Special Report ­ NATPE: The British are coming: Once a strictly American market, more Brits are considering NATPE absolutely essential

In recent years, NATPE has made great strides towards increasing international attendance at its annual trade fair....
January 1, 1997

In recent years, NATPE has made great strides towards increasing international attendance at its annual trade fair.

Its efforts in the U.K. have had considerable impact. At the 1997 show in New Orleans, approximately 50 U.K. producers and distributors will take stands, compared with a mere five in 1994. NATPE’s European director Pam Mackenzie says, ‘we’ve worked hard at making it somewhere the international community wants to go. Five years ago, it was very American in character.’

According to Mackenzie, ‘North America is the market everyone in Europe wants to conquer and it’s proved notoriously difficult. However, the opportunities have grown significantly.’

She cites three main reasons for the upsurge in interest from Europe. The first is the rapid growth in the number of U.S. cable outlets. A&E, HBO and Discovery, in particular, have given British product a firm foothold in the U.S. With further segmentation through channels like the soon-to-be-launched Discovery Kids, Mackenzie says the opportunities have increased for ‘programs held in great esteem in the U.K., but that haven’t made it across the Atlantic.’ The second factor is the presence of Latin American buyers and the third is the FCC-driven demand for more educationally oriented children’s programming.

For British exhibitors, there is a further incentive in the shape of financial subsidies from the U.K. government’s Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). Through a scheme called America Now, funds are released for promotion and presentation. In 1997, the DTI will increase that support.

British companies at NATPE will place particular emphasis on children’s programming, which, along with natural history, is viewed in the U.K. as an area capable of attracting investment financing from the U.S. But with an estimated 20,000 visitors, there is a danger that smaller companies will be overlooked in all the excitement. As a result, most U.K. attendees are joining together to boost their visibility.

For BRITE, CTE and ITEL, three of the largest commercial distributors in the U.K., their trademark has become a red double-decker London city bus. The three companies are setting up shop in the bus and conducting business there. Anthony Utley, head of sales for CTE, admits that at first he was cynical about the bus, but he has found that ‘it works surprisingly well.’

CTE had success in the U.S. in 1996 with the reversioning of Tots TV for PBS. The company will take a strong raft of children’s product to NATPE, though Utley is pragmatic about the market’s hard commercial value to U.K. distributors. ‘It is more international, but still not the proper market for us. It’s introverted, we don’t get to talk to the networks and the screening facilities aren’t very good.’

That said, Utley admits that NATPE is important to attend, though its benefits are much more intangible than those of other markets. ‘It allows you to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the U.S. . . . But if we didn’t share facilities with BRITE and ITEL, we’d be hard-pushed to justify it in terms of hard commercial sales.’

This year, CTE will emphasize live-action kids drama, which Utley believes has great potential. These include Tetra Films’ 97-minute film The Treasure Seekers, Matt’s Million and Out of Sight. Co-production hopes are pinned on an animated pilot called Digit ‘n’ Dawson from the Martin Gates Productions stable.

For smaller companies, the key platform is the British Pavilion, which this year will house 38 producers. Marketed under the banner ‘Great Britain, Great Television,’ it will play host to the likes of Britt Allcroft Group, Link Entertainment, Winchester Film & Television and Scottish Television Enterprises.

Link Entertainment’s head of program sales David Llewellyn-Jones says, ‘We took a stand for the first time last year and this year have doubled our size. A few years ago, we would not have considered a stand at NATPE essential, but now we couldn’t afford not to be there. It is also becoming increasingly cost-effective.’

For Link, the market is an opportunity to raise financing and to sell the shows in its catalogue. It is currently seeking a U.S. partner on a follow-up series to Hibbert Ralph’s award-winning animation special The Forgotten Toys. In addition, it will come to market with two piloted concepts it launched at the 1996 Cartoon Forum in Galway. ‘We introduced a 45-second pilot of another Hibbert Ralph idea called The First Snow of Winter,’ says Llewellyn-Jones, ‘and a new project called Varnii Roop.’ Both are close to securing production financing in the U.K., which he admits ‘would help credibility internationally.’ Back catalogues are also important and Link will focus on marketing GMTV’s Bug Alert, Child’s Play’s Pirates and Aardman Animation’s The Morph Files.

NATPE’s importance must, however, be placed firmly in context. For U.K. companies like Britt Allcroft, it is only one element of a year-round marketing effort in the U.S. Managing director and founder Britt Allcroft says, ‘either myself or my partner, Angus Wright, has been to NATPE each of the last three years. It’s good housekeeping to attend.’

In many ways, Britt Allcroft has been a role model for U.K. aspirations. The company has made major in-roads in the U.S. with Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, Shining Time Station and, more recently, Britt Allcroft’s Magic Adventures of Mumfie, which won its time slot last Christmas with a one-off special on Fox Children’s Network (FCN) in the U.S. This year, the Mumfie special g’es out in the same 8 a.m. slot on December 23. This will be followed by a week of specially edited half-hour Mumfie adventures on FCN, which will act as the perfect pre-NATPE promotion for the company.

Although program sales of Mumfie and Thomas are handled through the Catalyst Distribution stand, Allcroft says, ‘we find NATPE is very useful for observing who is out there and what content they are looking for. If you have the time, it’s certainly worth attending.’

Undoubtedly, the success of Allcroft has inspired other U.K. players such as HIT Entertainment, which has steadily built up its client base among North American distributors. Like Allcroft, HIT was recently floated on the London Stock Exchange. For both, that move represents a key stage in their ambitions to become broad-based production studios.

This year, HIT has decided to take a stand outside of the British Pavilion for the first time. ‘We’ve started to place a great deal of emphasis on this market. We’re keen not to attend too many markets, and with 30 percent of the NATPE attendance made up of international broadcasters, it’s a better platform than the Monte Carlo event,’ says head of program sales Charlie Caminada.

A significant part of HIT’s efforts at NATPE this year will go toward the classic animation properties it represents, such as the original Casper, Felix the Cat and The Underdog Show, which runs to 64 half-hours. ‘Some time ago, we identified a huge opportunity in reversioning classic libraries that had not been marketed for many years,’ says Caminada.

HIT is increasingly involved in program investment and will bring Cosgrove Hall’s Brambly Hedge (four x 30 minutes) to market. It has been presold in Germany, the U.S., Spain, Italy and France and includes HIT as a major investor. ‘That has been a shift for us,’ says Caminada, who anticipates commissioning three animation properties a year.

HIT’s decision to market itself separately from the British Pavilion is mirrored by a few other U.K. companies. For DK Vision, it is important to reflect the fact that its parent company, Dorling Kindersley, is a major player in the U.S. publishing market. Likewise, London-based EVA Entertainment will occupy the animation pavilion to reflect its pan-European allegiances rather than its geographical headquarters.

While the majority of representatives of U.K. companies attending NATPE have come to sell shows or raise financing, there are a select few who come to spend program budgets.

Foremost among these is BBC head of acquisitions and development for children’s television, Theresa Plummer-Andrews, who will be generally looking for half-hour animated series. NATPE has proven repeatedly its worth to the BBC, she says. ‘We picked up The Mask there at an early stage. And last year, we acquired Ace Ventura from Morgan Creek, which is not a normal source of programming for us.’

Acquisition is the BBC’s key activity in the children’s sector, she says, and it is increasingly important because there is a new slot on BBC 2 for children’s programming.

Co-production discussions are rare because ’90 percent of the things we see from the U.S., like Turner Broadcasting’s Jonny Quest, are fully funded by companies that want to control all the rights. We tend to co-produce with the likes of France, Germany and Canada.’ Equally, distribution of BBC Children’s key properties, such as Noddy, is a year-round effort conducted from the BBC Worldwide Americas office.

For Plummer-Andrews, the value of NATPE lies in its comprehensive turnout. Although, she admits, ‘there is not a lot of time to do business.’

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