CEO Zareh Nalbandian at Animal Logic HQ in Sydney. (Photo: James Horan).

Animal Logic has two big releases coming up, with 'The LEGO Batman Movie' arriving in March to Aussie cinemas, followed by 'The LEGO Ninjago Movie' in September. 

AL is also gearing up to shoot hybrid live-action/animation feature 'Peter Rabbit' in Sydney, the first step in its bid to become a fully-fledged studio – “a creative enterprise” rather than a “service provider,” as CEO Zareh Nalbandian puts it. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Is Animal Logic Entertainment, your development arm, based in LA?

It’s here as well. Felicity Staunton is a creative executive here, and I have three execs in LA. We all travel. They travel here, we travel there. We work as one unit. We’re repped out of CAA, [and] our lawyers are there. But our creative hub is here, so we work the two to our advantage. 

Are you reading a lot of scripts or developing in-house?

We do a whole range of things. We’ve got things we’ve optioned. We partnered with Johnny Depp’s company Infinitum Nihil on Fortunately, the Milk, the Neil Gaiman book, then we brought on Edgar Wright to direct. Then we all brought on [Flight of the Conchords frontman] Bret McKenzie to write and shopped it around. Fox were very aggressive and we set it up at Fox. 

Is that going to be another live-action/animation hybrid, like Peter Rabbit?

Yes, but with its own twist. Edgar’s got a really great vision for that movie. I think it will be fun and retro and groundbreaking at the same time. My agent is Neil’s agent at CAA and we’d always wanted to find something to do together, and it happened to be a children’s book. We’re actually working on another one of his other books right now with a very well-known director, which we’ll be able to announce soon. We’ve also had IP we’ve licensed the rights to. Astro Boy is set up at New Line in development. I grew up as a fan of the Astro Boy TV series, [and] it has a huge fan base around the world. When we read the Tezuka comics, we realized that he was the predecessor to Marvel: creating a whole universe of characters. We realized how much fun we could have with that in a kind of Marvel way. 

And you're doing Betty Boop is with Simon Cowell’s company, SYCO Entertainment.

That one’s in partnership with Simon. The Simon Cowell relationship came from Simon being repped at CAA and looking for someone to partner with on an animation concept that he had. We subsequently set up another hybrid film at Sony in development together. Betty Boop is a musical that we’re developing together. Anything that’s music driven and animation, it’s a natural fit for us. 

Are you working on original screenplays as well?

We are developing original concepts, either animation or hybrid animation. And we do have one or two live action visual effects movies that we’re developing that are original ideas. We developed a film with P.J. Hogan based on a Jeff Smith property called Bone, which is a really amazing graphic novel series. That’s still at Warner Bros and that’s in the queue because Warner Bros has so much product right now, not least of which is LEGO. We’ve worked with Justin Monjo on a number of projects to date. Cane was an original animated property we developed with him and with Working Title, when Working Title was in Australia. It’s one of those things we still own and one day we’ll find the right time to reignite it, but at the moment it’s on the shelf. Working on Cane was the first time I’d worked with Justin and that’s led us to do other things with him: he’s a great writer.

Is Matthew Reilly’s Contest still in development?

It’s absolutely in development. We have Greg McLean working with us, hopefully to direct. That’s a really great package. It’s one of those things: it takes time. One of the things I’ve learnt in the ten years we’ve been developing is you need to have multiple projects going, you need to spend the time in development. If there’s anything that kills us as an industry here it’s how quickly we go from development into production. When you look at the American model, people invest a lot more money in development. 

Are you investing more in development now than you were ten years ago?

Certainly a lot more over the last ten years than we ever did [before] because we weren’t doing it. But we have invested a lot of money in the last ten years. And that’s what’s really lacking in Australia: really significant funding for development. We fund the execution through the producer offset and other incentives, which propels people to get a film made, but there’s not a lot of funding for development. And I’m really committed to developing Animal Logic as a creative enterprise, not as a service provider, and developing our own IP, and becoming a full studio in that sense. And you have to invest to get the rewards. We’ve been prepared to take the risk and it’s paying off.

How long was the Peter Rabbit screenplay developed for?

Two years. That’s actually [the] fast-track in Hollywood. It started because we knew it was public domain property. Subsequently we’ve made sure that we’ve partnered with Penguin, and Warne, who are the rights holders. And we’ve made sure that we are really bringing the fan-base along, not trying to do it on our own. We were also able to push it because we had a writer-director-producer as our partner, and [Easy A director] Will Gluck has really helped to propel the project at Sony. 

Did he develop the screenplay from the beginning?

No we developed the concept, [then] fielded it with a number of writers. Miles ahead was a writer named Rob Lieber, who wrote the Disney movie Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Rob’s an amazing writer. We’ve developed something else with him since. He wrote the first drafts, and then Will came on to co-write and direct. We shopped it to the studios, landed with Sony and then developed the screenplay further. Then when we were ready to greenlight the movie we went out to cast. 

How do you see the slate expanding?

Like everyone else, I think we will explore television at some stage, because television’s become a really powerful medium. I mean limited series television. What we do as a company is create worlds and characters. To be able to do that in a ten-hour window as opposed to a one and a half hour window is pretty exciting. I think that [TV] would be one of the things that might trigger some level of expansion, and I don’t mean television animation. I mean TV drama. We’re really interested in sci-fi. We’d love to find some more contained Australian films that we could partner and make. Live-action sci-fi for example: genre films with talented Australian filmmakers and producers that we can make for global audiences. 

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