NATPE: Fine-Tooning the Art of the Deal

Many animation industry players are optimistic about this year’s TV confab in Las Vegas. 

Staff Report

As television executives, producers, buyers and creative teams descend upon the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Convention Center in Las Vegas for the NATPE TV confab (Jan. 25-27), many are bracing themselves for a flurry of new rules and regulations from the ultra-Republican-friendly Federal Communication Commission. However, for the animation community, NATPE continues to be the halfway point between France’s well-attended MIPCOM market in October and MIP-TV mart in April. Although many producers will wait until MIP-TV to unveil their latest show, we are happy to report that it’s still possible to find a lot of animated activities at NATPE.

Many of the toon professionals we talked to were being cautiously optimistic about the business, and some were saving their big guns for MIP-TV. "It’s much harder these days to head to the markets with just an animated TV series," says Leslie Nelson, senior VP of international sales at DIC Entertainment, which is launching a CG version of Inspector Gadget as well as the much-hyped Trollz. "Smaller indies such as DIC are still making news, but we have to be much more creative and business-savvy to break away from the crowd."

Adam Shaheen, president of Canadian shop Cuppa Coffee Studios, which is bringing the new show Bruno and the Banana Bunch to the market, says his studio is in a healthy productive phase. "We’re involved in three stop-motion series and two Flash-based shows. We also have two series in development as well as a feature," he notes. "We’re self-financing, producing and distributing our own shows, and we’re even combining Flash with live-action."

Rick Mischel, CEO of IDT Entertainment Sales, believes that there has been a resurgence in the animation marketplace. "There is certainly more robust activity, more buyers looking for products and a general upswing in optimism. We are more focuses on feature-length animated movies for television and direct-to-DVD release. Broadcasters also seem to be sharing this focus, with Cartoon Network, for example, introducing a worldwide animated feature-film block."

Also sounding positive about the toon scene in 2005 is Ken Faier, VP of children’s production and distribution at Alliance Atlantis, which is bringing shows such as the preschool stop-motion Poko, the animated Peep & The Big Wide World and Connie the Cow to the Vegas market. "There is greater demand for, and less supply, of quality programming," he says. "This, in turn, has created opportunities for those who are able to get a show off the ground. While the demand for quality programming is a positive shift, producing original series continues to be economically difficult for independent producers. More than ever before, the only successful model is to develop a property that has the ability to transcend television and penetrate other media, specifically merchandising."

Toronto-based toon studio Nelvana is also raising the visibility of its slate through various media outlets. With an impressive slate that includes hot shows such as Grossology, Future Is Wild and Shock Rockets the studio continues to produce quality shows with an emphasis on top creative talent such as William Joyce (Beep Beep) and Martin Boynton (Jane and the Dragon).

"I also think we’ve begun to move beyond the argument over how shows are done–3D, 3D, digital, etc.–ad reaching a level of industry maturity with more focus on getting the show done," says Scott Dyer, the Nelvana’s exec VP of development and production. "There was a time where it seemed every TV market spawned more and more development projects that quickly disappeared from slates. I’ve noticed this year that many of the shows I’ve seen and heard about for the past two years are now moving forward with financing in place and partners on board.

Of course, besides American and Canadian attendees, NATPE also attracts a sizeable European and Asian contingent. Spain’s bustling studio B.R.B., which is co-producing Bernard, the CG series about a curious globe-trotting polar bear, is one of the many Euro companies with a presence at the market. The studio’s head of co-production and development Carlos Biern Lliviria believes that 2005 is going to be a big year for European co-productions. "Nine out of ten of the most-watched programs at MIPCOM Junior were European, and all of them were really great. Why? Because these new talented studios in Europe have proved to appeal to the worldwide market. We’re seeing the results of co-productions and communication between European countries and a better understanding of how to tell stories for a global audience."

Also keeping the toon pipelines humming in Spain is D’Ocon Animation, which is offering shows such as Kong, Lua and The Lacets at NATPE. The outfit’s marketing and development manager, David Matamoros speaks for many when he says, "We can find toons of extremely good quality with strong characters and excellent scripts. You can certainly see an evolution in the world of animation."

Let’s just hope that after all the deals are made at the market, this so-called evolution results in still better toons on the air and more jobs for talented animators all over the world.