MIP-TV Special report: UK warming to co-productions

London: An insular race, the British. Perhaps it has something to do with being an island and having had bitter wars with all the neighbors. Despite the British having being dragged kicking, screaming and demanding referendums into Europe, the U.K. television...
April 1, 1996

London: An insular race, the British. Perhaps it has something to do with being an island and having had bitter wars with all the neighbors. Despite the British having being dragged kicking, screaming and demanding referendums into Europe, the U.K. television producer is far from xenophobic.

Nonetheless, looking overseas with the project of your dreams is somewhat less than encouraged in the U.K.

The British broadcasting channel commissioning structure has not historically fostered a co-production-friendly environment. Until the arrival of Channel 4 in 1982, the lone three terrestrial channels produced their own material, generally with their own funding, and used overseas sales for a bit of extra money on the side.

The concept of co-productions came in with the arrival of the independent producer (and the indie’s publisher/broadcaster-Channel 4) and government regulation to spur non-broadcaster production, such as the 25 percent independent production quota upheld by the four terrestrial channels.

The thorny question of rights and who owns them is still a matter of debate, and key to why co-producing is beginning to take off in this country. PACT (the producer’s alliance) is currently in negotiation with the BBC to free up producers’ rights, and the decision (to be announced shortly) will affect the other broadcasters-most significantly Channel 4. If the rights are significantly freed, it will aid the independents no end-and they need the help.

Independent production companies in the U.K. are too small and too young to self-fund their productions, so they have been, almost without exception, commission-dependent. The increase in broadcasting outlets with satellite and cable and merchandising opportunities, inspired by a new breed of marketers entering the country, is tiggering a change of spirit.

The new mood is being helped along by the onset of European Community initiatives aimed at combating a perceived dominance by U.S. production. New incentives are favorable for co-productions. Partnerships are beginning, slowly and tentatively, to form.

Unfortunately, as fast as Euro-legislation encourages these new alliances, the British government stifles them.

One well-funded and internationally backed co-production scheme, Eurimages, from which British producers benefited greatly has just suffered very publicly when the Chancellor’s budget statement revealed that, inexplicably, the British were pulling out, causing the sudden resignation of Barrie Ellis-Jones, Eurimages’ (British) international head. Ellis-Jones was appointed in 1994, following a film industry lobby for Britain to sign up to the fund, and not surprisingly feels betrayed.

‘I knew nothing of the withdrawal until after the budget,’ he says. ‘Since then, I’ve counted 11 films that will now no longer look for co-production in the U.K.’

Understandably, independent producers are bitter about a government that claimed14 years ago that it wanted to encourage and stimulate a diverse production base. They feel support is crumbling as the government pulls out on them, just when they need to compete internationally.

And the time is right. The European directive, Television Without Frontiers, has set a quota of 51 percent for European-derived product on all channels broadcasting in Europe. This should stimulate co-production activity and commissions with and from the newcomers. The directive is again mainly aimed at the U.S. cable and satellite operations setting up over here: TCN, Nickelodeon, and Fox’s new enterprise.

But the British are worried that the continental producers will beat them to a slice of the newly available cake due to better incentives, production grants and official support.

So, with all these disincentives, it comes as little surprise to discover that the co-production forces in the U.K., such as they are, are predominantly the broadcasters. Top of the pile (certainly in terms of prolific output) seems to be Scottish Television (STV), one of the ITV regional license-holders.

STV’s commercial arm, Scottish Television Enterprises (STE), is deep into a whole bundle of co-production deals with high-profile, internationally renowned firms such as France’s Saban International, the U.S.’s DIC Entertainment and Canada’s Nelvana, as well as relatively smaller names, such as the Welsh firm Siriol.

STE’s director of co-productions Darrel Jones is convinced that it is no longer possible to finance animation from one territory anymore, so he is forced to look elsewhere for money as well as cooperation to put together any project for the broadcaster. And this is the starting point. Indeed, it is hard to find any internationally co-produced children’s programming in Britain that isn’t animated. It seems that necessity is the mother of invention when it comes to breaking down the worldwide borders.

STE’s current development slate includes Walter Melon: 26 animated stories to be made by Saban International in Paris, based on Michel Gregg’s comic-book hero, Achille Talon. The series will be broadcast by the ITV network, as is one of Britain’s best-loved (and longest-running) characters, Rupert the Bear. Rupert, who began as a newspaper cartoon, is now a product of the omnipresent Nelvana in co-production with STE.

Two new STE series, also expected to air on ITV, are Hot Rod Dogs, co-produced with Dave Edwards Animation, Rainbow and Mike Young, and Hurricanes with DIC.

STV now claims to be the largest supplier of children’s programs to the ITV network, some produced in-house, some commissioned from independents and some produced in these kinds of deals. It faces competition, though, from a newcomer.

Carlton Communications-which owns two ITV franchises: Central (in the Midlands) and Carlton (London and the South-East)-has a similar arm to STE: Carlton Television Enterprises (CTE). CTE has just signed a first-look deal with a long-established animation specialist, Martin Gates Productions (MGP), the force behind the BBC’s classic children’s series The Animals of Farthing Wood and Dreamstone.

The new deal has come out of CTE’s role as distributor on Dreamstone and means that the new MGP 65 x 5-minute pre-school series Digit ‘n’ Dawson g’es to MIP this month with a completed episode and a pilot to show off. As a dialogue-free Tom and Jerry-style show, it should have enormous international appeal. MGP and CTE will, however, be looking for international co-funding not co-production, says Gates.

‘Co-production can be difficult, purely because of cultural differences. The danger is that the project ends up as a pudding.’ He feels it’s a particular risk with an original production, such as Digit ‘n’ Dawson, ‘because it’s not an adaptation. If you do it as a co-production-since it’s brand-new-everyone wants to put their piece in.

‘Co-financing works very well. There’s a big difference between approvals from an investor and instructions from a co-production partner. We’re now mainly interested in co-funding. We’ve tried co-production a couple of times, but it never came off,’ says Gates.

But if production in two territories sounds difficult, try three continents. Turner International is in co-production with France’s Toon Factory and Japan’s largest animation studio, Pacific Animation Corporation on The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest. The 65 x 30-minute series, which will be broadcast in Europe by The Cartoon Network, has a British producer/director (Peter Lawrence), the special effects, digitization and compositing are French, and U.S.’s Hanna-Barbera and Japan’s Pacific are providing animation expertise.

It will, apparently, result in ‘one of the most high-tech cutting-edge cartoons ever made,’ says Sherry Gunther, senior vice president, production for Hanna-Barbera.

Cosgrove Hall, a Manchester-based independent animation specialist, was owned by Thames Television until 1993 when it was reformed, this time backed by leading U.K. media group MAI Media (itself a broadcaster with a controlling interest in ITV franchise Meridian) and U.S. broadcaster HBO (part of Time Warner). With such pedigree in its backers, Cosgrove Hall moved into a new league.

Within a year, a whole raft of international co-productions sprang up, with Peter and The Wolf for ABC and Brambly Hedge for HIT Entertainment currently in production. Cosgrove Hall is now the self-proclaimed largest producer of animated films and series in the U.K. It currently has commissions from all four U.S. networks. Not bad for a company that started out of the talents of two graphic artists-Brian Cosgrove and Mark Hall-who started working together on a series for Granada from Cosgrove’s attic.

The BBC is also having a go at co-productions, although it is more prevalent in film, drama and documentary than children’s programs. Co-productions have come through Sunbow Entertainment in New York (which has recently attracted Geraldine Clarke of Klasky Csupo, a firm whose animated shows have played happily in Britain) among others. It is the broadcaster’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, that will eventually make the public broadcaster’s mark on the international scale.

The BBC is constantly under fire and has to be seen to be whiter than white in the separation of public money used to fund production, and profit made from international sales, or investment money in international productions. Partnerships have sprung up with Canal Plus in France and WGBH in Boston, but these are on a project-by-project basis, and are generally on a co-funding basis.

However, by investing in projects such as the Wallace and Gromit trilogy from Aardman Animation, which was equally commissioned by the public-service BBC Bristol animation department for transmission on BBC1, BBC Worldwide is beginning to make commercial gains.

A telling example of the state of international relations is Blazing Dragons, the new animated spin on the Olde English legend of King Arthur. The series, which retells the legend from the perspective of the dragons who traditionally terrorized the gallant knights of old, is directed by former Monty Python star Terry Jones.

Co-produced by Nelvana, the series is destined for the ITV network in this country, where it was commissioned by Carlton U.K. head of children’s programming Michael Forte. Worldwide distribution is by Nelvana.

About The Author


Brand Menu