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Paramount ramping up animation slate

Studio developing toon projects from Nickelodeon, Abrams, Parent

Paramount Pictures’ animation division has kept a low profile since its launch last summer, announcing few projects other than a sequel to “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” set for release in 2014 and tapping former Walt Disney Animation prexy David Stainton as its toon topper — only to watch him ankle four months later.

But with DreamWorks Animation in talks to move to another studio, Par is dealing with the prospect of losing its most lucrative partner by ramping up a homegrown slate of family fare.

Studio has hired seven scribes to tackle projects, some of which Mary Parent and J.J. Abrams are shepherding.

For its first follow-up to 2011’s “Rango,” Par turned to DWA vets Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who wrote “Kung Fu Panda 2,” to pen “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie 2,” which Paul Tibbitt (a scribe for the TV series) will direct and show creator Stephen Hillenburg is exec producing. Parent, also behind Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim,” will produce.It’s safe to say Par is eager to keep animated films on the sked: Since 2006, the studio has earned more than $700 million in fees for distributing DWA’s films theatrically and on homevideo. And with much of its summer fare shifted into 2013 and beyond, Par’s highest-grossing pics this year stand to be “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” and “Rise of the Guardians.”

To start filling a pipeline, Paramount chief Brad Grey is turning to sister division Nickelodeon to supply much of the IP. Though development has not begun yet, possible Nickelodeon products that could be turned into films include “Dora the Explorer,” “The Legend of Korra” and “Monkey Quest.” Company boasts a strong consumer products, travel and resorts biz to boost future pics’ earnings potential.

The division is also trying to spark development with on-the-lot filmmakers who have no prior animation experience — Parent and Abrams among them. Details of Abrams’ project have yet to be revealed, but Parent and producing partner Cale Boyter also are overseeing “New Kid,” an adaptation of Penny Arcade’s comicbook that “The Book of Eli’s” Gary Whitta is writing about a lone earthling in a school for aliens.

When Paramount Animation was announced July 2011, many in Hollywood suspected it was launched in part to leverage a better deal with DWA. Stainton’s abrupt departure in February — leaving Par Motion Picture Group prexy Adam Goodman overseeing the fledgling label — only fueled that perception.

But since then, Viacom prexy-CEO Philippe Dauman has backed the effort. He indicated that Par aims to keep budgets around $100 million or less — along the lines of Illumination Entertainment’s “Despicable Me,” which cost Universal $69 million, and the fourth “Ice Age,” made by Fox’s Blue Sky Studios for around $90 million. Headcount will be 30-40 people.

“In comparison to other animation houses, we utilize a smaller staff and have a less rigid structure and operation, which we think makes us more flexible and nimble,” Goodman told Variety. “It’s an approach that is consistent with our overall culture.”

It’s atypical of Paramount to discuss projects in development, which will be the case for animated films as well, given “competition in the animated world,” Goodman said. “The longer-than-average development time for animated films requires some level of secrecy to ensure the kind of original ideas being developed here are protected, so holding back on specific announcements enables us to reveal projects when they are further along in the creative process.”

The launch of Par’s animation division marks its first official return to the genre since 1967, when Paramount Cartoon Studios shuttered. It has released animated films since then, including the first “SpongeBob” pic in 2004 and features based on Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats” and “Jimmy Neutron.” There are also “The Adventures of Tintin” and “Rango,” the latter of which won the animated feature Oscar in 2011.

While critics embraced “Rango,” the $135 million-budgeted pic helmed by Gore Verbinski with voice work by Johnny Depp wasn’t a runaway hit, earning $245 million at the worldwide box office. (Compare that to “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” which has earned $548 million globally since June 8, with some markets still to open).

As Par moves ahead with its own toons, DreamWorks Animation hopes to have a new distribution pact in place by Labor Day, with Sony and Fox now considering deals, according to Jeffrey Katzenberg. With that deadline looming, he is looking to lock down a low distribution fee (its current arrangement is 8% with Par), prime release dates and control over video-on-demand and other digital deals with companies like Netflix.

Par had wanted a higher fee — which included theatrical and homevideo releases — but DWA balked. DWA explored an option to self-distribute its own films but found the effort too expensive to pursue.

Wherever DWA lands will have its hands full with movies: Toon shop already has 10 pics in production and another eight or nine in development. It has recently announced a third “Kung Fu Panda” as a Chinese co-production through Oriental DreamWorks.

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