As European distributors gear up for NATPE 1996, there is a growing conviction that there has never been a better time to crack the highly lucrative North American market for children’s programming.
For European invaders, the period between the MIPCOM program market in early October and its vast U.S. counterpart NATPE in January is crucial.
Although Cannes-based MIPCOM is smaller than its sister market MIP-TV which is held in April, its proximity to NATPE makes it an important staging post for gauging interests among acquisition executives. Though an important event in its own right, MIPCOM can also act as a dress rehearsal for an American campaign.
Predicting which children’s programs will sell to the U.S. has always proved notoriously difficult, with the balance of trade overwhelmingly in favor of U.S. exports to Europe.
Saban’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and The Lyons Group’s Barney have been huge successes in Europe while the likes of Disney, Turner and Nickelodeon have introduced ferocious competition to Europe’s developing satellite market.
Unquestionably the most clear cut counter-attack has come from Britt Allcroft’s animated steam train, Thomas the Tank Engine which provides the backbone of Shining Time Station on PBS.
This type of nostalgic pre-school animation appears to have become a prototype for other European companies which aspire to sell to the U.S.
The BBC, for example, is particularly active with Noddy in the U.S. Rick Siggelkow, the New York-based producer who created Shining Time, is now busy developing a half-hour program format for Noddy which currently inhabits a world of 39×10 minutes.
Head of acquisitions and creative development for BBC Children’s Television and BBC Children’s International, Theresa Plummer-Andrews, believes that governmental pressure on U.S. broadcasters to schedule quality programming has proved an important opportunity for the British broadcaster. Aside from promoting Noddy, the BBC used MIPCOM to announce a co-production deal with CTW to make a second 13-part series of Hibbert Ralph’s animated William’s Wish Wellingtons for Turner in the U.S.
Plummer-Andrews admits that prior to William, selling animation to the U.S. was very difficult. Live action series such as Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Borrowers, which aired on TNT, proved much more successful. However, renewed interest in European animation is also reported by U.K.-based distributor Central Television Enterprises (CTE) which claims that the MIPCOM launch of Wolves, Witches and Giants (13×10 minutes) provoked a lot of enquires.
Siggelkow’s permanent presence in the U.S. is undoubtedly a crucial aspect of the BBC’s strategy, but Plummer-Andrews believes that converting sales at MIPCOM can play an important part in attracting North American interest. At MIPCOM 1995, she says, 13 half-hours from The Australian Children’s Television Foundation called The Genie Down Under performed particularly well.
Distributor and licensor, Link Entertainment, has also set up a U.S. office in L.A. Link’s major U.S. breakthrough only came last year with the sale of What-A-Mess to the ABC Network. Since then, Link has worked hard in North America and will exhibit at NATPE for the first time in January.
Link used MIPCOM as an outing for a new animated film from Hibbert Ralph called The Forgotten Toys. That show will go on to NATPE and is being marketed in the U.S. by Sony Wonder.
Link is also selling 15×10 minutes of an HTV character aimed at the pre-school audience called The Slow Norris.
MIPCOM saw a strong resurgence in the fortunes of Enid Blyton characters. Apart from the BBC’s on-going commitment to Noddy, the market also witnessed the launch of an Anglo-German co-production of Blyton’s Famous Five. Partners on that project included ZDF, Frankfurter Film, Zenith North, HTV and Tyne Tees. Furthermore, CLT and Cloud 9 revealed that they were to co-produce a second series of The Enid Blyton Adventure Series.
There is a strong production lobby that believes quintessentially ‘English’ projects stand the best chance of selling internationally – even though they must be revoiced for the North American market.
As if to prove the point, there are two productions of The Wind in the Willows on the
international market at the moment. ITEL is
distributing two 52-minute animated films, The Wind in the Willows collections, which have been produced by Martin Gates for BMG Video International. Other highlights in the ITEL portfolio include Cosgrove Hall’s Fantomcat and Martin Gates’ The Snow Queen.
The other Wind in the Willows is a $9 million (U.S.) co-production from TVCartoons and Carlton U.K. London which is being distributed by Hit Entertainment.
Hit is another European distributor that set up base in the U.S. this year. Sales director Charles Caminada says that in just a few months the company has benefited considerably from the regular dialogue that has ensued.
Hit’s The Wind in the Willows is produced by John Coates who has made internationally acclaimed animation such as The Tales of Peter Rabbit and The Snowman. Already it has sold to The Family Channel in the U.S. and according to Caminada is proving a huge success worldwide. It was screened as a 72-minute feature in the U.K. on Christmas Day with a further 72 more minutes to be produced.
Hit’s headline product at MIPCOM was 13 half hours of Dennis and Gnasher, a series based on a popular British comic character Beano. Already it has sold in the key European markets and Latin America. It will feature strongly at NATPE.
Increased confidence in the European production arena has provided the platform for a number of transatlantic partnerships. This has proved beneficial to Europeans seeking an insight into demands of the North American broadcasters.
Animators such as Fred Wolff have taken advantage of Irish tax-breaks to build animation studios while Hanna-Barbera is discussing a possible animation base in Cardiff, Wales.
Likewise, Saban International Paris is currently engaged in a production venture with Scottish Television Enterprises (STE) to produce an animated series Walter Melon. STE previously linked up with DIC Entertainment on an animated series The Hurricanes.
While there are no hard and fast methods for success in the U.S., what is clear is that Europeans are benefiting from regular dialogue with North American counterparts and most are optimistic that the increased internationalization of the NATPE market is helping improve their prospects.