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Aardman, DWA end partnership

Move comes after failures of 'Rabbit,' 'Flushed'

After a critically lauded but commercially troubled six-year partnership with DreamWorks Animation, Aardman is back on its own.

The British claymation giant, best known for its signature Wallace and Gromit characters and 2000 hit “Chicken Run,” officially terminated its five-picture deal with DreamWorks on Tuesday.

Move was widely expected after the financial failures of “Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and “Flushed Away” (Daily Variety, Nov. 13). The former was a claymation pic made by Aardman and distribbed by DWA, the latter a CGI collaboration between the two companies.

Aardman is back in development on several films inhouse. Having long established its claymation prowess, company’s in the midst of building up CGI capabilities, meaning it could potentially produce pics in both formats.

How it will finance those movies, and how they will reach the market, is now an open question. A rep would say only that Aardman execs are looking at several different options.

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Possibilities include slate financing from private equity money, a one-off deal with a studio for its next pic or a new multifilm deal.

Only project Aardman has in production is CBS claymation series “Creature Comforts.” Eye net ordered seven episodes last year and hasn’t yet skedded the show, though it was announced as a midseason replacement for 2006-07. It could still air in the spring or get pushed back to the summer or fall.

Skein could be another test of whether U.S. auds have cooled on Aardman’s claymation style and quirky British humor, which stands in sharp contrast to the fast-paced, jokey CG toons of DreamWorks and most other American animation studios.

If it fails, U.S. studios may find it tough to justify picking up the next Aardman project, even though its work is widely lauded by critics and industryites.

“Chicken Run” grossed a solid $106.8 million in 2000, but 2005’s “Wallace & Gromit” made only $56.1 million Stateside, while last fall’s “Flushed Away,” which cost well over $100 million to make, grossed only $63.4 million. (“Gromit” did better overseas, but “Flushed” was a worldwide disappointment.)

DreamWorks Animation had to take writedowns due to the weak performance of the two recent pics.

Likelihood that the companies would sever relations became clear in recent months. There was the “Flushed” flop — and DreamWorks announced its slate through 2009 without any pics from its British partner. All its upcoming movies are in the hip, sarcastic vein of toon studio’s franchises “Madagascar” and “Shrek,” sequels of which are in the works.

“The business model of DreamWorks no longer suits Aardman and vice versa,” Aardman spokesman Arthur Sheriff said. “But the split couldn’t have been more amicable.”

Companies had one pic in development, “Crood Awakening,” which was announced at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival and penned by John Cleese. Rights to the project revert to DreamWorks, though it’s unlikely to see the light of day.

Aardman was founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton in 1976. They were later joined by Nick Park, who won Oscars for three of his animated shorts and the “Wallace & Gromit” feature.

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