British book bear grows TV arms

Adding TV dimensions to a property that is already a merch success is a tricky business. There's always the fear that you'll hit on the wrong age demo and your carefully woven brand fabric will begin to unravel.
March 1, 2003

Adding TV dimensions to a property that is already a merch success is a tricky business. There’s always the fear that you’ll hit on the wrong age demo and your carefully woven brand fabric will begin to unravel.

London-based Advocate, the main agent for art property Newton, certainly wrestled with that issue as it hammered out a recently announced TV deal with Manchester-based prodco Cosgrove Hall Films. The crux of the problem – which definitely isn’t one in terms of licensing – is that The Rory Tyger Group’s rumpled little bear has two main looks and cuts a wide demo swath.

As a book character for preschoolers, Newton is illustrated in a soft, watercolor, ‘lamp-lit’ style, and he has eyebrows and a mouth to aid expression. For older audiences, Newton imparts his wisdom through sayings known as Newton’s Law, and is illustrated in a scratchy art style with subtle expressions that are emoted without the aid of a mouth or eyebrows.

‘Since Newton is a cuddly little bear, our automatic assumption was that any TV treatment would be preschool animation,’ says Advocate managing director Ed Burns. Initial entertainment plans when Cosgrove first approached Advocate in 2001 included a 52 x 12-minute series (budgeted at roughly US$2.7 million) based around Newton and his toy friends that would see Newton slip into alter egos and play out elaborate fantasies in his imagination. In reality, the U.K. preschool market is a crowded one, and – without access to government tax breaks for series production – extremely difficult to finance.

Surprisingly, when Advocate held a development meeting with 12 key U.K. licensees and North American agent The Wildflower Group last November, the feeling was that TV should address the driving force of the merch program – females 18-plus. But while the flat Newton artwork and tactile product interests adults, ‘it’s hard to translate that into animation that would also interest them,’ says Burns.

The compromise? A 90-minute, stop-motion holiday special (to which tax breaks still apply in the U.K.) targeted at families. Production is slated to begin next year for a 2005 delivery. ‘With a special, we have the opportunity to make the backgrounds and scenes a bit more stylized and subtle in places – things that might be lost on a preschool audience,’ says Burns.

Of course, the market power of preschool can’t be ignored. To that end, Newton made his television debut in a book-reading segment on BBC preschool series Tweenies last April. And Advocate is currently exploring opportunities for a direct-to-video series, soft toys and other products to serve that demo, with a spin-off TV series as a possibility further down the track.

For a bear that began as a doodle, landing a development deal with Cosgrove Hall is no small feat. But then, Newton isn’t your average teddy – he has no less than three creators, after all.

In the mid-’90s, a group of three artists – known collectively as Rory Tyger – were working on a children’s book. Building upon one another’s sketches, the illustrators created a mood board with several bear characters, and Newton was a tiny scribble in a corner. His ‘discarded’ feel struck a chord, and he was developed as a character in a book entitled Sleep Tight. But the initial publishing deal fell through, so Rory Tyger submitted a revision to Magi Publications in 1998 with Newton as the central character. First published in 1999, Newton was distributed in 10 countries (in eight languages) and sold 52,500 copies in its initial run.

A mini-book packaged with a soft toy, wheeley board books and a follow-up to the original book are currently in development. On the representation front, new agents have been signed in New Zealand (TV New Zealand) and Belgium (The Communication Co.), and Advocate was in talks with several more at press time.

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