CAA and venture firm New Enterprise Associates have formed Connect Ventures, a partnership whose first investment is going to Spire Animation Studios, a new outfit co-founded by Ratatouille producer Brad Lewis.
Connect Ventures aims to combine CAA’s resources across entertainment and sports with NEA’s established technology practice. One of the world’s largest venture firms, NEA has funded companies like Snap and Uber, and its current $3.6 billion NEA 17 fund is backing emerging companies like Masterclass and Goop. The new outfit plans to target early-stage, consumer-facing businesses, and executives say they will have an initial focus on “supporting and enhancing a post-COVID-19 environment,” according to a press release.
“Connect Ventures is uniquely positioned to identify and support the most innovative entrepreneurs, helping accelerate the growth of their businesses by providing access to the expertise, knowledge, and relationships of both CAA and NEA,” CAA president Richard Lovett said. “Connect Ventures will be deeply integrated into CAA’s ecosystem to help unlock new opportunities in service of our clients.”
Long one of the leading entertainment agencies, CAA has gained ground in sports and now represents more than 2,000 athletes, coaches, TV personalities and others. CAA Sports also does media advisory work, brand consulting, property sales and sponsorship, and owner’s representation and strategic management consulting for a range of key entities and individuals.
“In creating Connect Ventures, we’re bringing together two proven platforms built on decades of experience to unlock a really exciting opportunity set that is emerging at the intersection of culture and commerce, as well as data and software,” said Tony Florence, general partner and head of technology investing at NEA. “Heightened consumer demand for new ways to explore, engage and transact across nearly all categories of daily life will give rise to powerful new creative tools and distribution platforms—a trend already underway but accelerated as a result of the global health crisis.”
The joint venture will be steered by Rick Yang, general partner and head of consumer investing. Michael Blank has been elevated to head of consumer investments at CAA and will lead a cross-department team to guide the agency’s role in Connect Ventures.
Spire Animation Studios is a new feature animation studio co-founded by Lewis, a producer of Pixar’s Ratatouille, which won the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2008. Lewis most recently produced the Oscar-nominated How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World for DreamWorks Animation, as well as Storks for Warner Bros, where he also executive produced The Lego Batman Movie.
Lewis will be Spire’s chief creative officer. Tech and media entrepreneur P.J. Gunsagar, co-founder of Spire, will be CEO.
The company will aim to tap talent from a range of media to develop high-end animated entertainment for global audiences. It said it is building technology that will enable smaller production teams to interact more closely with the director, crew, and story teams. Spire is eyeing 2023 as the release year for its first full-length animated feature. In addition to Connect Ventures, the new firm has a strategic relationship with Ziffren Brittenham.
“The animation industry is ready for a new voice in feature animation. We’re super excited about forging creative chemistry with talented filmmakers from across mediums to make inspiring original stories for global audiences,” Lewis said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with the best talent in the world, and we’re in a unique position to bring together amazing artists to push animated storytelling.”
Lewis spent a decade at Pixar. In addition to Ratatouille, he was co-director and writer on Cars 2. Lewis was one of DreamWorks SKG’s first employees and played a key exec role in the company’s early days, producing the studio’s first animated feature, Antz.
Gunsagar co-founded Prana Studios and served as its president, building the 3D animation and visual effects outfit into a major independent animation studio. The company provided animation and visual effects for such films as Transformers, Tron Legacy, Tinkerbell and Disney’s Planes. Gunsagar more recently was co-founder and CEO of education and tech company Kidaptive.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled about partnering with Brad, whose movies have generated more than $2 billion in global box office, to build a next generation animation studio,” Gunsagar said. “Our plan to leverage cutting edge technologies in production and bring fresh voices to feature animation could be a game-changer for the industry.”