It has been less than six months since writer, director and producer Richard Lanni opened his Fun Academy Motion Pictures office on the second floor of a 12th Street building in downtown Columbus.
The location across from the federal courthouse is a spearhead move for the Ireland native who resides in Normandy, France. His battle plan? To launch an extremely nimble movie studio in the city that will burgeon into a thriving facility for animated and live-action productions, competing with the major players in the U.S. — Walt Disney, Paramount, Pixar, DreamWorks, Universal and others.
Fun Academy’s first project, an animated feature called, “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero,” is now under production in Paris and Montreal, working toward an April 2018 release that Lanni has very high hopes will be a smashing success. The movie, in a nutshell, is about a stray dog that is smuggled aboard a ship loaded with U.S. troops during World War I, heading for action in Europe. The dog ultimately becomes a bonafide hero for its actions, is promoted to sergeant and leads a parade upon returning to America. It’s a true story.
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Columbus’ role in this venture is that Lanni wants to turn the city into a magnet for creative professionals wishing to work on movies, be it animated or live-action projects. Fun Academy itself aims to employ 300 to 400 people within just a few years. But the goal is to lure other companies and employers.
Already, Mikros Image, a subsidiary of legendary film-industry company Technicolor, has said it is “very interested” in working with Fun Academy locally, with plans to begin discussions in the coming months on some type of partnership that would bring Mikros staffers to Columbus.
It all, naturally, sounds a bit like something straight from a Hollywood movie. A film producer visits a city, falls in love with it, then sees the potential for much, much more. The relationship develops into something big, really big.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Lanni, 59, at his Columbus office recently to discuss his job, his dreams and the work that it will take to make everything a reality. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. What drew you to Columbus? What qualities do you like?
A. It’s a certain quality about this town. I started coming down here to the National Infantry Museum. I would come into town and there was a certain charm. Other than that, I watched it grow and thought, yes, this is a place that would attract young talent. There are things for them to do. The downtown is growing. Saturday night is a little bit like New Orleans without the violence. It was all of those things. … You’ve got to be able to sustain these kinds of communities. You can’t just bring (staff) in and there’s nothing for them to do. There’s the river, the kayaking, the music and, of course, the art scene, and it’s really growing. I also was quite inspired, meeting people like (Columbus businessman) Buddy (Nelms) and seeing his recording studios and his kind of vision, really, as to what could be done here. He’s a remarkable man and I think what he’s done for the scene here is tremendous.
Q. What makes you think Fun Academy can be a success?
A. One of the banes of a producer’s life is distribution. If you can nail the distribution, then you have a really good chance. The problem with it is most small producers, all they want to do is get a movie. I’m a bit of a hybrid, so I combine the creative with the commercial. You’ve got to make these things work. So we really wanted to deconstruct the distribution model. It sort of is the key to making a success of anything, is to have the distribution.
So with (Fun Academy Chief Operating Officer) Crystal’s (Traywick) vast experience at Carmike, we literally set to work on a distribution plan for this project. Then we decided to set up the Fun Academy, because when you’re a producer it really doesn’t matter where you are, because you’re working all around the country anyway ... The interesting thing for me was the Georgia film industry and everybody bandying these huge figures around, and listening to people talk, ‘Oh, we need to build sound sets,’ ‘We need to be like Pinewood.’ I just thought, actually you don’t. There’s a really simple way to do this that doesn’t require massive expenditure and infrastructure.
Q. How did you get into executive producing?
A. I come from a commercial (shipyard) background originally. Then one day I decided, you know what, I want to do something I’ve always wanted to do. I want to make historical films. I took myself off to film school for awhile. I lived in Normandy, France, so I started with D-Day. I shot 400 interviews with veterans from the second World War, and I made a series following GIs from D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge ... History has become very dry and boring and grainy archive footage. So we made it very lively. We did special effects and reenactments in the real locations where it happened. We found that it really brought a lot of families back to history. It was during the research that I came across the story of Stubby. I thought to myself, oh, this needs to be a family animation. Trust me, at the time I had no idea what was involved in animation.
Q. Animation is different?
A. When you’re dealing with live action you can’t really get the dog to do what you want it to do. Also, the dog doesn’t talk. You have so much more control in animation with expression and emotion. I decided it should be a CGI (computer-generated imagery) animated movie. So I wrote the screenplay. It took me about six months. Then I brought in a friend who’s a former Marine, and he had worked on a lot of major movie projects and he had written some animation years ago, and he helped me get the voice of the American soldier. There was some interaction between soldiers, so I needed that kind of voice of the American soldier and the structure ... Then the challenge came with actually putting it together. I started to realize what was involved in the creation of a major CGI picture, that we were going to be competing with the Disneys, the Pixars, the DreamWorks.
Q. Was it a learning process for you?
A. I was learning on the job. but I was introduced to a guy who’s now one of our co-producers, Laurent Rodon, a French guy who has been in the business for 25 years and was a great insight for me. And then there were the professionals we brought on board … I’m still learning on the job, but I learn fast. When you’re committed, you have to learn very quickly.
Then we were lucky, through Laurent, to meet with Mikros animation, part of Technicolor. It was very interesting because Technicolor and Kodak and all of these people were faced with the digital age and they had to go from film stocks and change and diversify very quickly. So they’ve all moved into special effects and animation. In 2015, Technicolor bought Mikros, based in Paris, and we were introduced to them. They liked a number of things about us. They liked that we were looking for refreshing content. I really want to produce content that is very entertaining, but has an educational component so that parents can actually send their kids (to the movies) and they can learn something.
We also want to cover real-life events, real stories, great pieces of American literature, space travel, stuff that is actually real. In addition to the education component, it actually makes animation easier and cheaper if you’re dealing with a chronological timeline rather than some gag-driven fantasies, where directors are making 75 percent more scenes than they’re actually using and then throwing them away. If you’re dealing with chronological timeline, you may have to tweak it, but you won’t be changing it. That makes it very cost effective.
Q. Growing up were you into history?
A. Always. If you had a great teacher, then you were always interested. It’s about the quality of the person teaching you and their passion for the subject.
Q. Where do you live?
A. I’m based in Ireland theoretically. I have my house in France. I’m spending a lot of time in France at the moment because we’re working at the studio in Paris until we finish the development of this movie. Then we move to Montreal, where we’re working as well. I’m crisscrossing the Atlantic all the time.
Q. What’s an animation producer’s key tasks?
A. We have art coming out from the various studios all the time that has to be approved. At the moment, I’m working three days a week at the Paris studio with the storyboard team. Essentially, a 90-minute movie is made up of 117,000 frames. What we have to do, it’s almost like a set of architect drawings for a builder. We create the storyboard, which is pen drawings, black and white crayon drawings of the movie. And it’s not just about drawing images. You’ve got to be able to tell a story with those images. Then we put sound effects to that, scratch voices that we recorded here at the Loft back in June … Then we hand that to the animators who use it as their set of plans to build the movie. While that’s happening, in conjunction, you’ve got arts teams building assets. So all of the characters have to be modeled in a 360-degree turn, because we’re talking about 3-D.
Q. Folks would be surprised at the amount of work that goes into this?
A. I for one had no idea. It is incredibly detailed. At the peak next year, probably by June, there will be 200 people working on this project in Montreal. It will come back to Paris for post production.
Originally, we wanted to do development and post (production work) here, but we couldn’t because we had the problems with the Georgia tax credits. They wouldn’t give us a percentage of spend. Everywhere else, like in France, they’re happy to say, OK, how much are you spending here? We’ll give you a credit of 30 percent back on that. It’s something that we hope to be able to influence at some stage here. Because we will be aiming to build a full CGI facility here with 300 to 400 jobs. But it takes a while to do that. It’s all about human capital and attracting people here. But we will be able to start very quickly, within the next three or four months, with a development studio.
Q. Part of your effort will be to lure creative folks from Paris and Montreal and elsewhere?
A. I’m already talking to them. Last week, I was in Paris and when the composer came to spend a few days in the studio, and I took him out to dinner that evening, I said the plan will be to bring all of those heads of departments here to train local people. Everybody is very excited about it.
Q. This is your office for now?
A. We’ll have to expand. We’re bursting at the seams now. We love this building, the view, the lights. But if we’re going to set up animation here, we’re going to need 7,000 or 8,000 square feet, which is no problem in this town. There’s so much nice real estate here.
Q. You’re also hoping to bring more companies here?
A. As I mentioned that day (briefing the chamber of commerce), many people don’t want to lead, but they will follow. Once you start to create a hub of a particular type of industry in visual effects or animation, you’ll find your games companies are coming in (saying), ‘Oh, that works well down there.’ People sort of follow you in. So I do believe we could finish up with a great campus at some stage, with animation, Ubisoft doing games, that kind of visual effects.
We do have a lead into 2018 for a movie, a live action that may well be filmed here, and that we may well be producing, called “No Better Place to Die.” It’s set in Normandy about two miles from where I live. It’s a true story written by a friend of mine who was a D-Day pathfinder and a friend of ours, Dale Dye, who did “Saving Private Ryan,” “Band of Brothers,” “The Pacific.” We’ve talked him into coming to Georgia to film it, so we just need to start negotiations.
Q. That could be filmed in our area?
A. I think we could go on Benning and do some of it. I need the visual effects people to come down here and say, yes, we can create the manor house there, and all of that water. We hope to film it here in Columbus.
Q. In a perfect world, what would be the timeline for things unfolding for you and the industry here?
A. I think in the next few months we’ll have 50 artists working on development here. We already have the commitment from Mikros/Technicolor. After their recent visit, they wrote us a letter saying that they want to do it. I had a meeting with their COO (chief operating officer) last week and I’m meeting with the COO of Technicolor when I go back. They’re very keen to do it. They want to be with us because they really like our business model and they like the fact that we give them an entry to the U.S. market with the distribution.
All of the European companies are really frightened of the distribution market, because of the monopolies of Paramount and all of those. We’ve been very careful throughout this process not to ever use the word independent. Independent smacks of art house and platform release, a little art house movie. We’re a studio. We might be a small studio, but we’re a studio nonetheless. We’re going out there just like Disney or anybody else would do to promote our movies.
Q. You’re not afraid to take on the big dogs, it appears?
A. No. I don’t think that big is always beautiful. I have huge respect for these people, but there comes a point where they get so top heavy, with overheads. I personally feel that the industry is very profligate (extravagant or wasteful). I’ll give you an example. The studio that’s doing our movie recently did a movie for Paramount called “The Little Prince,” which grossed about $100 million worldwide and was sold to Netflix. We actually have the same team doing our movie that worked on “The Little Prince.” But (Paramount’s) budget was $75 million, and ours is $20 million-something. The difference is our overheads. We’re lean and mean. I’m overhead averse.
Q. Do you see Sgt. Stubby hitting $100 million?
A. I do. I think it’s a remarkable story. It’s true. It’s a story about a relationship between a man and dog. Everybody loves their dogs. It’s the American dream. He was starving on the streets of New Haven. He was smuggled onto the boat and came back to lead a parade. It’s a heartwarming tale. We’ve got great people, a wonderful composer. I really believe, without any sort of vanity in this, that it’s going to be a remarkable movie that people are going to want to see. You only have to see the engagement we’re getting on social media now. A very strong part of our marketing strategy is engagement on all of the digital platforms. So we bring our audience with us on the journey. Every dog rescue group around the country is following Stubby. He’s the most famous stray in American history.
Q. What qualities of yours are a strength in this project and do you consider yourself a leader?
A. I’m fearless. I know that’s incredibly stupid. But I am fearless. I do have a friend with a major studio who I floated this project to him in the beginning and he said you’re absolutely crazy. He did call me the other day because he had been seeing a lot of press stuff and he said, ‘Are there any jobs going on in your company?’ It’s really knowing that you have something and not being frightened to go out there and compete.
Q. Is there a message you would like to give Columbus?
A. I think this is the dawn of something that could be quite extraordinary here. As other companies are talking about downsizing and pulling out, I really think this could be quite extraordinary. And there’s all the additional ancillary industries that will come in and follow behind. So I think it’s going to be incredibly exciting for Columbus. I hope so, because I love it here, and this is my home when I’m in the United States. I feel like it’s going to present a major opportunity. We’re looking at two to three years and 300 to 400 jobs, and that’s just us. Imagine other people wanting to come in.
Hometown: Born in United Kingdom, is a tax resident in Ireland
Current residence: Normandy, France, but travels frequently, including to Paris, Montreal and Columbus
Previous jobs: Worked in the shipyard business, a company that refit and repaired big motor yachts
Family: Divorced with grown children and is a grandfather
Leisure time: Enjoys gardening, growing vegetables and cooking, what he calls “a simple life”