There are certain to be a few anxious moments on the Sony lot in Culver City this fall when studio executives are handed the early ratings reports on Jumanji and Project GeeKeR, the first big projects out of the company’s new TV animation division.
The suspense will surely be heightened by the expectations surrounding a major studio’s foray into new programming territory.
Yet, as much as Columbia TriStar Television has riding on these initial two TV shows, they represent only the first test.
The more important questions surrounding Sony’s decision a year ago to enter the children’s programming sector will be answered later down the road when the company assesses how this move has measured up against Sony’s longer-term goals.
Yes, getting into TV animation was a natural move to make, says Columbia TriStar senior executive vice president Andy Kaplan.
‘For Columbia, it is important to be involved in all aspects of the entertainment business.’
But, he says, the move represents a much bigger, strategic investment. Animation gives Columbia the opportunity to develop characters, and through them build merchandising opportunities in ancillary markets, as well as burnish the Columbia TriStar and Sony brand names.
The job of making this all happen rests in the hands of Sander Schwartz, the studio executive who moved over from senior vice president of business affairs at Columbia TriStar Television to senior vice president of children’s programming last October.
Schwartz, who, while in business affairs, was involved in the animated CBS Christmas special The Nanny, says starting up an animation studio made sense for a number of reasons.
‘As one of the seven major studios, the company brings tremendous assets in terms of financial resources, distribution and marketing and a familiarity with entertainment and intellectual properties.
‘Also, the company has a huge library and a large number of projects in the pipeline for feature film and television that have great application for animation. Without the ability to produce and distribute our own (animated) shows, we would either miss the opportunities or license them out to third parties.
‘The impetus behind this also came from a strong desire to expand the business base of Sony Pictures Entertainment in many ways, not just in animation. You see that throughout the company. We have a new interactive division. Sony Imageworks is expanding its special effects, as is Sony Signatures in licensing and merchandising.’
Schwartz concedes that now is not the most propitious time to be breaking into the TV animation business. It has become a crowded field and the competition for broadcast shelf space continues to increase. But he points out that at the same time, these factors have also made it tougher to be an independent today. The critical mass of the business has moved back into being studio-based, dominated for the time being by the two distant leaders, Walt Disney Company and Warner Bros.
‘There will always be some business there for the independents. But, to successfully compete in the worldwide market in an era where license fees are falling and production costs are rising, the studios have the wherewithal not only to deliver the product, but also to distribute and maximize on the revenues.’
Yet for all the resources that Sony can summon in support of its animation studio, ultimately, it’s the quality of the work the stories, the scripts and the art that will determine success or failure.
‘We’ve been very introspective about setting our sights high and about competing on the highest field and producing a high level of product that hopefully, like all good animation, can be perennial, can be evergreen.’
After completing the Christmas special The Nanny, Schwartz had planned to ease into operations by doing 13 episodes of Jumanji, an animated version of the feature starring Robin Williams. The Jumanji TV show is scheduled for the UPN network on Sundays at 9:30 a.m.
Then, Schwartz got a chance at Project GeeKeR, and he couldn’t say no.
‘It was an opportunity to work with two exciting, young, talented people Doug TenNaple and Doug Langdale, who both created Earthworm Jim. We just couldn’t turn it down.’
It meant doubling the studio capacity to 26 episodes in its first year instead of 13.
Schwartz has organized the production resources into two teams, each dedicated to its own show.
‘We have people who are here because they wanted to be here. We went looking for the best talent. Some we really had to woo.
‘But the mandate from the company was to produce at the highest level of quality available for TV. We’ve had from the beginning people involved who are sensitive to that and who want to produce the best quality.’
Even though it’s still early days, Schwartz has been able to attract key executives, people like Richard Raynis, executive producer for Jumanji, Mark Taylor, who came to Columbia from Jetlag (see page 20), and most recently Bob Higgins, who is moving over from director of development at Nelvana to join Schwartz as director of development.
‘We’ve always kept the bar where we put it in the first place. That’s meant not cutting corners on the shows, not compromising creatively up front. We do animatics for every show.
‘When you get a network order for shows, which always comes in February or March, you’re always scurrying to make them and to make them on time. Always there are production glitches along the way. Obstacles that you can’t foresee.
‘Still, when we get behind, we don’t cut corners. People just work harder. We’ve created an environment where people like to work.
‘We’ve made an effort to get the best animation writers available and also to look in other sources. In animation, when the writer’s writing, he has a clean slate. He can be in any world, on any planet. He can have a hundred characters.
‘The traditional wisdom is to look for writers with that eye, with that vision, that direction. We’ve been finding that that’s not necessarily the case. We’ve been bringing in prime-time writers and looking in new and different places.
‘The most important thing is to get those scripts to be entertaining, to be funny, to be suspenseful and to permit the artist, then, to create the characters and to put in the acting.’
When Schwartz is asked to describe where he’d like the studio to be a few years from now, he replies easily, even though he d’esn’t have the answer yet.
‘Sony is a household name. When people buy a Sony product, they have a certain expectation of quality. Well, I’d like to instill that same sense of quality in the product that comes out of our studio. That it is well written, well produced and it has the best talent behind it.
‘As to how that will translate in terms of look, style and feel is still too early to tell. It’s an evolving thing, and an evolving problem as well.
‘Unlike a studio with a 50-year history like Disney or Warner, we didn’t inherit a library. We didn’t inherit a stable of characters that we’re seeking to reintroduce or reinvigorate or reanimate. We’re starting from scratch.
‘And that’s my toughest challenge. That branding challenge, and creating a brand for the company within the animation world.
‘There is also the challenge of all the new techniques available today.
‘Our two initial shows are traditional cel animation. But that d’esn’t mean that we won’t use computers in the production process.
‘As we look to the future, we’re talking with Sony Imageworks about producing programs with CGI and in 3-D.
‘But animation is a very labor-intensive business. No matter what you’re doing, whether it’s traditional cel animation or computer-driven animation, you still need someone to draw it. One of the mistakes that a lot of studios have made is expanding too fast and trying to produce too much simultaneously.
‘We’re trying to grow prudently and in a planned manner. I don’t want to overextend our resources, either physical or creative. There’s only so much you can do simultaneously. There are only so many artists, only so many good directors, storyboard artists, and so much capacity domestic and foreign to produce animation.
‘You have to respect that.’
The next project on the slate is a Super Ghostbusters series for 1997. The studio is also in the process of developing a Men in Black series, a Columbia TriStar feature in association with Amblin Entertainment that is based on a comic book of the same name. It will be released July 4, 1997.
Dragon Tales is another show that Columbia is producing for PBS with Children’s Television Workshop as a co-production partner. It is scheduled for mid-season 1997 or early January 1998.
Also in the works is a series on the up-coming Starship Troopers feature, which is being directed by Paul Verhoven based on a book of the same title. So the plate is full.