Architect behind Marvel film division eyes similar strategy at Rovio

Development on an “Angry Birds” movie is taking flight now that Rovio has tapped former Marvel Studios chairman David Maisel as a special adviser to the company behind the blockbuster mobile game.

Maisel was instrumental in turning Marvel’s film division into a standalone shingle, securing $525 million in credit for the company in 2005 to develop and finance its own slate of pics, beginning with “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk.” He also facilitated the talks that resulted in Marvel’s $4 billion sale to Disney.

Rovio execs haven’t been shy about saying they wants the company to become another Pixar. Rovio CEO Mikael Hed told Variety that he’s interested in replicating the kind of business model Maisel put together at Marvel — which would enable the company to independently grow its brand, creatively and financially.

But as opposed to other mobile gamemakers that produce a number of titles they hope will catch on, Rovio is focused solely on turning “Angry Birds” into a larger entertainment franchise that can evolve from games into animated shorts, movies, TV shows and licensed merchandise. The cellphone game has been downloaded more than 250 million times since its launch late in 2009.

In the game, players use a slingshot to help a flock of animated birds destroy a group of evil pigs who stole their eggs.

In addition to the fan frenzy over new levels, including a tie-in with Fox toon “Rio,” the property’s push into licensed merchandise has already sold more than 2 million plush characters; a cookbook is upcoming.

Maisel will now shepherd Rovio’s entertainment strategy moving forward. He has already begun conversations with screenwriters and directors to tackle the “Angry Birds” feature. He will exec produce the pics.

“There has been so much chatter about an ‘Angry Birds’ movie, but it’s now real,” Maisel told Variety. “The process is starting now.”

The exec, who previously worked at Disney and CAA, has been considering his next move since leaving Marvel at the end of 2009, when Disney took control of the comicbook company. Kevin Feige remains in charge of the film arm as prexy. Maisel had been at Marvel since 2003 and gets an exec producer credit on the “Iron Man” pics, “Hulk,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

Maisel saw the opportunity in growing “Angry Birds” given the worldwide popularity of the game across a wide demographic.

“People are interacting with these characters six inches from them each time they play, and that creates an emotional connection,” Maisel said. “This is not an American thing. It’s not even a Finnish thing. It’s a global thing that’s something I’ve never seen before. It will be exciting to expand (this intellectual property) within Hollywood.”

The games themselves would be used to market the film when ready for release, giving Rovio “the ability to speak directly to its fanbase,” Maisel said.

Rovio has already been making moves to step up its expansion plans for the property, buying Finnish animation studio Kombo last month and raising $42 million in financing last March from Accel Partners and Atomico Ventures (formed by Skype co-founder Niklas Zennstrom). Kombo will start working on a series of short films starring the “Angry Birds” characters that will eventually lead to the feature film.

“We’re building a media company and have always been interested in moving further into the entertainment space,” Hed said. “But we are taking it one step at a time so that we can use our strength to build an important entertainment presence from outside of the major studios.” That strategy doesn’t exclude working with the studios, however: The company is eventually looking to partner with a major to distribute films.

Hed compared Maisel with George Lucas. They are “two people I know that have gone outside the studio system and built a very significant entertainment business that managed to break through on the movie side. Since that’s our aspiration as well — and George Lucas was unavailable — David was really the best person we could have hoped to work with.”

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