Article from The Los Angeles Times - June 19, 2005
The Little Guy Gets a Piece of the Animated Action

Major studios open their arms -- and wallets -- to entrepreneurs who can offer that golden combination: creativity and cost-efficiency.

The upcoming computer-animated film "Valiant" tells the story of a plucky bird who overcomes his small size to become a heroic homing pigeon during World War II.

It's a theme that resonates for the movie's producer, John Williams. A former member of the creative team that made DreamWorks' "Shrek" and its sequel, Williams set out a few years ago to found his own small independent production house, Vanguard Animation. Flush with financing from European and Asian investors, he then made "Valiant" for $40 million — less than half of what the major studios usually spend on animated fare.

But Williams' biggest accomplishment came three years ago, when he secured what in indie animation circles is considered the holy grail: a distribution deal with a major studio, Walt Disney Pictures. The movie is expected in theaters in August.

For more than half a century, big Hollywood studios dominated all facets of animation moviemaking. Not anymore. Buoyed by soaring consumer demand, and with plummeting technology costs lowering barriers to entry, animation entrepreneurs like Williams are quietly transforming the business.
It's more affordable than ever to become a prospector. A decade ago, a single computer workstation used in making a CG film cost roughly $80,000. Today, movies can be made on $3,000 home computers, and 3-D software that once cost $20,000 or more can be bought at Circuit City for about $2,000.

"Technology has liberated independent animators and given them an opportunity to break into the motion picture realm," said Ron Diamond, co-publisher of Animation World Network, which operates an online trade magazine. "It's a huge shift."

This new breed of animation entrepreneurs includes established digital-effects houses and TV-commercial shops eager for a piece of the animation business as well as veteran animators who have left the major studios and gone solo.
With the help of some freelancers, a scanner, three Dell computers and some hand-me-down desks from his former employer, Baxter and his wife, Kendra, set up shop in a 3,500-square-foot former mattress factory in Pasadena. Their start-up capital: $100,000 pooled from their savings.

To help pay the bills, Baxter has dabbled in small commercial jobs and animated sequences on the 2-D animated movie "Curious George."
At Vanguard, Williams remembers pitching Disney executives the idea of "Valiant" three years ago.

At a meeting with Disney President Bob Iger and studio chief Dick Cook at the company's Burbank lot, Williams showed test reels and presented a completed script.

Disney brass liked the project's hero and villain. They also liked its economics: Williams was asking Disney to put up just 25% of the cost, and only if he delivered the movie in two years — half the usual time — and at less than half the traditional budget.

The low-risk pitch won over the Disney executives.

"We thought it was an attractive economic model," Cook said. "It was mutually beneficial."

Initially, Disney planned an April release on a few hundred screens.

But after strong audience test scores and favorable reaction from Chief Executive Michael Eisner, Disney pushed the opening back and committed to 2,000 screens.
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