While Australians might not get excited over their native marsupials, the rest of the world certainly does -- much to the delight of Yoram Gross, whose pocketed characters have been successfully exported to millions. Stephen Lynch reports from Australia.
When one thinks of animation in Australia they usually think of Yoram Gross, which is really not surprising, for his studio has bought to life the world's most famous koala and kangaroo. After making fifteen feature films, including the Dot and the Kangaroo series, in his signature style of animation over live backgrounds, Yoram Gross utilized the koala star of his last film to spearhead his foray into the television world. Since then, Blinky Bill the koala has been seen in over 70 countries, a feat the studio hopes will be repeated with the new kangaroo series Skippy - Adventures in Bushtown, and also its latest production, Flipper & Lopaka. The uniqueness of these characters has afforded the studio not only a special place on our screens, but also within the world of merchandising.
Blinky Bill the Koala
Jo Pill, the Marketing and Licensing Executive at Yoram Gross EM.TV, believes, "There is a fascination with koalas, which Australians sometimes overlook. Last week some koalas were shipped to Taiwan and people were queuing for hours to see them for a few short moments." This interest in koalas has had some advantages for the merchandising of the studio's most popular character Blinky Bill. "Although Blinky Bill only had a very brief exposure on television in Taiwan," explains Pill, "the licensing program is extremely healthy. There are a lot of children's products, but there's also a fantastic range for adults, such as swimwear, because the character is so cute and the appeal is there."Normally, however, merchandising of a character takes place once a television series is well established. As Pill states, "Merchandising has become more and more driven by the retailers, so, even if you have the best products in the world, unless you have the shelf space nobody will know you're there. It's pointless to try and drive merchandising into the market and then just have it sit there on the shelves." One example is the Studio's licensing program for the show Tabaluga, which was successful in Germany where it was a stage show property, but was delayed in Australia where the character is less familiar. "The show rated exceptionally well, but we felt that it needed some time for the character to become well known before we put merchandising onto the shelves. We're fortunate enough to be producing another 26 episodes and when that series is broadcast it will help to establish the property in this country."
No such lack of product identification greeted the studio's animation of Australia's favorite kangaroo Skippy. It was Yoram Gross' second kangaroo star, following his film series of Dot and the Kangaroo. According to Gross, "One of many conflicts I had was that it wasn't easy to give Dot's kangaroo human characteristics, dressed up like say, Mickey Mouse was. In Dot and the Kangaroo, the animals are not caricatures, but stylized. One reason we wanted Skippy to look different from our other kangaroos was because he is a park ranger, and as there are no humans in the story it becomes easier for the character to adopt human characteristics. The character's unique qualities then result in making him more appealing for merchandising."As the licensers of Blinky Bill and Skippy, the Studio has final approval of all products developed around the world. As Pill explains, "We call agents in different parts of the world, and then seek out appropriate licensees, who do all product development and design. So I get to look at things from other parts of the world, which are sent here for my appraisal and comments before they are put on the market. It's very interesting because in some areas, like Europe, we have had enormous success with Blinky Bill, where he was licensed to one chain of department stores on an exclusive basis for apparel. In Latin America, Blinky is just beginning, so we're hoping for similar success there because they seem to find him a very cute and appealing character. They were hoping I might be able to send some live koalas there as part of the promotion but it wasn't possible."
The studio's latest television series features another well-known animal, Flipper. "There was lots of toing and froing about how we could make our new animated Flipper different from the live-action Flipper," admits Pill. "So the series became Flipper & Lopaka, which is about Flipper and a young island boy who learns how to swim underwater." Differences also arose in the merchandising of the characters. "Flipper & Lopaka is the first project that Yoram Gross will license independently of an agent in Australia and New Zealand. "Our new joint venture partners EM.TV have encouraged us to become independent. Also, as the major investor in Flipper & Lopaka, EM.TV is responsible for distribution and merchandising of the characters worldwide except in Australia and New Zealand," explains Pill. Regardless of where the characters are merchandised, final approval rests within the Australian studios of Yoram Gross, where Pill ensures adherence to the rule that, "Although the style of products may change depending on where they're sold, the image must remain the same."Stephen Lynch has written about the various aspects of filmmaking for books and magazines throughout Australia, England and America, as well as co-hosting Flicks, a weekly film review program.