Even the most sensitive material can be stickhandled in the muddy waters of co-production if the proper creative dynamic is established. Here’s a look at how a triumvirate of U.K., French and German partners came together to
overcome extreme and graphic content elements like a farmer who shoots a pesky dog and a sadistic barber with
a penchant for cutting out the tongues of rude children.
Grizzly Tales (26 x 10 minutes) is a
2-D/3-D CGI and drawn animation series for five- to nine-year-olds based on three children’s books by British comedy producer Jamie Rix. The first book, Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Kids, was published in 1991 and was Children’s Choice at the prestigious Smarties Book Award. It was followed at later dates by Ghostly Tales for Ghastly Kids and Fiercesome Tales for Fiendish Kids.
Rix’s books are made up of short comical allegories that explore what happens to children who are naughty or rude. Although horrific in tone, the underlying moral message is affirmative and educational. Rix accepts that the TV adaptation is likely to provoke a debate about what is appropriate for young viewers.
Grizzly Tales is co-produced by Honeycomb Animation and Rix’s own company Elephant Productions for Carlton Television. It has been commissioned by ITV in the U.K. and France’s TF1 for broadcast in January 2000. The budget is in the region of US$2 million.
Children’s specialist RTV Entertainment (then Ravensburger) has the German distribution rights, while the rest of the world lies with Carlton International, which is launching the show at MIPCOM this month.
How it all began
In 1992, after the success of his debut book Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Kids, author Jamie Rix sent copies to a wide range of broadcasters. Despite knowing nothing about the kids TV business, he was convinced of the project’s potential.
This belief was reinforced when one of his partners at Elephant, actor Nigel Planer, was invited to read the stories on a prestigious BBC Radio 4 slot.
During its travels, Rix’s book landed on Michael Forte’s desk. Forte, who had recently been appointed as head of children’s at Carlton, ‘loved it, but wasn’t in a position to do anything with it at that time. So I showed it to Sarah and Simon Bor at Honeycomb and suggested they talk to Jamie about a creative collaboration. I told them to come back to me first if anything came of it.’
The Bors ‘liked the stories and felt we could do something with them,’ recalls Simon. ‘So we contacted Jamie and his production partner at Elephant, Clive Hedges, and started development straightaway.’
1993 to 1997
Although the Bors did a storyboard early on, the development was delayed because the three books upon which the series is based had separate publishing contracts.
Besides, both companies were busy. Honeycomb had just started making the long-running animation series Wolves, Witches and Giants for Central Television, while Rix was still producing comedy shows for broadcasters like Channel 4 and the BBC.
There was also sensitivity about the material. One story tells the tale of the Barber of Civil-who cuts off the part of a child’s tongue that says nasty things. At least one senior children’s exec voiced doubts that the project could ever be televised. Despite lots of work behind the scenes, Grizzly Tales was effectively on hold.
In 1994, Carlton had acquired Central Television, so Honeycomb, which was then making its fourth series of Wolves, Witches and Giants, had got to know Forte as a working partner.
He was not convinced that ITV would want a fifth series of WWG, so he asked Sarah and Simon Bor if they had anything else of interest. Bor reminded him of Grizzly Tales and said the partnership with Jamie was going well.
Forte agreed to fund a three-minute pilot with a view to presenting it at Cartoon Forum in Greece. His confidence in Honeycomb was partly based on a realization that ‘they could sustain a high quality of animation while producing at volume.’ Rix observes how, after being on hold for so long, ‘everything suddenly moved so fast from this point.’
The pilot was ready before Cartoon, so Forte took it to Nigel Pickard, controller of kids at ITV. Pickard immediately agreed to commission 26 episodes and committed himself to around 40% of the budget. ‘It really shows up the nasty side of kids in a funny and moralistic way,’ says Pickard. ‘We had commissioned a lot of cuddly preschool shows and needed something to act as a bridge between the older and younger stuff in the schedule.’
For ITV, the 26-episode commission represented a strong vote of confidence and a pragmatic view of the international market on Pickard’s part. Traditionally, ITV has commissioned such series in batches of 13 a year.
At the same time, by providing such a large proportion of the budget, Pickard underlined his desire for as much of the production as possible to stay in Britain. This fitted neatly with Honeycomb’s goal to protect the skills base of the U.K. animation industry.
In Greece, ‘we did an electrifying presentation,’ says Forte. ‘Jamie read one of his stories and had the room in fits of laughter.’ TF1 kids controller Dominique Poussier was attracted by ‘the humor and strength of the characters,’ and agreed to kick in 10% of the budget. RTV chief Rolf Ernst was also immediately interested, adding 15% to the pot. (The other 35% was picked up by Carlton International.) This meant ‘the financial structure was very good right from the start,’ says Forte. ‘Cartoon Forum is one of those rare occasions when you get a lot of potential partners in one place at the same time.’
With 15 months to get the first 13 episodes done, Rix began work on the scripts immediately. For someone used to working with live-action TV scripts, it was ‘a complete eye-opener. At first I wasn’t fully aware of the visual potential of animation-or the way you could get across four or five jokes in a single scene.’
The graphic nature of the kids tales was toned down by taking an implicit tack. In one story, a fed-up farmer shoots a troublesome dog. Rix tinkered with the series plot so that the dog reappeared later in the episode very much alive and all bandaged up. Says Forte: ‘It was important to be very careful on-screen. We wanted the audience to enjoy the stories, not be horrified by them.’
While Elephant looked after scripts and voices, Honeycomb took overall responsibility for the show’s 2-D and 3-D animation. Most of the work is divided between its own HQ at Honiton in Devon and a sister company of Elephant’s called Lough House on the Isle of Man. However, an opening sequence involving a puppet storyteller is shooting in London. Elephant’s Planer provides the voices for the TV series.
Few creative disputes have arisen. Rix trusts Honeycomb’s experts, though he admits it is ‘hard for the writer to stay detached.’ He believes Honeycomb ‘has come up with some interesting, spiky-looking kids and an off-kilter world that works really well.’
Production begins after contracts are signed in April, though Bor has already commenced low-cost prepro work, anticipating the green light.
Forte acts as link man between ITV, TF1 and RTV. This has not proven to be difficult, he insists. ‘My primary role is to deliver an attractive and distinctive show to ITV-and normally everything else falls into place. I think the U.S. studios have proven that children generally have the same tastes around the world. If an individual idea is strong enough, then partners tend to fall in behind it.’
The partners, including distributor Carlton International, are kept informed of developments. RTV spokesperson Andrea Keidel says: ‘This is an important financial investment for us so we have to make sure we get something that works in Germany.’
RTV had previously worked with Honeycomb on WWG, and this was an important factor in the new co-pro. No German broadcaster has been signed up yet, but Keidel believes ‘this sort of horror comedy for children will have high commercial potential in Germany. There has been nothing like it here before.’
Forte says the content was always going to make the show ‘a hot potato’ editorially, and he has been very careful not to be too extreme with the TV series. ‘Children relate to books differently to TV, so we have had some disagreements over how far we can take it.’
Rix confirms this. ‘Michael’s job is to make the show broadcastable, while I am fighting for it to be as grizzly and as gruesome as I intended.’ He argues that there is nothing gratuitous in the show, but expects some people to ‘misinterpret its intention.’
That said, Bor believes the climate for such shows has changed in their favor. ‘We had a lot of discussions about how far we could go. But since we got involved, Goosebumps has been very successful, and I think that demonstrates an acceptance of kids horror.’
Grizzly Tales will be promoted at MIPCOM by Carlton International; Bor says a number of episodes will be available. It is too early to judge the appeal of the series to kids, but Carlton International director of sales Louise Sexton says: ‘We feel the mix of CGI and drawn animation techniques, combined with a modern slant on the classic appeal of morality fables, makes this project very appealing to children’s broadcasters throughout the world. Presales to 10 countries (including Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Norway and Ireland) appear to back up this proposition.’
Evaluating the partnership
From a business perspective, Forte stresses that Carlton aims to secure more episodes. ‘With every show, volume is vital,’ he says. ‘We’d like to have the sort of numbers (52 or more) that appeal to the U.S. market.’ A good omen is that Honeycomb’s WWG launched on the Disney Channel in the U.S. three years ago and is still under license.
After the smooth running of Grizzly Tales, both Bor and Rix believe there is scope for more series. Indeed, Rix has just finished writing a new book called More Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Children. His other books will be rereleased by Scholastic and Hodder (which publishes Fiercesome Tales only) to coincide with the launch of the TV series.
Rix and his partners at Elephant are gradually realigning their business towards kids. A number of projects are in development including Johnny Casanova, a proposed half-hour toon sitcom based on a Rix book about a teenage boy who thinks he is God’s gift to girls-but isn’t. To date, networks in Canada and the U.K. have shown interest.