Starz's Film Roman Animation House Developing Its Own Original Programming (Exclusive)

Untamed The Stranger - P 2013

Untamed The Stranger - P 2013

The company, best known for its work-for-hire animation on "The Simpsons," has optioned several properties, including comic book series "The Untamed" with "Watchmen" producer Lloyd Levin serving as an executive producer on the project.

Starz's animation house Film Roman is making a push into developing its own original animated programming.

The Burbank-based company, best known for its work-for-hire animation on The Simpsons, Beavis & Butt-Head and King of the Hill, has optioned several original ideas that it is developing.

Led by general manager and head of production Dana Booton, the unit of Starz has made a substantial, but undisclosed investment into an effort to produce and distribute original programming.

The initiative comes at a time when Starz, which John Malone's Liberty Media spun off as a separately traded company in January, has also focused on developing more original programming for its premium TV service. Film Roman has been looking at new opportunities and receiving corporate support since Starz took it off the market in 2011 after exploring a sale. Booton cites the new opportunities of the digital age and the need to diversify beyond the traditional animation work for other studios as key reasons behind the decision to create the studio's first-ever original development slate.

"When I came in about two years ago, there wasn't much going on in terms of a development slate," she told THR. "But the business template of pure work-for-hire doesn't work anymore. Nowadays you must also own content. You need [intellectual property] you invest in."

Studios like Film Roman used to get a license fee for their work and hope merchandising would boost a property. "Now there are so many other platforms in the digital age, so you can do apps and games and e-books," said Booton. "It is a good time to develop and hold on to content."

With Fox's The Simpsons set for its 25th season starting this fall, the push into original content complements the company's continuing diversification effort to always find new franchises to work on under for-hire conditions. Said Booton: "We're looking for new properties and partners all the time. We can't rely on one property to keep the business up and running. And we have some big franchises we're in talks for for 2014. That's separate from our development work."

Film Roman, which also works on such shows as Ultimate Spider-Man on Disney XD and has won 21 Emmy awards, has tried its hand at original programming before, most notably with Dan Vs., which came with a network order and recently completed its third season on The Hub.

But the company, which was founded in 1984 and came to Starz as part of Liberty Media's 2006 acquisition of IDT Entertainment, is currently developing its own intellectual property from scratch. As part of that, Film Roman is working on completely original in-house ideas and has optioned eight properties this year that are in various stages of development, with four major projects furthest along.

"We're looking to develop properties that are family- and primetime-focused," said Booton when asked about her team's focus.

One major project in development is The Untamed, based on a popular dark comic book series from Sebastian Jones about a man who strikes a deal with the devil to be released from hell for seven days to reap vengeance on seven people who murdered him and his family. The adult animated project is seen as being in the spirit of Spawn, which aired on HBO in the late 1990s. Booton also described Untamed as involving a rich world a la Game of Thrones and for an audience of 18-34-year-olds. Well-known producer Lloyd Levin (Watchmen, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) is involved in the project as an executive producer.

Film Roman has already spent time to develop the look of the possible Untamed series as can be seen in the picture above.

Another development project is 1,000 Bear Band, a quirky family-friendly concept envisioned in the Terry Gilliam/Monty Python animation style mold. The music for the series involves work from David Stewart of Eurythmics fame.

Uncanny Valley, a live action/CG animated spoof show looking at, and poking fun at, conspiracy theories, is also in development at Film Roman. It is described as being in the Adult Swim/Comedy Central vein of programming focused on a male 18-years-plus demo. "Strong comedy is something the market is really looking for," Booton explained.

Finally, InSecurity is another spoof comedy series in development that looks at the life of TSA agents, including interactions with baggage claim, cafeteria and other airport staff.
Booton didn't comment on production budgets and networks that her team is targeting with its pitches.

For Film Roman's own content projects, TV outlets are still the initial focus. "The first place we're going to are networks," but there are also other possible distribution platforms, Booton said. "It's like the Wild West right now. You have Amazon and Xbox and others. There's a huge audience that can be tapped with word of mouth."

The company has a staff of 200-500 depending on production needs, one of the highest staff counts for a work-for-hire studio.

All in all, Booton is optimistic that Film Roman can build on its reputation for its for-hire work and over time become a player with its own original projects. Said the executive: "We have found some great properties and are confident about taking them out. And we have already gotten some terrific feedback."

Twitter: @georgszalai