Family genre producers be warned: go big or go home

LOS ANGELES: From high atop the Santa Monica beach, the annual American Film Market, just passing its 19th birthday, has been witness to the shifting tides of the Pacific, as well as the shifting trends in independent feature films. As the...
April 1, 1999

LOS ANGELES: From high atop the Santa Monica beach, the annual American Film Market, just passing its 19th birthday, has been witness to the shifting tides of the Pacific, as well as the shifting trends in independent feature films. As the direct-to-video market bottomed out from its giddy sales peak of five years past, so did the need for so many action films. With an increasing number of delivery systems in international television hungry for product, does it make sense to turn to TV-friendly G-ratings? Maybe. Viewers ages 12 to 24 made up about 37% of the overall box office take, according to a recent study conducted by the Motion Picture Association of America. Indie producers and sales agents discuss the pitfalls of selling non-studio family fare on the international market, which accounts for roughly half of all theatrical revenue garnered by MPAA member studios.

As Dan Lyon, VP of distribution of Motion International, the Toronto-based distribution arm of Montreal’s Group Coscient, says tongue-in-cheek, ‘the international market is excellent, aside from a few major problems,’ adding, ‘when you’re speaking of the feature market for children, the key is to have an awareness factor. . . Barney (for which Motion holds all Canadian rights) was already an established character and brand. Disney will make its movies into brands through very careful marketing, at an expense of many millions of dollars.’ The MPAA study revealed that studios spent an average of US$25.3 million on feature film advertising and distribution in 1998.

Motion’s latest title, Babel, an $11.8-million feature co-production of Coscient’s Montreal-based production division Allegro Films and IMA Films of France, tells the story of a boy who joins wise, old, underground creatures, the Babels, to save the world. It blends fantasy, action-adventure, humor, fabulously wicked villains and sets and great-looking creatures, but as a live-action original, Lyon says, ‘there’s not a lot in this particular film that lends itself to merchandising’ aside from a soundtrack tie-in. He adds, ‘we know [the marketing] will be an uphill battle, but it’s a challenge we’re looking forward to.’ Aimed at kids ages 7 to 11, Babel will be released in France this month, with a late summer release scheduled for Canada.

For Rob Aft, senior VP of worldwide distribution at L.A.-based Behaviour Worldwide (an arm of Montreal-HQ’d Behaviour Communications), ‘the problem is that to have any power in ancillary markets like video and TV, you really have to have a theatrical release, and a theatrical release on family pictures [overseas] is very difficult.’ Longer school hours and later supper times equal less movie-going time for European children. Even a stellar release won’t help in certain territories: ‘In Germany, if they give it a good theatrical release, it has a huge value for TV, and [it's] the same in Europe in general. But in Asia-no matter how much you build up the value releasing it in theaters-it’s not going to worth more than US$5,000 for TV there.’

An exception is Toulca Lake, California-based Woodbridge Films’ US$18-million feature Dog of Flanders, with international sales handled by Behaviour, and U.S. and U.K. rights held by Warner Bros. Aft explains: ‘It’s a very popular story in Japan, so the Japanese clients were one of the major components in the financing of that picture.’ Aft concludes with a word of warning about cultural exports: ‘The Japanese [story] had a white dog and the `stupid Americans’ used a black dog-it provoked international incidents. They wanted to know if we could just CGI it white. Actually they thought it was really, really funny. . . Maybe we should have peroxided it.’

L.A.-based Crystal Sky International formed in 1991 with a mixed slate of action and family product budgeted from US$3 million to US$5 million. As Tamar Chafets, director of sales and marketing at Crystal Sky, explains, the company saw ‘a void that needed to be filled. Companies like Disney had the product but we were offering quality family entertainment at a lower price.’ Joseph Inga, VP of finance at Crystal Sky is quick to add: ‘We always had our eye on being a supplier of studio product’. Their latest feature Baby Geniuses, aimed at the five and up crowd, has toddlers commenting on the foibles of adults (through the miracles of CGI). It was co-produced and released March 12 in North America by Columbia Tristar Pictures for US$30 million. Chafets expects the theatrical release will rally pre-sales for their planned 26 x half-hour series Baby Geniuses: Diaper Detectives.

With everyone heading for double digits, what’s left for the low-budget producer?

For Tri Vision Entertainment, the L.A.-based sales and distribution arm of Shower Productions in Japan, a name actor is the key to low-budget teen productions. Aimed at the 16 and up crowd, Seamless: Kidz Rule stars action actor Steven Seagal’s son Kentaro, who plays a moral mentor to a gang of street kids. Producer Hye Young Choi explains her switch from action to teen drama: ‘There are a lot of superficial films that treat teenagers’ problems as entertainment. I wanted to make a deeper film with a message.’ The US$1.2-million feature was co-produced with Tokyo-based Pony Canyon Inc., who paid a higher than US$225,000 license fee for all Japanese rights.

The last niche is that tight one known as ultra-low budgets. Hong Kong-based IFD Films and Arts, producer and distributor of such martial arts features as Royal Angels on Duty of Death and Guns to Heaven, produced for US$600,000 to US$800,000, have a line of similarly budgeted martial arts films aimed at kids ages six to 13, although IFD CEO Joseph Lai admits: ‘According to Europeans, they’re too violent for children. They think it should be for teenagers. It’s not too violent for (Hong Kong) kids.’ IFD is also producing a 22 x half-hour series called Wonder of Wonders for US$60,000 an episode. The series combines animation and live action to teach the history of dynamite and other inventions to children ages six to nine, primarily for the Asian market.

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