Sizzling with Synergy

In the not-so-distant past, people bought products branded with familiar names. It was a straightforward association - Coca-Cola made soda, Ivory made soap. But in today's economy, it makes sense for businesses to expand beyond their specialties. I
September 1, 2003

In the not-so-distant past, people bought products branded with familiar names. It was a straightforward association – Coca-Cola made soda, Ivory made soap. But in today’s economy, it makes sense for businesses to expand beyond their specialties. It’s not just a matter of buying up the competition – it’s about pooling resources with an expert in another field, to the benefit of both parties. Small wonder, then, that new and unexpected relationships have formed in the past few years between documentary producers and companies specializing in children’s programming.

Producers of both genres have seen that joining forces can result in a product that has wider appeal, allowing them to reach buyers and markets that haven’t been accessible to them as separate entities. If doc companies tailor their product for a younger audience, they can knock on the doors of kids’ channels; children’s prodcos, meanwhile, can work with doc companies to produce content that is both entertaining and educational.

Paris-based documentary prodco ZED began staking out territory in children’s doc programming two years ago when it joined forces with animation house Antefilms, which is primarily known for its kids’ shows. To Manuel Catteau, ZED’s MD and head of distribution, expanding into the children’s market was a direct result of observing what was going on in the market. ‘Few companies produce documentary series for kids,’ he says, ‘and those who do…are selling a lot.’

ZED took the initiative in its partnership with Antefilms. ‘We realiZED that docs are made more for a family audience than a kids’ audience,’ says Catteau. ‘[But,] we knew we had great stories for kids.’ He decided the way to reach kids was through animation, and Antefilms seemed to be the right match. ‘[They] have the know-how to recount stories to kids, and they have the facilities to produce sharp animation,’ explains Catteau.

Rather than create a cartoon, ZED and Antefilms decided to inject animated characters into the real world. The end product is the world-colliding Akidoo, the Master of the Legends. The 3-D stars of this 26 x 13-minute series travel around the world and back in time to seek out people who live in harmony with animals. ‘Basically, it’s 50% animation and 50% footage,’ explains ZED’s Catteau. ‘I’m not talking about a doc for kids that is packaged with some animation. As in [Who Framed] Roger Rabbit?, the footage is integrated into the animation.’ So far, a pilot episode for Akidoo has been made, and though Discovery Kids (U.S. and International) has shown interest, the project is still looking for completion financing.

France Animation and doc company MC4, both Paris-based, began a business relationship over a casual discussion between Lionel Marty, fa’s head of distribution, and Jean-Pierre Bailly, ceo of MC4, about where the two companies’ markets intersect.

For their first joint project, MC4′s Bailly suggested a doc about insects, an idea of director Jean-Philippe Macchioni. According to Maïa Tubiana, FA’s managing director, Macchioni ‘is not a children’s expert – he is an insect and documentary expert,’ so France Animation stepped in to shape the story for kids. ‘We influenced the content choices editorially,’ she says. ‘We bring our expertise…on what information a kid is interested in hearing, which is definitely not the same as an adult.’ The result is Insectoscope, a 52 x 6-minute series that spotlights the insect world. Each episode focuses on a specific insect, while a narrator describes the bug’s life.

Explains Marty, ‘TV terrestrial broadcasters need programs for [weekend time slots] when the whole family can watch TV together. Insectoscope is primarily targeting older kids from six to 12, but you and I can also enjoy it.’

Though MC4 has shelves full of footage, France Animation didn’t collaborate with the doc company in order to access its library and make kids’ docs cheaply. ‘There’s no stock at all [in Insectoscope],’ states Tubiana. ‘[Shooting new footage] is expensive, but narratively, it’s an obligation, because we follow what is there instead of trying to distort an existing film into what we want to say.’ She adds, ‘Kids are very demanding; they [can tell] if they’ve seen something before.’

The series is so successful – it has been sold to at least 14 territories, including the U.K. (Discovery Kids), Italy (RAI), Chile (TVN), Korea (EBS), Israel (NOGA) and YLE/FST, the Finnish broadcaster’s Swedish-language TV arm – that the two companies are working together on three more projects. ‘There was a natural link between us: [MC4] for their ability to produce, and us for the expertise in distribution [to kids' markets], as well as producing,’ remarks Tubiana.

This doesn’t mean that stock footage is being tossed aside completely. Instead, companies are finding innovative ways of incorporating it into their projects. When French animation prodco Millimages acquired St. Ouen-based doc company Gedeon Programmes in 2002 (and thus its extensive collection of footage), collaborating on projects was one of the goals. The Hydronauts is their first, though it is a small one.

A copro between Millimages and its German subsidiary, Toons’n’Tales, The Hydronauts is a 26 x 13-minute series. Fully animated, it centers on Neptuna, a young extraterrestrial sent to Earth to explore the underwater world. At the end of each episode, Neptuna transmits a minute’s worth of real footage (mostly from Gedeon’s library) showing what she has found back to her ‘home planet’. So far, the series has been sold to Kinder Kanal in Germany and France 5.

But, are these creations docs or kids’ shows? In some cases, both. Another project ZED is involved in (as distributor) is the 52 x 5-minute natural history doc series Aniland. Paul Terrel of Paris-based Poles Productions managed to enlist NHNZ as a copro partner, marking the Dunedin, New Zealand-based doc house’s first foray into children’s programming. With a big name like NHNZ behind it, Aniland has managed not to be pigeon-holed as a kids’ show.

A labor of love for Terrel, Aniland was actually conceived 13 years ago. The series, which is aimed at children, is an exhaustive examination of the social behavior (hunting, eating, fighting) of a wide range of animals. Terrel made the original 20 episodes using stock from almost every major footage house in the U.K., including the BBC, Partridge and Oxford. Not having enough money to pay for the rights was just one of Terrel’s problems – 13 years ago, nobody was interested in five-minute clips. ‘People said, ‘Don’t you think it’s too short for children?” recalls Terrel. ‘Now, everybody is making two-minute [episodes].’

He ended up shelving the series, but harbored the hope that he could one day revive it. A fortuitous meeting with NHNZ at MIPCOM in 1997 eventually led to a partnership, and with NHNZ’s help (and its footage), Terrel was able to remake the first 20 episodes as well as produce another 32, completing his dream project.

Even broadcasters not known for buying kids’ shows have expressed interest in Aniland. Animal Planet Canada is one of them. Says APC director of programming Bruce Cowley, ‘It’s solid content. It fits in with the programming, and on Animal Planet…we don’t really have any shows that are directed totally at kids. The reason I have interest in buying [Aniland] is because it has a fairly wide appeal and it fits in with what we’re trying to do.’

Whether on the kids’ side or the doc side, the goal for all involved is the same: establishing a presence in a new territory. For doc-makers, however, it can mean higher fees. Says Catteau, ‘When Aniland is being bought by a buyer that wants it for filler in its schedule, the pricing is similar to the pricing for docs.’ But when bought by children’s buyers, the price goes up. ‘Kids’ programs are more expensive than regular docs, ‘ says Catteau.

Though ZED’s area of expertise is clearly adult non-fiction, Catteau is undaunted by the thought of facing a new frontier: ‘The children’s market is easy to penetrate, if your program is good,’ he says, adding that there is a strong demand for kids’ documentaries, but that there isn’t a lot of quality programming available to meet it.

Brita Carpelan, a children’s program buyer for YLE/FST, concurs: ‘There is a demand for children’s docs,’ she says, ‘either as complete programs or as inserts in magazine programs.’ Further proof is the sale of Aniland to Toronto-based French-language pubcaster TFO. Josée Fraser, pre-sales and acquisitions officer for children’s programming at the pubcaster, affirms that although the ‘adult sector’ of tfo has bought programming from ZED before, Aniland was the first program she purchased from the documentary prodco.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.