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Oscar or Not, "Coraline" Is a $65-Million Gamble That Paid Off for Phil and Travis Knight

On the morning that Oscar nominees were announced last month, Nike founder Phil Knight called his son, Travis, at 6 a.m. They both had just gotten word: Coraline, the debut film by their studio Laika, was up for best-animated film. "Phil is a man of few words, but it was a nice conversation," Travis told me recently. "A great father-son bonding moment."

On Sunday, they're hoping for another such moment at the Academy Awards. Whether or not they walk away with a gold statuette, it's been a remarkable and improbable journey for the new filmmakers. Even Nike didn't reach the Olympic medal stand with its first shwoosh-emblazoned shoe.

As we chronicled in our story "The Knights' Tale," when Coraline was just starting production in 2007, Laika is a family affair. After rescuing the struggling animator Vinton Studios from financial ruin, Phil took control of the company and set his sights on building a movie studio, a Pixar rival. Despite no previous interest in management, Travis, then a talented, 29-year-old animator, came to embrace the leadership opportunity created by his father. Travis, who has since become Laika's CEO, was instrumental in bringing in Henry Selik, of The Nightmare Before Christmas fame, to direct Coraline, based on the best-selling young novel by Neil Gaiman.

They were determined to make a distinctive, darker-than-Disney movie that married old-fashioned filmmaking, stop-motion animation, and the latest technology, 3-D. The two had never been combined before. "People didn't gravitate toward us when we were trying to find partners," said Travis. "The film was weird, stop-motion was this odd thing, and we were an unknown quantity, a bunch of clod-hopping rubes up in Oregon. It's difficult to convince people that something new and innovative can bear fruit."

Coraline was a $65-million gamble for the Knights and Laika. "We knew it was very, very possible the film would tank completely," Travis said. Focus Features, however, was able to build early word-of-mouth by targeting niche audiences. The film went on to make $123 million worldwide at the box office ($75 million of that in the U.S.).

That revenue, and the Oscar nomination—not to mention 10 nominations for the industry's top animation awards, more than any other film, including Pixar's Up—have given Laika instant credibility and much-needed breathing room. "It definitely makes it easier to have conversations with [Hollywood] people," said Travis.

For now, Laika's second next project, scheduled to start production this spring, remains under wraps. What we do know is that it'll be introduced, "From the studio that brought you the Oscar-nominated — or Oscar-winning — Coraline ... "

Either way, that's an awfully nice head start.