Warner Bros. has big ambitions for its animation division, and the studio has zeroed in on the talent to help steer the ship on two popular properties.
Sources tell Variety that Warners and Warner Animation Group (WAG) are in negotiations with “Shaft” helmer Tim Story to direct the new “Tom and Jerry” live-action/animated hybrid. The studio has also brought on Chris Columbus as creative producer on the new “Scooby-Doo” animated movie.
Warners has been strengthening its animation slate since production on the “The Lego Movie,” which coincided with the formation of Warner Animation Group in 2013. Allison Abbate was tapped to oversee the division and executives, including Jesse Ehrman and president of production Courtenay Valenti, have made a big push to get classic titles like the Hanna-Barbera properties off the ground.
The studio understands how much of its history is rooted in these iconic characters, and wants to give them as much attention as DC and Harry Potter projects.
Warner Bros. is aiming for a balance of animated features and live-action hybrids, and in a rare move, the studio has made a concerted effort to make sure the animation and live-action teams are working hand in hand in developing these projects, something rarely seen at other studios. Executives also understand that for the animation to be strong for the hybrid projects, the VFX some studios use won’t work as well as going through the animation process, starting with storyboarding the characters, instead of pre-vis, to help develop each individual’s arc.
“Tom and Jerry” is expected to be the first live-action hybrid to shoot in 2019 and insiders say timing helped when it came to landing the “Ride Along” director, who had worked in animation. Story recently finished production on New Line’s “Shaft” reboot, and was talking to WB execs about what he was interested in doing next. When the classic cartoon property was brought up, Story immediately mentioned his admiration for the characters and how he’d love tackling that property.
For that film, the plan is to shoot in the real world with animated versions of the familiar cat and mouse duo. Sources also say that since Tom and Jerry didn’t speak and relied on physical comedy to draw laughs, this version will stick to that style and not cast actors to voice the duo. That decision should also help add to the international appeal of the film.
The other major live-action hybrid expected to go next year is the sequel to “Space Jam,” with NBA superstar LeBron James stepping into Michael Jordan’s shoes as he teams up with the Looney Tunes on the court this time around. “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler is producing with Terence Nance directing. Production is expected to kick off next summer during James’ NBA off-season.
The studio is also making a “Wile E. Coyote vs. ACME” hybrid feature, with Chris McKay from the Lego universe helping shepherd development.
On the animation side, the untitled Scooby-Doo movie is full steam ahead with an expected release date in the first quarter of 2020. Columbus’ interest in the film started when he was developing the “Gremlins” reboot, which he is producing. Insiders say his affection for the character and WB animation was apparent, and he was soon asked to join the production as a creative producer working side by side with director Tony Cervone. Kelly Fremon Craig is writing the screenplay from a draft by Jack Donaldson and Derek Elliott. Matt Lieberman penned first draft.
WAG is also gearing up on its “Jetsons” movie with Matt Lieberman and “Sausage Party” director Conrad Vernon, and is also in deep development on “Flintstones” and “Wacky Races” features.
Outside of the classic cartoons, the Lego universe is still a major focus, with the sequel to “The Lego Movie 2” set for Feb. 8, 2019.
The studio clearly sees this division as one of its top priorities going forward in terms of building its business for years to come. As for all the DC-related properties and the possibility of giving them the animated treatment, one studio insider said, “don’t count anything out.”