Ship My Units: How European Animated Series Get on U.S. Channels

Christopher Panzner looks into the growing about of European productions on U.S. networks to find out the real reason behind the trend.

Even with falling license fees and a bad euro-to-dollar exchange rate, European animated shows are raining down on U.S. channels.

Its not every hip n stitch that a European cartoon series gets broadcast in the U.S., so one has to wonder how so many are getting on the air all of a sudden, especially with license fees dropping faster than scat from a scared buck. But one can only speculate on the reasons for this recent trend, the sums paid for programs shrouded in Thuggee-like secrecy. The knee-jerk reaction would be to check the exchange rate, as of this writing, 1 = US$ 1.20909 (US$1 = 0.827069). Meaning, its a bad deal for the European producer because s/he produced his/her program in euros and is getting paid in dollars. In fact, a worse deal than for an American producer, who is producing in dollars.

But a good deal for U.S. buyers.

Europeans also typically produce a series (26 half-=hour episodes) in the 150-250,000 per episode range which, at the present exchange rate (approximately US$180-300,000), is a bargain basement price for U.S. executives who are used to paying anywhere from US$350-500,000 an episode for American series. (Whats more, Europeans normally produce 26-minute episodes, while Americans produce 22-minute episodes, making the per minute price even lower!) But, ask anyone trying to sell an animated series these days, license fees at these prices are a thing of the past unless its The Simpsons or Family Guy, and thats just to keep them loyal. American networks also dont co-produce or pre-buy European series, meaning Euro-producers are on a par with their Japanese homologues (i.e., at the mercy of the U.S. market), both in a worse position vis-à-vis American producers.

Totally Spies, bought by ABC Family, has 100+ licensees worldwide and is the second most popular show on Cartoon Network. Courtesy of Cartoon Network.

But are American and Japanese producers the competition for Europeans? Or products?

Agitprop

With the success of manga in the U.S., historically made cheaply in Japan and exploited for a fortune in the U.S., the competition for the next best thing from Tokyo must be rude (i.e., bidding wars for programs.) Manga may not have overstayed its welcome since its a genre, but it certainly must be getting expensive. And American animation (outsourced to Asia) has always been expensive.

Europeans are filling a void by putting a new twist on two old games: (a) they are swallowing their cultural pride, putting a Hollywood spin on their shows and marketing them to America like the Americans have done for U.S. product in Europe and around the world for ages; and (b) auto-financing, like the Japanese and, adding insult to injury, mimicking the popular anime style of animation to sell to the Americans at a bargain because not only is it less expensive to make in Europe (also outsourced to Asia, essentially the 2D) but its already been bought and paid for amortized at home through subsidies, pre-sales, co-production, sales, licensing, etc. Just like American shows sold abroad for a song for the merch revenue the icing on the cake. Sweet!

The trans-Atlantic march began with The Smurfs, in 1980. A Belgian publishing/merchandising success, NBCs Fred Silverman had Hanna-Barbera develop it into a series. © Cartoon Network.

The Luminol reveals first blood was The Smurfs, in 1980, a Belgian publishing/merch success that NBCs Fred Silverman had Hanna-Barbera develop into a series.

French-produced programming ground was broken by Marc Du Pontavice, head of Gaumont Multimedia (which essentially became Xiliam), with Home to Rent (Stupid Invaders) and Oggy & the Cockroaches on Fox Kids in 2001.

The new original programming wave got well underway with Frances Funky Cops, Moonscoops (formerly Antefilm, now renamed after its acquisition of France Animation) retro-pastiche spoof of 70s sitcom The Streets of San Francisco and Saturday Night Fever in 2D and mo-capped 3D, bought by 4Kids Ent. for its Fox Box cartoon block in 2003.

But, first, a preamble before further discussion (from Wikipedia), Before October 2001, Fox Kids (officially Fox Family Worldwide, Inc) was a 50-50 joint venture between News Corp. Ltd. and Haim Saban. The ABC Family Channel was at that point known as Fox Family Channel, and all the channels now branded Jetix were called Fox Kids. Fox Kids had itself been founded in 1996 as a merger between the U.S. Fox Childrens Ent. and Haim Sabans Saban Ent. Inc. In October 2001, Saban and News Corp. sold the group to The Walt Disney Co.

The brand announced the change of name to Jetix in January 2004. Until 2002, the brand had the rights to the childrens programming slot on the Fox Broadcasting Co. television network, however, after the sale, that slot was sold to 4Kids Ent. The slot, initially known as the Fox Box (launched in September 2002 after 4Kids Ent. signed a four-year renewable lease for Fox Broadcastings Saturday morning programming block in January of that year) is now named 4Kids TV. However, some Jetix programs are broadcast on the American Broadcasting Co. television network, under the ABC Kids brand. It is also broadcast on the Toon Disney network

Haim Saban was half owner of Fox Kids before it was sold to Walt Disney Co., and became Jetix, which was then sold to 4Kids Ent. and took over the Fox Box time slot and renamed 4Kids TV. Got that?

Did you get all that? No biggie what you have to retain is Haim Saban is the guy who did the music for Inspector Gadget for the originally-French-then-American DIC in 1983, went on to import the first global manga-before-manga-was-manga hit Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and was the creator of Saban Ent. in Los Angeles and Saban Intl Prods. in Paris, now called S.I.P Animation, which Disney took a minority position in when he left in 1991. The rest is legend.

4Kids Ent. are the guys who brought you Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and, more recently, The Cramp Twins from Germany/UKs TV-Loonland (via Cartoon Network UK) and mah sh jo (magical girls) ripoff and mega-franchise The Winx Club, from Italys Rainbow Srl. Some very international fellows, indeed, very rich, and the turbines of the discount imported brand management juggernaut known as the U.S. television animachine.

The front nine for European series are usually played out, then, on terrestrial through 4Kids Ent. (sometimes via Cartoon Network UK, Jetix or Disney Europe or with Canadas YTV playing a minor role in the French co-productions through the Franco-Canadian mini-treaty), on Disney/ABC and the back nine on Time Warners cable Cartoon Network, a model perfected with cheapo re-purposed japanimation.

After Funky Cops was the surprise hit series from Frances Marathon, Totally Spies, a sh jo ripoff of Charlies Angels bought by ABC Family. (Vincent Chalvon-Demersey, creator and exec producer of Totally Spies, is, not coincidentally, a former executive of S.I.P. Animation.) Code Lyoko followed, a Matrix-like pseudo-Manga also from Moonscoop (and Pet Alien from Mike Young Prods. Mike Young is an ex-pat Welshman and longtime U.S. resident but co-produced with Moonscoop, who recently bought 51% of MYP), both airing on Cartoon Network U.S.

And Jetix on Toon Disney and ABC Kids is currently showing W.I.T.C.H., a series from S.I.P. Animation based on the comic (32 editions, 65 countries, a million copies sold a month the most sold comic in the world) developed at Disney Italy.

Totally Spies has 100+ licensees worldwide, The Winx Club (the fifth bestseller in the fashion doll category in the U.S.) more than 30 licensees, including Mattel, Scholastic, General Mills, etc., theres a Code Lyoko game coming out on the Nintendo DS and Marvel Toys, the worldwide master toy license holder, is planning action figures and accessories, vehicles, construction figures and sets, bendable figures, novelty bumpn gos, plush and role-playing toys/dress up sets. Direct-to-video movies, DVDs, CD-ROMs, plush, bed linen, bath towels, balls, balloons, card games, electronic secret diaries, dolls and accessories, comics, magazines, books, videogames, restaurant promotions, apparel, footwear, live show tours, ciné-mah the American Dream! But is it?

Europes Moonscoop is behind two Cartoon Network series, Pet Alien (left) and Code Lyoko. © 2005 Taffy Productions, Llc./Moonscoop/Crest Communication Ltd./Telegael Teoranta. All rights reserved (left) and courtesy of Cartoon

A Smaller Piece of a Bigger Pie in the Sky

I can think of a whole lot better advertainment deal than that which French studio Sav! The World Productions got for its spectacular 2D/3D euro-manga series (actually co-produced with a Japanese studio, Hal Film Maker), O-ban Star-Racers, from Jetix Europe and distributed by Buena Vista International Television. Jetix Consumer Products will manage the licensing rights on the show, looking to generate tie-ins for all product categories based on O-ban Star-Racers extensive cast of characters and well-designed array of racing vehicles, a company release said. Jetix Europe has all pay TV rights for Europe and the Middle East, and holds rights to TV distribution, home video, consumer products and online applications for the world, excluding France and Asia.

This may be the price to pay for those European producers who dont distribute their own shows, unlike studio/distributors Moonscoop (Antefilm and France Animation both distributed), Marathon, S.I.P Animation, TV-Loonland and Rainbow Srl. But not too big a price for Fame! Im Gonna Live 4eva, I suppose, which translates into other dreams euros can buy, depending on where youre from. In Europe, the fallout from an American-style franchise which may not be big bucks in terms of license fees is notoriety at home. Which means not only cashing in on the U.S. publicity machine worldwide and the licensing deals at home and in whatever territories you own, but outside investment in your company.

And, eventually, the Holy Grail going public. But you normally need to be a distributor with a catalogue before that will happen, and it rarely happens overnight. In the short term, investment means development money, something Europeans are notoriously short of, to make more shows or cash to buy existing catalogue or into American companies, giving you legitimacy in the U.S. and at home as an international company and not just French or English or German or Italian. Which can translate into other, like Moonscoop and Marvels agreement, announced last year, to produce a new, updated Fantastic Four animated series. Carry the zero, here

The proliferation of niche and animation channels in the U.S. is also helping Europeans as the demand reaches fever pitch and thin advertising dollars means bargain-hunting in an increasingly competitive market, especially for anime or pseudo-anime. Cartoon Network, for example, has just picked up 3D polar bear series, Bernard, from Spanish producer BRB Internacional and French producer Alphanims Robotboy, an Astro Boy retool, is apparently headed for Cartoon Network U.S., too, after having been exec produced by Cartoon Network UK. U.K. productions Peppa Pig from Astley/Baker/Davies and Yoko! Jakamoko! Toto! from Collingwood OHare are now showing on Cartoon Networks new pre-school programming block, Tickle U, which went live in August.

Not to be outdone by the competition, Nicktoons Network (the 24-hour animation network targeting kids 6-14 and owned by Nickelodeon) announced its buying French producer Method Films incredible3D euro-manga series Skyland and already broadcasts several other European series: Marathons Martin Mystery (based on an Italian comic), French/U.K. studio Millimages Corneil & Bernie and Kaput & Zosky from French studio Futurikon.

Nicktoons announced the purchase of European series Skyland, while it already broadcasts other Euro-series including Millimages Corneil & Bernie. © Method Films, Nine Story Ent., France2, LuxAnimation (left) and © Millim

In Hollyweird jargon, U.S. networks have jumped the shark (i.e., are undergoing drastic changes that imply ominous consequences.) And what of the children? Are they completely off their trolley? Totally Spies, for example, a series only a taxidermist could love (Is it a jackalope? A crack squirrel?),is now the second most popular show on Cartoon Network. Fashion, makeup, liposuction, credit cards, Botox, shopping all part of a nutritious breakfast.

I hope this doesnt encourage other European producers to compromise their rather high standards yeah, right. No wonder they bombed a Smurf village! (Wait until the Saudis get a load of this, who just decided to open their first movie theatre, showing cartoons only, 20 years after public screenings of films were banned.?

Chris Panzner has created two animated series for television, Nicenstein and Hoof and Mouth, both in development hell. He recently created writing company Power Lines and production/distribution company Eye & Ear.

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