Special Report on Animation Opportunities and Growth: Cybersix deal focuses on product not $

The Japanese do film business differently than the rest of the world, says Herve Bedard, the first Canadian animator to strike an international coproduction with Japan....

The Japanese do film business differently than the rest of the world, says Herve Bedard, the first Canadian animator to strike an international coproduction with Japan.

With perhaps the world’s deepest pockets for animation investment, Japanese production partners in most cases finance an entire project up front, which in the case of Bedard’s new 13-episode animated series Cybersix amounts to us$5 million.

Then, says the president of Vancouver-based Network of Animation, Japanese producers go ahead with production and gamble that the concept will translate into a program that will find an audience and generate a merchandizing windfall. And only when episodes of the series are complete do they begin to attend markets to look for international broadcasters.

The result is the Japanese partner assumes greater risk, greater interest in program quality, and a greater reward over the longer term, says Bedard.

At home and in Europe, he explains by way of comparison, no broadcaster wants to risk their licences on a project that doesn’t already have demonstrated international interest. The multitudes of interested parties then sometimes have the effect of diluting the concept and increasing the costs.

‘The Cybersix partnership is more product-driven and less a money deal, and that’s better for everyone,’ says Bedard, adding that he has more creative control in his landmark coproduction arrangement with venerable TMS Kyokuichi Corporation of Tokyo.

‘Their investment is long-term rather than short-term,’ which to Bedard demonstrates a stronger commitment to the Cybersix project.

‘For noa, or any small producer, the only chance in the land of giants is to have a hit,’ Bedard adds. ‘If Cybersix makes it, then noa is all of a sudden on the map. It creates confidence. Our problem in Canada is that it’s a game of money and territories. It’s not about product.’

Based on an internationally popular comic book character from Argentina, Cybersix is the continuing story of a 20-year-old woman who is the lone survivor of the original line of powerful and agile cyber-beings (akin to Bladerunner’s replicants) destroyed by their creator for being disobedient.

The evil Von Richter wants to take over the world by replacing humans with his cyber creatures, and Cybersix’s escape frustrates him. Benevolent Cybersix, however, needs to stay close to Von Richter’s lab because she requires a fluid called The Sustenance to stay alive. To protect her identity, Cybersix assumes the role of a male English professor and at night does battle with the new breeds of cyber-beings.

Bedard originally conceived of the series as an adult-oriented story, enlivened with campy gender-bending, vampirism and not-so-vague references to drug addiction. But with tms aboard, the demographic has shifted to the preteen market in order to appeal to more markets, which in turn dampened violence and forced necessary changes in how Cybersix defeats her enemies and collects her Sustenance.

Cybersix is an 80:20 coproduction, with Bedard the minority partner. The move away from an adult premise is a compromise he is prepared to live with, given tms’ stature in international animation (as the maker of Akira, 30 features and 60 tv series) and its peerless abilities to create quality animation.

At press time, Cybersix had seven shows recorded in English and Japanese, nine scripts approved and key animation begun on the first couple of episodes. Bedard oversees the creation of the scripts, recordings, original music and post-production, while tms handles the animation on its proprietary computer software, merchandising and distribution.

In the coproduction deal, Bedard maintains the Canadian territory, but receives 20% of all other revenues including distribution in other territories and merchandising. The 50:50 deals he tried to strike with other partners would have eliminated him from certain distribution territories. As he says: ‘I’d rather have 20% of something than 50% of nothing.’

With nine-month production cycles, all 13 original episodes will be in the can by April ’99. The first time buyers will be able to view episodes will be at mipcom in October. And with the successful signing of a u.s. broadcaster, says Bedard, the coproducers are ready to invest in another 13 episodes.

In the meantime, Bedard watches his cash flow. Overhead and his producer’s fees have been cut from Cybersix’s budgets to keep initial costs down. On a per episode basis, Cybersix will cost us$360,000, while comparable series can range upward another us$100,000 per episode. The up-front sacrifice is long-term recoupment he expects will more than make up for some initial discomfort. Bedard already has some experience to fall back on.

noa was founded in 1991 and has gained international success with the 26-episode series called Billy the Cat, about a boy who is turned into a house pet. Already seen in 50 countries and a hit in France and Germany, Billy is expected to sign a u.s. broadcast deal this summer, which will fund another 26 episodes, says Bedard. The WIC Western International Communications-backed Billy the Cat has been seen in Canada on Family Channel and Canal Famille.