Having just celebrated its first anniversary, Abu Dhabi-based media company twofour54 is aiming to establish a local animation industry from the ground up, complete with homegrown talent, formidable production studios and Arabic content with international sales and distribution legs. The initiative spurred by the government of Abu Dhabi, and named after the geographical coordinates of the city, is part of a long-term plan to diversify the economy of the United Arab Emirates. The goal is to establish the territory as a self-sustaining Arabic production center for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
‘The essence of everything we’re doing here is about sustainability,’ says Wayne Borg, twofour54′s CEO. He explains that rather than working with organizations on a project-by-project basis, the bigger goal is to develop content businesses with steady output over time, rather than one-off properties. And although the organization is getting government funding and support, he says it’s very cognizant of not becoming too dependent on subsidies. ‘We’re focused on facilitating businesses to establish themselves in Abu Dhabi.’
Since its inception, twofour54 has had a presence at international sales markets to spread awareness of production opportunities in MENA, especially for kids content. Borg says the region has roughly 100 million children between the ages of six and 10. ‘Given the size of the population, there should be hundreds of kids IPs,’ says Borg, explaining that to date there hasn’t been the platform or the framework to allow young and aspiring creators to develop that content. (At press time, the company was in the process of hiring an executive to head up its kids content development, and Borg was keeping tight-lipped on three animated projects currently in the hopper.)
Twofour54, however, does have one series up and away – 52 x 11-minute mixed-media preschool series Driver Dan’s Story Train, co-produced with UK-based 3Line Media. Created by British author and illustrator Rebecca Elgar, the educational series stars animated characters who introduce young viewers to reading by exploring a storybook in each ep. Borg says the series – which launched on CBeebies earlier this year and has since moved from its original weekend slot to prime story time on weekdays at 6 p.m. – made ground at MIPTV this past April with a sale to ABC Australia.
Now the series is in the process of being re-imagined and re-voiced in Arabic, including sourcing and producing original stories written by Arabian authors. Driver Dan was constructed from the outset to permit formatting, making localization easy. And instead of re-formatting or dubbing into Arabic, twofour54 is producing live-action footage of real kids responding to and acting out the stories. Borg says the goal down the road is to reverse the process and produce Arabic content that originates in the region and is then re-versioned or formatted for export to other territories worldwide.
Cartoon Network on-board
The company also used the spring market to announce a partnership with Turner Broadcasting System International/Cartoon Network that will see the channel open an animation academy with twofour54 in Abu Dhabi. The academy launches this September and will work closely with twofour54′s own media and entertainment training center that’s already been established. Cartoon Network’s master classes are set to complement twofour54′s curriculum, and CN will offer internships at its international studios.
As well, CN is cutting the ribbon on a new animation development studio to test out series ideas with network development execs before taking the best Arabic concepts through to production. And then in 2011, the final phase of the partnership will see the opening of a local Cartoon Network production studio, where the ideas will go from concepts to viable commercial Arabic animated series.
‘Cartoon recognized that audiences are looking for more content that reflects their society and culture,’ says Borg, contending the trend found its seed in the movie industry. Film studios seem to be recognizing the need to connect more with markets that gravitate towards local fare, such as Japan and Korea, where more than 50% of the feature films screened are locally produced.
‘[CN] approached us with a view to aligning with what we’re trying to achieve here in building a creative hub in the region,’ says Borg.
Besides Cartoon Network, twofour54 has more than 60 regional and international partners, and in 2009 took 800 media professionals from 27 companies through courses at its own training academy. The company’s eight-month-old production facility has more than 70 staff, HD studios, 22 post-production suites and has produced more than 400 hours of TV programming to date.