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Disney’s UK production hub on a roll and looking for new content

The sun certainly hasn't been shining on the UK production community of late, with talk of shrinking commissioning budgets clouding the minds of most indies. However, there might be a bit of bright light on the horizon. Just as the fearsome Ofcom regs banning junk food ads from kids TV are kicking in, Disney Channel's London-based Global Original Programming Hub has arrived on the scene.
February 1, 2008

The sun certainly hasn’t been shining on the UK production community of late, with talk of shrinking commissioning budgets clouding the minds of most indies. However, there might be a bit of bright light on the horizon. Just as the fearsome Ofcom regs banning junk food ads from kids TV are kicking in, Disney Channel’s London-based Global Original Programming Hub has arrived on the scene.

The unit was set up last April to drive investment in original live-action and animated production in local European markets, but it announced its first development slate only late last year. It has a couple of new series headed to the commission stage, and certainly has its feelers out for more European-made content. ‘Instead of just exporting the American versions of stories, we’re trying to make product that tells kids’ stories in a local voice,’ says VP Steve Aranguren, who’s heading up the hub.

Aranguren has his sights on putting two original series into production next year and up to two every following year. As for what he’s looking for, comedy is high on his priority list, and he says more than 90% of the projects are going to be long-form animation.

That said, the hub is very open to unique pitches, regardless of style. The first project coming down the pike is a good example. Aranguren wasn’t particularly looking at live action when London-based Coolabi approached him with the The Shaila Show (working title). Coolabi’s head of children’s programming Julian Scott explains, Disney recognized his original pitch as a good fit, but wanted to tweak it by adding an animation element. ‘Within 10 minutes of receiving Steve’s suggestion we had a plan,’ he says.

Now a live-action comedy/drama mixed with 2-D animation, the series is about a 12-year-old girl who no one takes seriously and ends up spending a lot of her time hosting an imaginary chat show, where things go her way and her musings are met with adulation. Shaila then often ends up working out how she should deal with various obstacles and issues in her real life through her imaginary animated world.

The possibilities for infusing comedy also get turned up a notch with the animated chat show. A stray dog in toon form is able to speak and question Shaila’s dad on why he isn’t allowed to stay with her family. Shaila’s brother, virtually mute in the real world, comes alive in animation using different voices to articulate his thoughts. The series also fit nicely with Disney’s tendency to explore themes through strong characters.

This month, Disney will be going over the development materials and Scott has his fingers crossed that come April, Shaila will be ready to go straight to series for a late 2009 or early 2010 delivery.

Though neither Scott nor Aranguren would get into the financial details at this point, Scott says Disney is taking the majority of the risk on the development phase, and has given Coolabi parameters to work within. He adds Coolabi pre-negotiated the production deal when Shaila went into development. And though Scott wouldn’t reveal specifics, he says that Disney really listened to the indie producer’s concerns over protecting show ownership.

As for what’s next, Aranguren has another UK-hatched series in development that he is keeping under wraps. In the meantime, he’s working with London-based Chorion and France’s Marathon to bring an updated toon version of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five to Disney Channel worldwide by the end of 2008.

A global pickup from Disney, however, is not the end goal for the London-based hub as much as it would be the icing on the cake, explains Aranguren. ‘Gary Marsh [president of entertainment at ABC Cable Networks Group] made it very clear that I wasn’t sent here to do US shows,’ he says. ‘They’re making those in the States and they are doing it very well. We’re looking for new ways to tell these stories.’

If you’re wanting to lob a pitch or two his way, Aranguren says the process should start by querying interest with newly appointed senior development manager David Freedman via phone or email. Besides fresh ideas and styles, the team wants to see projects in the early stages of development with the potential and flexibility to be shaped into a Disney product. ‘We can steer producers away from things that have less of a chance and work together to hit the mark,’ he says.

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