Paramount and Nickelodeon Animations Ramsey Naito on the Subway Grit That Inspired Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Sending SpongeBob SquarePants Beyond Bikini Bottom

It seemed like the end of the road for the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

The popular kids franchise had inspired a half-dozen movies of declining quality, with the live-action 2016 adventure “Out of the Shadows” suffering from the kind of withering reviews and bad box office returns that derail a film series.

But Paramount and Nickelodeon CEO Brian Robbins and Nickelodeon Animation and Paramount Animation president Ramsey Naito had an offbeat idea for how they could make the Turtles cool again.

That involved tapping Seth Rogen and his producing partner Evan Goldberg, the duo behind “Superbad” and “This is the End,” to give the characters an adolescent flair. It didn’t matter that the pair’s main experience with animation, the very R-rated “Sausage Party,” was made for moviegoers of voting age and not for the pre-teens who are the biggest fans of Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael.

“It was all about figuring out who is the coolest person we can get to bring something different to it, so it just didn’t seem like an imitation of what had come before?” Naito remembers. “We needed someone to push this franchise forward with multiple movies and shows. And instantly it was clear that was Seth Rogen.”

Robbins quickly called Rogen and discovered he was a fan of the show dating back to childhood. Before the two Paramount executives could get through their pitch to the comic, he was finishing their sentences and selling them on his plans for the series.

On Aug. 2, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” hits theaters, and the studio is so optimistic that it’s already developing a sequel and two seasons of a streaming spin-off show. But those are just a few of the projects that Naito, an Oscar-nominated producer of “Boss Baby,” has been cooking up since joining Nickelodeon in 2018. She took over at Paramount Animation three years later. In her roles, Naito has been breathing new life into kids and family staples like “Smurfs,” as well as producing “Transformers One,” an animated spin-off of the live-action films.

Naito spoke to Variety about working with Rogen and Goldberg, her plans to expand the cuddly “PAW Patrol” cinematic universe and the challenges of making animated movies that appeal to kids, as well as their parents.

You were at Nickelodeon in the 1990s. Why did you decide to return?

I’d been working in animation for a long time, and when I heard Brian was going back to Nickelodeon, I was so excited because he was one of the creators who really helped define the brand. When he asked me to join him, I jumped at the chance. When we started, we were in production on roughly nine animated projects. Cut to today and we’re in production on nearly 70 across streaming, movies, and TV. Brian told me to focus on making Nickelodeon a world class studio where we can tell great stories and be the home of the best talent. And that’s been my guiding light.

Seth Rogen said that he was worried the design of the Turtles would be too radical and edgy. Were there similar concerns at Paramount and Nickelodeon?

No. We felt like the roots of the Turtles had this essence of subway grit and graffiti that you used to really see in New York. And we wanted some of that teenage testosterone — that sort of skateboarding flair. We wanted to pay tribute to the original comic book. But one of the early references on the film was one of those teenage doodles that people used to do in class back in the days where you took notes in three-hole binders. People don’t really use those anymore, but older folks know what I’m talking about. Ultimately, what Seth and Evan and [director] Jeff Rowe have created is an animated masterpiece.

When it comes to building a franchise, how do you balance the need to keep making sequels with the potential that if you do too many shows or movies, the audience will become exhausted?

It’s different for each title, but we are generally trying to stagger theatrical installments, so they come out 18 months to two years apart. Then we’ll have digital and TV series serving as bridges between movies, so these characters remain in the zeitgeist. We know we have to be careful about the concepts we decide to embrace for theatrical and make sure they are big and juicy and that there’s hooks in them. That’s a huge challenge. 

It’s something that we’re aware of with “PAW Patrol,” where we are planning multiple theatrical releases and spin-offs. And in the case of “Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie” where the pups have superpowers, we are leaning into different genres. We are leaning into taking out characters into new worlds. With these franchises we need to event-ize every new chapter.

Can you elaborate on Brian’s recent comment in our cover story where he said “we’re not going to release an expensive original animated movie and just pray people will come”? Does that mean you are just going to make franchises?

We are absolutely committed to making original animated films and are in development on a handful of projects. Brian and I believe we are nothing without fresh voices, faces and narratives and it’s our responsibility to add new perspectives, modern characters, and vernacular to our culture of storytelling. Originals speak authentically to today’s audience, must be handled with care, and make their own mark in our legacy library… and hopefully stand the test of time. That said, we’re not a one-size-fits-all kind of studio and our budgets are designed to support the scope of our storytelling.

What types of animated movies are working theatrically?

We want to appeal to moms and dads and kids all at the same time, and often that means focusing on the comedy. That’s what we did with Seth and Evan on “Turtles” or Chris Miller, who directed “Puss in Boots” and is now doing our “Smurfs” movie. We are trying to strum every cord. We are trying to attract older audiences who grew up with “Turtles” or “SpongeBob,” while also inviting in new ones.

One thing, I love about the slate at Paramount Animation is that we embrace a ‘no house style’ in the most authentic way. All of the movies we’re making look radically different. We work with different animation vendors on every single movie and that means that all of them look unique. So “Turtles” looks different than “PAW Patrol” or “Transformers One,” and all of those films look radically different than our “Smurfs” movie. It’s important for us as a studio to make films that express the creators’ visions.

What are your plans for “SpongeBob Squarepants”? Are you making more movies?

We’re developing more spinoffs and a series of movies for streamers, as well as a theatrical release, “Search for SquarePants.” The next one is going to be set in the deep sea, somewhere the series has never gone before. And the plan is that, like “Avatar 2” or “Wakanda Forever,” we’re going to be immersed in this extraordinary underwater world. I think it’s going to be incredible to see.

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