A 'virtual studio' for Saban


NEW YORK -- Haim Saban is returning to his creative roots with a new venture focused on developing family entertainment properties that is set to debut at next week's MIPCOM conference in Cannes.

Saban and Joel Andryc, Saban Capital Group's chief creative officer, are heading what they call a new "virtual studio" launched by SCG unit Saban Entertainment Group, which has mainly focused on evaluating the creative potential of investment opportunities for SCG.

But amid the continuing digital revolution that has swept the industry, the duo has decided to once again look to develop unique new content for the various forms of distribution of today's entertainment marketplace, including traditional TV, video-on-demand, new media, video games and potentially also feature films.

The venture's first project is "Hollywood Star Dogs," which will be formally unveiled at MIPCOM. It teams the duo with writer-producer-director Holly Goldberg Sloan, who has written such screenplays as "Angels in the Outfield," "Made in America" and "The Big Green."

"Dogs" features live-action talking dogs -- thanks to CGI animation -- portraying classic stories and fairy tales, such as "Cinderella," "Robin Hood," "Heidi" and "Frankenstein," in what are initially 26 half-hour TV episodes. The series also boasts some celebrity voices, including Angela Lansbury and Steve Guttenberg. Further details of the new series will be unveiled Monday at MIPCOM.

"I am thrilled to return to my roots and focus on developing media properties for children and families," said Saban, who is the CEO of SCG. "The SEG team's extensive background in children's entertainment gives us unique expertise in recognizing breakthrough creative content."

While industry watchers have focused on Saban's involvement with German broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1 and his role in a group of private equity groups that are buying Spanish-language media firm Univision Communications, the man behind the success of the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" obviously hasn't lost interest in following his creative instincts.

Saban and Andryc call their new venture a "virtual studio" as they plan to use their contacts to assemble financial resources, producers, writers, artists, marketers and other freelance staff for each project based on its needs rather than running a fully staffed studio outfit.

Their goal is to focus on original ideas that can play across various media platforms. In a changing media landscape, "we plan to capitalize on cutting-edge interactive technologies to engage the youth market," Saban said. "Our audience will discover and experience unique characters and story content through the media outlet they prefer -- be it broadcast, cable, VOD, broadband/Internet, direct-to-home-video, video games or mobile devices."

Andryc said that after Saban in 2001 sold the channel that is now known as ABC Family, the sector landscape had to change to make a production venture interesting again.

"There was a bottleneck to get distribution for your creations," he said. "But now you have broadband, user-generated content and much more. Suddenly, there are so many new places for you to launch new content on."

Andryc said he and Saban will look to develop a mix of their own ideas, which they can then feed to creatives in certain fields, and properties discovered by them or brought to them from the outside. "Among other things, we will be very aggressively scouring user-generated (content) sites for something that's percolating," Andryc said.

Some of the Saban venture's new creations may well start out as small experiments with mobile phone characters or online series before they get a bigger push, with high-quality, high-potential ideas the central focus, according to Andryc. "This is not a volume business," he said. "It's about great content and good intellectual property."

Andryc said he and Saban were "instantly drawn" to the "Hollywood Star Dogs" project, saying it is "a high-quality, distinctive property that lends itself to a number of distribution outlets" and that it has the potential to become an "enduring evergreen brand." Each dog actor will have a "personality" that will shine through in the various roles the dog plays in the series. Said Andryc, "We are hoping they will become dog celebrities like Lassie and others."

As part of the new virtual studio, SEG also has struck a development deal with Tiny Island Animation, a Singapore-based studio led by animation veteran David Kwok that focuses on producing computer-generated content for international TV audiences. SEG said it will provide development resources to Tiny Island, with a comedic CGI-animated series already in development. It is expected to debut next year.

The new Saban studio will focus on developing a limited number of projects at any given time, and execs said it is in advanced stages of negotiation and/or development of several other properties.

The relationships that the Saban team has with Univision and ProSieben will help them get meetings with development executives at those companies, but Andryc said there will be no first-look or other special arrangements.

"We will take our content to all the key children- and family-focused outfits that could be interested," including online powerhouses, such as AOL Kids, he said.