New Starz studio busy on Burton’s 9

Starz Media – the Burbank power-house entertainment company that animates The Simpsons – officially opens Starz Animation Toronto, its new Canadian studio, at the end of the month.

SAT has been operating for nearly a year and employs about 150 Canadians – as well as some key American players – in a new state-of-the-art CG facility, according to exec VP David Steinberg, Disney’s former director of production, who moved his family to Toronto last December to join SAT.

‘There’s talent here from DreamWorks and Disney and Pixar,’ Steinberg told Playback in an exclusive interview. ‘Outside of California, it’s hard to find this collection of talent anywhere in the world.’

SAT will be unveiled Sept. 25, but it is already in production on the animated feature thriller 9, coproduced by legend Tim Burton.

‘Now that we’re settled into our new 45,000-square-foot facilities,’ Steinberg says, ‘we see that we haven’t even begun to fill the capacity of what we can do here. But that’s the kind of growth and commitment we have for this group.’

The ‘group’ Steinberg is referring to began in the ’80s in Toronto as DKP Effects and gained a worldwide reputation for innovative animation, attracting top talent from Hollywood.

In March 2003, DKP was acquired by New Jersey-based IDT Entertainment (bringing The Simpsons animator Film Roman Productions into the mix), and in May 2006, IDT was taken over by the multibillion-dollar Colorado-based conglomerate, Liberty Media, proprietor of Starz LLC, which owns Burbank-based Starz Media, which in turn owns SAT.

Ultimately, SAT’s new grandparent company – Liberty Media – has extremely deep pockets, handsomely lined with multimedia savvy.

Liberty’s numerous brands include Discovery Networks, QVC, Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp and Expedia. Its Starz Entertainment owns 16 movie channels in the U.S. (including flagships Starz and Encore) and airs more than 1,000 movies per month.

While the dust was settling on the ownership paperwork, SAT was in full production on The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie, which will be released by Universal Pictures.

‘SAT is going to continue being a force of animation across the media spectrum,’ says Steinberg, ‘but our specialty is long-form, high-quality theatrical animation. That’s our primary niche. We really think we can blow the roof off and make a worldwide mecca for animation in Toronto. And we want to build that in with a presence in the theatrical, television and the games worlds.’

Steinberg believes there is great untapped potential in Toronto. ‘There are excellent schools and animation institutions that are putting a lot of talent into the industry here,’ he says.

A Starz Media spokesman in Burbank acknowledges that provincial tax incentives were a factor in choosing Toronto as a home for the new studio, but adds that: ‘Canada is, and has always been, an animation hotbed.’

Steinberg says SAT will be increasing the core staff from 150 employees to 200 in the next six months. ‘We’ll reach our full capacity of about 300 by end of 2008,’ he says.