motion features, was created when Knight stepped in to buy the former Will Vinton Studios, famous for the California Raisins, after the company had fallen on hard times.

This fall the company is wrapping production on its first feature, the stop-motion “Coraline,” helmed by Laika supervising director Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”).

Laika is financing the film, based on the book by Neil Gaiman, with Focus Features to distribute. It is skedded for wide release beginning Feb. 6, 2009.

Lead animator on “Coraline” and head of animation for Laika is Travis Knight, son of the Nike founder. Travis Knight was already working as an animator at Vinton when his father bought the company and rebranded it.

Now, Laika is taking out three pitches, any one of which could be its next project. Ultimately, it may produce all three:

  • “Here Be Monsters!” from the books by Alan Snow, is a steampunk-flavored story set in a fantasy version of 1850s London. The hero is a 12-year-old who’s grown up in an underground world beneath the city that is full of monsters but must find his way in the world when he moves to the surface to live like a normal boy.

British writer Irena Brignell is penning the script; Antony Stacchi (“Open Season”) would direct.

Stacchi calls the project “Dickensian” and “Python-esque.” It could be either CG or stop-motion.

  • “Jack and Ben,” an original for CG animation, revolves around brother bluebirds who get into a dangerous road-rally-style race to Florida along the north-south migration route. Barry Cook (“Mulan”) would direct, David Skelly is writing and Ric Sluiter (“Lilo & Stitch”) is art director.

“What ‘Finding Nemo’ did under the water, we want to do in the air,” said Fiona Kenshole, VP of development acquisitions for Laika.

Cook said the project features quirky characters inspired by the real-life Gumball Rally road race.

  • “Paranorman,” an original idea by “Coraline” story chief Chris Butler, concerns a small town under a secret curse. Only a 13-year-old boy can keep the town from being overrun by zombies, but no one will listen to him.

Pic could be stop-motion or CG. Butler is writer and co-director. The project is being developed under Selick’s close supervision.

For “Coraline,” Laika put up the entire production budget of $50 million-$70 million. For all three pitches, however, the company is seeking 50-50 partnerships.

Kenshole said Laika is looking for a niche that is edgier than that of most of its competish, while still being commercial.

“We’re to the left of Pixar and to the right of ‘Nightmare Before Christmas,’ ” Kenshole told Daily Variety.

“There’s a lot of people moving into animation, and what they do is copycat. The world isn’t waiting for another Pixar and another DreamWorks. We want a slate that’s uniquely ours, that hits the four quadrants and is commercial, but is really, really strong, based on good storytelling.”

Laika is also well into development on three more projects to be pitched in future months:

  • “The Wall and the Wing,” adapted by “Lost” co-creator Jeffrey Lieber from the novel by Laura Ruby. Story is about a parallel contemporary Manhattan where everyone can fly except one girl — but she can make herself invisible.

  • An untitled comedy-adventure story based on a young-adult trilogy. Dick Clement and Ian La Franais (“The Commitments,” “Flushed Away”) are penning the script. Courtney Pledger and Sarah Radclyffe are attached as producers.

  • An original story about the origins of Halloween by Selick and John Carls. Carls (“Open Season”) is producing.

Phil Knight is “in this for the long run,” said Nike vet and Laika CEO Dale Wahl. “One thing that points to his commitment is the fact that he went out and bought some land for a Laika campus.”

The company expects to break ground later this year on that 30-acre campus in Tualitin, Ore. Designed by the same architects as the Nike campus, it will bring the CG and stop-motion operations together, though the company’s commercials division, House, will likely remain closer to downtown Portland.

Laika now employs approximately 550 people, with some 100 in the House division.

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