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Selick puts stop motion in Focus

'Coraline' director teams for creepy kids's tale

Neil Gaiman’s creepy children’s story “Coraline” has had many forms (including an upcoming Off-Broadway musical with songs by Magnetic Fields mastermind Stephin Merritt), but the new stop-motion animated film has been in production longer than the original book has been on shelves.

The pic has an impressive pedigree — both the Newbery-winning Gaiman and helmer Henry Selick have sizable followings and critical cachet — but cashing in on stop-motion films can be a longterm prospect.

Gaiman took his work to “The Nightmare Before Christmas” director Henry Selick in 2000, two years before HarperCollins released the book. Selick read it and immediately called former Fox Film CEO Bill Mechanic.

Mechanic and Selick have a history of sticking together: When the exec headed Fox Film during the ’90s, he shepherded Selick’s “Monkeybone” — one of the many features that included animation which the exec was boosting in an effort to gain a foothold in Disney territory. (At the time, the Mouse House looked vulnerable with underperformers like “Hercules.”) But when Mechanic left Fox a week after the disappointing preem of “Titan A.E.” in 2000, “Monkeybone” — all $75 million of it — was left without a champion and got lost in the release schedule. The dark film, which starred Brendan Fraser as an animator beset by nightmares, ended up with $5.4 million in the U.S.

“Coraline” is Mechanic’s first high-profile venture since 2005’s “The New World” (on which, like “Coraline,” he served as exec producer) but he’s stuck to it with the same attention he gave his other animated projects. “Bill couldn’t do an animated film because his output deal was with Disney,” Selick recalls, “so we went through this charade of pretending that it was going to be live action.”

As years went by, Selick polished the screenplay with Gaiman’s blessing, and eventually found a home at Portland animation house Laika, where he is now supervising director.

For Focus, the film represents a significant risk, although Laika is sharing marketing and distribution costs. It’s the studio’s first kidpic, as well as the first solo venture from Laika, which teamed with Tim Burton Animation for the helmer’s “The Corpse Bride.”

While there’s a good possibility the new movie could catch on with the same goth/geek crowd that loves “Nightmare,” Focus is hoping the pic, which is being released in 3-D as well in an otherwise kidpic free window, will break out beyond the fanboys and girls.

Studios have found that the painstakingly made stop-motion pics sometimes pay off in surprising ways. Selick has said that nobody was more surprised than Disney at the success of “Nightmare.” Disney was unsure of the pic’s prospects at first, but now re-releases the film annually, put out a commemorative DVD set last year, and has rebranded its “Haunted Mansion” rides with the film’s characters.

Then there’s DreamWorks’ “Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” which pulled in only $50 million in the U.S., even with a huge marketing push and good reviews, but then made another $57 million in the U.K., making it one of the most successful British films ever — a totally different success story from the distrib’s other Aardman Studios stop-motion comedy, “Chicken Run.” That pic broke $100 million Stateside.

At the end of the day, Selick says that he thinks the “Nightmare” model is the most viable one for his brand of animated film. “They do have an incredibly long life,” he says of the genre.

“You just have to have the patience.”

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