Heather Kenyon reports on NATPE 1998's animated shows and the attending companies' goals. It's not just a syndicator's show anymore.
For those of us that are most accustomed to animation festivals, NATPE can be something else. In-between the live showroom floor camel rides and armadillo races, crammed in between mega-booths touting the likes of The Nanny, Oprah, and Xena: Warrior Princess , one finds the animated programming. Yes, animation is a big business but at NATPE the niche gets put into perspective. What was once strictly a domestic television programming market has changed significantly over the years. NATPE has changed to reflect the global nature of today's market. A total of 17,051 attendees descended upon the massive trade show in New Orleans from January 19-22, 1998. Of those attendees, 3,466 were international. Exhibitors were more international than ever, with 300 out of 700 booths occupied by companies from outside the U.S. In fact, NATPE sites that more than 90 countries were represented at this year's market. With vertical integration tightening the U.S. market, both international and U.S. companies without distribution outlets are at NATPE to strike deals and find opportunities for their wares. Whether exhibitors are trying to sell to a major U.S. network, the syndication market or putting together international deals and co-productions, there was a bustle on the floor. Despite the complaints about the U.S. being closed and syndication numbers being down, many companies with innovative programming seem to be finding a place to call home.
Selling to the Majors
While it is true the small start-up company may not have a chance of seeing their shows on ABC in the near future, some of the major U.S. networks are spreading the wealth between the large animation companies. Kids WB! is currently showing programming that has been produced at Columbia Tri-Star Television and DreamWorks, SKG. Fox will now be showing two of Gaumont Multimédia's shows, Space Goofs and Oggy and the Cockroaches.
Columbia Tristar Television is a perfect example of a big studio without a network that has made a large impact very quickly. Jumanji and Men in Black were successful shows. Following in this pattern, the upcoming Godzilla looms on the horizon as being just as huge. Sander Schwartz, Executive Vice President and General Manager Children's Programming for the L.A.-based studio, said, "Even though there are more shows being produced overall than ever before, and overall the market is very healthy, the shows are being done by fewer and fewer people." He sites Columbia Tristar's success on many factors including the talent and management at the studio, as well as the fact that when they pitch to networks, they do not have any pre-conceived baggage that might come with a network affiliation. Currently, Columbia Tristar enjoys the best of many worlds as they are a player with the majors but also successful in the syndication market. Bohbot Entertainment & Media, Inc. has just acquired Columbia Tristar's Jumanji and was actively selling it at NATPE.
How did Gaumont Multimédia, a European company, hit the pot of gold at the end of the U.S. network rainbow? Marc du Pontavice, President of Gaumont Multimédia, said, "Haim [Saban] knows that what made Fox successful initially is by commissioning various, different programming." However, he does admit that the U.S. market is a tough sell. It took a lot of shopping and significant financing from Europe to get Space Goofs on the U.S. airwaves. Now, moving forward with Space Goofs and Oggy and the Cockroaches, Gaumont's strong European presence helps them. "The fact that we raise a significant amount of the money out of Europe, helps us with the deal making," du Pontavice stated.
Another mid-sized independent that is doing very well for itself indeed is NELVANA. "We are going to do approximately 15 series in 1998 and we are going to do 20 series in 1999, so I am frantically looking for properties that we can put into development and then production," said Toper Taylor, President of NELVANA Communications, Inc. He also highlighted a benefit of being independent, "Our objective is to create very high quality, educational programs that fifty years from now kids will be watching on television." Major unattached studios in the U.S. that perhaps CBS might have considered for programming have a completely different agenda, and that is to "largely support the marketing of their major projects."
The Syndication Market
Syndicators these days are quick to point out that while their ratings may be low, they are still better than most cable network averages and that the A.C. Nielsen Company is riddled with flaws and inadequacies when it comes to measuring children. Still, every "independent" station in the United States, even if they are a member of a start-up network such as UPN or Kids WB!, have a need for programming to fill their afternoons and mornings. Multiply these hours by stations across the country and, of course, the ever-present toy sales and you have yourself a viable business.
As Shelly Hirsch, Chief Executive Officer of The Summit Media Group, flatly states, "As bad as the ratings are in the syndication market, we still make money." He goes onto explain that, "We lead with our media buying. If the programming went away tomorrow, we'd still have a very nice business. We are very secure." Summit is currently syndicating a slate of programming that includes Mr. Men, MGM Productions' Robocop: Alpha Commando and Pokémon. Hirsch was quick to explain that the offending Pokémon scene which caused a number of seizures in Japan in December had been cut.
Bohbot Entertainment & Media, Inc. has launched what they are calling the BKN Network in an attempt to capitalize on the shrinking number of players in the syndication field. George Baratta, President, BKN Kids Network explained, "The field of play for independent producers is seriously dwindling. Saban has dropped out of the broadcast syndication arena, Claster has reduced its offering to focus strictly on Hasbro Toys and UPN has given back one hour of programming to its affiliates." BKN has recently acquired DIC's Mummies Alive!, Pocket Dragon Adventures, Sonic Underground and as stated earlier, Columbia Tristar's Jumanji. Denise Feeney, BKN's Affiliate Relations Manager, said that at NATPE, "Our sales staff is really trying to sell our programming as blocks."
Sally Bell, President of Claster Television, announced that they will strip their highly successful Beast Wars this Fall and is also looking forward to premiering MGM Productions' new domestic comedy, The Lionhearts, which is based on MGM's mascot, Leo the Lion.
Sachs Family Entertainment was in New Orleans with Zorro and, of course, the trusty Bananas in Pajamas which according to President Barbara Schweke, "has a life of its own. Everyone loves them and are aware of them." As a result, they are bringing the program back to the stations in September on a weekly basis for its fourth season. Sachs is also syndicating Monkey Magic, a new fantasy/adventure series of both 2-D and 3-D computer animation produced by B-Factory Co., Ltd., in association with Enoki Films USA, Inc. "It is a classic in the Asian market," stated Schweke.
International Deals & Co-Productions
Many companies use NATPE, not so much to sell to the U.S. market, but to sell into other international markets and finalize international co-production deals.
Claude Berthier, CEO of Marina Productions, was at NATPE promoting among other shows, his new The Fabulous Adventures of Jacques Cousteau. While the series of 26 x 26 is co-produced by France 3, he is seeking television co-production partners and toy licensees. The series is based on the real Jacques Cousteau and his adventures. Berthier was in the military with Cousteau from 1958-1959 and became very good friends with him. When Cousteau passed away last year, his wife, Francine, agreed to let Berthier produce the cartoon. Teaching ecology lessons in each episode, the show generated quite a lot of interest from European countries all the way to Japan.
Toper Taylor stressed that, "The focus for us [at NATPE] has been solidifying international co-productions deals for the CBS slate. We are very pleased by the reception we are receiving. People are excited about the fact that an international company has partnered with an American broadcaster to create something that is dynamic and fresh. We are finding that foreign countries are excited about coming in and being partners with us and CBS. We have also received a surprising amount of support from U.S. independents and other independents."
An interesting trend that was noticed was the amount of American companies sans networks that were at NATPE to do deals with European and Japanese production companies. One U.S. production executive told me, "Maybe we'll get a hit [in Europe] and be able to leverage that back into the American television market."
The hot spot this year seemed to be Latin America. Barcelona-based, Cromosoma TV Produccions was there to do business with many Latin American companies and that they did do, making several deals which have yet to be officially confirmed. Pablo Chamorro of Madrid, Spain's B.R.B. Internacional, S.A., stated that while the U.S. and international companies were important, "We are here predominately to do business with Latin America." B.R.B. was at NATPE offering a number of properties including their very successful Gnomes movies, specials and series. Moreover, even Gaumont's du Pontavice mentioned the importance of meeting Latin America "half-way" in the U.S. in order to do business.
Other Latin American news included Cartoon Network partnering with GoodTimes Entertainment to show 39-hours of animated programming via satellite to Latin America. Called Animated Classics, the collection includes classic fairy tales and literary works. GoodTimes also signed a deal with Mexico's Tycoon Entertainment, a major Latin American licensing agency, for video distribution within Mexico. Tycoon will release 50 GoodTimes titles over the next three years. NATPE `98 was GoodTimes' first. Also the Jim Henson Company has entrusted over 200 hours of original programming to Salsa Distribution, a Paris-based leading Latin American distributor. The Overall While no one sat and cried the blues about business being bad, a lot of producers admitted that their slice of the profit pie is getting smaller and smaller. Competition between viewing outlets, sports, computers, VCR's, electronic games and the general activities of just being a kid, are splitting audiences left and right. The speculation is that such competition for numbers will bolster innovative independents and quality programming. However, even in the face of NELVANA's success, the average person is not forecasting these revelations. Sander Schwartz made a good point though. "The changes [in the business] have been so dramatic and drastic over the last two to four years that I don't think it is a settled business. I think it is an evolving situation," he said. One independent company that is making a bid for the big time is Seattle, Washington-based Headbone Interactive. Starting in the CD-ROM world, the company has just launched a new in-house animation studio, Headbone Television. They are also continuing to log record breaking hits on their web site the Headbone Zone. The young and vibrant company currently has six projects in development and plans to support and augment their shows through the web site. As far as syndication goes...one insider told me, "The dollars buy the time slots. I know you don't want to hear that, but that's the truth." Still, Summit's Shelly Hirsch remains determined, "All you need is one program. If you catch lightning in a bottle once, you can become extremely comfortable." And indeed, a lot of folks out there are trying to make just that happen. Heather Kenyon is Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Magazine.