Nelvana boosts feature involvement

Nelvana has plans to extend its repute as a major animated series source, and to establish itself firmly on the roster of studios regularly producing full-length animated features.

Pippi Longstocking is the vehicle the Toronto-based production company is banking on in its efforts to fuel an ongoing feature division – and one in which it has a significant stake in the projects.

The new Nelvana initiative, based on Astrid Lindgren’s timeless tales of the spunky children’s libber, has been in development as a series with Sweden’s AB Svensk Filmindustri as well as a feature.

Coproduction partners, subject to greenlighting, will include sfi, Germany’s TFC Trickcompany and Euro distrib Beta Taurus.

Nelvana produced and financed its first animated feature, Rock & Rule, released in 1983. Two years later, The Care Bears Movie came out, followed by two more in the subsequent years.

Until the deal inked last year with Paramount Pictures to develop five animated features with u.s. producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, Nelvana’s most recent theatrical undertaking was in 1989, with Babar The Movie.

Of the Paramount pix, The Thief of Always, based on a novel by Clive Barker, is the farthest advanced, with a completed Leica reel. The other two Paramount projects currently in the works are The Trumpet of the Swan, based on the novel by E.B. White, and Sign of the Seahorse, based on a children’s book by Graeme Base. The final two pictures have not been announced yet.

Industry analysts peg the value of the package at us$100 million, with Nelvana’s share estimated between 10% to 20%.

With its public offering and reputation as a network supplier for children’s cartoon series, Nelvana has the pedigree to attract financing for its feature division, and given that talented artists are already on board working on the u.s. picture slate, one of the thorniest problems for an animation studio – getting talent – is in hand.

Nelvana executive vp Clive Smith believes Pippi will achieve the goal of keeping a lot of senior animators here. Currently, animator/ directors Charlie Bonifacio, Chuck Gammage and Robin Budd are in the house, and among its roster of stellar talent, Nelvana also counts fine artists/background painters Rudy Stussi, Clive Powsey and Peter Morley, and character designers Frank Nissen and Paul Riley.

Smith, who’s been writing the Pippi script, will direct. Smith describes it as a wonderful property, and says the challenge is to reinvent the fun-loving youngster – in order to flesh her out – without changing the Pippi everyone loves. Katharina Stackelberg, a close friend of Lindgren, is acting as a sounding board on these matters, and Susie Snooks is also collaborating on the writing.

The project was steered to Nelvana via David Ferguson, director of coproductions for Nelvana Enterprises at its London office, who was aware that Beta Taurus was keen to develop Pippi, and wanted it to be successful beyond Europe.

Beta liked the work Nelvana had done with other European characters, and the discussions which started a year ago eventually led to Smith having tea and biscuits in Sweden with Lindgren chatting about Pippi.

Lindgren, born in 1907, won a children’s literary competition in 1945 and the winning manuscript was published under the name Pippi Longstocking when it came to America in 1950.

The library’s children’s department reports that Pippi’s still popular with kids, who especially like the concept of a kid living alone in a neat old house.

The girl/boy property is taking shape as a musical, with a story structured with ideas taken from the Pippi books with a properly dour new villainess thrown in for good measure.

Storyboarding has started on Pippi, and Smith is working with designer/animator Nissen (codirector on Rock & Rule) on the look.

Heather Walker is the producer. The budget is in the $10 million region and they’re targeting for release in early 1997.

As to distribution, Nelvana, which has the North American rights, has interest from a few studios, but has signed no deals yet.

Smith says the game plan for the animated feature division is to have three pics at different stages of the production process in the works at once. The intention is that the films will be a mix of service and projects developed by Nelvana in which it has a ‘good stake.’ And of course, Nelvana will be involved in the merchandising on the latter variety of titles, such as Pippi.

Pippi is still in development as a series, but at the early stages.

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