King Features’ has set the table with a number of new deals to expand its brands in the last 18 months, and now the New York-based L&M company is serving up its first long-form animated series with Netflix.
The Cuphead Show! builds on the popularity of Canadian indie video game developer MDHR’s best-selling video game Cuphead: Don’t Deal with the Devil (pictured). The animated kids series will be stylized in the game’s cartoonish look, reminiscent of other King Feature IPs, such as Betty Boop and Popeye. With few other retro-animation series on the market, coupled with the popularity of the video game, King Features’ president C.J. Kettler says there was an opportunity to grow the property.
Netflix and King Features first announced the companies would be giving MDHR’s video game the animated series treatment earlier this month, and a few days later King Features announced new licensing plans for the property, including a limited-edition range of hand-painted statues from Legion Studios. All of this builds on the content push King Features launched in 2018, when it first expanded the IP into new CP categories and rolled out plans to grow Cuphead’s digital presence.
Released in 2017, MDHR’s game has sold more than four million units worldwide and won a number of awards, including special achievement in animation at the 45th Annie Awards. The run-and-gun indie game centers around the brothers Cuphead and Mugman as they fight their way through several levels to pay off their debt to the devil. Since King Features began representing the property last year, the company has partnered with Funko to create a full-range of collectibles for the brand and the game has expanded onto the Nintendo Switch and Macintosh platforms.
The video game has a distinctive style inspired by the ’30s cartoons created by Polish-American animator Max Fleischer (Popeye and Betty Boop), and which is unfamiliar and new to today’s audiences, says Kettler.
The characters are unique and the game’s focus on physical comedy, which also hearkens back to old cartoons, is different from what’s currently in market, she says, which will help draw in a broader audience—a primary goal for the property. With its distinct look, the animated series, which Kettler says is going to be appropriate for all ages and has the potential to expand the property beyond the video game’s target audience (everyone 10 and older), and help build out reach to the target demo of the company’s licensing program (men 18 and older), says Kettler.
There are no specific plans yet on how the company is going to continue build out licensing efforts or if it will target younger audiences through CP, but the company is seeking licensees in other categories, including for direct-to-retail programs, giftwares, novelties and slot machines, says Kettler.
To draw in the SVOD (which would allow Cuphead to reach the widest, all-ages audience possible), Kettler leveraged her connection with the streamer that she forged when she served as a producer on the animated adaptation of Carmen Sandiego in 2017.
Executive produced by Kettler for King Features, the game’s creators Chad and Jared Moldenhauer will also serve as EPs for Studio MDHR. Produced by Netflix Animation, Dave Wasson (Mickey Mouse Shorts) and Cosmo Segurson (Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling) are also serving as co-executive producers on the project.
Concrete details, such as plots, creative direction and episode lengths, are still being finalized, she says, though she adds that the comedy will hinge on the relationship between sibling-protagonists Cuphead and Mugman and their misadventures across their surreal home of the Inkwell Isles.
Cuphead’s shift to series is part of a broader effort at King Features to expands its IP portfolio with the intention of bringing it all to new audiences, Kettler says. Beyond the new series, the company is expanding on the film side as well by partnering with Fox/Disney to turn ’30s sci-fi comic strip brand Flash Gordon into an animated feature, with Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) set to direct. Working with DHX Media-owned digital net Wildbrain, the company also unveiled plans to create new Popeye content for YouTube.
“I was brought on about 18 months ago to build properties into franchises across multiple platforms,” says Kettler. “We have examples of this now, with Popeye going on digital and our Wildbrain deal last year. We’ve taken these properties across licensing and merchandising and now we’re really beginning to leverage the fanbases and social media of the brands with new content.”