Canadians stage impressive showing at NATPE

Las Vegas, NV: Amidst the tumult of flashing neon lights, oxygen-pumped betting pits and garishly-garnished hotels that is Las Vegas, a record 19,834 natpe attendees logged many hours in taxi queues to get to and from the convention centre where some 870 exhibitors flashed their fruits over the course of the event, Jan. 22-25.

And while many Canadian distribs spent their nights exercising direct marketing campaigns in the form of taking international buyers and members of the press to see the hottest ticket in town – Cirque du Soleil’s O – their days were spent staging an impressive presence among the world’s biggest programming vendors.

With Alliance Atlantis Communications and Nelvana leading the Canadian profile, the Telefilm Canada booth along with Horizon Quebec and the new Western Canada pavilion – which together represented more than 80 Canadian companies – ensured that even some of the country’s smaller distribs were seen among the uber-spectacle.

As for the new media companies at this year’s market, few tv programmers were complaining about being bombarded or even confused about business models and start-up longevity.

Built-in interactive

In fact, tv makers have jumped on the dot.com bandwagon in full force, with interactive divisions branching out from everywhere and tv programming coming equipped with built-in Web components, especially in the children’s genre.

However, while selling tv programming with the option to license parts or all its interactive assets can make for an appealing one-stop shopping experience, ‘A lot of companies are chasing a few time slots and almost all the channels are producing for themselves, like Disney and Nickelodeon,’ says Decode Entertainment cofounder Steven DeNure.

The revenue model for Decode, which creates a Web component for all of its shows, is to sell broadcasters the websites to live on their respective servers.

For example, The Cartoon Network, which has bought Angela Anaconda for a great part of Europe, carries the entire Angela site (ExtendMedia) on its server. ‘[The network] can’t afford to create websites for all its shows, it doesn’t make sense,’ says DeNure, who also counts on big support from the Bell New Media Fund for developing the sites.

To help fill the financial void created by market fragmentation, DeNure says in Europe, at least, you can sell to satellite and terrestrially, ‘which allows us to stack windows and increase our revenue.’

Decode is in development with The Blobheads, a cutting-edge live-action/cgi series coproduced with C.O.R.E. Digital and based on the u.k. book series of the same name.

Launched at the market and looking for a u.k. partner, the 26-part, half-hour series, written by Sean Kelley, is about aliens who emerge from the toilet and think a baby is their long-lost leader.

The Hoobs, a coprod with The Jim Henson Company, is a 125 half-hour preschool package to be stripped on tvontario and Channel 4 (u.k.) in the fall.

Mixing live-action puppetry and animation (to be handled by core) based on children’s drawings, the series follows four groovy and inquisitive Hoobs as they visit new worlds.

Finally, Girl Stuff/Boy Stuff, a 26-part, 11-minute series described as ‘an animated tween Friends,’ is in development for ytv and Fox Family Channel. A coproduction with Animage (u.k.) in association with Canuck Creations, the traditional cel series incorporates wild recordings with teenagers.

Teen demo hot

On the topic of the hottest audience demo, Cinegroupe launched its teen slate at the market with a big push for Ripping Friends, a coproduction with Cambium Entertainment and Spumco Canada, currently in production for Teletoon and Fox Kids, and created by John Kricfalusi (Ren & Stimpy).

The13-part, half-hour 2D series, which hit the market in search of international presales, follows the adventures of a naive and comical group of muscle-bound superheroes.

Daft Planet, created by stockbrokers-gone-scriptwriters Perry Smith and Brent Donelly, is a 26-part, half-hour animated series that follows the daily lives of two teenage boys as they venture through a world shaped by technology, pop culture and raging hormones.

CineGroupe was looking to structure a deal for Daft at the market.

The company was also looking for a European partner for The Three Pigs series, a coproduction with Dan Smith (Red Rover Studios).

The 26-part animated comedy series is about a 15-year-old country pig who crosses the tracks to live with cousins, two uptown city pigs living the charmed life in the affluent heart of Pork City.

Sagwa, which debuted at previous markets, was also a big push for CineGroupe at this year’s natpe as it has recently completed production and comes equipped with impressive interactive applications.

Produced in association with Sesame Workshop and IF/X Productions, the half-hour series boasts a game quest to be used on the websites of broadcasters. ‘The reason we sold Sagwa to pbs was the interactive application,’ says Marie-Christine Dufour, CineGroupe’s vp of communications. ‘It’s not easy for buyers to integrate interactive, so we deliver a complete package.’

The business model for CineGroupe Interactive is twofold: It develops the interactive compliment to tv programs, which is licensed independent of the tv component; as well as doing ‘third-party service production.’ Recently, the company produced two ‘webisodes’ for l.a.-based pirate.net to launch next year and it’s currently developing a 3D game, called Pirate 3D, for Germany.

Nelvana came to natpe with a couple of new projects in tow, including Pecola, a coproduction with Japan’s Yomiko Advertising, Milky Cartoon and Teletoon. A 13-part, half-hour, 3D-animated series, Pecola is about a young trouble-making penguin going through the trials and tribulations of life in Cube Town. Each character is a Japanese-designed origami cube and the series marks the first preschool production from the Japanese company.

Nelvana retains all rights to the series, except in Asia.

The seasonal special Santa Claus Brothers, described as ‘three stooges of the North Pole,’ was also launched at the market, where Nelvana president and ceo Michael Hirsh quipped, ‘We’re looking for world domination through animation.’

In the live-action children’s world, Ottawa-based Sound Venture, which had its own booth at the market for the first time, was debuting the Web component for The Toy Castle, a 26-part, live-action children’s series for tvo. From the website, portals or broadcasters can license just a game or all the content, says Sound Venture president Neil Bregman.

The prototype for the website, financed by the Telefilm new media program ($75,000), also gave the company the option to borrow $300,000 toward its Web initiatives. But ‘a lot of people are turning down and defaulting on the loans because there’s no financial model,’ says Bregman.

‘We always wanted to be in distribution, but it’s a costly start-up and we really didn’t have anything internationally marketable until Toy Castle. We know the series intimately so we’re the best people to sell it. There are hardly any distributors who don’t produce these days.’

Judy Garland miniseries

Speaking of producer/distributors, Alliance Atlantis debuted Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, a four-hour miniseries based on the memoirs of Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft, coproduced with Storyline Entertainment. International sales on the series, which airs on abc in late February, were secured at the market with Channel 9 in Australia and tvi in Portugal.

In other miniseries news, aac added Channel 9 to its list of sales on Haven (2 x 2 hours) which includes France, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Pan-Asia and Israel.

Crime series csi (23 x 60), produced with CBS Productions in association with Jerry Bruckheimer Films, was also a big push for the Canadian distrib, with sales secured for France, Italy, Scandinavia, Australia, Japan, Latin America, Asia and Spain, to name a few.

On the children’s side, aac’s kids label and partner TV-Loonland acquired Neptuno Films’ (Spain) new animated series, Connie the Cow.

Together the three companies will work to transform the preschool series, created and directed by Josep Viciana, into a global property equipped with tv, home video, dvd, merchandising, publishing and Internet components. Distribution, merch and licensing rights will be divided up among the three companies, with aac retaining rights for North/South America, Australia, the Middle East and Asia; and TV-Loonland for the u.k. and Eastern and Continental Europe, excluding Spain, where Neptuno will distribute.

The series follows the restless and curious Connie the Cow as she marvels at her new world.

On the doc side, aac was also pushing its lifestyle brand, AAC Fact Lifestyles, for which it signed a large deal with Singapore.

‘There’s a real increased demand for documentary programming,’ says Marnie Sanderson, exec vp of tv distribution. ‘They’re smaller budget than fiction and they’re unique and tailored to the channels’ needs, especially with more and more specialties.’

But while the fragmented marketplace provides more and more space for cheaper, niche programming, consolidation can also be a bonus for selling internationally. ‘It provides an opportunity for multiple territory buys,’ says Sanderson. ‘Disney, for instance, has a handful of channels, which works well for both parties, and Canal Plus is doing more joint buying.’

On the topic of reality programming, Sanderson is dismissive, saying it’s just a fad, ‘a time-sensitive thing. Not our area of specialty.’ Nonetheless, the company was in discussions at the market about selling the format for U8TV. Nothing was concluded.

Formats, however, were a hot commodity at this year’s market following the success of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and Survivor.

‘Nobody was doing formats in the u.s. a year ago because mainly they were producing their own stuff,’ says Michel Rodrigue, ceo of Montreal-based Distraction Formats, which showed up at natpe for the first time with a catalogue of more than 80 formats from around the world.

‘Up until now, 95% of our sales were done in Europe. Now we’ve picked up 25% of our business in the u.s.,’ says Rodrigue, who’s been selling formats since 1997. On the flip side, there’s increased competition coming from everywhere because ‘the majors just woke up to formats.’

Fox formats

Likewise, Fox, along with some of the other American majors, is launching a format distribution unit. ‘The [formated] shows have a proven track record and it saves the broadcaster from having to develop. We’re selling recipes,’ says Rodrigue.

For now, Distraction sits in a class of its own as Canada’s only exclusive format distributor. However, with the high demand for formats, the increasingly popular format market in Monte Carlo at the end of February and the formation of frapa (the Format Recognition and Protection Association, helmed by Pearson vp David Lyle), more companies like Distraction will likely be popping up soon.

Insiders at ChumCity, another Canadian maven of the format business, revealed the company is expanding its relationship with mtv3 in Helsinki to develop a hybrid of Citytv and CP24.

Other format deals are in the works with the u.k., France, Germany and Latin America, but these deals can take up to two years to structure, says Kevin Byles, vp and gm, ChumCity International. A Citytv format will be launched in Barcelona in April.

The company is also working with Snap Media to develop some interactive enhancements for Fashion Television (the company’s number-one program sold to 130 countries), as well as an unnamed wireless company to sample ways to market some of the company’s other hot programs. ‘We still believe there’s a business opportunity with portals,’ says Byles.

More natpe news to follow in the next issue of Playback. •

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