Transformers and Beast Machines, Pokémon and Digimon, Max Steel and Action Man. It’s no surprise that some of the biggest hits on U.S. television are based on properties owned by international toy companies.
What’s new in recent years is the role toycos play in producing these hit shows, their input in development and production, and their influence with programmers and broadcasters.
And more, like Rumpus Toys (see ‘Rumpus.com sticks with animated toon feature format,’ page 50) and Lego are jumping into the game. The venerable Danish toy giant has opened an office in L.A. and pegged ex-Nick TV and feature animation exec Katherine Seitz to develop animated and live-action properties based on Lego products and original concepts. The Lego Media International Hollywood venture also picked up former Nick staffers Lora Lee as director of development and Steve Petyerak as a creative exec.
The relationship between toy companies and kids programming goes back many decades. ‘Throughout the history of television, kids have always wanted product related to a show that’s part of their lives and fantasies,’ says Maureen Smith, GM and executive VP of Fox Family Channel. ‘It goes back to Buck Rogers ray guns and Howdy Doody dolls. The toys are an extension of the television experience.’ There was a brief golden age in the 1980s when He-Man, the Gobots and the Cabbage Patch Kids-not to mention a CBS series based on Rubik’s Cube (1983)-ruled the airwaves.
Today’s toy-based programming is less focused on the toy and based more on compelling story situations, character personalities and thrilling visuals, making the program itself more a gaming component and a vital part of the play experience.
‘With the kids having so many more choices in entertainment, they’ve become a much more savvy audience and demand more than just eye candy,’ says Smith. ‘They’re demanding well-developed characters and story lines.’
That’s where the expertise of the production staff comes into play (no pun intended). Dan DiDio, Mainframe Entertainment’s senior VP of creative affairs, explains the company’s methods. ‘When Mainframe looks to develop a series based upon a pre-existing toy or brand, what we do is identify what the strongest aspects are-the most recognizable aspects of it-and enhance those so we can bring a `play pattern’ experience to the show.’ But DiDio is also quick to point out: ‘The creative does matter the most. If it’s not a show, it’s not on the air.’
Some toycos employ production partners like Mainframe for creative development. Others, like Hasbro, use an in-house team to turn a toy concept from plaything to programming. Carol Monroe, VP of Hasbro’s Visual Entertainment Group, explains the process. ‘Hasbro has a unit in Rhode Island called The Fantasy Factory, and what they do is take the company’s intellectual properties and try to grow them organically-to see where each one wants to go-sometimes that is television, sometimes it’s film, sometimes it’s publishing. It’s not strictly a case of taking a toy and turning it into a television show.’
‘The Fantasy Factory usually has 30 or 40 different properties in various stages of growth,’ says Monroe. ‘I meet with them constantly about how they are developing things, and they have lots of questions about what’s going on in the market. Should they be going this way or that way, older or younger. I’m in an advisory capacity while they are doing their development.’
‘Once they are happy with the project, we present it to the rest of the company and get them on-board. Then we delineate a plan for the property. My group and I will take it to the people we think will be the best partner for it. Assuming it goes well and they like what we have, we select a production company and place the work there. We will then hire a producer, or sometimes there’s a producer within a company. And my job then is to supervise all the production, making sure it’s coming in on time and on budget.’
Mike Lazzo, senior VP of production and programming for Cartoon Network, was impressed enough with Hasbro’s development process to pick up a series, his first toyco co-production for the toon network. ‘We went to Hasbro and saw some sample animation based on a Tonka truck, but in the middle of the tape was a test clip of a bug with the word `Centipede’ over it. As soon as I saw that, I said `Stop the tape! What is that?’ They said it was a new project they were working on. I told them that we would be very interested in talking about that.’
The show is premised on a king centipede bent on destruction, and a young boy whose destiny compels him to do battle with the big leggy menace. Lazzo recalls, ‘They brought in the guy who was conceptualizing it, and he told us it was about a giant bug terrorizing a planet. We thought `This works well with CG, and we like giant bugs,’ and we were totally into it. Based on that, we began to develop it jointly.’
Lazzo sees no reason why toys can’t be successfully transformed into popular shows. ‘We talk to toy companies because they have properties that easily lend themselves to television… Every producer and animator I know in their twenties has a shelf full of action figures.’
Hasbro’s Monroe sheds some more light on the Centipede project. ‘Centipede stems from the classic Atari video game of the early 1980s, which was reintroduced through Hasbro Interactive in the `90s. We’ve taken the barest bones of the story-i.e. big bugs, little people-and turned it into this massively dense rich fantasy. The Fantasy Factory has given it a `monster movie’ feel with the giant monsters and shadows, and you’re constantly jumping and screaming and brought to the pinnacle of fear and excitement. And the release from that comes from the action on the show.’
Lazzo concurs. ‘The main reason we are doing this show is that it’s a fantastic property. We really like the creative team Hasbro has put on this; we relate to them, we speak the same language, we don’t feel like we’re dealing with a bunch of salespeople. We haven’t had any creepy conversations where they say, `We need a toy moment in every show!’ That just hasn’t occurred.’
Buying a series based on a toy or video game is not unlike doing a series based on a book or a movie. The pre-awareness of the property drives kids to the show. And remember, it was the popularity of video game and trading card phenomenon Pokémon that caused Japanese anime programming to storm the gates of U.S. broadcasting two years ago.
Ken Iyadomi, executive VP of Bandai Entertainment, the company behind Digimon, says he is very pleased with the newfound acceptance of anime in the U.S. ‘Pokémon and Digimon have made it much easier to place our shows on U.S. TV schedules.’ Bandai currently has a Digimon movie in release through 20th Century Fox, as well as the toyetic Dinozaurs on Fox Kids and the teen-skewing adventure Escaflowne on Fox Family Channel. Meanwhile, Bandai has placed its more sophisticated anime series Gundam Wing and Blue Submarine No. 6 on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block.
Relationships with Cartoon and Saban have certainly improved over the past two years, but Bandai still has to sell its shows to U.S. programmers. Iyadomi has a strong ally in his effort to place programs on U.S. airwaves-the huge anime fanbase. ‘Most of our programs, co-produced in Japan with Sunrise Animation studio, have proven popular with viewers in direct-to video release. This pre-broadcast release helps convince programmers of its potential success on-air.’
Beyond creative considerations, doesn’t partnering with a toyco have other advantages, like better timeslots for the show and guaranteed advertising on the network?
Not necessarily. Mainframe’s DiDio puts it in perspective: ‘Back in the old days, if a toy company had the ad dollars to spend, they could drive any show to air no matter what the content was. Pure and simple, in those days they made shows that sold toys by showcasing as much product as possible. With the collapse of the on-air syndication market in the U.S., the only outlets where you can place a series now are cable or the networks. The networks and cable have new priorities-putting on quality programming. If the new agenda fits the toy companies’ criteria, fine, everybody wins.’
DiDio believes there are some undeniable advantages in toyco partners. ‘In this world of vertical integration, it helps you get your show on the air and helps separate it from the pack. A toy company partner gives you a leg up. If they are supporting the toys, they’re also supporting the series.’
For Fox’s Smith, the bottom line is quality programming. ‘What it boils down to is we are going to put the strongest shows in the best time periods. And if a show is toy-based, it has to be a lot cleverer, because the kids today are smarter about these things.’