Andrews McMeel Universal goes Hollywood

Kansas City-based Andrews McMeel Universal is the world’s largest independent press syndicate, renowned for books, comic strips and opinion columns. Time to add filmmaking to that list.

AMUSE, the new TV/film production arm of its Universal Uclick subdivision, is promoting its cinematic debut, “Small Apartments,” around the nation this week. In Kansas City it will be shown for one-night only Wednesday at the Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet before heading to video Feb. 19.

AMUSE (which gets its name from Andrews McMeel Universal) was launched to help develop the company’s 120 syndicated properties and book titles into films or television shows. Some projects in development are based on comic strips that appear in The Star: “Pooch Cafe,” “Lio” and “Ziggy” among them.

“Small Apartments” surfaced as a novel by Chris Millis, an assistant to cartoonist John McPherson, creator of the strip “Close to Home.”

“This is a wacky, dark, funny and sad comedy. But it ultimately proves uplifting,” says Bridget McMeel, daughter of company founder John McMeel and a founding partner in AMUSE.

The film concerns a lonely alp-hornist living in a rundown apartment complex in Los Angeles who accidentally kills his landlord.

“It’s a comedy of errors for him trying to cover it up,” she says.

English actor Matt Lucas, best known for “Bridesmaids” and TV’s “Little Britain,” tackles the lead role. He’s surrounded by a quirky supporting cast that includes Billy Crystal, James Caan, Johnny Knoxville, Rebel Wilson, Missouri funny guy David Koechner, Dolph Lundgren and Juno Temple.

It originally was cultivated as a vehicle for up-and-coming comedian Zach Galifianakis prior to his breakthrough in “The Hangover.”

“This is a small, independent film, and it took forever to get made,” McMeel says. “But we got it made, and we got it made with a stellar cast.”

McMeel is based in L.A. (partner John Glynn works out of KC), and she spent much of the “Small Apartments” shoot on the set.

“What I loved about it was we didn’t have to answer to the suits,” she says. “We didn’t have people giving us notes every single day. We just worked as a team with the other producers, writer and director and got to do what we wanted to do. The freedom of independent film is you get to make the film you want to make, and the experience is a lot easier. What’s harder is selling it.”

With Sony Pictures recruited as a distributor, the feature opens this week in selected cities, including New York, Chicago, San Francisco and L.A. But McMeel expects the bulk of the film’s revenue to come from other avenues.

“The new business model is all about the digital release,” she says. “We hope this one film is going to be the domino effect for other AMUSE properties down the road.”

Current projects being developed include:

• “Pooch Cafe” — a Sony Pictures Animation film adaptation of the comic strip, “which is like ‘Cheers’ for dogs,” she says.

• A movie adaptation of the long-running strip “Ziggy.”

• A half-hour television series based on Mark Tatulli’s comic strip “Lio.”

• An animated adaptation of Lincoln Peirce’s “Big Nate” comic strip, which runs in KC Strips Extra in the Sunday Star.

• A comedy series based on Ruben Bolling’s “Harvey Richards, Lawyer for Children.”

“You deal with so many egos in Hollywood that you’ve got to really find the right creative marriage for our cartoonists to partner up with. We’re working closely with our cartoonists to keep the voice and tone of each strip intact,” McMeel says.

“My dream is for us to be like Marvel where I say AMUSE and (the project) gets sold right away. Instant recognition!”