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IDT Gets Animated

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Newark Telecom Ventures Into Entertainment

January 18, 2004

By Jeff May

IDT made a splash last month when it announced Christopher Reeve would direct an animated film the company has in the works.

Somewhat lost in the hoopla was the roots of the film's story about a scrappy kid who helps the New York Yankees win the World Series during the 1930s. The tale grew out of bedtime stories IDT Chairman Howard Jonas told his nine children.

"I usually put the kids to bed four at a time," Jonas said in an interview last week. "If I'm lucky, it's 'Three Little Pigs.' I do 40 versions of it."

When his kids grew tired of the old stand-bys, Jonas invented the character "Yankee Irving," a young boy from a poor family who befriends Babe Ruth and has an unusual sidekick, a talking baseball named Screwy. While Reeve, of "Superman" fame, was charmed by the script that emerged from those tales, Jonas is unable to restrain his enthusiasm for the film, which is due out next year.

"Everyone in the office says we're going to beat 'Nemo,'" the 47-year-old chairman said, referring to Pixar's clownfish-on-a-mission flick, "Finding Nemo," the top-grossing picture of 2003. "I said, 'No, we're going to beat 'E.T,'" one of the top-grossing pictures of all time.

Whether it is hubris or the kind of against-the-grain bet Jonas has made throughout his career, IDT is throwing another curveball at Wall Street. The Newark-based telecommunications company with 4,000 employees and sales of $1.8 billion last year makes most of its money on prepaid telephone calling cards. Yet IDT sank $72 million into its fledgling entertainment business last year, snapping up animation shops and a video-DVD distribution company, Anchor Bay. And the company isn't shy about sharing its audacious goal -- outdoing Pixar, a studio whose unmatched string of hits includes "Toy Story," and "Monsters Inc."

"We hear from people, 'You're a telecom business. You're just making the story more complex,'" said IDT Chief Executive James Courter, a former New Jersey congressman. "But we are serious about entertainment. It's going to be a very important part of this company."

There are reasons to take IDT seriously. Entertainment analysts say the company has spent its money wisely. Film Roman and Mainframe Entertainment, animation shops in which IDT took controlling stakes this year, both enjoy good reputations and steady work.

Most of the company's early projects will have built-in audiences. One is "Starpoint Academy," an animated film conceived by the late Gene Roddenberry, creator of "Star Trek."

Another is a partnership with Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, which has agreed to air one of IDT's homegrown shows for children, "Hip Hop and Hamilton." Jonas -- like many employees of IDT, an Orthodox Jew -- appeared on Robertson's flagship program "The 700 Club" earlier this month, and the two men plan to market archival footage from the show, a kind of "Best of Pat" DVD series for evangelical Christians.

Then there is IDT's balance sheet. The company is debt-free and has $1 billion in the bank. Pixar, for all its success, only has $500 million on hand.

Still, many investors remain wary about the company. IDT has talked big before: It poured several million dollars into a TV-via-the-Internet venture, TV.TV, before unceremoniously pulling the plug two years ago. Net2Phone, an IDT affiliate that was once the hottest brand in the Internet phone business, has been overshadowed by Edison-based Vonage and cable operators, which are offering their own stripe of the technology.

Some shareholders are ready to gamble, however. IDT's stock is up more than 60 percent since April, when it lagged at $13.75 a share. On Friday, shares closed at $22.49, up 19 cents.

Even with money to burn, building another Pixar will take time. The Emoryville, Calif.-based studio was founded during 1986, but didn't release "Toy Story," its first big hit, until 1995, said Robert Routh, who follows the entertainment industry for Natexis Bleichroeder.

"To create an entity that will have a continuous stream of hits, that cannot be done overnight by putting together a patchwork collection of assets," Routh said. "Is it possible? Yes. But it's impossible in the next three to five years, because it takes time."

Another hurdle is talent. Pixar has John Lasseter, the famous -- and famously well-paid -- creative chief behind most of the studio's hits. IDT's answer is a partnership with Vanguard Animation, which is run by John Williams, producer of "Shrek." But Williams, Routh points out, doesn't have the track record of Lasseter.

There are other risks to IDT's plunge into entertainment. Where telecom is by-and-large a steady business, the movie industry operates on a boom-or-bust cycle: Have a hit, make a lot of money; make a dud, go hungry.

During the 1990s, Jonas stoked IDT's underdog image by railing against the cost structure of AT&T, where jet-setting executives held lavish galas for clients. But he is dealing with a challenge of another order in Hollywood. Can his troops mix it up without falling victim to the power-lunch lifestyle at Beverly Hills' the Grill?

"Hollywood is very seductive," IDT Chief Financial Officer Stephen Brown says, which is one reason the unit will keep its headquarters on the East Coast.

One way IDT plans to keep its costs down is through its Global Animation Studio, an idea built on the bones of TV.TV. The company has animation production hubs in Newark, Hollywood and Israel, but also relies on piecework from a pool of 2,500 animation shops it can call on from Dublin to Eastern Europe to India. The contract work can be checked daily by IDT employees via their telecommunications network, eliminating expensive delays, and overall costs are 60 percent less than that of major studios, Brown said.

IDT also doesn't have the same cash worries that plague other studios.

"Everything in Hollywood is, 'How am I going to finance the next film?'" Brown said. "We don't have to go out and raise the money. Having $1 billion in the balance sheet is a big confidence builder."

By pushing into media and entertainment, Jonas has made no secret he is taking a page from his mentor, John Malone, the chief of Liberty Media, a holding company of media and entertainment interests. Part of the drive is personal: Jonas says he likes having his voice heard. He wrote an autobiography several years ago, and has another book on the role of religion in his life coming out this winter.

Jonas' pet project is IDT's radio business. The company owns a radio station in Washington, D.C., and has launched a syndicated programming network called Liberty Broadcasting, named in honor of his buddy Malone. The network features a lineup of conservative and libertarian hosts such as Linda Chavez and Barry Farber, and Jonas dreams one day of eclipsing NPR.

"I sort of always wanted to be a media mogul, to be part of the news cycle," he said.

His interest in movies is more about margins: Pixar had profit margins of 44 percent last year, a lot better than the phone business.

Astonishingly, Jonas claims he has never seen a horror film, even though IDT spent $60 million last year for Anchor Bay, which specializes in gorefests such as "Halloween," along with kid shows and fitness titles. Nevertheless, IDT is looking into the production of its own direct-to-DVD movies in the horror genre.

The chairman does have a lot riding on certain projects, such as "Yankee Irving." Reeve agrees it could be a big hit, but isn't ready to embrace Jonas' prediction about eclipsing "E.T."

"I appreciate the enthusiasm and I appreciate his dedication to making a really good film," the actor said in a phone interview last week. "I'm really excited."

Reeve said there are going to be some "household names" doing voice-overs for the film, which should help marketing. But he praised Jonas for insulating him from other pressures of a typical Hollywood film.

"I know he really wants this to be good," Reeve said. "When I asked him, 'When will this film be released?' he said, 'When it's ready.' That's extraordinary."

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