A 26 x 10-minute entertainment series about the adventures of four characters-Tortoise, Lion, Panda and Dragon-who live on the Magic Mountain. Targeted at children two to five, the show features actors in full-body costume. Currently, the series is in pre-production, and the co-production partners hope to launch it at MIP-TV 1997.
Southern Star Pacific, Sydney, Australia
China Central Television, Beijing, China
Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney, Australia
Here’s how the partnership began
At the Children’s View Conference in Melbourne, a forum for companies to discuss developing co-productions, Claire Henderson, head of children’s and education TV with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, meets with representatives of China Central Television.
Although ABC had worked with CCTV previously to produce Dragon’s Tongue, a program of instruction in Mandarin, the two public broadcasters had never collaborated on a co-production. Both express an interest in teaming up.
Ron Saunders, then employed at Film Australia (currently the CEO and executive producer of Southern Star Pacific), and Z’e Wang, a translator hired on a contract basis, travel to Beijing to meet Yu Pei Xia, director of CCTV’s youth and children’s department.
‘For us in Australia, because we don’t have a huge population base to make a lot of programs, we have to find ways that we can work in partnership so that the costs of the production are shared between two or more countries,’ he says. After working with Japan for the last three years, it was ‘a natural extension’ to explore opportunities with China. ‘Plus,’ Saunders jokes, ‘I’ve always wanted to go to China.’
CCTV is willing to enter a partnership. Saunders, who had written and produced programs for ABC for more than 10 years, informs Henderson of CCTV’s response: ‘She immediately said, ‘I’m interested.’ ‘
At the World Summit for Children and Television in Melbourne, Yu speaks briefly with Henderson, and at length with Saunders. ‘CCTV was very enthusiastic to do the co-production,’ says Henderson. CCTV is particularly interested in doing a preschool full-body costume series, such as Johnson and Friends by Saunders and Bananas and Pyjamas by ABC.
Yu and Saunders meet outside of the event, and Yu requests that Saunders and Henderson conceive ideas for a co-production.
Saunders and Yu talk further at the Children’s View Conference in Mainz, Germany, although Saunders d’es not pitch concepts.
With proposals in hand for a preschool series and a drama, Saunders and Henderson fly to Beijing to spend three days with Yu and his staff. CCTV likes the suggestion for the preschool show featuring suited characters in a magic setting.
Xu Xiong Xiong, general manager of the China Television Program Agency of CCTV; Neil Balvanes, managing director, Southern Star; and Ian McGarrity, acting head of television, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, sign a memorandum of understanding for the co-production.
‘They’ve (CCTV) been anxious that it was a real creative partnership,’ says Saunders, adding that ‘these things only work when there really is input from both sides.’
To ensure a balanced partnership, Australia will handle design and scripting, while China will build the sets and produce the show. ‘I think we’re all working to our strengths,’ says Henderson. The project will also have a director from China and another from Australia.
Saunders, Henderson and Yu meet again at the CCTV office, this time to begin fleshing out the scripting and design. They also negotiate contractual details.
To date, the Australian parties have written storylines for 20 episodes and first drafts for a half-dozen. Saunders and Henderson are working to complete all storylines, and final designs and first drafts for episodes one to 12 to show to a delegation of about six CCTV staff, including Yu, who will visit Sydney in May. Shooting will start in September.
‘It’s come together fairly quickly,’ says Saunders. Still, he says, Southern Star has stuck to its policy of discussing a co-production deal and creative concept slowly to try to avoid misunderstandings.
But, enthuses Henderson, ‘so far, everything has gone amazingly smoothly.’ The two-hour time difference between the two countries means little jet lag when traveling. The assistance of Wang, who has worked throughout as a translator and associate producer of the program, also helps overcome any language difficulties.
And the Australian companies are hopeful that The Magic Mountain will be just the first of many partnerships with CCTV. As Saunders says: ‘We’ll keep our fingers crossed that it works.’