Viacom backs animator Rainbow, which sends 'Gladiators' out globally

While next year is shaping up as a critical one for the Italo toon biz, which will see two animated feature films in international release for the first time in decades, one particularly interested watcher will be Viacom. The conglom last year took a 30% stake in Iginio Straffi’s Rainbow Studios, which sells animated TV series “The Winx Club” to 130 markets globally, and produces stereo 3D pic “Gladiators of Rome,” one of the films that will get worldwide play, along with Enzo D’Alo’s “Pinocchio,” Italy’s answer to the 1940 Disney movie.

“Gladiators,” a romantic comedy set in and around the Roman Colosseum of antiquity, with a contempo message against cheating in sports, will make a play for U.S. auds via Paramount in April 2013, after launching earlier in Russia, via Novus Alliance, and South Korea, via Joy. While the film has slightly underperformed in Italy, pulling in $4.5 million since its Oct. 18 release via Medusa, it nevertheless almost doubled the Italo take for “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” and bested local box office of other Hollywood toons. And Straffi believes the film could work better for international auds.

“Romans hardly ever go to the Colosseum,” he notes. “But in Asia, in the U.S. and elsewhere, gladiators have a huge mystique.”

Alfio Bastiancich, head of Italo animators org Asifa Italia, considers Straffi a global producer “who can wink at Hollywood, but also has the ability to look toward Asia.” “Gladiators” is conceived as a blockbuster for the international market, he notes.

“Pinocchio,” meanwhile, aims to parlay the notoriety of its story to make its way around the world. The film could help relaunch European auteur animation, Bastiancich says.

In adapting the book, written in 1881 by Italian author Carlo Collodi (and since translated into more than 300 languages) the aim of Italian animator Enzo D’Alo (“The Blue Arrow,” “Lucky and Zorba”) was to present an Italian Pinocchio. “The one that was missing,” he says. “Disney made a very beautiful film — but it’s not the real story.”

For starters, D’Alo, says, the Mouse House set the story in Switzerland, not in Tuscany which is where Collodi placed it. “Outside Italy, many people think of ‘Pinocchio’ as Disney’s creation, but it’s not,” notes D’Alo, who spent almost 10 years to get his take on the Tuscan log-headed lad off the ground.

“Pinocchio” is the first European animation feature made with Canadian company Toon Boom Harmony Software, which Disney used for “Winnie the Pooh.”

Co-produced by Italy’s Cometa Film, Luxembourg’s Iris, Gaul’s 2d3D Animations and Belgium’s Walking the Dog, the pic is designed by Lorenzo Mattotti, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, among other publications, and in portmanteau pic “Fear(s) of the Dark.”

D’Alo’s film will be released next year, on Feb. 21, in Italy via Lucky Red, and day-and-date in its co-producing territories (Italy, France, Belgium and Luxembourg). French sales company Rezo Films has already inked sales to South Korea, Scandinavia and Turkey, among other territories, following its bow at the Venice fest in September.

But “Gladiators of Rome” and “Pinocchio” aren’t the only Italo animated features targeted to the international market. Also in the pipeline is “Marco Polo,” a project being touted as the first international animated co-production co-financed by the Chinese government.

The pic, created by Turin’s Lastrego & Testa Studios, is being co-produced by China’s CCTV, Italo pubcaster RAI’s RAI Fiction, and Blue Dolphin animation in Nanjing, China. Plans call for the tale of the Venetian merchant explorer who ventured to Asia when he was 17 and became a buddy of Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan to first become a TV series that will air on CCTV, and then get bigscreen treatment. The project, started in 2009, stalled due to rewrites dictated by China, and is again going forward.

Television also has been an entry point for Italian animation into the U.S. Mondo TV recently announced a licence agreement with eOne for North American homevid rights to it’s “Puppy in My Pocket” series, which airs Stateside on Cartoon Network’s Boomerang Channel.

Bastiancich, for one, sees “Marco Polo” as material that, besides China and Italy, is well suited for play in other territories. “It’s a huge opportunity for us,” he says.

What: Rainbow Studios’ “Gladiators of Rome” is one of two Italian toons headed for global play.

The takeaway: Viacom owns 30% of Rainbow, demonstrating the globalization of animated films.

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