Special Report: MIP-TV: Co-production Diary: Captain Star
The truism that ‘no two deals are ever the same’ has never been more accurate than in today’s climate of intricate production partnerships linking companies from around the world. The main feature in our MIP-TV special report traces the evolution of these partnerships through the complex deals that led to new children’s television shows that are now being marketed at MIP-TV. The report also includes a discussion with U.S. studios on television programming trends, as well as a glimpse into the television markets of Germany, England and France.
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This 13 x 30-minute animated series tracks the adventures of intergalactic hero Captain Jim Star and his crew on their spaceship The Boiling Hell. Captain Star began life as a comic strip by Steve Appleby in the British publications New Musical Express and The Guardian. The TV series targets a broad audience it attempts to appeal to children with strong visuals and to teens and adults with witty dialogue.
Partners: Filmworks, U.K., Harvest Entertainment, U.K., Alliance Communications, Canada, Canal+, Spain, ITV, U.K., Nickelodeon UK, U.K., VPRO, Holland, YLE, Finland, ZDF, Germany
How the partnership began:
Geraldine Easter, an executive producer at Filmworks, first notices Captain Star when a friend points out the cartoon strip to her. ‘It had humor [and] a different kind of look,’ says Easter.
Around the same time, strip creator Steve Appleby and director-to-be Pete Bishop are tossing around ideas about how to turn the comic strip into an animated series.
Easter meets with Appleby and Bishop and, for the next year, works on developing a TV series treatment and defining Captain Star and his crew, which include First Officer Scarlette, Atomic Engine Stoker ‘Limbs’ Jones, Navigator Black and their ship The Boiling Hell. ‘We had huge decisions to make because in the strip the characters could be anywhere. It wasn’t a defined world.’
Easter receives a grant to fund half of the pilot from the CARTOON Initiative. The rest of the funding comes from Filmworks.
Easter helps recruit Frank Cotterell-Boyce to write the script for the pilot, which debuts at Cartoon Forum in 1991. The pilot receives favorable reviews, although, says Easter, ‘people were concerned with Captain Star’s appeal.’ Though initially they are looking at a teenage/adult audience, Filmworks drops the target age range to include viewers as young as seven in order to get further funding.
Spain’s Canal+ comes on board and supplies production funding in exchange for regional broadcast rights.
Easter approaches Dan Maddicott, head of children’s programs at Harvest Entertainment, the rights division of HTV. Maddicott is already familiar with the project, having seen Captain Star at Cartoon Forum in 1991. HTV agrees to take a stake in Captain Star, and Maddicott begins work with Easter to develop the series.
In a search for funding, says Maddicott, ‘we jointly traveled the world for four years [from 1992 to the beginning of 1996].’
Finnish broadcaster YLE commits to the project. It is awarded Scandinavian broadcast rights.
At Cartoon Forum in Florence, Children’s ITV expresses interest. It is concerned with audience appeal, but still agrees to test the series. ITV thought it was ‘a strange project, and it could be risky,’ says Maddicott. At the same time, ‘there was this feeling that this could be something huge,’ says Easter.
Dutch broadcaster VPRO signs on.
Several British and French broadcasters and production companies show interest, but are unwilling to commit.
ITV’s research returns with fantastic results, says Easter. Worries that kids couldn’t understand or relate to the language in the script are put to rest, but ITV still considers it a risk because the humor is thought to be too sophisticated for children.
A second showing at NATPE is favorable, prompting Easter and Maddicott to continue their search for funding.
A development deal with Fox and Sunbow in New York looks good, but ultimately falls through.
In 1995, Nickelodeon UK commits funds to the project, and in January 1996, German broadcaster ZDF signs on as a partner, which gives the project a huge boost of confidence, says Easter.
ITV finally decides to join.
The project now has 70 percent of its funding, but no distribution deal.
At MIP-TV, Maddicott and Easter meet with Canadian company Alliance Communications. Looking to broaden its animation base, Alliance Multimedia signs on a month later and agrees to distribute and merchandise Captain Star. ‘We’re hoping for a cross-over audience,’ says Jeff Rayman, president of Alliance Equicap (the holding company for Alliance Multimedia). He says the fact that his six-year-old liked Captain Star’s visual humor, while his 16-year-old enjoyed the show’s language component, helped drive that home.
Alliance and Filmworks split the writing responsibilities 50-50, hoping that by using Canadian and British writers, the scripts will have more of an international appeal.
It takes several months to iron out all the details of the deal, but in November 1996, pre-production begins at the Canadian-based Funbag Animation Studios. The project is scheduled to wrap up by February 1997.
Meanwhile, production starts at Cosgrove Hall Films in the U.K. in January 1997. The first episode of Captain Star will debut this summer on Children’s ITV, followed by a screening on Nickelodeon UK.
Evaluating the partnership
‘I’ve done a lot of international co-productions and you really have to believe in [the show], because it’s such a struggle to get the money,’ explains Easter, adding that more than once she was ready to throw in the towel. ‘I haven’t heard of another project taking as long as this, and there were an awful lot of people who thought this [show] would never come off. It’s never easy when this many people are involved.’
‘It’s the most complicated co-production I’ve ever been involved in,’ says Maddicott, who is executive producing the series with Steven DeNure, former president of Alliance Multimedia, along with co-producer Beth Stevenson of Alliance. Setting up the legal structure and financial mechanism was extraordinarily complicated, Maddicott says.
So why did they all persevere?
‘It was Geraldine’s and Steve’s and Peter’s and my belief that this was going to be huge,’ says Maddicott. ‘We’ve never had anyone say that they didn’t like it.’