Fun Academy aims to make Columbus an animated film production magnet

“Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero,” an animated true story about a soldier and his dog during World War I in France, is the first movie that will be released by Fun Academy Movie Studios in Columbus. The film is set for release in April 2018, with Helena Bonham Carter and Gérard Depardieu already cast among the voices for production. --
“Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero,” an animated true story about a soldier and his dog during World War I in France, is the first movie that will be released by Fun Academy Movie Studios in Columbus. The film is set for release in April 2018, with Helena Bonham Carter and Gérard Depardieu already cast among the voices for production. -- Image courtesy of Fun Academy Movie Studios

A Columbus company called Fun Academy Motion Pictures is quietly laying the groundwork to become a major player in the animated motion-picture industry, with plans to launch an animation studio locally over the next couple of years.

Already, Fun Academy and its founder, executive producer Richard Lanni, are working on the company’s first animated film to be released in 2018, called “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero,” with expectations that it will be the first of many such movies in the coming years.

“Our initial plan was just to have a distribution facility here for our projects. As time has gone on and I’ve spent more time here and we’ve looked at the place, we believe we have the answer to giving Columbus its share of the $7 billion film industry in Georgia,” said Lanni, who first visited the city about seven years ago to do media projects for the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center.

The plan, he said, is for Fun Academy, which opened an office on 12th Street in Columbus in August, to slowly ramp up its efforts over the next two years to create the animation studio as it also prepares to market and release “Sgt. Stubby” in April 2018.

There won’t be a great need for large studios here, he said, with highly trained and skilled animation production staff using computers and other equipment at their office work stations. At the same time, Fun Academy also will be looking to work with filmmakers who need help with the business end of marketing and distributing their work.

“Our whole strategy is to produce good family content that is entertaining and educational and based on true stories from history, literature, space travel, whatever it happens to be, but real things,” Lanni said. “Parents can see their kids actually laugh and learn at the same time.”

(Movie industry’s bright lights beginning to shine on Columbus area and CSU)

Lanni and his Columbus team laid out their plans this week for Fun Academy before a group of business and art leaders at the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, extolling the merits of the industry that the company is moving forward with developing locally with the help of Columbus State University, the Springer Opera House and others in the community.

Crystal Traywick, Fun Academy’s chief operating officer, who has marketing and distribution expertise and previously worked with Carmike Cinemas, noted the potential launching an animation studio could have on the local area.

“There are over 80 animators currently working on this film overseas,” she said of “Sgt. Stubby.” “If you think about it, that’s one film with 80 jobs. And it’s not just this one project that they’ll be working on. They’ll be working on multiple jobs simultaneously. Again, the economic opportunity to have an animation studio in Columbus is incredible. And we would be the first in the state.”

Fun Academy communications director Jordan Beck pointed out Georgia already is No. 3 in the world (tied with Louisiana) in terms of film production for movies and TV shows. The Peach State is just behind California and the United Kingdom. Tax incentives are critical, he and Lanni said, with live-action film shoots receiving tax breaks from Georgia, while pre- and post-production work that is just as vital to a successful project don’t receive them. That will need to change, they said.

The Georgia Film Academy already is working with the city, CSU and the Springer to develop production talent for the industry as it burgeons amid a rising number of movies filmed in the state and work on popular TV series such as “The Walking Dead,” which is shot primarily just south of Atlanta.

For Fun Academy, targeting animated movies is certainly not by accident. Beck said 21 of the top 25 grossing films thus far this century have been either fully or partially animated features. He also noted that those working with computers and creating characters and scenes in digital form are not hampered the least bit by physical limitations such as the weather.

“Remember when ‘Need for Speed’ was shot on the bridge in Columbus a couple of years back? They were actually in a delay because they were waiting for the clouds to break exactly right so that they could throw the car off of the 13th Street bridge,” he said. “In animation, you’re not bound by that. So this gives you the ability to have a full-time labor force of white-collar, very well-educated and creative people, and the community that comes with it.”

Beyond that, there is an expectation by Lanni and his staff that once Fun Academy Motion Pictures becomes a success in Columbus, others in the industry will follow. Lanni is not promising the city will develop another Disney or Pixar studio, but he said those in the industry tend to gather where they see someone else doing well and growing.

“It’s very much a copycat thing. You get the flag up, and people follow you,” he said.

In fact, a visit has been scheduled next week by a representative from Paris-based Technicolor, a pioneer in the vivid colors that movie-goers take for granted today. The century-old company is known for its early technology in movie classics “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind,” as well as the animated features “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Fantasia.”

Asked about the potential for jobs in Columbus once the animation studio kicks into full gear, Lanni said it could lead to between 300 and 400 well-paying positions as other companies move into the area. There also could be a need for up to 25,000-square-feet of space, he said, with it hopefully in and around the downtown area, which overlooks the Chattahoochee River.

“So why not Columbus?” Beck asked rhetorically. “Columbus has all of the amenities, the nightlife and other things to attract white-collar, creative professionals,” he said, ticking off the arts presence here, the data capabilities and simple things such as The Loft recording studio in which some pre-production work on “Sgt. Stubby” was done.

Beck said a major film and animated studio operation in Columbus also could attract plenty of talent, and not all of it from CSU. Art schools in Savannah, Ga., Atlanta and at Florida State University could be a source for skilled workers who currently have to travel to Los Angeles and New York for work instead of staying closer to home.

“What we’re proposing is by bringing the film industry here ... there will be all of the other things that follow behind Fun Academy when we prove that this community can support that industry,” he said. “That helps build that unifying civic identity as the military draws down, as CSU and the Springer ramps up, that we can create that idea that Columbus is a destination for people in this field.”

As for that first big production by Fun Academy, “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero,” there will be plenty riding on how well it does at the box office in 2018 as it takes on the animated studio heavyweights seasoned at creating the summer popcorn and soft drink fare for Hollywood and the movie complexes scattered across the nation.

Lanni expressed confidence that “Sgt. Stubby” will do well because of its basic, true patriotic story. It features a U.S. Army soldier training in World War I who connects with a dog from Connecticut. The pooch even learns to salute other soldiers and eventually is smuggled overseas aboard a ship during fighting in France. The dog’s ability to smell gas attacks and save lives, its help with retrieving wounded troops in combat, and its capture of a German spy earns “Stubby” the honorary rank of sergeant. After returning to the U.S. as a hero, he struts his stuff in a homecoming parade.

“It’s a zero-to-hero story, the American dream,” Lannie said of the film, which is expected to be rated PG and avoid any graphic war elements. Instead it will be the character development between the soldiers and the dog that is emphasized, he said.

“This will be the first animated war feature ever released,” he said. “It’s a wonderful story ... a stowaway goes to France and he comes home leading the parade.”