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Starz are the Limit: The Word on the Growing Studio

Rick DeMott had a chance to chat with Heather Kenyon, Head of Sales and Project Development at Starz Animation, to find out more about the growing studio.

eather Kenyon lounging on the Great Wall of China.

With the success of 9, Starz Animation has become a hot animation studio. We wanted to get to know more about the growing mini-major and see what they are up to. I had a chance to chat with Heather Kenyon, Head of Sales and Project Development at Starz Animation. If you don't already know Ms. Kenyon is then you should. She's one of the most knowledgeable and hard-working animation execs around. She started her animation career at Hanna-Barbera and for a time served as the editor-in-chief of this very website. She followed that up with a successful run at Cartoon Network where she helped such shows as Chowder and Flapjack to the air.

Rick DeMott: What is your role at Starz?

Heather Kenyon:

Since I started in this newly created position in May, my mandate has been really clear: find cool new projects that we can get involved in!  Now, how we are involved can happen a number of different ways.  We have three paths to keep the studio growing.  One is to track down service work.  Two is to find co-productions and co-ventures that we can participate in, and three, to begin to develop a slate of proprietary projects.

RD: How are Starz Animation Toronto and Starz Media related? Do you collaborate with Film Roman?


Starz Media is our parent.  Film Roman and Starz Animation Toronto are side-by-side under the umbrella known as Starz Animation.  Film Roman, which produces the animation for The Simpsons, of course, but also Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!, Marvel Entertainment’s new Super Hero Squad, the feature Dante’s Inferno (based on the EA game) and others, is 2D, 3D and Flash.  For most of our television and long form projects, storyboards, animatics and pre-production is done in-house, animation is done overseas.  Starz Animation Toronto is high-end CG only.  We have produced all of our work in house, in Toronto, to date -- this includes 9 and the current Gnomeo & Juliet -- in order to max out quality and take advantage of Canada’s great tax credits.  David Steinberg, head of Starz Animation Toronto, and Jay Fukuto, head of Film Roman, are close and we are working on several projects that will bring the studios closer.  We are sister studios and while the opportunity to work together hasn’t happened yet I think it will in the future.  Both studios are open and flexible and there have been several bids recently where we have looked at different configurations between the studios.  Or one studio has handed a project to bid off to the other.  Between the two studios we can produce in a number of different ways and hit a lot of different price points.

Under the Starz umbrella there are several other companies that we can work with as well -- like the Starz channels and Anchor Bay Entertainment for home entertainment.  I am still learning about different companies that Liberty owns.  It is so big!  Just the other day I learned we owned the Atlanta Braves baseball team too!

RD: What is the reaction and mood toward 9 at the company?


We are all so excited to see it come out to such a strong critical response and great box office numbers.  I was at the crew screening in Toronto a few weeks ago and it was so exciting!  They worked so hard to get the film done in 15 months and it looks great.  We have such amazing talent in Toronto.  And I think it shows here -- what they can do.  David Steinberg has worked hard to bring in great projects and so we have attracted a fantastic group of artists.  We have everyone from industry veterans to new amazingly talented recruits right out of school.  We are also a bit of a United Nations, which is really neat.  Everyone involved can be super proud of this achievement for themselves and the studio.  David joined the studio just a little under three years ago. We have made or completed five features, with Miramax/Rocket Pictures' Gnomeo & Juliet being the fifth: an amazing streak for a relatively new independent studio, or for any studio for that matter! Our production pipeline is built and very well tested as a result of this.  I feel very lucky to be joining the company at this time -- this film proves to me that Starz is really leading the field in independent feature production.

9 has really put Starz Animation on the map for feature animation. © Focus Features.

RD: What are the expectations for 9 at the company?


We are really hoping that it helps expand the parameters of animation; and shows the entertainment community what we are capable of doing. The success of 9 rightly belongs with Focus Features and the filmmakers, but we take enormous pride in producing groundbreaking animation and doing it in an independent studio.

RD: What do you feel 9 will do for more mature animation in the U.S.?


One reason why I was so eager to join Starz Animation is because I think this area of animation is growing: the smaller, differently targeted animated feature.  The film-going audience is finally becoming one that grew up with anime on television and available on VHS (ha!) and DVD.  I think we are ready -- the marketplace -- for carefully placed, crafted and marketed “different” films.  But I still think they need to be handled well.  Focus Features has done an amazing job with 9, just as they did with Coraline.  My real hope is that with market success distributors will want to get involved with more animated features.

Video game prequels like Dead Space: Downfall are becoming quite popular. © Starz Media/Electronic Arts 2008

Film Roman has had quite a bit of success with Dead Space: Downfall, an animated prequel to EA’s Dead Space game (and, like that game, is definitely not for kids!). That collaboration went so well that we’re now working with EA on another project, Dante’s Inferno, in which our movie and their game will take audiences into the nine circles of hell.

RD: What's the status on Gnomeo & Juliet?

HK: Gnomeo & Juliet is in full swing!  And it is looking awesome!  A few months ago, we gave Sir Elton John and his partner David Furnish -- who are producing the film with Miramax -- a tour of the studio, so they could see the work being done, and they raved about it.  Right now because of this feature, along with a network television special we are animating and a short that’s in production, we are almost at capacity with over 300 people working at the studio.  The Toronto building is really humming.

RD: What kind of shorts are you working on?


We are always working on a short at the studio!  Isn’t that great?  The artists get together and pitch each other ideas and select one that then is completed at the studio.  The studio brass doesn’t have creative involvement -- it is all left up to the artists.  Our latest completed one is Enter The Sandbox.  Think of a classic Bruce Lee kung fu movie, but this one is set in a sandbox, with toddlers. It has already been accepted at a number of festivals -- it will be at Ottawa -- has received several awards and was directed by 9’s art director, Kevin Adams.  The one in production right now is called Ormie and is about a little pig trying to get some cookies.  Very cartoony and fun.

RD: Are there any more features in the works?


We are bidding on a number of different projects right now and some look very promising.  We are also solidifying our own slate of new projects but it is all a little too soon to announce anything.  We are looking forward to seeing what opportunities the release of 9produces.  And I have to say the last few weeks have been really great.  There has been a lot of interest from people we are reaching out to and a lot of neat projects being mentioned.

RD: What can you tell us about the Christmas special Starz is working on?


We’re not able to say much yet, but it’s a classic holiday tale that is bound to be one of those half hours that gets shown every year on the networks.

Film Roman recently produced the very adult direct-to-DVD The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, based on a comic by Rob Zombie. © Film Roman.

RD: What's the future of direct-to-DVD at the company?


I know all the talk is that DVD sales are slumping, but I think DVD still has an important role to play.  It can expand franchises and keep properties, famous characters, alive, especially as broadcast slots become harder and harder to obtain.  I think this space will change, but it isn’t going to go away.  We are predominately concentrating on features and DVD long forms.

RD: Are you open to working on other things?


Yes, of course!  Television and commercials… we are also going to be expanding more into animation over live-action plates, too.

RD: What types of projects are you looking for?


We are just, as I said at the top, looking for cool interesting projects that don’t feel like what everybody else in animation is producing, but that we believe wide audiences will take to.  It is fantastic to have the freedom we have.  For us it is all about identifying projects we feel have legs somewhere in the market and then moving forward.  How we move forward, which funding model we use, what partners we select, what form it takes -- feature, DVD, television -- is all open.  We would love to find more exciting projects for outside producers -- like 9 -- where our studio can deliver producers with a level of quality at a price-point they just can’t get anywhere else.  And then, when it comes to proprietary work, we are looking for projects that have strong partners attached.  In this economy it is much easier to band together and assume risk together.

RD: How do you feel the economic recession has affected the animation industry? Starz?


Independent investor-driven projects have clearly been hit hard.  There are several projects we were chasing that fell through as a result.  But by the same token, the economy underscores the need for a studio like Starz Animation Toronto, where high quality theatrical animation can be produced for so much less than the major studios typically spend.  We feel animated features that are made for less than $100 million -- in some cases way less -- is a growing niche.

On the TV side, I think this coming MIPCOM is going to be really interesting.  I am hoping that it is more upbeat and we see more people being able to put their projects together, get them funded.  I have heard from almost everyone across the board that it is “quiet.”  Yet at Film Roman we have just got a rush of new projects to bid so I think the tide is turning Animation has such a strong return on investment and long, long life on TV, which makes it hard to overlook, especially in this economy.  We have lots of work already on our plate, and -- fingers crossed -- we think the future looks bright for our niche.

Projects backed by big studios like Super Hero Squad are providing work for smaller studios during this tough economic time. © Cartoon Network/Marvel Entertainment 2009

RD: What's your opinion of the U.S. television animation market currently? How about globally?


Television is a tough marketplace right now, especially in children’s.  The television funding model was difficult prior to the recession and now it is only getting tighter.  What is more is the number of available animation slots is down as more live-action is being added to the kids networks across the board.  A lot of distributors I know are looking to diversify their catalogues, adding live-action, reality, to keep their profits up.  While it is easier for distributors and networks to diversify, it is harder for animation companies.  We aren’t going to start going out and do live-action!  So where we are looking to sell must become even broader and how we are funding must become even cleverer.  I think a lot of people are making their shows internationally and if they can back into the U.S. as an acquisition -- great!  But if they can’t, they have launched their show and are making a go of it without the U.S. On the flip side, we are getting a new major player with the addition of the new Hasbro network with Discovery, so it isn’t all doom and gloom.  Plus Disney’s XD is coming on strong.  I think soon we will have five networks in serious play in the U.S., plus several others, and that could help.  If, as we talked about earlier, a few more networks begin to pick up adult series there could be some bright spots.  And it’s still too early to discount the possibilities in the broadband space.

RD: Can I have a four-picture deal about a turtle that goes outside his shell and wackiness ensues?

HK: Uh… let me think about that one Rick.  My first thought is… no.  What did I tell you about “wackiness ensues!?”  In a show logline… it is always a sign of trouble.

Rick DeMott is the director of content for Animation World Network, VFXWorld and AWNtv. Additionally, he's the creator of the movie review site, Rick's Flicks Picks, which was recently named one of the 100 best movie blogs by The Daily Reviewer. He has written for TV series, such as Discovery Kids' Growing Up Creepie and Cartoon Network's Pet Alien, the animation history book Animation Art, and the humor, absurdist and surrealist website Unloosen. Previously, he held various production and management positions in the entertainment industry.

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Rick DeMott
Animation World Network
Creator of Rick's Flicks Picks