Starz's Clasen: Dollar parity has no bearing

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TORONTO -- The Canadian dollar may have touched parity with the American dollar, but Starz Entertainment Group chairman and CEO Robert Clasen is still bullish about Canada.

"If you're going to do CGI, the dollar (exchange rate) has no bearing," Clasen said Tuesday evening as he cut the ribbon on Starz Animation Toronto, a 45,000-square-foot 3-D cartoon and visual effects factory.

"Toronto is where the talent pool is. They're highly skilled and represent a stable work force," he said, pointing to such world-class animation schools here as Sheridan College and the Ontario College of Arts.

The Toronto facility will produce proprietary theatrical and TV product that Starz can feed through its distribution pipeline, which now includes the Canadian release of Overture Films titles via local distribution powerhouse Alliance Films.

Starz already operates Film Roman as a 2-D animation facility, churning out TV series including "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill."

Starz parent Liberty Media bought the Toronto 3-D facility in 2006 as part of a bigger deal for IDT Entertainment. At the time, the Canadian dollar was worth about 93 cents to the U.S. greenback.

The Canadian dollar has since surged in relation to the U.S. dollar, achieving parity on Thursday for the first time since 1976.

Despite that shift, Clasen anticipates the Toronto cartoon facility will grow from about 150 animators to 300 by 2009.

Clasen said that Starz is using currency hedging to ease the effects of the falling U.S. dollar. And Starz will gain from the Ontario computer animation and special effects tax credit, which refunds 20% of labor expenditures incurred by foreign producers on local computer-generated production.

The Starz facility, situated in Toronto, is also close to many of the developers of 3-D imaging software like Maya and Inferno, including industry giant Autodesk. That allows Starz animators to write their own proprietary software codes for time and cost savings.

Starz already has spent about $150 million on animation production in Toronto. Completed CG features include Universal's "Pirates Who Don't Do Anything" and Fox's "Everyone's Hero."

The studio recently began work on "9," the animated thriller co-produced by Tim Burton.
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