The intrepid Heather Kenyon reports on new business models and other sea changes in the air at the recent confab in Cannes.
It is a tough market out there. There is no doubt about it. Booth after booth, I heard the same refrain throughout the Palais -- "The business model just doesn't work anymore!" License fees are plummeting, new platforms and distribution methods loom, and broadcasters and market shares are dwindling.
That sounds bad.
And yet, the Palais is still full of people selling shows and doing business. Television still needs content -- and good, quality content at that, as children continue to become more and more sophisticated in their viewing habits. But the writing is on the wall; change has to happen. The business model just isn't working as it used to and we are all looking at leaner times.
MIPTV took place April 6-11 in Cannes, France. While usually smaller than MIPCOM for folks in the kids biz due to the absence of MIPCOM Junior, all the usual suspects were in town for the rainy and at times surprisingly cold week. I met with a number of producers to discuss what challenges they were facing in the kids space. In many ways animation producers, since they predominately focus on content for children, are at the cutting edge of the sea change we are all facing as "the long tail" becomes a reality. Children adopt new distribution platforms first and are the most platform-agnostic demographic. TV, computer, mobile, PSP -- it is all just a screen to them. So how are producers adapting to fit the times and make it through?
In addition to providing animation production services and original children's content for air, animation veteran Bardel Entertainment is very strategically broadening its business plan to incorporate the changing times by launching an interactive division. "Our interactive division is focusing on creating online entertainment for kids, just the same way we create entertainment for broadcast," explains CEO Delna Bhesania. "It is an extension of what we are already doing. However, since children's play patterns are changing -- they are on the computer from the time they are practically born -- we have to change to match this."
Focusing on interactive web content, Bhesania has been researching the field for the past year. This culminated in the launch of the division in January with the hire of Sang Mah, the new director of interactive media. As Mah confirms, "The collective experience is no longer in front of the TV on Saturday morning, it is now online. At Bardel, we realize that there is an opportunity there."
"We've been trying to figure out where we fit in the interactive landscape, and one of the places we have found is in building virtual worlds for kids," Bhesania further explains. Bardel's recent offerings at MIP reflect this. "As we develop shows now, we are always thinking about how the material will work online. Kids are in both places, so the shows need to be as well," Bhesania says.
Zeke's Pad, one of Bardel's latest productions, is starting with a TV show, but also has a significant Web play behind it, where kids can create their own Web page and interact in a small, safe, friend-to-friend community. Toki World, on the other hand, is starting as an immersive virtual world that Bhesania hopes to grow on the web and then move into other areas. Taking exploratory meetings at MIPTV, Bhesania took the property out to broadcasters, larger producers with interactive divisions and production companies with arms into licensing and merchandising. Toy companies are also a target. "What we have found is that interactive opens up different avenues to interact with new partners," concludes Bhesania.
Find the Programming Holes
If you have a product that fits an underserved or new niche, then you are going to be looking at business. For instance, animation that can be produced fast enough to create an up-to-date celebrity parody show? That is what Montreal-based Kiwi Animation is tackling with Punch, a show created for the adult-skewing Detour block on Teletoon. The show focuses on the staff of a celebrity mag and the skits are the "articles" that they roll out. This is ideal for the new marketplace, as the show can be sold as a whole or broken into pieces (individual skits) for mobile download and Internet consumption. Plus, local broadcasters can also add their own content with localized celebrities and issues, if they wish. However, by the brisk pace of business at their stand, I would say everyone seems to know who Paris Hilton, Britney and Arnold Schwarzenegger are.
Kiwi was founded by Yves St. Gelais, who used to run KliK Animation, another company known for its timely animation, as in its program Le JourNul. St. Gelais believes that in order to be successful, especially with comedy, one must keep as much of the animation production inhouse as possible. Using the suite of Toon Boom products, their studio is able to produce a new show every two weeks. Entering the fifth season, Sari Buksner, program and business development officer says, "We know a lot about the legalities of making fun of people!"
Taking a more traditional route, but, all the same, one that seems to be proving popular, is Toronto-based Comet Entertainment, which arrived at MIP with their prime-time feature film Santa Vs. Claus. "You have to find a niche," says Comet CEO Raquel Benítez. "There aren't any new features for the holidays, so we are finding this really successful." The 75-minute movie, a co-production with Spanish-based Fanciful Animation Arts, has been completed in HDTV using high-quality 2D animation and is a humorous take on what happens when Santa is bitten by the Fame Bug, and now just wants to have fun. When the gift-giving part of his duties is outsourced to Vladimir Dragonoff of the Vladex Corporation, Christmas is in jeopardy.
Benítez then continued with a refrain that I heard the all over the market: Alternative distribution/platforms are here and having a huge impact on production companies and their business. "It has affected everything -- the way you sell, create, distribute -- everything," she says. However, in meeting after meeting, producers say that in addition to the actual broadcast product, they are also being asked for shorter pieces and games for mobile and web for no additional funds. In this time of shrinking license fees this makes the squeeze even harder.
Look to New Partners
Riviera Seaview, an area recently added to the MIPTV Palais, had some interesting new guests this year -- Orange had an unassuming area in the center of the building and Microsoft sat quietly in a corner -- and yet they were the ones causing a stir. Several producers with whom I spoke were already in the process of meeting with them and beginning to figure out how to make deals with these upcoming giants. "There is no doubt we will all be doing more business with them," says Aton Soumache of France's Method Films, producers of such striking animation as Renaissance and Jet Groove.
Fluorescent Media was one of the most impressive up-and-coming tech-meets-content companies I encountered at the market. Fluorescent is a creatively led technology company, whose proprietary technology Phoenix helps to bring mass-volume interactive formats to life. Confused? Don't be! This is cool. In online worlds, Phoenix reads who is participating in the content and then, using this data, shapes the creative storytelling options in real time. It is like the next step in those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books we all read as kids.
Entering the market last year with The Empire, a live game-show format by reality producer Michael Davies, Fluorescent was at this market on a larger scale, looking to expand its applications in the creative world. Master Kush is one of the first takers, with a multi-platform adult animation concept. Carolyn Maze, managing director, says, "We are really excited to be into animation. There are so many possibilities." The Master Kush brand is beginning online using Fluorescent's technology to stage an interactive comic strip where the adventures are directly influenced by the audience. This strip will tie together an entire multi-platform environment that will feature webisodes, games, mobile content, merchandise from Kush Couture, and many other possible brand extensions. Phoenix is a very interesting tool for all producers to consider as they build their online presence.
By far one of the busiest people at the market was Kids Co Managing Director Worldwide Paul Robinson. Kids Co is the joint-venture channel owned by NBC Universal, DIC Entertainment and Corus Entertainment. It is anticipated that Kids Co will be airing in up to 40 territories, including Europe and Latin America, within the next 18 months. They are already airing in Romania, Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Poland, Singapore and the Philippines. Their aggressive expansion reached sub-Saharan African territories on April 2, 2008, with the signing of a broadcast agreement with leading African platform operator Gateway Broadcast Services.
Drawing upon the extensive libraries of DIC and Corus' Nelvana, Kids Co will feature both animated and live-action television series and feature-length movies in order to feed their 24/7 multi-platform channel, which will focus on creating a "responsible and entertaining environment for children and families." The company's surging energy was easily felt as Robinson was spotted in back-to-back meetings.
So independent content makers everywhere... want to get your programming on television? Don't have the likes of NBC Universal behind you? Well, it is still possible, with the brainchild of Adam Urban. Upload TV is an online platform that combines television with the Internet. "I consider YouTube to be the Nabster of the Internet, whereas Upload TV is iTunes. We completely legitimize user-generated content," he states.
Basically, users can go online and schedule their content directly on channels that have done a deal with the Dutch-based Upload. Through franchises, the company is entering Germany, Holland, Poland, Ukraine, Italy and Indonesia within the next six months. "We have completed a number of deals for other countries already this market," says partner Peter Vis, a traditional broadcast veteran who is now invested in Upload. The patent pending technology is perfect for users who have content on their own websites and wish to broaden their exposure. "We plan to virally drive people to television," explains Urban. "And if you have something of value that we can enjoy on TV, great! We are going to pay you back."
Quality is King
Again and again however, the most successful people at the market were those with great quality content, plain and simple. As Bhesania is betting, "The kids are there. They are looking, but there isn't that much out there for them that is great quality on the web. If it is good, they will come." The same goes for broadcast. On my final evening I had a dinner with a smaller production company that currently has two major U.S.-based networks vying for one of its properties. When asked how their MIP was, an executive at the company said with a smile, "It's turned out rather well."
W!ldBrain's head of creative, Bob Higgins, echoes this sentiment, "The industry needs to remember that content is king. Creators are suffering under a corporate pigpile of checklists, quotas and reports. Originality, talent and taking risks are the elements that go into creating the next big thing. [Those are] the criteria that we look for and that exist in everything we develop at W!ldbrain."
Indeed, W!ldbrain's Yo Gabba Gabba! continues to be a wild success both on television and with ultra-cool hip products being distributed through Kid Robot, a subsidiary of W!ldbrain. As the program's much-awaited second season starts this fall, a multitude of products will be hitting retailers' shelves. Delivering a fresh and innovative take is what Higgins believes will continue to drive W!ldbrain to success.
Tatiana Kober, president and founder of Bejuba Entertainment, agrees. "We had a fantastic market. I think there is an appetite for good programming, programming that pushes the envelope and embraces the way kids are thinking and acting today." Kober was at the market pitching her new television programs, which also embrace new digital platforms, and closing deals on her Leo-nominated shows Jibber Jabber and Ricky Sprocket Showbiz Boy.
Television will always need content, and good content at that. Savvy producers are making it through these confusing times by finding their niches, taking advantage of new distribution outlets and platforms, and bringing innovative content to the changing marketplace. If you have the stuff, you are going to make it through.
Heather Kenyon is currently a consultant specializing in animation and children's media. She is the former senior director of development, original series at Cartoon Network, where she focused on the development of animated comedy, comedy adventure, action adventure and live-action series for children 6-11 years old. Prior to joining Cartoon Network, she was editor-in-chief of Animation World Network. A graduate of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, Kenyon began her career in animation at Hanna-Barbera Cartoons.