Animated action-adventure taps into teen spirit

In his famous song 'Smells like Teen Spirit,' Nirvana's lead singer Kurt Cobain sarcastically challenges adults to 'entertain us.' Although contemptuous of the media machine, Cobain's urban anthem also underscores the simple fact that huge profits can be made by those...
January 1, 1999

In his famous song ‘Smells like Teen Spirit,’ Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Cobain sarcastically challenges adults to ‘entertain us.’ Although contemptuous of the media machine, Cobain’s urban anthem also underscores the simple fact that huge profits can be made by those who can tap into ‘teen spirit.’

The TV version of teen esprit, according to many producers, is action-adventure animation series fashioned after slick comic books or video games. Given the large number of Japanese-originated video games, it’s not surprising that Japanese animation is increasingly feeding the broadcast beast. Not only do graphics originating from the Orient appeal to North American teenagers hungry for new looks, but Asian producers are looking to expand their empires abroad.

For its first big-budget international series, Alexander, Korea’s Samsung Entertainment Group was careful to select creative talent that could attract a cult following in both Asia and North America. Peter Chung, the architect of MTV’s Aeon Flux, was recruited to design characters based on Hiroshi Aramata’s book Alexander’s War Chronicles. Chung brought sharper lines to the traditionally rounded Japanese animation, says Tom Oh, manager of international sales and distribution at Samsung Entertainment Group in Korea. Other Western touches will by added by Screenmusic Studios, the L.A.-based shop responsible for posting Spawn.

The series is based on the tales of conquest of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king and military commander who pushed his armies from Asia Minor and Egypt to Persia around 325 B.C. But it is also flavored with mystic sorcery usually associated with the legends of King Arthur. Alexander survives an assassination attempt, and is crowned the king of Macedonia after his father is murdered. Alexander not only unifies the Greek empire, but he embarks on an Eastern military campaign that takes him through Egypt and Syria to the Persian stronghold, which is now Iran and Afghanistan.

‘I believe that teens are attracted to bold, aggressive figures with strong sex appeal, outlandish fashions, unusual hairstyles, and the promise of head-banging violence-all of [these elements] are offered in Alexander,’ says Chung.

Samsung’s strategy to capture the teen market is to enter edited versions of the series into international film festivals. The first two episodes of Alexander were recombined for the Tokyo International Fantastic Film Festival in October. A second version combining the first four episodes is being cut together. It’s now rare to enter TV series into film festivals, but festival tournee packages such as Spike and Mike’s animation tournee proved to be successful launch pads for smash hits like Beavis and Butt-head. Success on the festival circuit brings respect-and when it comes to the critical youth audience, respect is everything.

Oh says the producers are aiming for a July to August 1999 premiere of the show.

Like Samsung, Fuji Television and SPE Visual Works in Japan are aggressively selling Samurai X to the international marketplace. Columbia TriStar International Television picked up worldwide rights from its Japanese sister company for 94 half-hours and licensed the series to 27 countries, including many Central and South American territories, such as Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua, Panama and Peru.

Based on the very popular comic magazine Weekly Shonen Jump, Samurai X features Kenshin, a seasoned samurai warrior of 1850s Japan. War has declined under the current dynasty, so Kenshin has turned to crime-fighting, and trains a new group of youngsters in the art of Kamiya sword-handling.

Samsung grafted the North American and Asian look, but Samurai X is pure Japanese, with a creative crew consisting of character designer Hideki Hamasu, art designer Nobuto Sakamoto, animation director Kuniyuki Ishii and director Kazuhiro Furuhashi.

‘Anime is a small, but growing market,’ says Sander Schwartz, executive VP and general manager of children’s programming at Columbia TriStar. ‘There is always a rack of anime in the video stores, and now [direct satellite service] dishes air anime on pay channels. With the expansion of cable outlets burning through shows so rapidly, there are more places that need niche programming.’

Samurai X was produced with the Japanese prime-time audience in mind, but Schwartz made one request. He asked that graphic depictions of sex and violence ‘be carefully placed in the show so [they] could be edited.’

Australia and New Zealand are also part of the Asia-Pacific Rim, but their teen tastes lean more towards Mad Max adventures than those of cartoon samurai. New Zealand is the location for Cloud 9′s 52-part, half-hour drama The Tribe. The series, produced for Channel 5 in the U.K., is a futuristic approach to the classic novel The Lord of the Flies. The US$7.8-million series is scheduled to air in the spring.

Thunderstone, considered one of the most ambitious series tackled Down Under, is also set in the future, in the year 2020. In an Aussie takeoff of the biblical ark story, 15-year-old Noah must travel back in time to gather various species to repopulate the world. Since a massive comet struck the planet and turned it into a frozen wasteland, small communities of people have been living underground. Noah finds a virtual-reality device and is accidentally catapulted 65 years into the future into a rebel base populated by kids who have escaped from an evil warlord. Together, they find the key to time traveling and attempt to change the course of history.

Series producer Jonathan Shiff (Ocean Girl) is preaching from an environmentalist pedestal in his latest production. Like all smart-ass teens, Noah is dismissive of the extinction of entire species, but as he begins his journey, he develops a respect for nature.

Like many other producers of youth-oriented series, Shiff, whose Thunderstone is aimed at preteens and the younger end of the teen spectrum, says teens ‘appreciate complex storylines and a fairly dense plot.’ He is, however, taking cues from Australia’s most famous films: Crocodile Dundee and Mad Max. Shiff mixes epic settings, comedy and cinematic approach, ‘allowing action rather than heavy dialogue.’ Comedy over violence, and a desire to ‘drive the story from the central characters’ point of view’ are definite Aussie preferences. Shiff is capitalizing on the adventure component of the show by making liberal use of blue-screen techniques, while filming lions and other predators in a local zoo.

Thunderstone is set for delivery in March. It will air on Network Ten Australia in early 1999, and it has been presold to Super RTL in Germany, RTL 4 in the Netherlands, and Disney Channel in Australia, France and the U.K.

Thilo Rex, managing director and one of the founders of the German CGI company Stardust Entertainment Filmproduktion, says rock videos remain a strong drawing factor for teens, and he’s hoping to impress broadcasters by cracking the demo that traditionally watches music stations. ‘Even a hard-core teenager can’t look at MTV videos all the time,’ says Rex, from his studio outside of Potsdam, Germany.

His graphics are cutting edge and hyper-realistic, but Rex’s small CGI unit is playing it safe, at least when it comes to original plots. Firewalls is about teen hackers who break through the ‘firewalls’ and are unable to escape once they’ve entered the game.

Rex’s recipe for cracking the international marketplace is to hire a team of writers based in such culturally diverse cities as Madrid and New York. ‘All of our projects are developed for the international market,’ he says.

Rex is trying to pull production financing together for a possible TV movie and series. His post-MIPCOM follow-up has been strong, particularly from merchandisers such as Hasbro. Three Canadian companies have expressed interest in co-producing the series by providing up to 60% of the budget, and two German companies have expressed interest. If financing is finalized, Rex plans to expand Stardust’s operations by opening a 30-person studio in Cologne in March.

The budget-ranging from US$600,000 to US$800,000-is dependent on whether the company can attract a Hollywood star as its live-action lead.

Teen action-adventure


Producers: Samsung Entertainment Group (Korea), Haruki Kadokawa (Japan), Media Factory (Japan), Pasokan (Japan)

Format: 2-D animation, 13 x half-hour

Target Audience: 15 years and older

Budget: US$500,000 per episode

Distribution: Samsung Entertainment

Broadcast: None at press time

Samurai X

Producers: Fuji Television, SPE Visual Works, Studio Gallop

Format: 2-D animation, 94 x 30 minutes

Target Audience: two years and older through teens

Budget: Not disclosed

Distribution: Columbia TriStar International Television

Broadcast: sold to TV outlets in 27 countries; aired on Fuji-TV in Japan from January 1996 to September 1998


Producer: Jonathan M. Shiff Productions

Format: live action, 52 x 30 minutes

Target Audience: seven to 13 years old

Budget: US$207,000 per episode

Distribution: Tele-Images (French and German territories), Beyond Distribution (other territories)

Broadcast: To air on Network Ten Australia in early 1999; presold to Super RTL in Germany, RTL 4 in the Netherlands, and Disney Channel in Australia, France and the U.K.


Producer: Stardust Entertainment Filmproduktion

Format: CGI and live action, proposed 26 x half-hour series and feature

Target Audience: 12 to 18 years old

Budget: US$600,000 to US$800,000 per episode/US$4 million for feature

Distribution: To be determined

Broadcast: None at press time

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