Watership Down is a children’s animation action-adventure TV series based on Richard Adams’ classic 1973 novel of the same name. The book centers around a community of resourceful and brave rabbits in search of the hoped-for safe haven of Watership Down. Martin Rosen in the U.K. wrote, produced and directed the 1978 feature film Watership Down, and the new series preserves the integrity and charm of the book and filmed properties, while adding new narratives in the spirit of the original works.
Watership Down is a US$9.8-million Canada/U.K. co-production. Alltime Entertainment and Decode Entertainment are producing 26 half-hours aimed at ages six to 11. U.K. broadcaster ITV will go to air with the series during the week of September 26 in the 4:40 p.m. slot, its top children’s slot. The ITV license is for five years. In Canada, YTV has an 18-month exclusive window, and will also begin to air the series in September. CBC, the Canadian public broadcaster, has also signed on. French-language rights in Canada are held by the children’s specialty channel Canal Famille.
Partners: Alltime Entertainment,
How the partnership began:
Simon Vaughan, Alltime’s managing director, who was previously with BMG Entertainment in New York, formed the company 18 months ago in direct response to the opportunity presented by the Watership Down acquisition.
Vaughan was impressed by the property’s track record. The book has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide in many languages, and continues to be on school lists and in print. Publishers include Penguin in the U.K. and MacMillan and Avon in the U.S. Worldwide admissions to the film were pegged at 10 million in the first six months of release. The film’s audience extended beyond children, with marked success in eight or nine countries.
‘The challenge was to take a classic book, which also became a movie, and reinvent it and position it as a children’s, family-entertainment franchise,’ says Vaughan.
Adams’ characters are complex and sophisticated and submerged in their own detailed mythology, says Steven DeNure, a partner in nearly two-year-old Decode. ‘It’s prehistory, [about] the way the world was created, almost Old Testament.’
Vaughan persuades Rosen, who works exclusively in feature films, that the book should be adapted as a broadcast property with an optimal ancillary rights rollout. ‘We wanted to be sure on all sides that [the TV series] was an appropriate application of the rights,’ says Vaughan. Vaughan acquires audiovisual, ancillary and publishing rights from Rosen.
DeNure says other, bigger companies had previously approached Rosen, but ‘between Simon’s commitment and the business deal, [Rosen] was convinced it was time to let someone else pick up the property and give it a new life.’
Vaughan attends NATPE ‘with a brochure under my arm,’ he says, and has some 20 meetings, including those with larger prodco/distributors such as Cinar Corporation, Nelvana, HIT Entertainment and Pearson. ‘And everyone made an offer,’ he says, ‘and it was a very exciting moment.’
Seemingly unprepared to tie in with a bigger entertainment company, Vaughan meets with Decode partner Neil Court, who he had known for about five years.
‘I was consulting and representing Film Roman, and Simon was with BMG, and we did business on a regular basis,’ says Court. ‘Then, this [project] came along [and] we started having a sequence of chats back here in London.’
Early ‘philosophical’ talks focus more on Alltime’s business strategy and goals, rather than the property itself, says Court.
Decode is motivated by the property’s potential, as well as Vaughan’s skill in video acquisition and distribution, and his clear view on a merchandising and licensing rollout.
Staking an active, personal role in the development and exploitation of the property is a ‘critical’ factor in Vaughan’s search for a partner. ‘Otherwise, I would have just signed up, taken a cheque and moved on. The reality is there just aren’t that many great projects out there,’ he says. ‘I thought if I were to sign up with almost any company and walk away, it would be inevitable that after a year or two of high profile, then [it would] become yesterday’s news.’
With Court holding court at Hotel Majestic in Cannes at MIP-TV, new talks take place with Vaughan and group joined by DeNure and Beth Stephenson, Decode’s VP of production and development. ‘We all came away thinking this could be amazing,’ recalls Court.
The terms of the co-production agreement are formalized by early June.
The other milestone at MIP-TV is Vaughan’s meeting with Nigel Pickard, controller for children’s programming at ITV. ‘[Pickard] came to the table early and made a substantial financing offer.’ ITV’s order for two seasons ‘is pretty well unprecedented,’ says Court.
June to July 1998
The partners begin scripting the series, starting with Martin Riley, a respected U.K. writer, who completes an initial draft of the story’s synopsis. The primary task is a breakdown of the book, with a view of producing 26 half-hours of TV animation.
DeNure says full-term executive story editors are also required, so the Ottawa-based writing team of Mary Crawford and Alan Templeton sign on by fall `98. ‘They have not only done a ton of animation, but they’ve also done quite a bit of live action, including one-hour action-adventure drama. Among other things, this series is a great adventure story,’ says DeNure.
September 30, 1998
Alltime hosts a get-together in London, attended by about 120 retailers, decision-makers and international licensing agents.
Vaughan says merchandising is central to ‘the success of the brand.’ The licensing program includes video, music, interactive, plush toys and publishing. ‘We will be launching for the first time ever a range of Watership Down-based product into the book market,’ he says.
‘A similar event will be held at Licensing `99, where we’ll be introducing the property to the American marketplace [and] when we hope to be able to announce our U.S. video, TV, books and plush partners,’ says Vaughan, adding that prototype plush product should be in hand by the end of `99. A three-singles, one-album international music deal has been signed with Polydor, a unit of PolyGram. Worldwide licensing and merchandising rights are managed under a partnership between DRi Licensing in the U.K. and Alltime.
The producers work closely with Ottawa’s Funbag Studios, charged with developing the design (characters, backgrounds and the world) beyond preliminary work done in the U.K. under Vaughan’s supervision.
Vaughan visits Funbag when the formal design work is ramped up in October `98, all with the view to going into full animation production this month.
Vaughan characterizes Watership Down’s core design philosophy as ‘classic with watercolor paint backgrounds-characters that remain kid-friendly and natural, [with a] slight pushing of colors and the anthropomorphic aspect of their features as far as we could without crossing into `animals in clothes.”
With a well-known property like Watership Down, says Court, the advantage of ‘an enormous presale awareness because of the book and the feature film’ is partly balanced by a high level of expectation for classic properties and a certain fixed idea as to how the characters should appear.
Alltime and Decode meet with potential partners and financiers, and these presale meetings are expected to resume at MIP-TV, ‘building towards a significant launch on the TV side for MIPCOM `99,’ says Court.
In development terms, Vaughan says the prebuying networks do not have an active development role, but their opinions are taken seriously. ‘Nigel [Pickard] had a view that we had to be careful not to deal with some of the more aggressive issues in the film. We had already taken a commercial decision that you can have jeopardy and tension and drama without blood and guts.’ Court says there are elements in the book that are rather dark and disturbing and not appropriate for a kids TV series.
On the issue of revenue potential, Vaughan says the property ‘is an absolute household name in Holland, Scandinavia, Germany and Australia, as it is in the U.K. and North America. And this is a piece of luck for me because I approached it
because I loved the property for the U.K.’ There is also some brand awareness in Japan, where ‘rabbit properties are incredibly popular, as are classic British properties as in Beatrix Potter and Thomas the Tank Engine,’ adds Vaughan.
Returning from the `99 American International Toy Fair, which he attends with DeNure, Vaughan feels the show’s toy potential is ‘simply enormous.’
Talks are held with potential U.S. partners.
‘In each country, we are looking to find a brand management partner in the same way that Alltime is the brand manager in the U.K. In Germany, we’ve found our partner [MM Merchandising M-nchen, a unit of the ProSieben Group]. In Canada, Decode is the brand managing partner, and in the U.S., we’re looking to harness the strengths of another partner,’ says Vaughan. In the U.S., Vaughan says distribution strategy will go beyond ‘just putting a series on air.’ Indeed, the ideal branding partner may well end up being a marketing-driven operation, he says.
‘We can bring in the TV distribution side, harness a localized marketing strategy to platform the brand across video, music, toy, publishing and the other key licensing categories, then centrally manage the marketing effort to create a lasting franchise,’ says Vaughan.
Negotiations with lenders for interim production financing, against presales, are in progress, says DeNure. The financing structure for Watership Down includes province of Ontario and Canadian production tax credits, presales to YTV and CBC, and anticipated Canadian Television Fund (both EIP Equity and LFP Licence Fee top-up) participation. On the U.K. side, the biggest piece is the broadcast presale to ITV, and other video presales, including a deal for Europe. An all-media rights sale to MM Merchandising M-nchen for Germany, Austria and Switzerland, announced early last month, is also significant. DeNure says presales to both YTV and CBC ensure an extended, on-air presence, a commercial prerequisite in view of cost and ancillary goals.
The show is an official Canada/U.K. treaty co-production, just over 62% majority Canadian.
The series’ production budget indicates ‘top-end’ animation quality premised on an evergreen or extended shelf-life distribution strategy, says Court. For example, an 88-piece U.K. orchestra will perform the show’s epic music score.
Watership Down’s co-producing partners expect to recoup their production costs during the first cycle of sales. Between them, they own all other media and ancillary rights.
Principal animation-stand photography is slated to begin this month.
DeNure, Court, Stephenson and Vaughan are attending MIP-TV.
Evaluating the partnership
In breaking down the assignments, voice recording, music and some scripting is being done in England, as was some of the initial design work. On the Canadian side, Decode has picked up on the design, contracting Funbag Studios.
‘When you talk to producers about their historical feelings about co-production in the U.K.,’ says Vaughan, ‘you often hear negative feedback that it’s not always an easy process. With [Alltime and Decode], it’s a very easy process because there are two basic parties and we make the decisions without any bureaucracy, as if we were in the same building. I think because we are relatively small businesses, it has been painless.’
‘What’s interesting on the distribution side,’ says DeNure, ‘is that Decode and Alltime are co-distributing the series, with Alltime responsible for international video, merchandising and licensing, and Decode being responsible for worldwide television sales, with the exception of the U.K.’
‘This is the trick,’ says Court, ‘because we have a situation here where we are not dividing territories or rights between us; we all share in each other’s rights, and so we’re motivated to work together to make the best deal possible.’