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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A 40 x 30-minute show, targeted at kids age five to 11, that follows the zany adventures of an eccentric pet shop owner and his pets who have been mysteriously reduced in size. Once sold, the pets find clever ways to escape from their new owners, return to the pet shop and have madcap adventures with their friends.
Partners: Sunbow Entertainment, U.S., Créativité et Développement, France
How the partnership began:
U.S. toy manufacturer Kenner approaches Sunbow Entertainment about developing a show based upon the Littlest Pet Shop toy line. Sunbow takes an interest in the property because it thinks it can develop the idea for television in a gender-neutral way that will appeal to kids who enjoy the manic action of shows such as Tiny Toons. ‘We were looking to do something in the more classic vein, a more stretch-and-squash kind of cartoon, and this property was perfect for that,’ says C.J. Kettler, president of Sunbow Entertainment.
The fact that the series had a built-in marketing hook in the U.S. with the Kenner toy line was only one piece of the puzzle. ‘We developed a show that will sell for the next 40 or 50 years, regardless of whether there is any product on the shelf associated with it,’ Kettler says, noting that the toy line has recently been discontinued by Kenner.
Sunbow contacts French production company Créativité et Développement (C&D). The pair had collaborated successfully in the past on the series Conan the Adventurer.
‘Typically, what we try to do is find partnerships that we can go back to,’ says Kettler. ‘Having already produced Conan, we had developed a shorthand between both companies. C&D was a natural partner to go back to.’
The two companies have been discussing the possibility of developing some other properties together, but jump at the opportunity for Pet Shop when it comes along. Littlest Pet Shop seems like a good fit creatively and practically, because Kenner’s toy line is available both domestically and internationally.
Production begins just prior to NATPE. Because the series is their second project together, the companies already have an operational system for production in place.
Decisions such as which companies they want to use for post-production and sound have already been ironed out with the first co-production. And issues surrounding French production rules, which require that a percentage of the work be performed in France in this case, C&D took care of the initial writing and boards have already been sorted through. This is important in light of the quick turnaround needed to produce the series for a fall debut.
‘It’s always tight timing,’ says Kettler. ‘We had 40 episodes to produce in a really short time. We took the show to NATPE and it was already cleared, but we were still working out details on the contract. That’s always a worrisome time in a production, when you are not fully finished on your deal structure, yet you have to start going on the production. It’s mind-boggling that it came together.’
The series is brought to MIP-TV for international sale. It sells throughout most of Europe quickly and gains 80 percent clearance in the U.S. Upfront, the partners decide not to produce a second set of episodes. Kettler says that financing is a determining element. ‘If the partner can’t come up with the financing, you’re faced with the thorny question of, could you move ahead on an additional round of episodes [without them].’
In the middle of production, C&D tells Sunbow that it is going to call the show Rock Amis (Rock ‘n’ Roll Friends) in France. The change causes some hand-wringing at Sunbow. ‘It was unfortunate because on a co-production, you like everyone to be in sync and to market things the same worldwide,’ says Kettler.
The series debuts in syndication in the fall of 1995 in over 20 markets worldwide.
The series is still offered internationally by Sunbow, which originally provided most of the financing and the majority of the distribution, sales and marketing. To date, the series has run or is still running in over 50 countries. It remains a viable part of Sunbow’s library, and Kettler expects the show to continue to sell well into the future.
C&D is bought by Saban, which takes over the company’s library and disbands the production arm. By this time, production of the show is completed.
Evaluating the partnership
‘I think it was definitely a good experience,’ says Kettler. ‘Creatively, we were in sync and had developed a system that worked, so I would have happily gone back again. It was a disappointment when C&D was sold.
‘Our true objective every time is to find great partnerships in every country, create a formula and keep doing [it],’ she adds. ‘No one likes to reinvent the wheel every time.’