Television production has always been Cosgrove Hall’s raison d’tre- but the huge changes facing the industry have forced the studio to reappraise its priorities in this key arena of business. For starters, there is the crucial question of funding. Deficit financing has become the norm and placed co-productions and presales near the top of the agenda-plus British animators, unlike their counterparts in Canada and France, do not benefit from tax breaks.
As well, the company can no longer afford to put most of its energy solely into preschool programming and so miss out on potentially lucrative opportunities in different parts of the youth market. Managing director Iain Pelling explains: ‘We’re looking to make shows for all ages at the moment. Our work for younger audiences tends to be best known, but we want to make sure we have a presence in action-adventure, which we haven’t done for a long time. We also need to start producing very edgy, risky material that would play effectively to a young adult audience.’
With this in mind, Fox’s achievements with The Simpsons and Comedy Central’s success with South Park have inspired Cosgrove Hall to develop one of its most ambitious ideas to date-The Inbreds.
The concept is masterminded by producer Jon Doyle, who recently added to the outfit’s tally of awards when Foxbusters won a BAFTA for best children’s animated series. Incidentally, the toon beat two other shows that Cosgrove Hall worked on-Rotten Ralph (made for Italtoons) and Little Grey Rabbit (made for United).
Set in the southern U.S. and featuring a group of unreconstructed hillbillies, The Imbreds marks a radical departure. ‘If the series ever gets commissioned, I’m looking forward to seeing the look of shock on people’s faces,’ says Doyle, who has assembled a short pilot that just launched on the web at www.inbreds.com.
Story lines involving themes like gun control, the death penalty and homophobia are not the first things that come to mind when Cosgrove Hall’s name is mentioned, although the company has already adapted two stories from Terry Pratchett’s far-from-cuddly Discworld books (Soul Music and Wyrd Sisters) for the U.K.’s left-field caster Channel 4. Clearly the young adult market (much sought after by advertisers) is ripe for exploitation, not least in the U.K. where stations like C4, Sky One and the embryonic BBC 3 (awaiting a government green light) offer opportunities for edgy animation.
Other new projects taking shape are more in the traditional Cosgrove Hall vein. Following in the footsteps of Bill & Ben, work is advancing on a new BBC version of 1950s preschool classic Andy Pandy, which features a cherub-faced toddler who lives in a picnic basket. Albie, premiering on the U.K.’s ITV network this fall and presold to France’s TF1, looks at the world through the six-year-old eyes of its eponymous protagonist. Meanwhile Vampires, Pirates and Aliens, a 26 x 22.5-minute series co-produced with France’s Millimages, features the kind of larger-than-life humor the studio has always excelled at.
‘For the preschool audience, you have to go with the judgment of your creative team,’ says Pelling, who will soon start looking for a successor to Mark Hall, due to relinquish his post as creative director (and his role as executive producer on all the studio’s output) when he retires next May. ‘For the older audience, we tend to listen to other parties, other creatives, although it’s not just to make sure a property sells. Toy companies, for example, have huge experience in finding out what kids really want.’
In today’s world, Cosgrove Hall knows that ideas must be thought through from every angle and permutation. Says Pelling: ‘The producers are now very much more conscious of all the elements in the market. It’s no longer, `Is it an idea that makes me laugh?’ You try and build in an awareness of how it will work on a website, how it will work in merchandising and licensing, and how it will work internationally.’
He adds: ‘We need to develop the co-production route, although in recent years we’ve relied less on the U.K. as a source of funding and worked more with overseas broadcasters. The worrying thing is that because animation is expensive, there’s a temptation for broadcasters to buy it off the shelf rather than finance it themselves.’
Mindful of these pressures, the studio recently took a close look at its development slate to find out if there were any gaps that needed filling, an accounting that triggered the new focus on older-skewing toons. ‘You’ve got be a lot more focused these days,’ says producer Chris Bowden. ‘And being part of Granada has intensified that process. The scattergun approach just won’t work anymore.’
Moreover, it is vitally important to be able to produce quality animation while keeping down costs, particularly for a broadcaster like the U.K.’s Channel 5, whose budget is a fraction of ITV’s or the BBC’s. ‘So long as you’ve got the know-how-and I’m confident that we have-it’s possible to make relatively inexpensive programming,’ Bowden insists.
One area in which Cosgrove Hall needs to make up ground is the U.S., where HIT and the BBC have recently performed well, especially with preschool shows like Bob the Builder and Teletubbies.
This point is not lost on Pelling: ‘We already have a business that sells our productions globally (Granada International), but we’ve got to exploit that more in the future. Since Danger Mouse (nine runs were produced from 1981 to 1992, giving enough volume to be repackaged for the U.S. market), we haven’t done much in the U.S. It’s a large, untapped market for us, but there are other markets where being European might be an advantage. China and India have got a long way to go, but in 10 years’ time, they may be thriving markets.’