Phil Roman knows how to dream big.
The son of immigrant farmers, he came to L.A. with $60 and wound up with a $36 million company that counts among its credits some of the most successful animated shows on television, including "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill."
But today, as he sketches his future from the Studio City office of his new company, Phil Roman Entertainment, the Emmy Award-winning animator is using a much smaller canvas.
"I'm just starting on a smaller scale where I can work directly with artists and writers," he said. "It's the way I started with three employees."
Last month, Roman resigned from Film Roman the animation company he founded 15 years ago and later took public following a management shakeup that relegated him to a creative role. Instead of sticking around, Roman struck out on his own, opening his new company earlier this month.
The venture is, for the time being, a modest one. Though he has some ideas for shows he would like to co-produce, Roman said he has no plans to pursue them now. Instead, he wants to do animation work for other TV production companies.
"I put a little money in just to give it a jump-start, but it's not necessary to throw a lot of money into it," Roman said. "I know I can get a lot of projects going that are work-for-hire."
Business has become tougher for independent animation companies in recent years as major studios have taken much of their work in-house. But Roman hopes to tap new markets that the entertainment giants haven't yet entered.
"The Hispanic market is going to be a big market, so I'm aiming in that direction," Roman said.
In 1996, with a string of hits in tow, Roman embarked on an ambitious plan to transform his company from a contract producer of animation to a production house that owned the rights to the characters it created. By producing the shows outright instead of selling work for a fee, a company can license the use of the characters for merchandising and other lucrative commercial ventures.
Roman launched an initial public offering, with the intention of raising enough cash to finance his own productions. But the move faltered badly, plunging the company into financial turmoil.
Meanwhile, independent producers kept finding it harder to get distribution deals as networks turned to their studio parents for product. Several of Film Roman's shows were canceled, and the company's stock plummeted from its initial $10 offering to $1 to $1.50 a share. Roman himself, the majority shareholder with 36 percent of outstanding shares, lost a bundle.
Film Roman has more recently traded in the $3.25 range, but not before Roman was replaced by David Pritchard, a former Chase Manhattan Bank executive with formal management experience.
Roman stands by the decisions he made. "The plans we made were good, solid plans, and there was a lot of interest in the plans," he said. "The problem was, the market changed."
But he concedes that his skills lie on the creative side, not in management. "My training was art school, and that's the part that I enjoy. We grew, and it was exciting, but I was stepping further and further from the actual working day-in and day-out with creative people."
Despite the influence of big studios, some believe that there may be a place for creative boutiques such as the one Roman wants to build.
"As these media giants become larger, it becomes easier to crawl under the radar, and the independent people whether it's film, television or animation seem to be able to get a pulse on tastes," said David Davis, senior vice president at Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin, investment bankers in Century City.
Roman said he expects to announce some deals shortly, hinting that the shows will be in the Spanish-language arena. Latinos comprise one of the largest viewing audiences for "The Simpsons," said Roman, who is Mexican American, and he believes that other shows will translate to Latino and other markets. "That humor sells internationally very easily," he added.
"That's a perfect idea for a possible growth opportunity," Davis said of the Spanish-language markets.
The recent acquisition of Spanish-language network Telemundo by Sony Corp. points up the increased interest in Spanish-language markets and some of their newer outgrowths. "(Sony) is starting to produce cross-programming for a specific young-adult and bilingual audience," Davis said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see him hook up with a larger (Spanish-language) company that has distribution."
Roman said he will draw on a pool of freelancers for his start-up, using subcontractors in Asia for the labor-intensive work of executing the concepts he churns out, a common practice in the industry.
Although he is looking forward to getting behind a drawing board again, Roman said that eventually he would like to find some time to relax.
"I'm 68 years old now. What I would like to do is get management to run (the business) and me be the guiding light, and maybe take some long weekends."
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