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Brave New Media: Opportunities for Independent Animators

From websites to mobile phones, iTV and more, Janet Hetherington investigates how independent animators are finding new ways to deliver interactive content over multiple platforms.

Captain Flamingo, currently in production on season 2 for TV, will soon be seen in online, pay and set-top box games. © Breakthrough Animation Inc., Heroic Film Co., Atomic Cartoons Inc. and PASI Animation 2006.

From websites to mobile phones, iTV and more, independent animators are finding new ways to deliver interactive content.

Captain Flamingo is flying high. Created by Canadian writers John May and Suzanne Bolch, along with their partner in Heroic Film Co., Karen Lee Hall, the animated show about a junior superhero who is looking out for kids in a big-beaked way, is currently in season 2 production for YTV (a Breakthrough Animation, Heroic Film Co., Atomic Cartoons and Phillipine Animators Group co-production).

But Captain Flamingo is bringing his good deeds to more than just the television screen, thanks to independent producer Breakthroughs new media division. The whole interactive area is a key area for future growth of our company, says Michael McGuigan, cfo, Breakthrough Films & Television Inc. and managing partner, Breakthrough New Media Inc. Animation lends itself well to many interactive platforms including gaming online games, console games, mobile games and PC-based games.

The Bell Fund provides money for new media development in Canada. Andra Sheffer, director of the fund, defines new media as anything that is delivered digitally and can be interactive. The fund aided Captain Flamingo.

New media exploits unusual existing media; only this material is being developed actively and interactively. I would define new media as content that is interactive in nature and has the potential to be delivered over multiple platforms, McGuigan says. These platforms include the Web, mobile devices, iTV (interactive television), etc.

With Captain Flamingo, Breakthrough has been able to showcase the character in a variety of existing and new media. Breakthrough has a new media company, Breakthrough New Media Inc., McGuigan says. The company produces interactive content based on Breakthroughs television properties. When creating content in areas such as console games or mobile games, we traditionally will partner with a developer company that has expertise in game development.

Breakthrough is in production on season 2 of the television series, advises McGuigan. At the same the same time, our new media division is entering into production on a combined iTV and web-based package of games that will be delivered both online and through iTV capable set-top boxes to consumers (i.e., Bell ExpressVus Game Galaxy Channel where customers download a game to their set-top box and pay for it on their monthly bill).

As we gather more information on the viewer demographic and move closer to placing the series in the U.S., McGuigan says, we are considering a mobile package of content including a mobile game, ringtones, wallpapers and possibly mobisodes. Finally, we will possibly build a comprehensive stand-alone website to support the property for fans of the show and for licensees.

New Media Support

To give Captain Flamingo his new media wings, the animated program received funding for new media development in Canada from the Bell Fund: Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund.

New media for the Bell Fund in particular, is anything that is delivered digitally and can be interactive, explains Andra Sheffer, exec director, Bell Fund. It does include all those other platforms other than traditional linear television and theatre.

The Bell Fund provides grants to Canadian independent producers who develop and produce outstanding television content complemented and enhanced by innovative, interactive content designed for digital delivery. These new media projects reflect state-of-the-art technology and are helping traditional television producers and broadcasters to discover the value added benefits of a web presence. The Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund receives annual contributions of approximately $8 million from Bell ExpressVu as part of its broadcast distribution undertaking (BDU) contributions to the industry. In addition, the Development Program is supported by the interest generated by a $10 million endowment resulting from BCE-CTV benefits.

Sheffer says that all of the Bell Fund new media projects must be based on associated television programs. There have been some great animation projects, Sheffer says. Angela Anaconda broke new ground with user-generated content from children at angelaa.com and went on to be licensed to broadcasters around the world.

Chilly Beach reversed the norm. It began as an adult-oriented animation series on a website and then went to TV. © 2006. Property of March Ent. All rights reserved. © 2006 Chilly Beach 3 Prods. Inc.

There are lots of success stories, enthuses Sheffer. Chilly Beach (cbc.ca/chillybeach) is an adult-oriented animation series that appeared first on a website and then went to TV a reversal of the norm. Odd Job Jack is another adult comedy series that was among the first to find a corporate sponsor and develop a new funding model (Molsons) and is still winning awards four seasons later. This is Daniel Cook is a hugely popular kids animation website based on a live-action character, thisisdanielcook.com.

Sheffer continues, Check out toopyandbinoo.com for a new, very popular animated series/website. zimmertwins.teletoon.com encourages kids to animate their own episodes of Zimmer Twins, and the best ones are adapted for television. And now, for a great innovation, there is Dudson, which appears on the digital signage in the Toronto subway system.

The Bell Fund is incorporated in Canada as a not-for-profit organization, governed by an independent Board of Directors representing various sectors of the television and new media industry. The Fund is administered by the Independent Production Fund.

The Bell Fund supports projects that stand out due to their excellence in creative, technical, design, financing or business. Sheffer says. We have industry expert evaluators who review all of the projects and then make recommendations to the Board. The Board discusses the projects and selects the top few for funding (depending on how much money is available for funding). The Bell Fund provides grants, to encourage experimentation, innovation and skill development, but we are also looking for emerging business models and efforts to design projects that may have revenue sources.

Further information about the Bell Fund can be found at www.bellfund.ca.

More New Media Hits

Halifax-based Collideascope Digital Prods. Inc., which has previously received Bell Fund support, is in the unique position of being an integrated new media and TV production company. Collideascope creates original TV programs with interactive components, original entertainment for the Web and for broadband/set-top box deployment, and also provides new media and animation production services to corporate clientele.

Collideascope success stories include Ollivers Adventures and Delilah and Julius, says Steven JP Comeau, president/co-founder, Collideascope. Both animated programs air on TELETOON and feature online interactive new media content. While Ollivers Adventures (produced with DECODE Ent. ) focuses on Ollie, a Ritalin-filled, bouncing-off-the-wall six-year-old, Delilah and Julius (co-created with Suzanne Chapman and produced with DECODE Ent.) is about millionaire married spies, a concept designed to appeal to the teen girl market and whose associated website garners hundreds of thousands of hits.

Odd Job Jack is an adult comedy series that was among the first to find a corporate sponsor and develop a new funding model. It is still winning awards four seasons later. Photo courtesy of Smiley Guy Studios.

As for production methods, Comeau says his company uses out-of-the-box Flash for both the animated and new media content. The style of Delilah and Julius involves a lot of cool architectural and runway fashion images, and Comeau says the use of Flash has worked well. For the Web and for TV no problems, he says.

Other companies are actively integrating new media as well. Recent funding secured through the Bell New Media Fund will stimulate the extension of several Corus Ent.s brands in digital media over the next few years, says Lucie Lalumiere, vp/gm Interactive, Corus Television. Those shows include Di-Gata Defenders, Erky Perky and This is Emily Yeung.

We will create an immersive online experience for the Di-Gata brand, offering a multiplayer online game and other digital media components, Lalumiere says. The game play will allow kids to delve deeper into the rich and varied Di-Gata world, its storyline and characters and with the fan community. The digital support will complement the show on linear television and the toy line, giving fans the tools they need to compete as Di-Gata Defenders, such as strategy tips, training tools and information about the powers associated with each Di-Gata Stone. Nelvana is in talks with both videogame and mobile game publishers to bring Di-Gata to handheld game consoles and mobile phones.

toopyandbinoo.com presents a new, very popular animated series/website. © Spectra Animation 2006.

As for Erky Perky, this brand will be all about user-generated content, Lalumiere says. Kids will have the opportunity to create animated Erky Perky movies and vote on this content YTV.com. Their creations will also inspire storyline development for season 2 of the show.

This is Emily Yeung provides yet another new media opportunity. This is what we call the preschool pass-back factor, as parents pick up their digital media devices and pass them to their kids in the back seat of the car to provide entertainment on the go, Lalumiere says. We will offer Emily Yeung episodes to parents as online downloads for MP3 players, mobile phones and computers via our new digital video download service TreehouseDirect. Kids and their parents will be able to interact with Emily Yeung via online activities on TreehouseTV.com.

Corus is also involved in the new media development of Captain Flamingo, which airs on YTV. Games are one of the top activities for kids online, says Lalumiere. Our plans for Captain Flamingo tap into this trend, offering online, wireless and potentially iTV games on YTV.com. Video shorts also rank high with kids online. We plan to provide short-form Captain Flamingo content on multiple platforms to feed the growing audience appetite.

zimmertwins.teletoon.com encourages kids to animate their own episodes of Zimmer Twins, and the best ones are adapted for television. ©2006 Lost the Plot Prods. Inc.

New Media Pitch

New media is fresh, and independent animators are finding that new media tie-ins are becoming an important and expected part of the pitching process.

Broadcasters are very interested in receiving content that is more than just a TV program, comments Breakthroughs McGuigan. When licensing a program, they are now asking for many other rights such as mobile rights, Internet rights, etc. To exploit those rights, it helps if you can create and deliver new content to them that will work on these platforms. As content creators, it is in our best interest to learn what type of content works on each platform, and how we can best reach the demographic being targeted.

The rights issue is a hot-button topic for Collideascopes Comeau, who says that it is a key challenge facing independent producers. Negotiation of rights is a very important issue, Comeau says. He says that producers should protect their interests when it comes to new media, because broadcasters are hungry for the content and may want the producer to give up all ancillary rights.

In an innovative move, Dudson appears on digital signage in the Toronto subway system. © 2006 DECODE Interactive Inc.

And when it comes to a successful pitch, new media often remains a supplementary sell. TV drives the bus, Comeau says. At the initial pitching stage, you need the TV show for the buy-in, and the new media reinforces the pitch.

Corus Lalumiere comments, Corus Ent. expects that its production partners will bring multiplatform strategies, components and viable content to the planning table. Our partnership approach to the digital media space results in stronger content, uniquely tailored for our audiences that meets the business needs of both broadcaster and producer. Audiences are continually looking for ways to connect with their favorite branded content over various platforms, and the most compelling way to achieve this is to have broadcaster and producer aligned and equally engaged from the outset of the project.

Absolutely required in pitches is a new media element for almost everything, says Bell Funds Sheffer. They are indeed expected. Some are small, and some are rich and comprehensive, but the expectation is there broadcasters have become committed to the inevitable!

New Media Trends

As for whats hot in new media, Bell Funds Sheffer says, It seems that everything is leaning toward mobile phones and iPods, etc. But those digital signs are going to need lots of content. I think we are going to see a lot of broadband streaming of linear content.

In the past year, the word mobile has become the buzz of the industry with everyone trying to figure out how they can make money in the new hot mobile market, notes Breakthroughs McGuigan. Down the road, I think iTV has the potential to be a huge new market for content creators.

Delilah and Julius features Flash animation and appears on TELETOON with online interactive media content. Its cool fashion image works well for the Web and TV. © Collideascope Digital.

Asia and Europe are already well ahead of North America in terms of using mobile phone technology to access and interact with content, observes Corus Lalumiere. The same phenomena will sweep North America over the next few years, as technology evolves and provides improved user experiences. North America is already embracing iPods and MP3 players and the number of audio, video and games downloads is increasing at an incredible pace.

Collideascopes Comeau agrees that mobile phones, iPods, iTV and the like are strong vehicles for new media, but he envisions something more an open standardized system. Comeau describes this dream machine: It would have a PC-like appearance, perhaps like a DVD player, but it would be an all-in-one digital delivery system that would replace your XBox or DVD player, etc.

Comeau says that having to create content for the multitude of platforms is, stifling creativity and the ability to make cash. An open standardized system, with no platform creation restrictions, would make new media easier to produce and, as Comeau says, make new media a daily part of the entertainment diet. Comeau notes that many PCs are already packaging and marketing themselves as ready for movie and MP3 downloads, so the notion of a Brave New Media digital machine tilts more toward reality than fantasy.

New Media Markets

Comeau observes that the end user is often a function of the program that is to say, a new media offshoot based on a kids program is going to attract young users.

With help from the Bell Fund, Corus will expand This is Emily Yeung (left) and Erky Perky into digital media. © MMVI Young At Heat TV I Inc. All rights reserved and © 2006 Erky Perky Pty. Ltd./Erky Perky Prods. (Canada) Inc.

Breakthroughs Michael McGuigan believes that new media is not only for the young. He sees the older generation adapting very quickly to the new digital devices that can receive content in a variety of ways.

However, while web surfing and text messaging may seem the purview of the young and trendy, the demographics are shifting. The new generation of digital media is ageless, comments Corus Lalumiere. Teens and tweens may be the early adopters, but we have found that tech-savvy parents are interested in providing educational and entertaining content for their preschoolers and are fast becoming one of the largest demos consuming content over digital platforms. For example, our Treehouse On Demand (VOD) service boasts close to 1 million downloads per month.

At Corus Ent., we also cater to a growing online audience women through the multiplatform initiatives of W Network, Lalumiere says. Proprietary research conducted by W Network shows that time-starved women are looking for lifestyle shortcuts, digesting information, tips and advice online. There is also a growing trend among women to visit social networking and online games websites for relaxation.

New media is for everyone and the fastest growing demographic of users is the over-55 crowd, agrees Bell Funds Sheffer. Of course they were younger a few years ago, and are keeping their new media usage habits as they grow up.

I believe the older generation is adapting very quickly to the multitude of new digital devices that can receive content in a variety of ways, adds Breakthroughs McGuigan. This means you can go beyond the traditional television market with your content and it doesnt just have to be aimed at the young.

Steven JP Comeau of Collideascope sees new media as a supplementary sell. TV shows are still needed for the buy-in while new media reinforces the pitch.

As an example, Breakthough produced an online game called Operation Victory, a turn-based strategy game based on a Breaktrough history documentary, McGuigan says. This game was aimed at the casual gamer, a much older demographic. New media is an excellent tool for education where the interactivity can increase learning. An example of this is the many PC-based games/activities properties that are targeted at the preschool audience and are very educational.

New Media Originals

While new media offers great support, marketing and value-added elements to independent animated productions, it also has the capability to become something more the source for a new shows.

There are a few console game titles that have become movies or TV series (e.g., Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), comments Breakthroughs McGuigan. Also, some web-based animation properties have become TV series. I believe that this will only increase over time as broadcasters and producers continue to look for new, original content.

We firmly believe in the power of online platforms to both incubate viable brands and act as a promotional platform for content on linear television, says Corus Lalumiere. AOL and its KOL kids service is making tremendous strides in the U.S. market, most recently bringing its broadband brand Princess Natasha to linear television via Cartoon Network and taking first broadcast windows on other series like Nelvanas Jacob Two-Two. In Canada, YTVs Adrenalini Brothers began as webisodes, moved to broadcast as interstitials and has since expanded to long-form episodics.

Corus Lucie Lalumiere believes in testing new brands through webisodes, mobisodes and online games when it comes to kids television.

Our strategy in kids television is to test new brands through webisodes, mobisodes and online games, Lalumiere says. We recently launched Jane and the Dragon on YTV.com ahead of its broadcast premiere, and as you know, we will launch Emily Yeung on mobile television prior to its linear television debut. We find that this approach creates early buzz for our new series and provides a large focus group of instant fans that services feedback.

The message is that new media is quickly becoming a vital element to build into an animation production plan. It is essential that animators take advantage of the new opportunities that these other platforms provide for them, says Bell Funds Sheffer. These provide new creative and business opportunities that will continue to grow. Especially for animators because there may be less rights issues, it travels well, and it can be adapted to various platforms relatively easily.

There is no doubt it is an important area for independent animators, as more and more content will be produced specifically for multiple platforms, says Corus Lalumiere. Animators will succeed if they understand the consumer behavior patterns associated with each platform and the characteristics and limitations of each one. This area will become more and more viable for animators as markets develop, and viable business models are established.

Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi. Janet frequently contributes to Animation World Network.

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