EXCLUSIVE: Rainbow CEO Iginio Straffi talks to Screen about the $57m animation project.

Paramount Pictures will handle North American distribution on Italian CG-animated comedy adventure Not Born To Be Gladiators, which is being launched for international sales here by its production company Rainbow.

The $57m (€40m) film, the brainchild and feature directing debut of Rainbow’s Iginio Straffi, has been in production for four years. Medusa has Italian rights and a Rainbow team led by international veteran Wayne Duband is spearheading the sales campaign here kicking off with a presentation of five minutes of footage on Saturday.

Paramount parent Viacom owns 30% of Rainbow and plans to distribute future Rainbow TV programming on Nickelodeon for TV and features through Paramount.

“It’s a big opportunity for big independents to get a quality 3D CGI-animated comedy on a studio level,” explains Straffi, who enlisted Michael Wilson, the writer of Ice Age and Shark Tale, to write the screenplay. “It was in the English language from the start and I worked with Michael for a year to go through various drafts before the final script. We really wanted the pace, dialogue and set-up of a Hollywood-type film.”

The film, a family movie targeted from “age 8 to 80” according to Straffi, is the first animated movie to be set in ancient Rome and follows a young want-to-be gladiator who falls for the daughter of his gladiator instructor. The only way he can marry her is to win the tournament at the grand opening of the Colliseum. A series of adventures ensues.

 “At first, he thinks that he can cheat and take magic potion from an old witch which is a reference to modern steroids,” he explains. “But then he realises that only through real training and hard work can he achieve his goals. So there is a strong message as well as a lot of humour and gags.”

Paramount has tentatively set a domestic release date of the first quarter of 2012, depending on the availability of 3D theatres. “We wanted to get US distribution so that we could find the right talent for English-speaking talent,” says Straffi, who explains that Rainbow and Medusa will do their own Italian language dub for local release in the same period.

Straffi is no stranger to animation or family entertainment and Rainbow is the first industrial animation outfit in Italy. He started out as a comic artist and writer who worked as a storyboarder or TV director in the early 1990s before setting up his own shop and scoring a hit with series The Adventures Of Tommy & Oscar.

In 2004, Rainbow launched what would become its biggest hit to date Winx Club about a young fairy called Bloom and her five magical friends which scored huge ratings on networks in 130 countries and generated over $2bn in licensing revenues.

In addition to the studio he created in Loreto specializing in TV productions, Straffi also founded a CGI animation studio in Rome with over 130 full-time animators and software designers for the production of movies

While those TV shows were animated by studios in Asia, Straffi created his own studio with 130 animators and software designers for Born To Be Gladiators. “For a movie, we felt that it was better to manage as much as possible in-house,” he said.

After Not Born To Be Gladiators, Straffi says he has a dream to make Winx Club into a live action movie. Winx Club will start airing on Nickelodeon at the end of June, starting with four TV movies specials starring the six fairies followed by series 3-6. Nickelodeon co-produced series five and six with Rainbow.