Indie animators try to go feature route

Tooners think bigscreen gamble could pay off

HOLLYWOOD — Making a high-end animated feature is an $80 million to $100 million bet only the biggest studios can lay down.

But that hasn’t kept indies from jumping into the fray in recent months, with projects considerably less ambitious or expensive than anything from Disney or DreamWorks.

These execs see the feature route — rather than scrambling endlessly to win someone else’s work-for-hire jobs — as a highway to financial health in a notoriously cyclical business.

A hit developed inhouse means a company can reap nearly endless revenues from DVD and video, merchandising and TV spinoffs — if the shingle can line up enough financing and effective distribution on the front end.

The perils are many. Claymation pioneer Will Vinton, failed to capitalize on the feature animation boom, losing his job and control of his studio in a tussle with Nike founder Phil Knight, who bought a majority stake. And even a modest hit like Artisan’s “Jonah” last fall didn’t stop a huge shakeup at creator Big Idea Prods. this spring.

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Says Jackie Lynette of DKP Effects: “The market is fluctuating so much, it’s do your own project or die.”

Part of the appeal: The economics of animation have changed, making smaller projects feasible.

Production costs, especially for computer-based animation projects, are dropping. And thanks to the DVD boom and multiplying cable outlets, backend opportunities are bigger than ever, and not just for kid-oriented fare.

The challenge is getting a project onscreen. Companies are taking many paths to get there.

Some want or need a big distrib to splash their project across 2,000 screens. Other projects are so modestly budgeted that a specialty distrib or home-entertainment division can handle the deal. Others want to tap new opportunities such as digital cinema.

Among the projects under way or just now surfacing:

  • Atlanta’s Fathom Studios is financing the CGI project “Delgo” with the very deep pockets of longtime backers.

Fathom co-founder Marc Adler says the film’s budget is “not north of $80 million. But independent isn’t inexpensive. It’s tens of millions of dollars.”

Fathom has readied a trailer, scads of merchandise and a Web site. But scaring up angel financing was a necessity, not a choice.

“We’re a relatively unknown studio, with no Hollywood connections, making our first feature film,” Adler says. “Our hand was forced on this one.”

  • DKP Effects, by contrast, created an inexpensive hybrid format, “DVDn,” that is part game, part movie and runs on any DVD player.

DKP hopes to leverage success from its first DVDn, the Dungeons & Dragons-based “Scourge of Worlds,” to incubate other features and attract financing and distribution. “Scourge” is being distributed by Warner’s Rhino imprint.

  • The Romp’s approach mixes those of Fathom and DKP. It started as an online site whose biggest property was an adult-oriented, choose-your-path series named “Booty Call.”

That show became the feature-length “When Booty Calls,” made for less than $10 million by about 50 CalArts-trained animators using Macromedia’s inexpensive Flash animation program.

Production wrapped this spring, and studio buyers were screening the project late this week. A top cable channel also has discussed spinning off a “Booty Call” series.

“We believe this is going to be the independent project that gets on the bigscreen,” says Romp co-founder Eric Eisner.

  • Another Net vet, scripter John Ridley, made a live-action feature of his online “Undercover Brother” series. This week, Urban Entertainment is releasing his latest project, a DVD-based animated sci-fi tale, “Those Who Walk in Darkness.” Rapper Lil’ Kim voices the lead character.

  • IDT Media sees animation as a growth opportunity and a way to better use its parent company’s worldwide telco networks. It just bought animation house Film Roman to heighten its Hollywood presence and capacity.

Projects include sci-fier “Star Point Academy” created with Gene Roddenberry’s widow.

“We’re focused on owning intellectual property,” says Morris Berger, IDT Media’s business development VP. “We structure deals so we can participate on the backend.”

  • Mike Young Prods., one of L.A.’s biggest indie houses, has a modestly budgeted 2-D project with Warner Bros. and a CGI project for about $20 million that it is setting up at a major.

‘It’s probably as good in quality as $80 million features of a couple of years back,” says partner Mike Young, whose company has created TV shows such as “Butt Ugly Martians” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog.”

Young says feature costs have plunged because animators are more experienced, and hardware and software are both cheaper and more powerful.

Long-term, Young believes cheap animated features will provide a steady programming source for kid-friendly matinees in the flexible digital-cinema systems of the future.

  • Toymaker Lego recently spun off its media division so it could take on non-Lego projects. The resulting production company, Create TV & Film, will still make Lego-related features like the direct-to-video “Bionicle: Mask of Light” and a “Bionicle” feature due 2005. Miramax and Buena Vista are handling both. But it also plans to make a wide range of non-Lego children’s fare in coming years.