Aardman draws up Sony deal

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LONDON -- U.K. claymation studio Aardman Animations has inked an exclusive three-year, first-look deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment, the two companies said Monday.

The Bristol-based studios, home of Oscar-winning animator Nick Park, said the decision to strike a multipicture deal with Sony hinged on "creative freedom," billing it as "the next chapter in the story of Aardman."

Aardman chief operating officer and features boss Stephen Moore said the deal means the Bristol company can now attract animation talent "from around the globe" to work in the U.K. "We want to make more Aardman movies," Moore said, describing the Sony deal as being "at the heart of the company's vision."

SPE chairman and CEO Michael Lynton and co-chairman Amy Pascal struck the deal for the studio. In a statement, Pascal described Aardman as having "a passion for animation that is hard to resist."

The Bristol studio's output will complement that from SPE's own Sony Pictures Animation, which made its debut last year with "Open Season" and is set to release the CG-animated "Surf's Up" this year.

Aardman co-founder and executive chairman David Sproxton said the company looked at a number of potential studio deals as well as the indie financing world before making its latest move.

"We pitched them (Sony) a major snapshot of what we had in mind, and five different movie projects," Sproxton said. "We want to make sure we have enough (projects) in development to make a movie every 18 months."

Aardman co-owner and creative director Peter Lord said the company was looking forward to leading the deal creatively. "We feel we are a powerhouse of British ideas, and Sony will help us realize that in any way it can," he said.

The company said it plans to have a wider range of projects ready to be green-lighted at any one time. Aardman is developing three stop-motion projects as well as two CG projects.

One of the projects pitched to Sony was a resurrection of "The Tortoise and the Hare," a project shelved by DreamWorks because of "script differences."

Park also said he was working on another outing for his popular characters Wallace and Gromit but that it hasn't been decided if it will end up as a feature-length picture or a short film.

Another film idea -- which would star neither Wallace nor Gromit -- was "one of the features which got Sony excited" ahead of the deal, Park added.

The deal replaces the Brit animation company's studio deal with DreamWorks Animation, which was formally terminated in February this year (HR 2/6).

After more than five years, the parting of the ways between Aardman and DreamWorks came after disappointing boxoffice for Aardman's CGI creation "Flushed Away." It has grossed about $62 million in the U.S. since its November release and £10 million ($19.7 million) in the U.K., where it bowed in early December.

The five-picture deal between the companies resulted in "Chicken Run," Oscar winner "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" and "Flushed Away."

At the time of the split, an Aardman spokesman noted that "the DreamWorks business model has changed" since the toon house sealed its initial deal with the studio.

Sproxton said one of the biggest attractions of the new deal will be having a "comfort zone" to work in, adding: "We are ramping up development, but it is by no means a sausage-making machine."
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