UK-based Aardman Features will enter a three-year, exclusive first-look deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) for all of Aardman's features in development.
Aardman, known for Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run and Flushed Away, ended its increasingly tense partnership with DreamWorks in late January 2007. The new pact was struck with SPE's chairman/CEO Michael Lynton and co-chairman Amy Pascal.
Sony will step in for production, marketing and distribution globally. No financial terms were revealed.
Aardman COO and head of Aardman Features Stephen Moore said the new deal would enable the company to reach several goals. 'Aardman wants to make more movies, and different kinds of animated movies and build out the infrastructure to do that,' Moore told ScreenDaily.com. 'We want to make those movies in the UK if possible, in Bristol. And we want to attract talent from across the world and also build the UK animation business.'
Lynton said in a statement: 'Aardman Features is enormously popular all over the world. We believe that their strength is their unique storytelling humour, sensibility and style and we plan to bring their distinctive animated voice to theaters for a long time to come. This is a tremendous coup for Sony Pictures Entertainment.'
Aardman has five features in development, all closely under wraps at the moment but including three stop-frame animation projects and two CG-animated projects. Budgets for the stop-frame projects are about $59m (£30m) each but Aardman said the CG projects' budgets were more flexible.
One of the projects is written by Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park but the others are by four writers Aardman hasn't worked with previously.
Aardman co-founder and creative director Peter Lord revealed that all five features had been discussed with Sony already. 'We've talked in some detail about the five projects and they were behind the whole slate,' he said.
Aardman expects one or two of the films to be greenlit by the end of 2007, and they hope the new deal will allow them to have a new feature released every 18 months.
Lord said Sony offered a better fit than previous partner DreamWorks. 'DreamWorks is in this pattern of releasing two movies per year, and that is very limiting. With Sony having a bigger slate, there are more options on when we can release films. Also, there's maybe the chance to be a bit more edgy [than we could be with DreamWorks].'
Nick Park added that Sony was encouraging Aardman to continue its successful business with stop-frame animation projects. 'DreamWorks is losing interest in stop-frame but Sony is very excited to develop both stop-frame and CGI projects,' he said.
The relationship with DreamWorks had become increasingly fragile as the CG work for Flushed Away was done out of the US, away from Aardman's home turf.
Sony understands Aardman's desire to workfrom the UK. 'The process will work even better in-house,' Lord said. 'We've got a way of film-making that we've used with stop-frame that we'd love to apply to a CG feature.' Aardman has been using CG techniques in Bristol for eight years in its shorts, commercials and TV businesses.
Aardman co-founder and executive chairman David Sproxton added: 'This is an international business, and we'll work with international talents, but it works a hell of a lot better when you do it at home.'
Moore said Aardman had been exploring various independent financing and Hollywood studio partnership deals during the past year, but had entered serious discussions with Sony in the past month.
'They recognise our slightly eclectic nature,' Sproxton said. 'Absurdity is a word that we use at lot at Aardman and they like that.'
Sony also has its own animation arm, Sony Pictures Animation, which has made Open Season and the forthcoming Surf's Up.
The five films in development don't include another Wallace & Gromit feature-length film at this point, although Park said he is developing a new project for Aardman's most famous characters. 'What I'm writing may not be a feature, it could make a better short, but it's too early to say,' Park revealed. He noted that Wallace & Gromit would remain stop-frame under his watch. 'I'm a Plasticene man,' he said.
The deal won't have a huge immediate impact on staffing at Aardman's Bristol headquarters, which currently employs about 130 full-time staff across all its businesses. The hopes are that freelancers who are employed on Aardman features will get more steady work as there is less down-time between projects.
The features development team will expand slightly, and if the company builds out more CG infrastructure, that could grow the Bristol office as well.