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Creative License: International Expo 2008

The last Licensing Expo to be held in New York -- it moves to Las Vegas next year -- featured plenty of animation, both new and nostalgic.

This year's Licensing Expo offered retro and nostalgic licenses, along with licensing opportunities for new animated TV shows like Ni Hao, Kai-lan. © Nick.

June's International Licensing Expo, the last to be held in New York before a move to Las Vegas next year, mirrored recent shows with its focus on retro and nostalgic licenses. But there were a handful of properties at the show that were relatively new to licensing, and many of these were animated TV series.

At Cartoon Network, properties being touted included Chowder, which premiered in November 2007; Secret Saturdays, which will premiere in October 2008 and be supported by toys from Mattel starting in fall 2009; and Bakugan, which premiered in February and is based on a Spinmaster toy line. The company also was showing Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, which will add more apparel and room décor to its existing list of licensees, and Ben 10: Alien Force.

Nelvana showed Z-Squad, a CGI property for girls 8-12 produced by Enemes in Korea. It is planning to license apparel, accessories, bags, stationery, mobile downloads, room décor, home furnishings, publishing, home video and interactive gaming based on the property. It also was looking to expand licensing for several existing animated series, including Max & Ruby, Ruby Gloom, and Grossology.

Nickelodeon was displaying Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, its Nick Jr. series that teaches about the Mandarin language and Chinese culture. The network recently ordered 20 new episodes of Nick Jr.'s number-two show behind Dora the Explorer, and announced the launch of its Ni Hao merchandising program. T-shirts and DVDs are among the first products expected to hit the market, followed by toys, accessories, publishing, stationery and other items.

HIT Ent. recently gained consumer products rights for Aardman Animations' Timmy Time, adding this property to its existing portfolio of Aardman licensing properties, including Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep and Aardman Classics. Timmy will air on Playhouse Disney in the U.S. and on Disney Channel networks around the world in early 2009; merchandise planned includes home entertainment, toys and games, publishing, apparel and accessories.

Skunk Fu! , a Cartoon Saloon, Cake Ent. and Telegael coproduction for TG4 in Ireland and SuperRTL in Germany, was highlighted at The Sharpe Co. This is the top animated boys' action show on the BBC and is being stripped on Cartoon Network in the U.S. Galleon Holdings controls the licensing rights and showed its internally developed toy line; The Sharpe Co. handles licensing for the U.S. market. Video distributor NCircle will distribute Skunk Fu! on DVD in the U.S. The Sharpe Co.'s other animation properties include Biker Mice From Mars, which will air on 4KidsTV; Freefonix, a musical animation series; and Franny's Feet, which will be stripped on PBS Kids Sprout.

Skunk Fu! is the top animated boys' action show on the BBC and is being stripped on Cartoon Network for the U.S. An internally developed toy line for the series was shown at the Expo. © 2007 Cartoon Saloon.

Other new animation properties being touted at the show included Monster Buster Club (MBC), which will be on Toon Disney starting this summer and is represented by Jetix in Europe and Brandgenuity in the U.S., and Raggs, a public television series based on a traveling live show. Each episode contains 60 seconds' worth of CG-animated shorts produced by Southern Star Singapore. Zizzle was recently announced as the master toy licensee, and Ty's Toy Box will feature Raggs products on its online site this summer.

Meanwhile, the numerous nostalgic and retro properties at the show took several forms -- anniversaries, relaunches, brand extensions, and limited programs featuring archive properties. Paramount, in an example of the last, is looking at its Terrytoons library to see how it can monetize characters including Heckle and Jeckle, according to Darren Kyman, Paramount's executive director of marketing and retail development.

DIC Ent. announced the acquisition of licensing rights for Penny Brite, a doll from Charisma Brands that was popular in the mid-1960s. Unless noted, all images courtesy of the Licensing International Expo.

Entertainment Rights/Classic Media was highlighting Casper, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2009 with a new CGI series, Casper Scare School, coproduced by Classic, MoonScoop and DQ Ent. and airing on Cartoon Network. Incremental exposure will come from mobile content on MobiTV, classic cartoons on YouTube, Joost and Babelgum, and licensed apparel, DVDs, music and games.

HIT Ent. is refreshing Thomas and Friends and Bob the Builder by reintroducing them in CGI animation in 2009, which it says will provide new opportunities for its licensing partners. Nitrogen Studios is producing the animation for Thomas, and SD Ent. will work on Bob the Builder. (HIT's HOT Animation will continue to produce Bob the Builder: On Site, a direct-to-DVD series of specials incorporating live-action and stop-frame animation.)

Finally, DIC Ent. announced it had acquired licensing rights for Penny Brite, a doll from Charisma Brands that was popular in the mid-1960s. DIC will develop a television series and merchandising program for the property.

A Global Presence

The international contingent at the show, both exhibitors and attendees, was large, as it has been for a number of years. Countries including France, Spain, Taiwan, Korea and Japan had their own pavilions, with Korea having a particularly noticeable presence. Vooz and its U.S. agent Access Licensing had adjacent large booths featuring Pucca, their international success story that is just being introduced to the U.S. Meanwhile, the Korea pavilion touted a total of 19 companies -- many of them animation studios -- including Characterline, Olive Studio, TSE Co., CLKO Entertainment, SamG, Ocon, Designstorm and Cocaban.

Marsu Prods. was showing its classic European property Marsupilami, positioning it as eco-friendly ("the forests' protector"), reflecting another theme seen throughout the show. A live-action movie is planned for global distribution in 2010, followed by an animated feature in 2012. The property has an animated series broadcast in more than 40 countries, with a new series, a coproduction of Marsu, France3, Samka Productions and 2DF, planned for 2009.

Russia had a presence at the show this year through its animated series Smeshariki, available for licensing, marketing and promotions in The Americas, Asia and English-speaking territories.

Video distributor NCircle, which was at the show for meetings and to keep up on trends, has secured all North American rights -- broadcast and licensing in addition to home entertainment, the first time it has done so -- to Hopla, a Belgian TV series for ages one to four. The program has no language; children are free to interpret it in their own way. Hopla accounts for 40% of the children's licensing market in Belgium, according to Debbie Ries, senior VP and general manager of NCircle, which has sold the property to Baby First TV and Treehouse Direct in North America. The show airs in 10 countries around the world.

Even Russia had a presence at the show this year, through 4Kids Ent., which is representing the Russian animated series Smeshariki for licensing, marketing and promotions in The Americas, Asia and English-speaking territories. FunGameMedia of Munich holds global rights to the show, which is produced by Animation Studios of St. Petersburg. It will air in the U.S. on The CW4Kids block on Saturdays in 2008/2009. Smeshariki has 80% recogition in Russia, and over 3,000 licensed products are available, some sold through branded gift shops. Licensees and marketing partners include UNICEF, Aeroflot, LG, Chupa Chups and Egmont.

Interactive Interest

The Internet is playing a greater role at the show, both in terms of being an effective way to market animation properties and as a source for new properties.

Nickelodeon introduced its online-origin NeoPets for licensing last year, and this year was highlighting the inaugural line of products, including plush, trading cards, vinyl figures, playsets, books, stationery and videogames. Each product features a virtual prize code that ties it back to the Web community.

Disney plans to launch a licensing program for Club Penguin, the online community it recently purchased. Since most of the characters on the site are created by the consumer, the licensed product strategy will be to allow fans to customize physical product, as they do with their virtual product, according to Andy Mooney, chairman of Disney Consumer Products. Club Penguin merchandise will launch at Disney Online, in Disney Stores and in Toys R Us stores.

Agent Act III Licensing showed two new online properties. New art from The Princess Bride animated online game, based on the classic film, will be available for licensing, as will Diner Dash, a leading casual game franchise from PlayFirst that has been downloaded more than 200 million times.

United Media was highlighting hoops&yoyo, Hallmark's e-card characters created in 2003 and available through the Hallmark website and a dedicated hoops&yoyo site. Over 100 e-cards, as well as 14 animated shorts, are available on the site, and more than 25,000 fans have e-mailed the characters. Females 12-34 are the target market for merchandise.

For niche titles like Disney Fairies, direct-to-video release is the best strategy.

Paradox Ent. announced a licensing program for the massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) Age of Conan, produced by Funcom and distributed by Eidos Interactive. Released in May, it sold 700,000 box units by its launch date. The game -- based on the classic property Conan the Barbarian, which has more than 40 licensees -- will be the basis of a separate licensing effort. Several publishers are on board, as well as licensees for products from apparel to fine art prints, mostly in international territories.

The online environment is important as marketing support for a licensed property as well, of course. Cartoon Network offers some of its series for download on iTunes, and one of its sell sheets noted that its show Chowder generated more than 600,000 video plays each month in the first quarter of 2008. Meanwhile, DIC Ent. recently partnered with Vivendi to make its 3,000-half-hour library of properties available for a variety of online and mobile channels. Properties included in the deal range from Horseland and Madeline to Super Mario Bros. and Liberty's Kids.

Increasingly, licensing properties are being launched in a variety of platforms nearly simultaneously, with digital distribution being part of the mix. Cookie Jar's animated series Magi-Nation, based on 3 Point Ent.'s trading card game, began airing on CBC and TheCW4Kids in September 2007 and was quickly followed by an online role-playing game and consumer products including videogames as well as DVDs from NCircle.

In part, the growing importance of interactive technologies is part of the larger trend of properties needing exposure in as many venues as possible, since television and films alone cannot typically sustain a licensing program these days. Another medium that has gained importance as a result is home video.

Disney's Mooney pointed out in a presentation to the media that the economics of doing theatrical releases of animated films is increasingly difficult, and the numbers work only if the property appeals to everyone. For any film that is more niche in nature, direct-to-video makes more sense, he says, citing Disney Fairies as an example. At the same time, the DVD version of a film is important to driving consumer products, since young consumers view the average Disney DVD 37 times.

"Selling WALL•E [at retail] against Speed Racer was a challenge," Mooney says, noting that stores were leery of carrying too much film-based merchandise, even for a Pixar movie. "The DVD launch gives you a chance to move up," he adds. "And the tail can last six months to a year." He notes that the popularity of Cars merchandise has continued for two years, largely thanks to the DVD. Disney projects Cars will garner $2.5 billion in global retail sales of licensed merchandise this year.

Celmates showcased Hey Poodle!, which has been licensed for a number of products, even though it has no movie behind it. There's talk now about an animated TV show.

The Crossroads of Art and Animation

Several licenses with animation ties were being touted as design rather than animation properties. One of these was Pucca, which has an animated series on the air but is being viewed in terms of licensing as a design property.

Two entertainment companies announced they were representing design-driven properties by Yuko Shimizu, the creator of Hello Kitty. Paramount introduced Angel Cat Sugar, which was launched in 2002 in Japan as Shimizu's first new character in 28 years, and in Europe in 2006. More than 100 products are available in Asia and Europe, with the U.S. market expected to follow in 2009. Meanwhile, Freemantle Enterprises, best known for entertainment properties such as American Idol and the new animated series Wordworld, launched Shimizu's Rebecca Bonbon, introduced in Japan in 2005, which will be licensed as a fashion and accessories brand around the world.

Most of the artists exhibiting in the Art and Design pavilion showed a variety of properties, but a handful focused on a single brand, positioning themselves for both design and entertainment opportunities. Celmates, an agency specializing in representing the artwork of former animators, highlighted Hey Poodle!, which has been licensed for a number of products. "For a property with no movie behind it, licensing is really on a roll," says Daniel Cohen, Celmates founder. "People don't care that it's not a show or a movie -- they just know that it looks good and they want it for their products." Celmates is talking to several studios about an animated Hey Poodle! show.

Espinosa Studio was focusing this year on Otis & Rae, which was published as a children's book in May by Houghton Mifflin. Espinosa, best known for creating American Greetings' Sushi Pack, which airs on the CBS Kewlopolis block, partnered with The Magic Store, creator of Yo Gabba Gabba, to develop the property for animation. And author/illustrator Nancy Wolff featured her character Tallulah, published by Henry Holt, noting that she is in talks with animation companies about a potential series. Tallulah shorts ran on Nick Jr. for a time.

Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).