Animators face changing global business

Co-productions, state-of-the-art technology and a diverse, increasingly sophisticated global audience are reshaping the future of international animation.

When legendary animator Joe Barbera passed away last month, the death of the remaining half of the Hanna-Barbera creative duo meant that the art of TV animation had lost one of its true pioneers. But while the days when Hanna-Barbera classics like "Tom & Jerry" were appointment television for viewers of all ages are long gone, a new generation of animators is feverishly sharpening its pencils to cater to the demands of a surprisingly savvy global viewership.

Indeed, animation distributors and buyers at this year's NATPE trade event will once again illustrate that the business of cartoons will never again be child's play.

With the international demand for animation continuing to grow, recent years have seen an explosion of family-entertainment and niche kids-TV channels around the globe, including U.S.-based DIC Kids' Network, France's Gulli, Spain's Canal Kitz, Germany's Kika and Singapore's Kids Central. And let's not forget Nickelodeon's 35-channel network worldwide, Turner Broadcasting System's multimarket reach in Africa, Europe and the Middle East and the Walt Disney Co.-backed Jetix channels in 80 territories.

These networks in turn are aggressively competing for the best in production talent and technology in order to retain the attention of a young audience that is more discerning and sophisticated than ever before.

"The animation audience is made up of this new generation of kids who were born and grew up with the Internet, cell phones, etc.," notes Stephanie Kirchmeyer, managing director of Paris-based production company SIP Animation. "This digital generation of kids not only watches TV but expects to find its favorite characters in all kinds of broadcast media. So first, we have to think beyond TV -- think multiplatforms but, of course, still think quality programs."

Kirchmeyer adds that contemporary directors, designers, artists and producers are setting more sophisticated standards than the labor-intensive but basic 2-D animation that Hanna-Barbera helped pioneer.

The gamut of tools and techniques available today include digital software such as Flash, Lightwave, Maya and Toonboom, in addition to computer-generated imagery, 3-D visual effects, stop-motion animation and clay modeling.

But eye-catching visuals are not enough these days -- story lines and plots must be character-driven, bold and packed with enough wit and offbeat humor for a primetime sitcom. "A good story always works, no matter how (the animation) looks or how the style has shifted," notes Alan Gregg, vp production and distribution, children's television, international content distribution for Alliance Atlantis.

"'SpongeBob SquarePants' is a real example of that working -- it crosses both genders and all frontiers," adds London-based Nina Hahn, vp international development at Nickelodeon.

Consequently, the requirements for animation programming are becoming cross-cultural, rather than region-specific. "The DNA of Nickelodeon is about research," Hahn explains. "We do a tremendous amount of research (based on the pilots of programs) in the United States, and now, we're increasingly doing so internationally. We're here to divide and conquer the international sides of our business."

In a new move outside the U.S., the umbrella department known as Nickelodeon International will develop programming ideas originating from a local national unit. From those ideas, a series of one- to two-minute shorts will be tested on the localized Nickelodeon channels. Positive audience responses could lead to potential longform versions.

The first example is "Hiro," a series of five shorts developed at Nickelodeon Italy from a concept by producer Alessandro Ferrari and financed by Nickelodeon International. Described as Nickelodeon's "own version" of "Tom & Jerry," the "Hiro" shorts will launch on Nickelodeon's international channels during the second quarter.

"Animation has lent itself to international co-production better than any other genre," observes Neil Court, a partner at U.K.-Canadian producer/distributor Decode Entertainment. "If there's any trend, it is that there is more co-production between North America and Europe or Asia."

Among Decode's most prominent co-production partnerships is its multimillion-dollar joint venture with U.K.-based Aardman Animations. The first result from this alliance includes "Planet Sketch," an 11-minute comedy series featuring a collection of "madcap characters."

Decode, which is behind the CG-animated "The Save-Ums" and "Urban Vermin," the 26-part, 22-minute action-comedy series commissioned by Canada's YTV, is in talks with potential co-production allies in Singapore and South Korea. Its Japanese partner, OLC/Rights Entertainment, a subsidiary of leisure conglomerate Oriental Land Co., is an investor in its popular preschool production "Franny's Feet."

"Oban Star-Racers," a sci-fi offering about a competitive intergalactic race that is aimed at preteens (7- to 12-year-olds), is Jetix Europe's first co-production venture involving Japanese partners (Bandai Visuals and Hal Film Maker).

"In producing the series, a full team of European artists actually went to Japan to work and collaborate with Japanese artists," explains Nathan Waddington, Jetix Europe's director of pan-European acquisitions. The final product is described as a fusion of Japanese anime and Western sci-fi.

With its legacy of the unique Manga anime style of animation, Japan has proven to be a difficult market for Western animators to crack, but some European companies are making headway.

Distributor Taffy Entertainment, which represents the works of Paris-based Moonscoop and Los Angeles' Mike Young Prods., has sold its award-winning 2-D/3-D "Code Lyoko" to a Japanese broadcaster it declines to identify. "This series takes some influence from Japan but with a Western style of storytelling," Taffy president Lionel Marty says. "But the Japanese are very strict about the terms and conditions of contracts, which is why we can't say who the broadcaster is, as the program is not launched there yet."

Korea, however, is more receptive to Western productions and vice versa. Moonscoop has formed a joint venture with public broadcaster EBS; their first delivery will be "Lamimila," a 65-part, five-minute series that encourages its preschool viewers to create their own stories.

One animated Korean program that has already become an international hit is "Pororo the Little Penguin," an Iconix Entertainment production that began airing on TBS' Boomerang in the U.K. last year.

In recent years, individual European markets have turned into havens for animated TV hits. Not only has Barcelona-based Icon Animations become the Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American representative of product from Millimages U.K., Nickelodeon, Ragdoll, Entertainment Rights and New York's Scholastic, but it also is making an international impact with its own productions.

"Lola & Virginia," Icon's latest series for 6- to 12-year-olds, has been acquired by Nickelodeon Latin America, Nickelodeon in Asia and France, plus the U.S. service Animania HD.

Other significant animation developments in Europe include Russia's first dedicated cartoon network, which is scheduled to launch in April by media group Prof-Media. Its target audience ranges from preteens to young adults.

Other major markets that appear on the verge of opening up to more TV animation are China and India, both of which represent enormous potential for Western animators.

"An emerging market is India, where Cartoon Network opened the door for us," says Nancy Fowler, head of global business at international producer, distributor and marketer DIC Entertainment. She also notes that Saudi Arabia-based Spacetoon network is hoping to make inroads in India. Last year, Disney spent more than $40 million acquiring a stake in India-based UTV Software Communications and its children's TV channel Hungama, which is a major investor in animation.

"China is clearly a market we recognize as important," says Julia Posen, sales director for BBC Worldwide, which has sold the preschool series "Charlie and Lola" (produced by Tiger Aspect) to China's state-owned CCTV.

Another force helping to shape the future of the international animation sector is digital distribution platforms. The second season of Taffy's cartoon series "Fantastic Four," a Moonscoop-Marvel co-production, has been produced in high definition. Its launch is timed to capitalize on Fox's June release of "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," the big-screen sequel to 2005's "Fantastic Four."

Not all the channels airing the series, including Cartoon Network Worldwide, are transmitting in the HD format. But as most developed countries plan to switch their broadcast signals to digital during the next five to 10 years, animators have started to produce more HD content.

Animation also is proving to be eye-catching content for new video-on-demand, IPTV, broadband Internet, high-speed mobile phones and other consumer-friendly digital distribution channels.

BBC Worldwide has commissioned its first-ever children's Web site for the spy spoof "The Secret Show," its new series aimed at 7- to 12-year-olds. Additionally, Jetix Europe is involved in mobile phone-distributed services, plus Internet, cable and satellite-delivered VOD trials in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Spain, Sweden and the U.K.

The U.K's Aardman and TV-Loonland in Germany also are major investors in digital distribution. DIC Entertainment's action-adventure series "Horseland" is based on a social-networking Web site for horse lovers, while Nickelodeon is developing linear-TV ideas that were conceived on its Turbo Nick broadband video service in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.

"Interactivity has opened up the playground a lot for us," Hahn says. "Everything we do now includes a digital universe."