Profile: What makes Sunbow tick?

'Our company has evolved,' says C.J. Kettler, president of Sunbow Entertainment. To observers in the industry, a better word might be transformed-from a company that cranked out cartoons geared to boost client toy sales, to its position today as one of...
April 1, 1998

‘Our company has evolved,’ says C.J. Kettler, president of Sunbow Entertainment. To observers in the industry, a better word might be transformed-from a company that cranked out cartoons geared to boost client toy sales, to its position today as one of animation’s prestige independents.

At the time of the company’s launch in 1978, the studio’s image was strongly associated with the kid-focused advertising agency Griffin Bacal, headed by Tom Griffin and Joe Bacal. Significantly, Griffin Bacal is the long-standing agency on the Hasbro account. The link between the production company and the toy company spurred an assumption on the part of the industry and press that Sunbow was in effect a supplier to the toy giant. ‘In the `80s, when animation was about toy-based animation, [Sunbow's product was] apropos to where the market was at that time,’ says Kettler. ‘Fortunately, I guess, as the market evolved, we evolved.’

Sunbow’s radical identity change began in the early `90s, when the founding partners noted that kids animation was changing-and decided they would have to rethink their product in order to stay on the cutting edge. ‘In 1991, we made a conscious decision that we wanted to be less dependent on ancillary markets and rely instead on ideas out of creators’ minds,’ says Kettler. While Hasbro ‘remains an important business partner today,’ Sunbow operates with complete independence from Griffin Bacal, whose parent company is DDB Needham.

The first property to reflect the studio’s new direction was The Tick, which debuted on Fox Kids Network in 1994. ‘In 1990, we definitely decided to focus attention on creator-driven product,’ says Carole Weitzman, senior vice president of production. The Tick was a New England Comics property that Sunbow spun into an animated series, which was then co-produced by Fox. After its first season on Fox Kids Network, Comedy Central picked up the series, where it has had a successful second run. ‘The Tick is written on two levels-with physical humor for the kids and sophisticated comedy for adults,’ notes Kettler.

Perhaps the most important outcome of the series, however, was that creator and former comic book artist Ben Edlin began working within Sunbow’s offices during the project, touching off a whole new system of development at the studio that was more creator-friendly. ‘We started to keep the creator involved in the creative process,’ says Weitzman. ‘We also shelter them from scheduling and budget concerns so that they can focus on keeping the series true from beginning to end.’

Sunbow’s toy-based image has all but vanished today, as its original products have landed multiple awards, including a Peabody Award and an Emmy. In addition to producing original series, Sunbow entered the arena of international co-production in 1989 with French partner IDDH on the series Bucky O’Hare. That international focus and the contacts it fostered became crucial over the past few years, when the U.S. market became much more difficult for independents. To accommodate its growing output, Sunbow established an animation studio two years ago in Los Angeles, where episodes of The Tick and new shows Salty’s Lighthouse and Brothers Flub are in production. In addition, outside product such as Random House’s The Crayon Box have been produced at Sunbow’s studio on a for-hire basis.

According to Kettler, the setup at Sunbow is unique in the business. ‘I think we do things differently,’ she notes. ‘[Management] does a lot of thinking at retreats-a lot of brainstorming about who we want to be in the marketplace.’ Projects like The Mask sprung from such sessions-all successes that led to Sunbow’s milestone this year of selling an original series to Nickelodeon. (Nick picked up Brothers Flub-a co-production with Ravensburger Film + TV of Germany-to be aired in the fall of 1998 in the U.S., despite Nick’s growing reliance on in-house product.) In addition, Sunbow’s teen series Student Bodies, which combines live action and animation, recently closed a multiterritory international deal with Disney Channel. ‘It’s an indication of the fact that our management team came out of branded TV,’ notes Kettler. ‘We understand branding issues.’

Despite these victories, Kettler is acutely aware of the new challenges and threats independent animation faces today. Yet, her perspective on the subject is anything but bleak. ‘I think that animation is booming-gaining worldwide, fast-growing market acceptance,’ she notes. Kettler also attributes the boom to recognition of animation as a brand mechanism for channels, thanks to stellar successes such as Nickelodeon’s Nicktoons and more recently, Comedy Central’s association with South Park. ‘Broadcasters worldwide recognize how animation brands networks,’ says Kettler.

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