At first glance, the Dragon Tales team seems an odd marriage. On the one side is Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), the 30-year-old, not-for-profit icon that has made its mark with several generations of kids to whom it taught the ABCs. On the other side is the children’s division of monster studio Columbia TriStar Television Group (newly renamed Sony Pictures Family Entertainment Group), which has a varied collection of projects with a strong action-adventure component such as the Men in Black TV series and feature film Godzilla.
Scratch a little deeper though, and the relationship isn’t all that unusual. Perhaps a few years ago it may have been considered odd, but with producer and broadcaster alliances firmed up, increased competition in the kids market, and the expensive prospect of exploiting all the accompanying mediums beyond TV, few bedfellows seem odd these days.
Co-production partnerships are becoming more creative in nature, as well as more common. The rules of the co-pro game, regardless of who the players are, are two-fold: hook up with a company that complements yours, and find a player that can inject needed cash; both of these goals minimize risk. Although a co-pro relationship is not something larger studios need to pursue, Bob Higgins, senior VP of creative affairs for Sony Pictures Family Entertainment Group, says ‘for a lot more of the original programming, it makes sense to at least explore it.’
And for Dragon Tales, the original-programming risk is indeed there. This is an unfranchised concept; no book, movie nor CD-ROM of any kind exists-just some paintings discovered at an arts festival. So, for the time being, this is no Arthur or Paddington Bear with well-established tailcoats to ride on.
For Columbia TriStar Television Group (CTTG), which conceived the show through producer Jim Coane, the partnering with CTW allows the studio to advance into the arena of educational preschool programming while holding hands with this realm’s uncontested pro. It also brings a US$6.2-million grant obtained from the U.S. Department of Education, administered through the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (a grant that Sony alone could never have secured), as well as a much-coveted relationship with pubcaster PBS.
Enticing for CTW were CTTG’s access to solid in-house animation facilities and the much-needed cash acquired by the studio’s rights purchase.
And neither was soured by the experience. The compromises seemed to work for both CTW and CTTG, but lining up shared objectives was key. ‘It’s not only a financial question,’ says CTW’s Steve Miller, group VP of international television and product, ‘it’s also a question of finding partners who share a vision, especially when you are talking about children’s TV.’
Few players, regardless of size or stature, are willing or able to take the same chances, and this particular alliance just serves to illustrate that the playing field is becoming a little more even. While the landscape may be a little more complicated, the rules of the game are being applied with more uniformity.
Dragon Tales is a 40 x half-hour preschool animated series created by Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) and Columbia TriStar Television Group. The series, which has a budget that falls in at just under US$20 million, follows the adventures of six-year-old Emmy and her little brother Max as the pair is transported into Dragon Land. The show, which received a grant from the Department of Education, administered through the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB), has an educational bent. Its three primary goals are: to encourage young children to investigate new challenges; to help kids identify the different ways to deal with the challenges they may encounter in their lives; and to help them understand that trying, and perhaps not completely succeeding, is a valuable exercise.
Each of the 40 episodes is divided into two 12-minute shows, separated by a two-minute music video. There are 80 separate episodes, an opening song and 12 musical interstitials in all.
How the partnership began
Jim Coane, a producer who made his mark with reality-based shows such as America’s Most Wanted and Totally Hidden Videos, joins Columbia TriStar in July 1995 from 20th Century Fox, where he served as an overall deal producer. That summer, while visiting the Sawdust Art Festival in California, Coane stumbles across the paintings of Rod Rodecker, a former elementary school teacher, principal and counselor for children with emotional, academic and learning problems. His art depicts dragons in mythical backgrounds. ‘Ron’s artwork and the worlds he created were whimsical and beautiful,’ says Coane. Inspired by these paintings, Coane comes up with a show concept about strategies for overcoming the challenges-physical, emotional and social-that all children eventually face.
With the go-ahead from CTTG, Coane shops the idea around. PBS likes it and suggests showing it to the member stations, but all pass on the concept.
While at MIPCOM, Coane meets with friend and former senior VP of programming and production at CTW, Marjorie Kalins. He shows her the property, simply looking for feedback. When she returns to New York three days later, Kalins calls Coane to tell him that she and CTW love the idea and want to partner with CTTG on it. To top if off, CTW wants to tap into grant money in the amount of US$6.2 million on offer by the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB), as part of the Ready to Learn program. The hitch is that the deadline is in three weeks. ‘Fortunately, at CTW they press F7 and out comes a grant proposal,’ quips Coane. But it wasn’t as simple as that. A thumbs-up was given at the highest levels and, according to CTW’s VP and project director on Dragon Tales Karen Gruenberg, the company marshaled all its forces to meet the application deadline.
November 13, 1995
The proposal is finished. ‘It’s as thick as your fist,’ says Coane. ‘It was literally done the day of delivery, and it was snowing in New York. They were concerned about flying it down, so they put it on a train and someone took it [to Washington] to get it there on time.’
CTW and CTTG are notified that they have won the grant. Now the real work begins. While the US$6.2 million is a good start, it is just that-a start. With this money, the partners can begin preproduction. They are able to design the look of the dragons based on Rodecker’s sketches, draw up the curriculum document, develop the format of the show, do the formative testing, and assemble the board of advisors. Money must now be raised to cover the rest of the production, as well as the required outreach programs. These CTW-governed initiatives include a poster campaign, three one-hour parenting specials, thirty 30-second spots designed to give caregivers insight into their child’s development (to air on PBS), 65 radio spots dealing with parenting, as well as on-line initiatives.
Next, the various rights are split up between the two partners. CTW gets international distribution and international licensing and merchandising. Hasbro has already come on-board for a limited U.S. line of plush, puzzles and board games that will hit retail in spring 2000, along with three Random House books and possibly a video from Columbia TriStar Home Video. A more elaborate licensing slate, including expanded toy, book and video components, as well as apparel and a CD-ROM, will launch in fall 2000. CTTG walked away with domestic distribution (the ball was already rolling on that front with PBS), as well as worldwide home video rights.
While the division of rights and the required collateral certainly helps matters, it still isn’t enough to cover the budget. It’s decided that a corporate underwriter is needed, and the search begins. ‘The underwriting was a big part of it. We needed a big chunk of money to make up the ultimate deficit,’ says Coane. ‘Neither company really, as anyone would understand, wanted to take a big deficit on the series…but ultimately, the partners agreed that no one turns down a grant of that size. It would have been unheard of.’
January 1996 to December 1997
While the search for an underwriter gets underway, the creative process begins. Co-executive producers Peter Moss for CTW and Jim Coane for CTTG oversee implementing the research, writing the bible, creating characters and story lines, and initiating the design work. Various schemes to bring money in to the project-including considering a Canadian co-production partner, as well as discussions with a number of British, French and Spanish animation producers-are investigated, but in the end, these options are canned.
Throughout the financial hunt and development work, in a unique move, Rodecker is kept on the project even though his dragons have been transformed into creatures much different from his original paintings. Both partners agree that Rodecker’s style helps to inspire the ensuing work. ‘There was a kind of freshness and innocence to his line that you just don’t get from a seasoned animation artist,’ explains Coane.
An underwriter is signed. Kellogg’s Rice Krispies and Frosted Flakes come on-board for an undisclosed amount. They will receive a 15-second credit at the top and bottom of the show domestically in a customized underwriting spot, but one that is similar to other PBS underwriters. Kellogg’s will produce the spot, but it must be approved by CTW, CTTG and PBS. They are not allowed to endorse or show product. While the deal is only for the U.S., the producers will try to work with Kellogg’s internationally, says Gruenberg.
This was something a bit out of the ordinary for CTTG. While parent company Sony has relationships with a number of corporations, it has never done anything like this for one particular show, says Sony’s Higgins. ‘Sony has much deeper pockets and is used to deficit financing for whatever the networks don’t cover. It was two and a half years before a sponsor was found,’ says Higgins. ‘Kellogg’s certainly brought a tremendous amount to the table. We were able to get some much-needed cash for the show, and we’re going to be getting a lot of presence in the cereal aisles.’
There are changes to the creative team. CTW’s Peter Moss left the project in December 1997 to join Canada’s YTV as VP of programming and production. There is a six-week period in which CTW doesn’t have a representative on the project before Nina Elias Bamberger (creator and exec producer of two seasons of Big Bag, a co-pro between CTW and The Cartoon Network) replaces Moss as co-executive producer.
The two camps revisit the character designs and bible. Both are reworked and the characters and location styles are tested.
June 1998 to June 1999
Completed scripts begin to wend their way to PBS and the CPB for their approval. Sixteen writers in total work on the 80 episodes, which are directed by Tim Eldred. Field testing with kids begins, and character drawings are presented to PBS and CPB for their feedback. In August 1998, the style of the dragons is finalized. A search for the composers to write the opening songs and 12 interstitial songs begins. This is finalized in the fall of 1998 with the hiring of Crushing Music and Joey Levine & Co. The entire 80 storyboards are finally completed in June 1999.
July to September 1999
The first completed, fully-scored show is ready in July. The rest of the summer is spent getting eps ready for the September air date on PBS.
A multimillion-dollar promotion campaign, shared by both partners with some input from PBS, gets underway with a full-scale consumer and trade effort that includes ads in parenting magazines and entertainment publications. Buses in the main markets of New York, Chicago and L.A. are wrapped in Dragon Tales ads. An on-line campaign is launched, as well as a series of on-air spots and trailers on Columbia TriStar Home Video releases. Kellogg’s is also in the mix with promotional efforts on Rice Krispies and Frosted Flakes cereal boxes. ‘It’s really a unique mix of traditional media and nontraditional,’ says Gruenberg.
September 6, 1999
The show premieres on PBS with a Dragon Tales marathon. After that, PBS will be receiving it four times a day, and it will be up to the individual affiliate stations as to when they air it. ‘Mostly, the feeling is that it will be sandwiched between Arthur and Barney,’ says Gruenberg.
At this year’s market, CTW considers Dragon Tales its premiere property, and will be finalizing sales internationally.