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Live-action kids comedy is hot, but gaining real traction is a long shot

There's little doubt that Disney Channel's live-action musical/comedy High School Musical has struck a serious chord with tweens the world over since its U.S. debut a year ago. The made-for-TV movie that mashes Grease and West Side Story with Saved by the Bell has since sold into more than 20 territories and spawned a broad-based consumer products program in its home country. And the House of Mouse continues to mine the live-action comedy/musical vein, following up HSM with Hannah Montana. The half-hour show starring Miley Cyrus and achy-breaky dad Billy Ray debuted last spring and now garners consistently strong ratings in the U.S., at times ranking second only to SpongeBob SquarePants with kids nine to 14. Not surprisingly, one of the refrains overheard repeatedly from broadcasters at MIPCOM this past October was, 'We're looking for the next HSM.'
January 1, 2007

There’s little doubt that Disney Channel’s live-action musical/comedy High School Musical has struck a serious chord with tweens the world over since its U.S. debut a year ago. The made-for-TV movie that mashes Grease and West Side Story with Saved by the Bell has since sold into more than 20 territories and spawned a broad-based consumer products program in its home country. And the House of Mouse continues to mine the live-action comedy/musical vein, following up HSM with Hannah Montana. The half-hour show starring Miley Cyrus and achy-breaky dad Billy Ray debuted last spring and now garners consistently strong ratings in the U.S., at times ranking second only to SpongeBob SquarePants with kids nine to 14. Not surprisingly, one of the refrains overheard repeatedly from broadcasters at MIPCOM this past October was, ‘We’re looking for the next HSM.’

Despite the apparent uptick in market demand, it’s not likely that many producers will hit the mother lode with this genre. Like its dramatic sibling, live-action comedy is tough going. But it’s not impossible for international indies to make it work. What follows is guide to riding the somewhat bumpy laugh track.

Production and budget hurdles

One of the major limitations that producers and broadcasters face when they decide to invest in live-action comedy aimed at the tween demo is the North American double standard. While audiences across Europe and Asia have no problem watching American teen and tween shows dubbed into their own language, the same does not hold true for shows originating outside of the U.S.

‘The American audience is not used to hearing a British accent; it is an issue,’ says Annie Miles, director of London, England’s Talent TV and executive producer of live-action reality show Best of Friends, which airs on CBBC. ‘When we put deals together, we tend to leave North America out of our economic model because it really is a long shot for us.’ From a content point of view, Miles says there’s another barrier. The ‘you can do anything/pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ scrappiness that drives character/plot development and international sales is uniquely American and very difficult for outsiders to duplicate.

Nina Hahn, VP of international development for Nickelodeon International, sees it differently. She believes there is hope for non-North American productions looking to crack the U.S. market. ‘Audiences that have been exposed to European products in preschool might be more open to other accents as they grow older, so we might see that attitude change in the near future.’ As an example, Hahn points to collaborations with European creators that have traveled successfully to the North American market. Aardman Animation’s Purple and Brown short series, for one, was produced in the U.K. and aired in the Netherlands, the U.K. and the U.S. Moreover, LazyTown, created by Iceland’s Magnus Scheving, is in its third season on Nick in the U.S., not to mention airing in more than 100 other territories.

But the geographical limitation of live action is really just a chainlink in the financial fence that often pens this genre in. While producers from Paris to Melbourne are eager to duplicate the successes of Disney, they soon discover that live-action comedy is not as financially advantageous as animation for a number of other reasons.

‘In general, animation is still probably more expensive to produce than live action,’ says Miles. She puts the half-hour rate at between US$200,000 and US$250,000, whereas animation usually starts at US$350,000 per half hour.

That said, Miles may be underestimating costs. Beth Stevenson, a partner at Toronto, Canada’s Decode Entertainment, says her company can produce world-class animation for around US$300,000 per half hour, ‘but it’s very difficult to do live action for that.’ When you’re looking at competing with in-house series from the likes of Disney and Nick that sport high production values and budgets in the US$400,000 to US$500,000 range, she says indie production budgets have to increase accordingly.

Additionally, Stevenson points to the Mouse’s casting genius (see ‘Star search: Tips from Disney’s top talent hunter’ on page 41) as the real reason for its standout success. ‘Nobody touches Disney in this area,’ she says. ‘It’s not even a formula that it uses; it’s an instinct that it has.’ The company, she explains, has an uncanny ability to bring kids to the screen that ‘other kids want to be and want to hang out with.’

Another major financial drawback of live-action comedy, when compared to animation, is that it typically has a much shorter shelf life that restricts back-catalogue distribution sales to a limited four- or five-year window. With fashion and style moving at lightning speed, shows featuring kids sporting modern-day duds are far more susceptible to becoming outdated. Lame clothes simply won’t do for the fashion-conscious tween target.

This also makes it tougher to compete with animation. ‘It’s not that the overall budgets are that far off, but when you factor in the playability and functionality [of live action], it becomes more expensive than animation,’ says Phil Piazza, VP of programming and business development for Corus Children’s Television. Right now, he’s scouting for family-driven gender-neutral comedies with limited success. ‘Really, the next Malcolm in the Middle is what we are looking for.’ He has yet to find it.

The other kink that might give producers pause before they consider sinking capital into live-action series is that even the hot stuff has very limited merchandising potential, narrowing one’s financing options significantly.

The rules of tween engagement

If the economics aren’t great, the product doesn’t travel well from international territories to North America, and there’s no real back-end merch pay-off, then why bother?

The answer comes down to audience. Tweens, especially girls, are eager to see themselves on the same screen they have been watching since they were in diapers.

Hahn confirms that Nick’s tween viewer appetite for light-hearted live-action fare continues to grow. ‘It’s extremely hot right now,’ she says, adding that shows such as Zoey 101, starring Britney Spears’ sister Jamie Lynn as the only girl in an all-boys boarding school, consistently ranks high in both ratings and viewer feedback. The series airs in more than 100 territories and is one of the top-rated shows for the demo in every one of them; it’s garnered top-10 rankings in the U.K., Australia, Colombia and Brazil. Hahn credits the program’s ability to speak to tweens in a language they can understand for its success.

‘[Zoey] deals with topics and issues common to tweens around the world like school, dating, friends and social activities,’ says Hahn. Also, its producers pay particular attention to fashion and music, two international pillars of the tween girl lifestyle.

But perhaps the most universal themes running through the top-tier tween comedies are wish fulfilment and aspiration. If a show hopes to achieve even a little market buoyancy, it has to offer viewers characters and situations they can aspire to.

For example, in Decode’s upcoming half-hour series Glimmer (starting production this year), five students are asked to write for a struggling youth-oriented magazine. The opportunity to join the masthead and report on youth issues gives the characters a chance to hobnob with celebrities, get VIP treatment and express themselves in a way that most of the audience only dreams about.

The same could be said for Granada International’s Bel’s Boys, a series currently airing on CiTV in which nine-year-old Bel takes on the management of a boy band. Certainly, Miley Cyrus’ double identity in Hannah Montana is the stuff of girls’ fantasies, so there’s a chance that it will work for Bel, too.

Following the U.S. blueprint

So how do you make it work? The dollars are tight, so creativity and ingenuity are often a producer’s greatest allies. While dealing with obstacles not faced by animated productions, including child-actor regulations, fickle adolescent stars, and large casts and sets, Decode has found success utilizing a few simple techniques to try and level the economic playing field. ‘We shoot less, block shoot, and hire multiple directors who can prep two episodes at the same time,’ Stevenson says.

From the outset of production on Glimmer, the company will employ a block shooting schedule across multiple episodes as a key way to save time and money. Meanwhile, Donna Friedman Meir, National Geographic’s president of kids programming and production, says something as simple as avoiding close-up mouth shots can increase a project’s saleability because it makes dubbing into other languages much easier.

However, the most likely way to make ends meet is to follow the blueprint laid down by North American-produced live-action comedies. Thanks to the globalization of U.S. culture, in particular, kids are finding they have more similarities than differences. Stevenson couldn’t agree more with this assertion, and points to the sale of Decode’s own live-action comedy Naturally Sadie into countries as disparate as Ireland, Hong Kong, India, the Netherlands and Disney Channel US as proof positive. The show hits upon the aspirational aspect that is a staple ingredient of the genre.

Sadie Hawthorne is a smart and appealing tween with a keen interest in nature. She has two best friends who are always in her corner. In this particular instance, the audience wishes for the kind of endearing and unconditional friendships the protagonist enjoys, rather than aspiring to something as high-gloss as being a rock star or (gulp) a magazine writer.

‘It has sold exceedingly well to the international market,’ says Stevenson. ‘If you are a 12-year-old girl in Germany, by now you are used to watching Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Lizzie Maguire – you just grow up with that stuff.’

Emmanuelle Namiech, head of children’s acquisitions for Granada International, says that comedy is the most fruitful path to take for those interested in making international live-action sales. ‘A lot of the issues dealt with are universal, and the themes can be picked up around the world,’ she says. To wit, Bel’s Boys follows the formula by using a light touch to appeal to a broader market.

Dramas or more serious programs only tend to work if they’re infused with a very local sensibility, Namiech explains. But comedy, by nature, has a much wider appeal. ‘It just works better,’ she says.

And Euro nets have also entered into co-productions in the genre. Genie in the House, a joint Nickelodeon UK, Tiji and MJTV series, seems to have gotten the formula right, overcoming the perceived divide between English and French humor.

The show represents a conscious effort to capture the black magic of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and centers around a fourth-century genie named Adil, who is discovered by two tween sisters. So far, 26 half hours have been shot in London in English to best facilitate international sales. It’s then dubbed into French for the Canal J audience.

‘It’s always a simple story,’ says Pierre Belaisch, deputy managing director of programming for Canal J, Tiji and Filles TV, describing the key to the series. ‘The Genie is sort of a clown, and they are always trying to hide the magic from their father.’

Shot on a London soundstage, but written by a France-based team, the show bowed on Nickelodeon UK in May and Canal J in September. It has been performing impressively ever since, ranking as the number-one show on Nick UK shortly after its debut. Belaisch expects to summon up another 26 half hours in the near future, with an eye to bringing that number up to 78 and roll them out internationally in the next year or two.

‘I believe the demand for live-action comedy has always been high,’ adds Cathy Payne, international chief executive of Australian producer/distributor Southern Star. In short, the experiences depicted in these shows cut across cultural borders. ‘Everyone can relate to that stage of life when all of a sudden your parents embarrass you, your body is changing, you kind of don’t hate the opposite sex anymore, and your life is getting more complicated,’ she says.

Wearing her international distributor’s hat, Payne says there is a need in the marketplace for more of this type of programming, even if it can’t break into the North American market.

One show that Payne fingers as performing particularly well across cultural lines is Wark Clements/Burberry Productions/Rialto Films’ The Sleepover Club. Set in the fictional Australian suburb of Crescent Bay, the series stars a group of tween girls who form a club to share secrets and growing pains centered around the themes of friendship and belonging. Southern Star has so far managed to sell the show into Australia, the U.K., Ireland, New Zealand, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Canada and throughout Asia and South America.

About The Author
Gary Rusak is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He has covered the kids entertainment industry for the last decade with a special interest in licensing, retail and consumer products. You can reach him at garyrusak@gmail.com

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