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Hoodwinked into success

Writer-director Cory Edwards found a new path to Grandmother's house-and a hit animated film

Hoodwinked into success

Since I was 8 years old," says Cory Edwards, "I've wanted to be a filmmaker." You could say now that's a realized dream. The 37-year-old director of the CGI animated feature Hoodwinked is enjoying a rarified success. In a medium traditionally dominated by big players like Disney and DreamWorks, Mr. Edwards helped the new Weinstein Company (founded by brothers Bob and Harvey, formerly of Miramax) score an early victory.

Out from under the umbrella of Disney, the Weinsteins are now free to compete in the animation market, and they picked a modest winner in Hoodwinked. Budgeted at less than $20 million, the film had grossed more than $45 million domestically in three weeks after its January release. In a field where successful entries are budgeted at nearly five times that amount (Pixar's Finding Nemo and The Incredibles each cost more than $90 million to produce), that's quite an achievement. Less expensive CGI (computer-generated imagery) films have had a particularly hard time reaching audiences: Last year Valiant, despite Disney muscle, only recouped about half of its $40 million budget in U.S. box-office grosses.

No wonder the Weinsteins have already tapped Mr. Edwards and his team (which includes his brother Todd, who co-wrote and co-directed Hoodwinked) for a sequel, to be called Hood vs. Evil. Harvey Weinstein told Variety that he's also considering two additional films in the series.

Standing at the helm of a potential four-film franchise is a commanding position for a first-time director who was, until recently, paying the rent doing stand-up comedy, much of it performed in churches. "The stand-up comedy has really paid my bills for the past 10 years," explains Mr. Edwards. (A sample riff: "My weatherman, his forecast last week was, 'partly sunny, to mostly cloudy.' That's it, back to you. Where else can you be that general with your job? You can't call in to your boss and say, 'You know, I'll be in today between 8 and noon, depending on sleepiness. When I get there I'll be partly working to mostly goofing off.'")

In a telephone interview shortly after his movie opened to more than twice the box-office take that industry analysts predicted, Mr. Edwards told WORLD he is threading his way through Hollywood's reputation for bias against Christians: "Hollywood is not a multiheaded singular entity that is against Christianity," he said. "There may be biases out there, but there are different people that you meet, in all different places, and they are really just interested in selling tickets-so if you come to them with a really exciting entertainment-oriented story, they don't care what the message is. And that's good news for Christians in the industry."

Born in Anderson, Ind., and graduated from Anderson University, a Christian college, with a broadcasting degree, Mr. Edwards found that he could pick up valuable experience by plunging into whatever opportunities arose. Comedian, actor, radio personality, music video director, illustrator, TV host-it's been a long and varied road for Mr. Edwards to get to where he is now. But Mr. Edwards always wanted to direct, and he gradually found a way to turn his childhood hobby into a career.

The Edwards brothers' big break came in 1999, when the first project out of their production company, Blue Yonder Films, was accepted to-and well received at-the Sundance Film Festival. Although not widely distributed, Chillicothe (named after a town in Ohio) helped the brothers land an agent and prompted a move to Los Angeles.

Fast-forward six or seven years of "things almost happening," and the puzzle pieces finally fit into place. A San Francisco investor, Maurice Kanbar (inventor of Skyy Vodka), who provided funding for the brothers' first movie, decided he wanted to get into animation-and asked the brothers to make him a pitch. Suddenly, those disparate pieces were clicking into place, including Mr. Edwards' friendship with Benjy Gaither, son of gospel-music legend Bill Gaither, who had started his own computer-animation company. (Mr. Gaither in Hoodwinked voices Japeth, the hilarious singing goat.)

"I feel like now I'm finally being the filmmaker that I had always been striving towards," muses Mr. Edwards, "and all these other side trips have helped me become a good filmmaker."

Once Mr. Edwards and his brother came up with the idea of creating a "fractured fairy tale," in the form of a crime-story twist on Little Red Riding Hood, the project became more than a much-needed source of income for starving filmmakers.

"That's when I got really excited and thought that this was going to transcend a basic kids' or Christian movie that we're doing to pay our bills," says Mr. Edwards. "This could be really cool. We started out thinking it would go direct to video, but after we finished the script and got certain actors involved we thought this could really make it to theaters."

Hoodwinked falls in a long line of twisted fairy tales, from "Looney Toons" to "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and "The Muppets." But, as a CGI animated feature film, its closest relative is the enormously popular Shrek franchise. Mr. Edwards acknowledges the similarities but stresses that he and his collaborators worked hard to set Hoodwinked apart. They chose a different "color palette" and, knowing that they couldn't compete with the expensive top-notch animation of the Shrek films on their limited budget, decided to craft Hoodwinked's characters in the mold of Frosty the Snowman--like stop-motion animation dolls.

But there's a more important difference between Hoodwinked and Shrek that should be particularly noticeable to discerning family audiences: Despite some inspired goofiness that elicits real belly laughs from both kids and adults, Hoodwinked's humor is, well, surprisingly tame.

Mr. Edwards provides a simple explanation that may seem obvious-but rare-in the industry. "The humor is not too base or crass because if you're going to make something and call it a family film . . . then don't have sexual innuendo in it. . . . And I don't want to resort to kicking people in the crotch and fart jokes because I've seen that a thousand times and I just roll my eyes. You want to be hip and smart with your humor and make people laugh without having to do the most obvious gut-level jokes. You can kick a character in the crotch just about any time, any place . . . but you have to resist that urge and go for something smarter."

Smarter is good. Smarter, especially when it comes to kids' movies, is great. But how does Mr. Edwards see his faith intersecting with his work? Acknowledging an understanding of "calling" in the classic Reformed sense of the word-that Christians are called to sanctifying roles in everyday life, not only as pastors or missionaries-he said, "I've worked a lot in Christian media, enough to know that what I am driven to do and how I'm driven to entertain is not with Christian message-type films. I tell people I'm a filmmaker who's a Christian, not a Christian filmmaker-and the difference is that I'm driven to tell mainstream genre, entertainment stories."

Diplomatically, Mr. Edwards continues, "It's not that those other films don't have their place, because I think that they do. I just know that the stories I'm driven to tell will hopefully have my Christian ideals filtered into them-but might not necessarily end with a dramatic Christian or salvation-type message."

Mr. Edwards said he is excited about new opportunities to work and be counted as a Christian before major figures in the industry. "There's a lot of witnessing that will go on through me as I work on the set with people and in the studio realm. The film, which is the result and the end product, and how it affects the audience, is only one aspect of what can happen," he said.

Mr. Edwards said Hoodwinked is "my first footstep into this world of being able to have a little more professional credibility and getting to make another movie." His advice to others? "Work on your craft, make an exciting movie, and you can filter in something you want to affect the culture. Hopefully I'll be able to do some bigger things with the next film."

Andrew Coffin

Andrew Coffin