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A Homeric journey for animation studio

Times Staff Writer

Like the character Homer Simpson that it brings to life, Film Roman has had its share of ups and d’ohs!

The 23-year-old boutique producer has long been one of the stalwarts of Southern California’s animation community, thanks largely to “The Simpsons” juggernaut that for 18 years put Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart, Maggie, Apu and Ned on a first-name basis with America. This weekend, the family stars in its first feature film.

Still, even with steady work on one of the most successful television shows of all time, Film Roman has struggled over the years as the entertainment industry has changed, at one point nearly going belly up in the late 1990s.

Now, Film Roman has the deep pockets of billionaire John Malone as a shield against rough times. Since acquiring Film Roman last year, Malone’s Liberty Media Corp., which owns the Starz and Encore cable channels, has reinvigorated the Burbank company, pumping $70 million into new productions this year alone.

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Lately, the company has been venturing well beyond the Simpsons’ fictional hometown of Springfield. In addition to Fox’s hit “King of the Hill,” Film Roman is producing a new animated series for the cable channel ABC Family called “Slacker Cats,” two new series for BET and various original programs, including the popular Nick Jr. show “Wow! Wow! Wubbzy.”

In a strategy to diversify, the company is moving beyond traditional outlets to animate commercials for Domino’s Pizza and Pepsi, special effects for such TV shows as “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” and short cartoons shown on mobile phones and over the Internet. Among them is an animated online series about Playboy bunnies who double as secret agents.

“Film Roman has never been busier in its history than it is today,” said Kent Rice, president and chief operating officer of Starz Media, a unit of Liberty Media. “What we’re producing is more diverse than ever before. We’re growing tremendously.”

Outgrowing its former digs, the company moved from North Hollywood last year into a new building more than twice as large in Burbank, where artists wearing sandals and T-shirts doodle cartoons on walls painted with a chalkboard paint.

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Executives declined to disclose finances, but said that production activity had jumped about 300% since 2003 and that Film Roman was now profitable.

The growth comes as Hollywood studios have largely abandoned the traditional 2-D style of animation long practiced by Film Roman in favor of computer-generated imagery.

But the Emmy-winning company has managed to survive and thrive in a CGI world thanks to television, where demand for hand-drawn cartoons remains strong.

Cable programmers are hungry for shows to fill their pipelines and partners such as Film Roman that co-finance shows. And “The Simpsons,” created by Matt Groening, has been a ratings bonanza for Fox.

For 15 years, Film Roman has produced most of the show’s animation under the direction of 20th Century Fox Television and Gracie Films Inc. That led to work on “The Simpsons Movie,” which cost about $75 million to make and is Film Roman’s biggest project to date.

Over the last 18 months, the company has hired about 130 animators on top of its regular staff of 400 to simultaneously work on the film and the 18th and 19th seasons of the series. Some of the animation work was farmed out to two studios in South Korea, Rough Draft and Akom. Although largely drawn by hand, the film used various digital tools to speed up the process and incorporated some 3-D scenes.

“That was a huge undertaking,” says Marci Proietto, senior vice president of production at 20th Century Fox Television. “We were able to deliver our series and our feature on time. They did a great job.”

The reputation for quality work dates to the company’s founding by Phil Roman, the son of immigrant farmers from Fresno. A former animator at Walt Disney Co., Roman started the business in 1984.

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He launched the company with a contract to make “Garfield” specials, just when the market for prime-time animation was taking off. Successes such as “The Simpsons” led to Film Roman raising $33 million in an initial public stock offering in 1996.

A year later, however, the company’s prospects soured. Walt Disney’s acquisition of ABC started a trend of “vertical integration” in which networks turned inward to meet programming needs, squeezing out independent producers such as Film Roman.

The company amassed big losses and saw its stock price tumble as networks canceled some of the company’s homegrown shows, including “C-Bear and Jamal.” Amid the turmoil, Phil Roman resigned in 1999.

Film Roman’s cash flow problems improved when a New Jersey-based telecommunications company, IDT Corp., acquired the business in 2003, supplying it with a $2.1-million line of credit.

In May 2006, IDT sold Film Roman, along with home video company Anchor Bay and other assets, to Liberty Media in a deal valued at more than $200 million.

Film Roman is headed by President and Chief Operating Officer Scott Greenberg, a former entertainment lawyer who was recruited by IDT in 2003 to help turn the company around with John Hyde, now vice chairman of Starz Media.

Greenberg’s strategy has been to expand the core work-for-hire business with cable channels such as Comedy Central while building a library of original shows that Starz Media can distribute or license to others.

That effort began in 2005 with an animated Christmas special featuring Harry Connick Jr. The company’s proprietary programs have ranged from preschooler fare on Nick Jr. to an R-rated animated feature film, “The Haunted World of El Superbeasto,” based on Rob Zombie’s comic book

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Another animated movie, “Hellboy: Sword of Storms,” for the Cartoon Network, was recently nominated for an Emmy.

To adapt to changing tastes, Film Roman also has assembled a small team of computer animators. The team works with Canadian animation studio Cine Group on “Tripping the Rift,” a CGI series that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel from 2004 to 2006.

“We’re style agnostic,” Greenberg said. “We’re unique because we don’t have a look or a style and every show is different.”

Which is why the company is frenetically working to move beyond Springfield.

Homer Simpson once said, “It is better to watch things than to do them.” At the new Film Roman, the idea is to do things to get people to watch.

richard.verrier@latimes.com


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