Forging stop-motion future

'Coraline' company readies lineup as Selick moves on

Laika got lucky its first time out, earning both impressive box office and an Oscar nomination for its debut feature, “Coraline.” But where does the Portland, Ore.-based animation studio go from here?

Owned by Nike impresario Phil Knight and overseen by his son Travis, Laika still has a lot to prove, especially after allowing “Coraline” director Henry Selick’s contract to expire last fall. Selick is arguably the world’s top stop-motion talent, and many practitioners of the form relocated from Northern California to Portland to work on “Coraline.”

Now that he’s left, Selick plans to set up shop back in the Bay Area and get to work soon on one of three projects he’s been developing. “The first is an original piece, something that I cooked up a long, long time ago and had written an 80-page treatment with dialogue. It’s probably the most like ‘Coraline’ in that it’s about a haunted house and a supernatural curse on a family. It would be the most logical,” he says. Also in the works is another novel by “Coraline” author Neil Gaiman (not “The Graveyard Book,” he says, since Neil Jordan and the Frame Store are tackling that one) and an adaptation of another writer’s book, radically different from Selick’s earlier films.

The director says he isn’t worried about starting over without Laika, which wasn’t ready to move forward with another Selick-helmed endeavor. “Good projects attract good people,” he says. “I’ve done it before, where you find a warehouse and build a team.” Selick has a deal and hopes to get greenlights on two pics simultaneously and then stagger them.

Laika is being more cautious. The studio was expected to announce its second feature last summer, but deferred, and though it has a healthy lineup of potential projects (including adaptation of Alan Snow’s “Here Be Monsters!” and internally generated ideas, like the zombie comedy “Paranorman” pitched by Chris Butler), Laika has been reluctant to reveal its next move.

What Travis Knight will concede is, “We have put our next film into pre-production, and we anticipate going into production later this year, with the idea that we will release in 2012.” Like “Coraline,” it would be designed in stereoscopic 3D for a targeted audience. According to Knight, telling unique stories for niche auds is one of the luxuries of working at Laika. “We are not part of some huge multinational media conglomerate that can only make four-quadrant films. We are wholly independent, which gives us the freedom to produce bold and more distinctive films.”

With “Coraline,” Laika found a financing and distribution partner in Focus Features. The film marked Focus’ first stab at animation (along with 2009 toon “9”), and though the company has no other animated films in development, CEO James Schamus says, “The door is absolutely open. We waded into the death zone, which is to say PG-13 animation, and it helped us stretch in a new way, which crossed into one of the biggest audiences we’ve ever had.”

Laika is looking for fresh backers going forward, but it isn’t trying to rush things.

“History is a good guide for these sorts of things,” Travis Knight says. “Looking at Pixar, it took them three years between their first two films. Same for PDI and Blue Sky. It typically takes awhile to get this stuff up and going.”

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