Animation Giant Cookie Jar Shoots First Live Action Series


Michael Hirsh has left his comfort zone in preschool and kids animation forthe complicated world of live action TV.

The Cookie Jar Entertainment topper sits in front of a video monitor inside studio 40 at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in Toronto as the cameras roll on Mudpit, the Canuck cartoon producer's first live action TV series.

Four real-world teens fill a booth in a fictional gaming cafe and discuss how their virtual band Mudpit can win Muzika, an online reality game where avatars compete to become rock stars in real life.

Well, Mudpit is not entirely live action, Hirsh corrects, more a CGI animation/live-action hybrid increasingly showing up on cable cartoon channels. So the Canadian indie producer is chasing that demand.

"The (animation) market is changing. There's an interest in live action," he explains.

For example, Canadian cable cartoon channel Teletoon has followed the U.S.Cartoon Network in mixing live action programming with traditional animation.

Hirsh has also seen broadcasters over the last 18 months buy less animation in hard times and air what they have more often.

The kids market has also been diced and sliced as linear TV channels compete for eyeballs with streaming TV, downloadable content, online and console gaming and other new digital technologies.

What's more, young girls have their own evolving programming demands distinct from boys that indie producers and broadcasters need to meet askids TV schedules increasingly look like the cereal aisle.

"The marketplace for just another TV show just isn't there anymore," Hirsh observes.

So Cookie Jar is looking to crack the code on what broadcasters and viewers want these days with Mudpit, a kids series for Teletoon that lives at the intersection of music and role playing in a virtual world.

Each episode features a comedic live-action story around the real lives ofthe four main characters, a parallel CGI animated story, and a rock music performance by the Mudpit band members.

In addition, the Mudpit band members' avatar personas compete againstother bands in a virtual Muzika world for rock stardom.

Here Hirsh points to Mudpit as a "game-changing" show as it combines elements that dominate the lives of kids today: TV, a virtual online world, music and video gaming.

Cookie Jar anticipates a host of ancillary spin-offs from its live action tween series.

There's a concert tour for the real world band members in Mudpit, arecord deal is in the works, and new media producer NDi Media is to create Muzika, an online multi-user music role-playing game.

The Mudpit series was created by Jamie Waese, most recently head of current programming for Cookie Jar Entertainment.

But the heavy-lifting is done by executive producer and showrunner Bruce Kalish, whose career began on the ABC comedy Mork & Mindy and whose recent Disney credits include the live-action series, Aaron Stone and Disney Channel's The Famous Jett Jackson and The Famous Jett Jackson Movie.

It's all a world away from the industry that allowed Hirsh to co-found Nelvana in 1971 in Toronto, and build it into giant cartoon factory supplying U.S. networks and a host of other international broadcasters with classic hits like Babar, Care Bears and Franklin.

Hirsh sold Nelvana in 2000 at the top of the global animation market to Canadian broadcaster Corus Entertainment, and returned in late 2003 to acquire embattled rival animation giant Cinar Corp. and create Cookie Jar as a major animation and edutainment studio with lieutenant Toper Taylor in Los Angeles.

Hirsh and Taylor brought more than 50 years of combined experience as brand and business builders in the global kids programming market, and a stable of equity fund investors backing their more immediate plans for growth.

Their indie animation plans got a boost in 2008 when Cookie Jar acquired Burbank-based DIC Entertainment, and merged it with the Canadian company's Los Angeles operations.

The deal for DIC included a one-third stake in KidsCo, an international kids television channel jointly owned by NBC Universal and Corus Entertainment.

Hirsh said Cookie Jar and its private investors are still biding theirtime before they bring the Canadian animation producer to financial markets through an IPO.

In the meantime, he sees better times ahead in the global animation market as broadcasters and advertisers again look favorably on kids programming.

"We're seeing a turnaround, and seeing it globally. I just hope it's here to stay," Hirsh said.

And there's more live action fare on its way from Cookie Jar with Decidedly Debra, a teen single-camera comedy for Family Channel created by Andrew Nicolls and Darrel Vickers (Jimmy Neutron).

The 13 half-hour sitcom stars Niamh Wilson as Debra, a dreamer who enlists her best friend in her adventures.