The Wright Brothers may be coming to the big screen — with some strong Dayton connections.
In the last week of his life, David Lightle, chief executive of Dayton’s Wright Brothers USA, signed a contract with a Hollywood film production firm to start work on an animated 3-D feature film based in part on a 2004 children’s book, “Wee and the Wright Brothers.”
Lightle then went to China, where he had many business dealings. He died there on Aug. 28 at the age of 58.
The contract he signed before he left defines roles for the production company, Mechaniks, and Wright Brothers USA, which has drafted sketches for characters in the movie.
Lightle also agreed that a writing credit would go to Boris Damast, a Mechaniks principal, to help develop the screenplay, said Kenneth Botts, Wright Brothers USA president and one of Lightle’s surviving partners.
Lightle’s screenplay follows a mouse named “Wee” as he accompanies the Wright Brothers’s invention of the airplane, involving an international cast of characters and contending with birds who don’t want humans to fly.
An early task is to find voice talent to commit to roles in the movie, said Botts and Doug Knopp, Wright Brothers USA chief designer and creative director. They also want to attract investment support for what they expect to be a $60 million to $80 million project.
Botts and Knopp think the film could attract a studio and a distributor for domestic release around the end of 2019 and for release in China in 2020, that country’s “year of the rat.”
“That is optimistic,” Damast said of the timeline.
The Dayton company has developed the characters for a year and will be listed in the film as executive producers.
The news comes at a time when David McCullough’s best-selling book, The Wright Brothers, has brought renewed attention to the Wrights. HBO and Tom Hanks’ production company, Playtone, last year bought the rights to that book.
“I think one of the things that made this a viable project is largely the attention the Wright Brothers are getting, ” said Timothy Gaffney, author of the 2004 children’s book on which the screenplay is partly based.
Gaffney — spokesman for the National Aviation Heritage Alliance and a former Dayton Daily News reporter — said he and Lightle spoke many times about the screenplay, but Lightle did most of the writing while “doggedly” pursuing producers for a film.
All agreed this is part of Lightle’s legacy.
“There’s probably even more passion now to realize Dave’s dream for this,” Damast said.
Wright Brothers USA’s sister company Visual Marketing Associates had been doing animation for a Chinese company when Lightle first shared his screenplay with Mechaniks, Botts said.
“A day or two later, they got back with Dave and said, ‘Dave, this is actually quite good,” Botts said. “‘We would like to be the producers.’”
Mechaniks principal Andrea Kikot said she and Damast were intrigued.
“It’s a wonderful blend of fantasy and fact, very unusual, even for animated films,” Damast said. “Clearly, it’s inspired by the children’s book of the same name. However … it sparked an idea in his head for doing something like this.”
“Something quite original actually,” Kikot added.
Pitch packages have been sent to financiers. They hope to be funded by the first quarter next year, Damast said.
William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, one of the big Hollywood casting agencies, is involved in casting, they said. Mechaniks is also speaking with animation companies “around the world,” Kikot said.
“We’ve just started going out publicly with this,” Kikot said.
Mechaniks has worked in production for the new film version of The Jungle Book, as well as television projects for HBO TV, Fox TV, USA Networks and commercials for Apple, American Airlines and others. The firm is also involved in an upcoming film on the composer Vivaldi.
Lightle, Botts and Knopp founded Wright Brothers USA to guide the licensing of the Wright brothers’ name and images to sell carefully selected products — mainly bicycles and watches — before staring an online commerce site in May 2015, TheWrightBrothersStore.com.