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Zenith tries toons for 2003

British prodco Zenith has excelled at developing successful book-based TV shows and films over the course of its 15-year history, with series like 1999 BAFTA-winner Junk (based on a Melvin Burgess novel about teenage drug addiction) topping the list. But following the literary path hasn't paid off for the company of late. Over the last two years, Zenith has been unable to secure any new commissions for its projects, the majority of which have been book-based.
January 8, 2003

British prodco Zenith has excelled at developing successful book-based TV shows and films over the course of its 15-year history, with series like 1999 BAFTA-winner Junk (based on a Melvin Burgess novel about teenage drug addiction) topping the list. But following the literary path hasn’t paid off for the company of late. Over the last two years, Zenith has been unable to secure any new commissions for its projects, the majority of which have been book-based.

It’s a trend that head of children’s drama and animation Julian Scott is aiming to change by assembling a production schedule that is heavier on original concepts and animation – the latter representing a first for Zenith.

Leading the new toon lineup is Crab Street Crew (26 x 12 minutes), an in-house original for six- to eight-year-olds that centers around an evil capitalist who wants to build a superhighway where a quaint main street stands, in order to connect more people to his shopping malls and entertainment multiplexes. But standing in Herman Henderson’s way is a group of local kids living on Crab Street who set out to thwart his many attempts to annex the land. Scott says the show recalls the look and sensibility of Hanna-Barbera’s Dastardly and Muttley toons, and he’s looking for international co-production partners. Crab Street Crew will be rendered in 2-D animation (possibly Flash) for a budget between US$318,000 and US$350,000 per half hour.

Also destined for a 2-D toon treatment is preschool series Frog (26 x 10 minutes). Based on author Max Velthuijs’s best-selling book series of the same name, Frog features the adventures of the titular amphibian and his animal mates, as they learn gentle life lessons – like the importance of friendship – in the pond. Scott is hoping to snare a U.K.-based animation partner before scouting for international financing for the series, which he estimates will have a total production price tag of US$3.7 million.

Scott was hired on specifically to build Zenith’s animation portfolio, but with neither a history in the genre nor its own in-house toon facilities, the company is facing some challenges on this front. ‘Right now, we’re up against the classic conundrum of not really having a track record in animation,’ says Scott. ‘So I’m being very careful that we partner with really strong animation houses to make these projects work.’

That’s not to say Zenith is abandoning its bread-and-butter live-action fare for tweens and teens. Far from it, in fact. One new project in this genre is Defenders of Mars (13 x 60 minutes), a sort of Space 1999 for tweens. The show’s premise revolves around a group of children who have been genetically modified to survive on the red planet. They find themselves marooned there after Earth decides to halt colonization, but rather than heading back home, the kids decide to stay and defend Mars against the many criminals and greedy corporations eager to exploit its rich mineral resources.

Defenders of Mars will feature some CG elements, and achieving the high-quality sci-fi look Scott is after will necessitate a slightly bigger budget of roughly US$560,000 per episode. Scott will be shopping for three or four international co-pro partners to help cover the production costs, and to attract these global partners, the show will feature an international cast similar to Captain Kirk’s crew on Star Trek. Aimed at kids 10 and up, Defenders will be penned by Stephen Gallagher (Dr. Who), and production on the show is set to begin in early 2004. Non-terrestrial broadcast outlets such as the Sci-Fi Channel and Discovery are at the top of Scott’s pitch list.

Though Spanners (six x 30 minutes) targets the same tween demo as Defenders, its subject matter is decidedly more earthbound. Loosely based on a real-life touring company, this live-action show tracks the day-to-day traumas of a travelling theatrical troupe of both able-bodied and physically-challenged young thespians. While the show features child actors with cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome, it does not in any way ennoble them because of their condition, says Scott. He’s hoping to land a commission from a U.K. terrestrial to cover the cost of the six half-hour episodes, budgeted at roughly US$320,000 each, but Scott could see that ep count climbing to 13 if the show gets picked up by digital service CBBC. Though he thinks Spanners’ appeal is limited beyond the U.K., Scott has not ruled out raising additional funding from an Australian or Canadian partner.

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