Special Report: MIP-TV: Co-production Diary: The Adventures of Swiss Family Robinson

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...
April 1, 1997

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 is the third live-action family drama in the CLT-UFA/Cloud 9 Classic Collection. The series, starring Richard Thomas, will be available in 30 x 30-minute episodes and as 10 longer TV movies and video specials targeting international audiences.

Partners: Cloud 9 Screen Entertainment Group, U.K., CLT-UFA, Luxembourg

How the partnership began:


Sensing a dearth of high-quality live-action family entertainment, Raymond Thompson, chief executive of Cloud 9 Screen Entertainment Group, looks for a partner to build a library of classics. After getting fed up with waiting for a U.K. commission, Thompson g’es looking for international financing.

Cloud 9 signs a deal with CLT (now CLT-UFA), establishing the CLT-UFA/Cloud 9 Classic Collection. According to Thompson, CLT’s vast distribution network and the two companies’ shared attitudes about programming make this ‘an ideal marriage.’

Thompson puts together an on-staff writing group that begins brainstorming and market testing adaptations of classics. The first two productions to get the green light are The Enid Blyton Adventure Series which has been sold to over 60 countries and its sequel, The Enid Blyton Secret Series. It’s during these brainstorming sessions that the idea to adapt The Adventures of Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann Wyss, arises. ‘We looked around and saw so much wallpaper family programming out there that I was longing to do something that relied on characters and a plot.’ Thompson admits that since he saw the 1964 Disney version, the story has been one of his favorites.


At MIPCOM, Disney Europe has just agreed to buy the Enid Blyton series when Thompson tells them about Cloud 9 and CLT’s plans to create a 30 x 30-minute Swiss Family adaptation. Disney was flabbergasted at the magnitude of the project, says Thompson.

Broadcasters lured in by the success of the Enid Blyton series begin prebuying Swiss Family. Interested parties include U.K.’s Channel 5, German family channel Super RTL, Disney Europe and Iceland’s Channel 2. ‘We made a good first impression,’ says Thompson.

December 1995

Negotiations begin with actor Richard Thomas, who starred as John Boy on the long-running television series The Waltons, to play the part of the father, David Robinson. ‘We wanted to have an American star,’ says Heinz Thym, head of international acquisitions and sales at CLT-UFA, explaining their belief that this would enhance the program’s appeal in the U.S. Cloud 9′s Thompson is also a fan of Thomas and feels that given his success with a family program such as The Waltons, he would set the right tone for the series.

February-March 1996

Negotiations with Thomas are finalized.

‘Thomas became very much a part of the creative evolution,’ Thompson explains. Bouncing ideas back and forth with Thomas, they refine scripts and create more in-depth characters. ‘The danger with Swiss Family is that it could be all paradise,’ he adds. The new series veers from the novel, but ‘the basic idea is still there,’ Thym says. The plot still centers on a shipwrecked family’s struggle against the environment and animals. Conflicts with pirates and between family members are added for drama, he says. ‘I think it’s a period piece that appeals to contemporary audiences.’

The logistics of the production are worked out. The shipwrecked island paradise is located in Fiji, but two cruise ships must be anchored offshore to host the cast and production crew because the infrastructure of the islands is inadequate. Plans are made for shipping in exotic animals, which play an important part of the series. ‘There was a Rubik’s cube of complex logistics,’ says Thompson.

August 1996

Production starts in the Fiji islands, with interiors shot in New Zealand, where, Thym explains, they maintain a regular crew for back-to-back shooting schedules, which enables them to keep costs low. ‘All the money is on the screen,’ he says. ‘We have low overheads, and no big producer fees.’

The series, like the previous two, is shot in two formats so it can be viewed as a half-hour series or as hour-long movies that can be marketed as videos. ‘Even in the writing process, we structure [it as] something that can be shown in two formats,’ Thym explains. ‘It gives us more selling opportunity.’ And as testament to their belief in the series’ shelf life, Thompson points out that they are shooting it in standard and wide-screen television formats, so it can easily be broadcast in 20 years when most people have large-screen TVs.

January-April 1997

Post-production starts as the crew finishes shooting episode 20, and is slated to wrap up in November. The series will be launched at MIP-TV, with Thomas scheduled to attend the kickoff event. The show is expected to air starting in January 1998, in anywhere from 60 to 65 different countries, says Thompson. Meanwhile, two other projects in the CLT-UFA/Cloud 9 Classic Collection are in the works. Return to Treasure Island, a 90-minute TV movie, which is also wrapping up production in the South Pacific, and The Legend of William Tell, a 15 x one-hour series, is scheduled to start production in April. CLT Distribution and Cloud 9′s Cumulus division will split the international distribution rights.

Evaluating the partnership

‘There’s a mutual respect,’ says Thompson. ‘We welcome any comments. But they’re not forced on us. Nobody’s decision is final [the way] it tends to be in this business.’ Many other co-productions fail, he believes, because they don’t have a common goal.

Thym explains that they have a 50-50 partnership. ‘It’s a very healthy relationship because the roles are well defined. They are the creators. We are the financial partners who support them. There’s no conflict of ego. We give our input on the ideas, but we don’t interfere with the creative process.’

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