Laika plans next act after successful year

Laika plans next act after successful year

Laika CEO Travis Knight was also lead animator on the Oscar-nominated Coraline.

Regardless of how Coraline fares at the Academy Awards, it has been a triumphant awards season for Laika, the plucky independent animation studio backed by Phil Knight and run by his son Travis.

Coraline followed up its Academy Award nomination for best animated feature in February with four awards from the International Animated Film Society. That’s quite a debut for a company that has wrestled with financial challenges and internal discontent.

Coraline opened to critical acclaim and surprisingly strong box office sales in February 2009, grossing more than $120 million globally. But the question of what comes next for Laika is as unanswered today as it was a year ago. Plans to build a $55 million, 30-acre campus in Tualatin with a Nike-style fitness center and a 300-seat theater remain on hold, and the studio has yet to commit to a follow-up feature. Rather than hiring talent to gear up for its second feature, Laika has cut jobs and parted ways with Coraline director Henry Selick.

Travis Knight, who took over as president and CEO last March, insists that it isn’t unusual for a small studio to move slowing following a successful debut. “Developing these projects takes time,” he says. “With Coraline, it took a good five years from when we first started working on the script and making the puppets. Even Pixar, as great as they are, took three years between their first two films. We’ll be right in there.”

Knight expects to announce Laika’s next feature film this spring and to hire “hundreds” of people to enter into full production. He says the success of Coraline raises the bar on expectations.

“Five years ago ... you had a lot of films about fuzzy woodland creatures and the usual pop culture jokes — a lot of crude, disposable formulas,” says Knight. “Coraline is an example of pushing on the edges of the form — not to see animation as a genre but as a medium to tell any type of story. That is going to define who we are moving forward: bold subject matter and innovative execution.”

That formula worked for Coraline. Whether it will work for Laika’s second act remains to be seen.