Visual effects help sell dinosaur pic

StudioCanal greenlights after being sold on filmmakers' CGI pitch

Six months from pitch to production is swift by any standards.

StudioCanal’s “Dinosaur Project,” which starts shooting this month in South Africa and is yet to settle on a title, represents a new, accelerated approach to developing a vfx-driven movie on a budget.

Judging by the strong pre-sales from the teaser trailer shown at Berlin in February, it’s an experiment that’s already paying off.

In November, TV programmakers Sid Bennett and Tom Pridham and producer Nick Hill walked into the London office of StudioCanal with an idea for a movie about a father-and-son documentary team who discover dinosaurs in the African jungle.

They had an outline, a showreel, a budget, a plan for the vfx and a clear timetable to progress rapidly into production — but no script.

StudioCanal took the bait.

“The element that made us bite is that they offered a very realistic route at getting something made with a quick turnaround at the right price and with the right level of ambition,” says Jenny Borgars, head of production at StudioCanal’s U.K. arm Optimum Releasing. Budget is under $16 million.

Writer-director Bennett and d.p. Pridham previously worked together on CGI-driven nature docs and dramas for the likes of Discovery and Animal Planet.

“It was a very gettable pitch — what would happen if you went into the jungle and found dinosaurs?” Borgars recalls. “Traditionally, if someone came to us with this great idea, we’d hire a writer, develop a script and then work out how to do the effects and what they would cost. In my imagination, you could only achieve that with a studio-style set-up at great expense.

“But what was different about Sid and Tom was that they had the experience, and already knew how to do it at a price, and quickly. They said they could deliver a certain number of setpiece moments for the budget, including the money shot where you’d see a significant amount of dinosaurs.”

After signing a contract within six weeks of that first meeting, Optimum’s development team worked with the filmmakers to flesh out the characterization, story arc, drama and dialogue.

Taking the vfx as a starting point for script development, rather than an afterthought, is “a new way of looking at things,” Hill says. “We think this could be a very interesting way to make a number of films over a short space of time.”

Borgars found it an eye-opening experience to develop a script with filmmakers who know what the latest vfx technology can achieve. “You’re coming at the story from a different way. It has opened a door to us to realize the level of expertise within London’s vfx houses, and we are starting to use that knowledge for our other films.”

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