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Indian Company to Buy Animator of 'The Simpsons'

Deals: Pentamedia Graphics will pay $15 million for North Hollywood studio Film Roman, which has hits but no profit.

April 06, 2001|MEG JAMES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

India's largest multimedia software company is buying a financially bruised and battered Hollywood boutique studio that animates several television hits, including "The Simpsons."

Pentamedia Graphics Ltd., a publicly traded company based in Chennai, India, has agreed to pay $15 million for 60% of Film Roman of North Hollywood, which also provides the animation for the Fox TV series "King of the Hill" and the new Warner Bros. show "The Oblongs."

Film Roman directors met Thursday to approve the sale, which is scheduled to close next week--on Friday the 13th.

"That's kind of an auspicious day," said Ken Silverman, a director of Pentamedia in Cerritos.

"Because they'll be owned by an Indian company, they'll probably make us use a lot more of Apu," joked Mike Scully, executive producer of "The Simpsons," referring to a character, Indian immigrant Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who works at the Kwik-E-Mart in Springfield, the Simpson clan's make-believe hometown.

But Silverman said existing shows will continue to be animated at Film Roman's contractors in the Philippines and South Korea.

Special effects and animation for Film Roman's new ventures would be produced at Pentamedia's digital studios in India--including its 22-acre campus in Chennai, where the company already employs more than 800 animators.

"We cannot move the programs already in production," Silverman said.

Storyboards and key sketches are created at Film Roman's studios in North Hollywood, but overseas contractors do the labor-intensive "in-between" work.

"They're buying cash flow and a nameplate, a $15-million nameplate," said Steve Hulett, business agent for Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Local 839. Film Roman does not hold an equity stake in the three hit shows it animates.

"There are no Hanna Barberas or Walt Disneys who are going to build their own studios, create their own products and control their own destiny," Hulett said. "Those days are gone."

The sale of Film Roman marks the end of an era that began 17 years ago when Phil Roman, a former Disney animator and 10-time Emmy Award winner who won acclaim for directing "Garfield the Cat," opened his own shop. Roman was in Italy on Thursday to accept an achievement award and could not be reached for comment.

Two years ago, Roman left the company he founded, but last week shareholders reinstated him to the board of directors. His former company, which has expanded into non-animated television and the Internet, has been bleeding red ink for several years.

Among the other board members are former TriStar Pictures head Mike Medavoy, film producer Steve Tisch and Film Roman CEO John Hyde. Hyde could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Last year, Film Roman, which has 400 employees, lost $2.6 million, an improvement over 1999, when it lost $7.5 million. Its stock plummeted to 56 cents a share late last year and it was delisted by the Nasdaq Stock Market early this year, according to Bloomberg News. The shares went public five years ago at $10, raising $33 million.

The shares now trade on the Over-the-Counter Bulletin Board, where they closed unchanged Thursday at 75 cents a share.

"Instead of taking animation work offshore to Korea and the Philippines, the goal would be to do it at our studios in India," explained Pentamedia's Silverman.

Pentamedia is also spending nearly $20 million to buy the Hollywood movie production company Improvision Corp. It is also developing a satellite-TV network for South Asian children, cinemas and a theme park in India.

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