Adam Snyder reports from (and crashes workshops at) the 2008 KidScreen Summit, where childrens entertainment is king.
More than 1,000 people who either make their living or want to make their living in the childrens entertainment industry swarmed through New Yorks Hilton Hotel the day before Valentines Day for the ninth annual KidScreen Summit, where 821 producers and distributors vied for the attention of 253 television executives. In total, 1,400 people from 43 countries attended the three-day event.
Pitching and networking, thats what these three days are all about, noted Paul Robinson, a KidScreen veteran, now managing director of KidsCo, a children's television joint venture between several large kids entertainment players, including DIC Entertainment and Nelvana Studios. Everyone is here because everyone is here, Robinson said, repeating a frequent refrain by many of those in attendance. According to Robinson, buyers come not only to be pitched, but also to catch -- to see what the competition is up to and to get a handle on the industrys latest trends and hot new shows.
Producers come for much the same reason. Everyone is here, explained Andrew Herskowitz, an industry neophyte who is trying to enter the business with an animated pilot he is developing called Clown Sundae, about a magical ice cream cone. Its been very helpful learning who the players are, and making contacts. I go up to people in the lounge area and, after a session is over, put my face in front of theirs. When I email them next week, hopefully they will remember me.
Herskowitz says he attended NATPE a month earlier, but found the Las Vegas event to be much less focused on kids entertainment, and without the networking and pitching opportunities that define KidScreen. Everyone who might buy my show is here, he explained. The whole purpose of KidScreen is to allow you to meet people and show them your wares.
The summit is clearly big business for Brunico Communications, publisher of KidScreen magazine. The entry fee isnt cheap -- $1,395 for a three-day pass. Multiply that by more than 1,400 attendees, and you get a lot of zeros. And thats not even including the extra $350 it costs to attend special workshops that offer guidance on everything from how to cobble together co-production funds, to how to effectively pitch. Ask-An-Expert sessions also give attendees the opportunity to get advice from public relations, legal, licensing, marketing, and Internet professionals.
Perhaps the fact that the summit is a commercial venture, so important to Brunicos bottom line, is the reason it wasnt much interested in providing information to anyone without a credit card. At the 2008 event, much more so than in past years, the more interesting sessions were not open to the press. Journalists were barred, for example, from all the workshops, as well as the summits more than three dozen signature 30 Mins With sessions, in which acquisition executives from the likes of Cartoon Network, the U.K.s Channel 5, Discovery Kids, Disney, Nickelodeon, PBS, Super RTL, and ZDF tell pitchers what theyre looking for and why. According to Jocelyn Christie, Brunicos Summit Director of Events, the press has always been barred from these events, but this years staff was more diligent about enforcing the rules. We promise the speakers an environment free of press so they can communicate in-depth, sensitive information, she explained.
30 Minutes With
This intrepid reporter, however, managed to crash several of the 30 Mins With sessions, which, like the workshops and the Ask-An-Expert panels, have limited seating in order to create an intimate atmosphere and allow for one-on-one discourse. Indeed, the broadcasters tend to be quite specific about what their particular kids channel or company is looking for and how to submit pitches. Nicole Keeb, for example, ZDFs head of international co-productions, development and acquisitions, said that the German public broadcaster looks for about 20 new titles per year, more or less evenly divided among commissioned programs, pre-buys, and co-pros (KidScreen Summit-speak for co-productions). She also warned that at ZDF they typically find U.S. educational shows for kids to be too much educational and not enough entertainment, and that many pitches she sees skew too old. Officially, animation goes up to 12 years old, she explained, but realistically we find that kids stop watching most of our animated series at about 10.
At another 30 Mins With session, Nina Hahn, VP of international development at Nickelodeon, told a group of would-be producers that, when looking at a project, she wants to know, "Who are the characters and why do I care about them? At Nick, we aren't looking to talk down to kids," she explained. "We want to create an environment for kids to feel safe on their terms. We want proactive characters, not passive ones. And think like a kid!"
At the 30 Mins With session with Nick Wilson, Channel Fives controller of childrens programs, Wilson agreed that they werent looking for education to override entertainment. I hate the word curriculum, he said. Im only interested in story and character.
Wilson explained that the channel, the fifth largest terrestrial station in the U.K., has the leading preschool 6:00-9:00 am block, called Milkshake, which just moved its target audience from age 2-6 to 2-7. This is an extremely successful block for us, and were always looking for new, fresh programming. This is the time in the morning when moms dont want to be fiddling with a DVD or changing channels. They want to turn on a station they can rely on to safely entertain their young kids.
Most Milkshake shows, Wilson explained, are commissioned or co-produced, rather than acquired. He said that Channel Five was particularly looking for dramatic shows geared to 4- to 7-year-olds in 11-minute blocks. But he also explained that since Milkshake has a live-action host, unlike most broadcasters it was open to different formats. He said that budgets ranged from 1,000-2,000 pounds per minute. When asked what kind of pitches he preferred, he told the group, Good pitches. Ill look at anything from cocktail napkin drawing, to a fully completed pilot.
Wilson also said that he didnt subscribe to the common refrain in the U.K. that there was a crisis in childrens television. Budgets are higher than ever, and broadband and digital expansion has created new opportunities. The time when broadcasters could rely solely on ad revenue is slipping away. Toys, merchandising and licensing are important now too, but in the end its all about the characters and the story.
Co-Productions are King
In addition to the various meet-and-greets, there were also several sessions that explored the intricacies of co-productions. Some of them were even open to the Fourth Estate. At the session entitled Charting a New Co-Production Roadmap, experts explored the environment in various regions, including Australia, Canada, the U.K. and Asia. Tim Brooke-Hunt, executive head of childrens television at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, noted that Australia offered tax breaks, attractive shows, and creative producers that could make shows in English that work internationally. On the down side, he noted that there was only one public broadcaster and three commercial stations, each only greenlighting one or two shows per year, and local content was key, so opportunities from outsiders were limited.
Jean Lofts, director of television at the Contender Entertainment Group, lamented that there was no tax credit system in the U.K., although there was a media fund open to members of the European Union. Unlike Australia and Canada, the U.K. has no government cultural support, she said. Nickelodeon is giving more support to independent producers of kids television than either the BBC or Channel 5.
And Frank Saperstein, senior VP of Childrens Programming & Animation at Blueprint Entertainment, sketched out the field in Asia, where he said there was very limited government support. There is opportunity in Malaysia, he noted, but 51% of any TV series has to be owned by Malaysian companies. Singapore has very business-friendly tax rules, and there are a couple of different new funding opportunities in South Korea. Other than that, its every man for himself. The irony is that the lowest-cost countries have the [fewest] co-production opportunities.
At many of the panels, participants tried to put their fingers on the characteristics that made for a successful international co-production. New forms of animation are hot right now, but the main thing is character, character, character, said Anna D'Agrosa, who hosted a session entitled Kid Insight: Hot on the Trail of Cool. D'Agrosa is the editor of the Hot Sheet, a well-respected newsletter reporting on youth trends and attitudes. Funny also works, she added, but sometimes funny is difficult to translate. Slapstick, for example, is timeless, but it has to be good slapstick.
I figured Dan Sarto would bail me out of jail if it came to that, so I also happily crashed the workshop entitled Bringing The Funny, with senior VP of development and creative director at Cartoon Network Michael Ouweleen. Ouweleen was also co-creator and executive producer on Adult Swim's Harvey Birdman, Attorney-at-Law. "The laughs for kids come from the scary stuff that they have mastered," Ouweleen told the participants at the packed seminar, who had the opportunity to have Ouweleen critique their own script pages. "That is why poo and pee jokes are so funny to three-year-olds; they just mastered it, now they can laugh."
"Character reigns over everything," he said. "Chuck said, 'I have to think as Bugs Bunny, not of Bugs Bunny. That's about as good advice as anyone can give in this field."
A Place to Announce
Companies also use KidScreen Summit to make significant corporate announcements. Showcase Entertainment, for example, the Woodland Hills, California-based film and television sales company, announced the launch of its new children's label Showcase for Kids. With financial backing from Hawaii Film Partners, Showcase was scouring the summit for international co-production opportunities.
Likewise, Torontos House of Cool Studios made it official that it was moving into the original content production business with the animated series Betty Banner Party Planner, The Dibble Show, and El Hombre La Mancha. Also based in Toronto, Cuppa Coffee Studios used its presence at the summit to unveil its new Bruno series. Let's Go Bruno! combines traditional animation with live-action footage in a game show format that will build on Cuppa's existing two Nickelodeon preschool series, Bruno! and Bruno and the Banana Bunch.
Pitching, Pitching, Pitching
In addition to speed pitching, another annual summit favorite is Pitch It!, in which four producers have five minutes to pitch a kids series to an eight-member panel of industry insiders. Panelists this year included Al Kahn, CEO of 4Kids Entertainment; Julien Borde, head of children's programming for France 3; Art Roche, creative director, new media for Cartoon Network; and Jesse Cleverly, head of co-production and acquisitions for the drama and animation department at BBC Children. The pitched shows, in front of a packed house in the West Ballroom of the New York City Hilton, included Biteneck Beatniks, a traditionally animated 52x11 paranormal-musical-mystery series; Elfy Food, a 52x7 animated adventure series with an emphasis on healthy eating; and a live-action multi-platform game show called Are You Game?
But the winner was a CGI preschool program called Uki, from a company called Universal Music Belgium. The long-necked, cuddly title character wakes up each morning with the typical curiosity of a three-year-old, eager to explore his surroundings. In addition to winning the ear of kids entertainment executives, Universal Music Belgium was also awarded free passes to next year's KidScreen Summit.
Dancing in the Ballroom
Some of the ballroom sessions that attracted the largest audiences (and were open to even freeloading journalists) gave industry insiders a chance to vent, or even do their own pitching. During his headlining Q & A session, Fred Seibert, MTV's first employee, a former president of Hanna-Barbera, and now president of Channel Frederator, said that today's animation landscape is "dull as dishwater." In an interview with Rita Street, president of Radar Cartoons, Seibert decried, among other industry policies, the pilot system. Pilots are loaded up with all the things that execs think you have to have, he told Street. "The first Bugs Bunny wasn't a pilot.
To put his money where his mouth is, about 18 months ago Seibert and partners formed Next New Networks with the goal of creating and distributing micro-television networks over the Internet.
Stu Snyder, president and COO of Turner Animation, introduced the keynote speaker, Nickelodeon pioneer Albie Hecht, now CEO of the digital media company he founded, Worldwide Biggies. Noting the cold, steady rain falling outside the Hilton, Snyder asked to have next years summit in Atlanta. Was he kidding? No one seemed to know. But he wasnt kidding when he introduced what he called the next big hit in childrens television, Star Wars: The Clone Wars. While well received by the audience, the clip he showed looked to this observer like a parody. Prevent wars, we must, says Yoda. Where is Skywalker? asks a deep-voiced James Earl Jones mimic.
The keynote address, which ended the summits first day, was in the form of a Q & A between Albie Hecht and E! Entertainment film critic Ben Lyons. It was no coincidence that a digital executive was the keynote speaker, as industry common wisdom, reflected in the summit agenda, now takes it for granted that thats where the industry is headed.
The experience we have to give kids is so much more robust now, Hecht told Lyons. The Net is where the playground is. That is where the most surprises and the most discoveries are going to be."
Hecht explained that Worldwide Biggies was looking to develop multi-platform properties like The Naked Brothers Band, which launched on Nickelodeon last year. The company is also launching an online game based on the movie The Princess Bride. Were about adding new engagement metrics, he said, about bringing character and story to the Web.
But there are no guarantees, he emphasized. Im the guy who passed on The Smurfs. My [criterion] then was cool, and The Smurfs werent cool. But thats still the [criterion], and today, with the overlapping Web, TV, cell phone, homework, friends is a big part of the user-generated experience. Friends tell you whats cool.
No Bankers in Attendance
The common denominator uniting everyone at KidScreen -- pitchers and pitchees alike -- seemed to be that they were happy to be in the kids entertainment business. From my hotel room, looking out from the 25th floor, I could see right into a bank building, said Channel Fives Nick Wilson. Thank god thats not me.
Adam Snyder is a freelance writer and the president of the Oscar-winning animation company Rembrandt Films. He has produced numerous childrens films, as well as the history of animation documentary The Animated Century. Rembrandt Films is also the exclusive distributor of several important animation libraries, including all the short films from Zagreb Film. The companys latest DVD release is Worst Cartoons Ever!, hosted by Jerry Beck. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.