Animator banks on 'Gruffalo' for sequel and ancillary coin

Magic Light Pictures doesn’t just turn out animated fare — but don’t tell that to the ardent supporters of such films as “Chico & Rita,” and “The Gruffalo.”

The studio’s first animated feature, 2011′s “Chico & Rita,” earned an animated feature nom at the Academy Awards. That follows an animated short film Oscar nom in 2010 for “The Gruffalo,” which has spawned a sequel and a licensing push.

The shingle came into being nine years ago, the combination of partners Michael Rose, a former producer at Aardman who launched the animation studio’s feature division, and Martin Pope, a former BBC producer with credits on John Madden’s “Meat” and “A Question of Attribution.” At the time, animation wasn’t at the top of Magic Light’s production requirements.

“We were less concerned about how something was made, whether it was live-action or animation, than what you’re making and who you’re making it for,” Pope says.

Still, “Gruffalo” and “Chico & Rita” got their start shortly after the studio’s founding in 2003. “Chico & Rita” was a passion project for Mariscal and writer Fernando Trueba that fit the high-minded goals Pope and Rose had for London-based Magic Light.

Financing the $13 million project was complex, Rose says. “The general reaction was this is a great project, but it’s risky — it’s animation for grown-ups,” Pope says. About half the funding came from sources in Spain, such as Television Espanola; with the U.K. equity fund CinemaNX signing on as a major backer.

Mariscal and his Barcelona-based crew handled all the core creative work, such a preproduction, while animation director Tono Errando kept a tight control on work outsourced to other studios. The result premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 2010.

Rose says financial success for this kind of film depends on finding partners in each territory that are passionate about the film. He cites indie distrib GKids, which began an exclusive U.S. run Feb. 10 at the Angelika Film Center in New York. The film eventually platfomed in 23 theaters and has earned some $350,000 in the U.S.; it’s taken in $1.8 million overseas.

The sequel to “Gruffalo,” “The Gruffalo’s Child,” aired this past Christmas, drawing a similarly large audience and critical plaudits. Having raised the $2.5 million needed to make each short privately, Magic Light had complete creative control over the project.

” ‘The Gruffalo’ can be a character that’s around for years, and can become a classic like Winnie the Pooh,” Rose says.

The studio manages the licensing for “The Gruffalo,” which it wants to develop into an international children’s brand. In the U.K., Magic Light has signed up 35 licensees offering 250 different products; a few products already are on American shelves.

Up next for Magic Light is another half-hour special, “Room on the Broom,” based on a Halloween-themed children’s book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.

Beyond animation, Magic Light has a documentary, “One Life,” which earned a million admissions in Japan, and a comedy in development with writer Lucinda Coxon.

But for now, animation remains the main focus, with “Room on the Broom” to air on BBC this Christmas.

“We wanted to ensure that everything we did with (“Gruffalo”) took a long-term view. Everything we do is done with that in mind.”

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