Anime expert Fred Patten reviews the latest anime releases including Gravion, Magical Play: The Complete Collection, Miami Guns, Shootfighter Tekken and Wolfs Rain.
We are supping on lunch in the top-floor restaurant of the Radisson Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica, California, watching the clouds darken across the expanse of Pacific Ocean. It is the sort of dining experience one imagines executives take for granted, where the waiter unfolds the napkin on your lap if you have forgotten to do so, and the chef is keen to accommodate the most discriminating palette.
We stab forkfuls of food into our mouths, between polite introductions and casual banter. This is BrainCamp, an industry event that is small in scale, but not in scope.
Founded in 1997 through the organizing efforts of Howard Leib and Fred Seibert, BrainCamp is an intimate two-day, cross-media conference for family entertainment leaders to meet with their peers and discuss their work. Held annually in New York City, with its large market of licensors and other related childrens entertainment businesses, BrainCamp has recently had a couple of venues in Los Angeles, BrainCamp West.
True to its nature as an informal forum, there are no power suits, no closing-deal handshakes, no panel discussions on stages separated from an audience of attendees. Rather, there is plenty of food to munch on throughout the day (to keep the blood-glucose levels sufficiently high), plenty of free promotional schwag to take home (to remind us of the market penetration, if not just the Earths dwindling resources), and plenty of time to get to know each other over cups of tea and coffee and isnt the weather lovely today? Why, yes, it is.
But lets get down to the brass tacks, and recapitulate the recent BrainCamp West proceedings. Eight presentations over the course of two days, October 21-22, 2004.
John Hardman, former svp of Kids WB!, was the first speaker of the day. He was responsible for development, acquisitions and current programming during his five-year tenure, having overseen shows such as Yu-Gi-Oh!, Jackie Chan Adventures, X-Men: Evolution, Whats New Scooby Doo?, Static Shock and Xiaolin Showdown, among others. Prior to Kids WB!, Hardman worked at DreamWorks as head of development and current programming for its TV Animation division, on series such as Toonsylvania for Fox Kids. And, before DreamWorks, Hardman was the director of creative affairs at Klasky Csupo, working on Nickelodeon shows like Rugrats, The Wild Thornberrys, Rocket Power and As Told By Ginger.
Without pulling any punches, Hardman began with the sober news that creating a cartoon franchise is difficult and daunting. While this may not be what creators want to hear, it is not an entirely surprising revelation. With his insider perspective, Hardman explained the process for approaching networks to sell ones shows, along with the politics inherent to the medium. Among networks, there is a strong trend toward niche marketing to target very specific core audiences. The maxim that ratings is revenue is antecedent to the network philosophy of more money for less work. While independents may have a passion for their shows, the fact remains that, with some rare exceptions, creators are not going to get rich from television programming.
Next up to bat was Scott Greenberg, coo/evp of DPS Film Roman. The parent company of Film Roman is IDT Ent., born from the telecommunications behemoth. As a lawyer in a previous life, Greenberg didnt mince words in describing the breadth of IDTs interest in the lucrative (albeit competitive) animation and interactive entertainment markets. In addition to developing direct-to-video animated projects to feed through its home distribution subsidiaries, Anchor Bay Entertainment and Manga Entertainment, Greenberg also spoke of IDTs efforts to found a full-blown CGI feature animation studio in Beit Shemesh, Israel. (Though, from recent news reports, the fledgling studio may be having some difficulty in taking flight.) Still, with its animation subsidiaries Mainframe Entertainment and New Arc Entertainment, if an independent producer has a property they are looking to finance, IDT certainly has a lot of money to throw around.
Equally approachable, and a hard act to follow in his own right, is Larry Harmon, creator of televisions original Bozo the Clown. Its unusual to find someone who hasnt heard of Bozo, in one form or another. Launched as a childrens record in 1946 on Capitol Records, Bozo was initially just a voice performance before Harmon purchased the rights to the character in the 1950s and re-imagined Bozo for television and a variety of media. Harmon started his own animation studio to produce Bozo cartoons, and created 16 additional characters for the show. During the last 47 years, according to Harmon, more than 175 million people have watched Bozo on television, and the 156 produced Bozo cartoons have played, and in some cases continue to play, in countries around the world.
As an interesting aside, film comedian Stan Laurel and Mrs. Oliver Hardy chose to sell the rights to the Laurel & Hardy characters during the early 1960s. They chose Harmon as the purchaser of the rights. Harmon explains that it is a full-time job, and a constant challenge, to keep classic properties alive and prosperous. In finding strategic alliances and promotional partners, classic properties are not hit-and-run licensees, but long-distance runners. The key: simplicity. Audiences must relate to characters in a very basic manner, whether through humor or fantasy. Consumers must have a good feeling about the characters.
Harmon advises to use your brain to build the brand. Find the niche for ones creation, and go after licensing categories that suit your property. For Laurel & Hardy, that may mean appearing in a Kelloggs cereal commercial. For Bozo the Clown, that may mean recording a new album featuring all genres of music, including rap. At the jovial age of 80, Harmon is qualified to observe, Human nature is most comfortable with the familiar - what people can trust.
Another older brand, or seasoned franchise, was discussed by the days fourth speaker, Tyler Barnes, vp of sales and marketing for the Harlem Globetrotters. As an 18-year veteran in the field of sports entertainment, Barnes has also served with the Detroit Tigers, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros and ESPN Television. The Harlem Globetrotters had their start during the 1920s. Having become such an attraction, the franchise even had its own animated television show during the early 1970s, produced by Hanna-Barbera.
Barnes says that the Harlem Globetrotters teams are comprised of players who are not only phenomenal athletes, but also men of genuinely good nature and integrity who are strong role models for youth. The franchise appeals to audiences of 8-12 year-olds and their parents (25-49). The dormancy of attendance, between one generation and the next, helps the Harlem Globetrotters to have some longevity as a brand, so that it is not merely cool or trendy. Clearly, after playing 20,000 games in more than 100 countries, the showmanship of the Harlem Globetrotters has some long-term staying power.
The last speaker for the day was Christy Glaubke of the advocacy group Children Now. Among its other activities, the organization is dedicated to improving the quality of entertainment, and supporting a positive media environment, for children. As a principal associate of the Children and the Media program, Glaubke researches and reports on issues to promote more diverse, educational and age-appropriate programming for children. Glaubke served as the project director on two recent studies: Fair Play? Violence, Gender and Race in Videogames, describing the lack of racial and gender diversity in top-selling videogames; and Fall Colors 2003-04, discussing how broadcast networks have made minimal progress in presenting a more diverse primetime picture.
Attendees got an extensive briefing on the state of kids TV for the Spanish-speaking audience in the U.S. from Michael Fletcher, president of Sorpresa TV. His company launched the ¡SORPRESA! channel on March 15, 2003 to bring 100% kids programming to Spanish-language households.
He said childrens programming is not a priority with the big Spanish-language broadcasters, which are Univision, Telemundo and Aztecha America. They run some animation, but no live action targeted to kids. While Mexico is the second-largest producer of programming, one of the big broadcaster/producers told Fletcher, The kids market isnt important to us in Mexico so we dont do it.
Fletcher finds this particularly odd, as he reminded attendees that Hispanics form the fastest growing market segment in the U.S. Right now, one in six kids in the States is Hispanic, and pretty soon that will be one in five. That, and 35% of the entire U.S. Hispanic population is under the age of 18, accounting for about 10.5 million kids.
He said advertisers have found economics are not an issue now as one out of every three Hispanic families in the U.S. earns more than $50,000 a year. Stereotypes are out the window. Also, Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the world.
He and his partners saw this as not only an opportunity, but also a need. He believes their gamble will pay off and is already finding the channels basic programs are getting good ratings, showing that kids are starving for shows. ¡SORPRESA! tiers programming by age throughout the day, with young kids early in the day and up to older kids, 14-17, its Teen Novella in the evening.
Sorpresa TV buys programming from all over the world, primarily from Puerto Rico, Chile, Spain, Peru and Australia. It can acquire it for a nominal amount (average programming cost is less than $300 for a half-hour) by Spanish producers eager to get their product into the U.S.
What kids programming does exist, they often have to reject for content. In Mexico, its okay to show kids 10 or 12 years old smoking. They reject that for the U.S.
While its cheaper to acquire than produce, Sorpresa TV is embarking on making its own programming in the U.S. He said they seek programming that entertains, educates and empowers kids. Sorpresa means surprise in Spanish.
One of the shows his channel bought is a serial comedy show, Mi Familia es un Dibujo, in which a live-action mom gives birth to a cartoon son.
Targeting kids gives his channel a slight advantage in the Spanish-language TV market. Whereas many adults are very sensitive to the different dialects of Spanish, children dont discriminate when it comes to dialects, they are more concerned with the content, and it cant be too regional or localized.
Things are already changing. Due to a recent survey, Aztecha America found viewers want more kids programming and entered into a joint venture with Sorpresa TV to carry eight hours of kids programming on Saturdays and Sundays.
The biggest challenge his company faces is the Hispanic tax. In cable, all the Spanish-language channels have been aggregated and put together on a tier that viewers must pay for. This doesnt apply to fullpower stations like Univision with FCC must carry rights.
Digital channels like ¡SORPRESA! get grouped into a package with 10-20 other Spanish channels from all over the world. A basic analog subscriber pays around $20 a month, he said. If you want the Spanish package, then you have to subscribe to a digital service, which bumps it out to about $50 a month, and then one must buy the Spanish tier for anywhere from a few dollars to $20. This has been a failed strategy, Fletcher said.
Dish Network offers two packages, for the same price, one with Hispanic channels and one without. Dish went from having less than 100,000 Hispanic customers to close to one million in three years. There are six million Hispanic cable homes in the U.S. and another two million satellite homes. Cable companies are changing their strategy, especially Adelphia and Charter, which add only $4 for the Spanish package.
Emily Smith, editor-in-chief/vp of product development for FamilyFun.com, talked about the challenges of defining, branding and generating revenue for her site, which supports the publication, Family Fun. Both are owned by The Walt Disney Co. While the magazine has 1.8 million subscribers, the site now eight years old has 1.5 to 2 million unique visitors a month, depending upon the time of year.
Part of her challenge, when she was brought on board for the site, was to help define it and give it a life in addition to being a support vehicle for the print publication. So they took the most popular departments of the magazine crafts, party ideas and family recipes to feature on the site. Viewers may also take care of subscription concerns on the site, but many use it as a community and resource for the features tailored for the Internet.
BrainCamp participants were able to experience firsthand the fun of making crafts offered on the site as Smith supplied each with the materials to make creepy spider bracelets for Halloween. In addition to advertising, the site makes money selling downloadable patterns for crafts and party ideas.
Leib Ostrow, co-founder/ceo of Music for Little People, is a self-described hippie living in Humbolt City, California, following his passion to make musical entertainment for children. He is making music DVDs to encourage kids to explore their environment.
While he started in the audio recording business making audiotapes for kids, he has been switching over to DVDs and predicts that audio recordings for children will be obsolete within five years. He credits this to the extensive use of DVDs in automobiles now. Cars were the last bastion for audio, said Ostrow.
He has found a niche, with so many retailers going out of business, Ostrow said, primarily due to Wal*Mart. That and the limited amount of product Wal*Mart will carry when it strong-arms its deals with suppliers, he said, has made the possibilities for parents very limited. His mail-order print catalog business is converting to Internet shopping orders, which helps cut down on his printing and mailing costs.
More to Come
The BrainCamp conference is specifically geared to the major players in the childrens entertainment industry. Attendance is limited to foster an environment of camaraderie and candid discussion.
BrainCamp East 2005 will take place during March 17-18, 2005, in New York City ([W] www.braincamp.com, [E] firstname.lastname@example.org). Confirmed speakers for the event include: Jim Samples, evp/gm, Cartoon Network; Cyma Zarghami, president, Nickelodeon Television; Stan Clutton, svp of investor relations, new business and licensing, Fisher Price; Michael Hirsh, ceo, The Cookie Jar Company; Paul Levitz, president/publisher, DC Comics; Peggy OBrien, svp, educational programming and services, Corporation for Public Broadcasting; and Yves Saada, coo, BrainPop.com.
Sarah Baisley is the editor in chief of Animation World Magazine.
Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles.