Tom van Waveren, the CEO and creative director at CAKE, tells TV Kids about how boarding projects at an early stage has allowed the company to work collaboratively with creatives to develop properties that will resonate worldwide.
London-based boutique distributor CAKE has developed a reputation as a go-to supplier of compelling kids’ and family series. With a portfolio that boasts such hits as Angelo Rules, the Total Drama franchise and series based on the Angry Birds gaming phenomenon, CAKE maintains close relationships with animation producers, broadcasters and platforms across the globe.
TV KIDS: Tell us about CAKE’s model for aligning with third-party producers and investing in co-productions.
VAN WAVEREN: Five years ago our involvement in development was the exception. Today, while we still take on finished product when we find it, we have many more development roles and give editorial input on most of the series we get involved in. To get to this point, we made a conscious decision several years ago to roll up our sleeves and build our development and production slate through partnerships with independent producers from around the world. This was motivated by the observation that projects that benefit from several cultural or creative perspectives tend to be much better adapted to the international market and perform better commercially for CAKE.
For instance, My Knight and Me’s creator, Joeri Christiaen, has a company with Perrine Gauthier, La Cabane Productions. We joined their project Mush-Mush and the Mushables at the end of last year and it’s about to be greenlit. The concept was already well advanced, so it’s just been a question of fine-tuning, but we will have an editorial role on the production, which will mainly be produced and managed by La Cabane.
Space Chickens in Space is created by Ánima Estudios from Mexico. We joined the development and pitched it to Disney EMEA, which came on board to develop it, and now we are showing the first episodes to the market this MIPCOM. We not only put those people together and managed the development process with Disney, but we also created a joint-venture studio with Studio Moshi, another co-pro partner on Space Chickens, called Gingerbread Animation, based in Dublin. It’s a preproduction studio, so it’s a manageable size and gives us hands-on involvement in the production process. We are acutely aware that running a studio and a production is a skill in itself, so we’ve brought experienced people on board to help manage that process. Rob Doherty joined CAKE as VP of production in February and we have Lindsey Adams, who is the supervising producer at Gingerbread.
Then there are the shows on which we’re already taking on a producer role during the development process. You can only do very few of those. Mama K’s Super 4 is a great example of such hands-on involvement, working alongside Triggerfish Animation to identify writers to take the script and other materials to the next level. Based on a spectacular initial pitch created by Triggerfish and Malenga Mulendema, [we are] working with the creator and the studio as one team.
And finally, there is still the business of selling finished programs. A lot of broadcasters and platforms are looking to acquire finished content, and we’re thrilled to continue doing that. We have a series called Kiri and Lou from New Zealand that we are launching at MIPCOM. It’s a delightful stop-motion preschool show. It’s one of those little presents that came to us unprompted, a real delight!
Our slate is a mix of all of those different models. We can help develop and package the financing and production. And then, once the production starts, if there is a role to be fulfilled in production, we will look at that, but it’s not an obligation. We’re happy to take on production services when that makes sense. But we always want to have editorial input, so we can make sure that the concept is optimized through production, and we always want to make the international sales on completion. It’s what we think we are good at.
TV KIDS: Tell us about your Popcorn Digital joint venture and the approach to online video.
VAN WAVEREN: In today’s world, you need to think up front about the online strategy for a property. How do we create content that does not replicate the linear show 100 percent, but presents the same world and the same characters? Sometimes we’ll do it jointly with our broadcast partners, sometimes independently. In all these scenarios, we’re aware that for an IP to find its audience, it needs to be where its audience is. More often than not, that audience is everywhere. Consequently, while we can provide distribution solely on linear platforms, our preferred approach is to provide distribution across all platforms, which means we can be more strategic about how we market a show as well as embrace the diverse way that the audience engages in content. Furthermore, with Popcorn, we are moving increasingly into original content creation. We have a team of digital experts who are able to produce content geared specifically to YouTube. Most recently, we collaborated with Rovio Entertainment on the World Cup-themed Angry Birds BirLd Cup series. We are working on three new original shows set to be released on YouTube next year and we have further significant partnerships in the pipeline.
TV KIDS: The OTTs have upended the drama production and distribution model. Is the same thing happening in kids’ programming, or have the models stayed the same and it’s just that viewing has changed?
VAN WAVEREN: The importance of OTTs in the market has, of course, increased dramatically as the audience has moved there. Five years ago, OTT platforms were mainly looking at buying catalog. Now they are increasingly looking for flagship, fully owned productions that they control exclusively or at least co-produce. That is a very substantial shift. It does not mean that they won’t make acquisitions as well.
The shift of the audience is having an impact on kid-specific channels. If only financially, their ad revenues have drastically diminished. At the same time, several of them have been producing very successful shows themselves and are making substantial revenues on licensing their content to the OTTs, while at the same time preparing their own OTT offerings. So, it’s in full evolution. It’s hard to gauge how many will be operating five years from now and what shape they will take.
Whatever the constellation will be in the years ahead, there will be a need for high-end independent animation and live-action content. Our challenge is to make sure that we find talent and ideas of a caliber that will attract high-end partners, be they traditional or OTT, and put a smile on the faces of viewers. I’ve been in this business for over 20 years now. There hasn’t been a year when we haven’t looked back at the year before and said, It didn’t feel quite as competitive last year! That’s just the way it is. At the same time, it’s very interesting to see what’s happening with national broadcasters, commercial and public. They’re going through ups and downs and trying to figure out in what form they’re going to exist in a digital world.
I hope we will not end up in a world where everything that’s being offered is international and commercial. If you look at each sizeable market, in the top ten properties you’ll typically find at least five, and often more, that are local. They are culturally relevant. In a balanced world, there are local players that reflect local culture—and that can still be done in a way that is interesting and attractive to others—as well as international, commercial offerings. Those two are good elements to have in a media mix.
TV KIDS: When you’re working with a producer who has only made local productions, is there a steep learning curve for them when making a show that is tailored more to the global market?
VAN WAVEREN: From the Greeks to Shakespeare to Hollywood, it’s the three-act play. That’s the clearest way to tell a story. We want to know whose story it is and why you are rooting for this character. That needs to be made sufficiently explicit. It helps elevate a property from the local to the international. It’s also the level of execution. Not every market has experienced writing talent. So sometimes it’s just bringing in proven talent who can coach and guide less experienced local writers. There is a craft to writing a good script that is not necessarily present in each market.
TV KIDS: What are some of the properties you’ll be showcasing at MIPCOM?
VAN WAVEREN: We’ll be presenting four new shows at MIPCOM, which is more than we’ve ever done. Apart from Kiri and Lou and Space Chickens in Space, which I’ve already mentioned, we have Total Dramarama, a reboot of the Total Drama franchise from the amazing team at Fresh TV. If you’ve never seen an episode of Total Drama, you can fall into it and have a wonderful time. If you do know the franchise, you’ll recognize the characters that you love and have spent a lot of time with and it’s even funnier. Total Drama has been running for ten years and it’s been re-energized by taking a different slant but effectively using the same key characters that the audience has grown to love. And finally, our much-maligned pug Mighty Mike from our long-term partner TeamTO. French studios have had a long tradition of success with non-dialogue comedy. Coupled with an unprecedented photorealistic style, Mike merges universal slapstick with the popularity of funny pet videos. This is a truly stand-out proposition.
TV KIDS: The last time we spoke we talked about diversity and inclusion, with CAKE rolling out Mama K’s Super 4, focused on four Zambian girls, and Pablo, where the main character is on the autism spectrum. Are you hearing a demand from broadcasters for shows that are more representative?
VAN WAVEREN: I don’t know if we’re being told that explicitly. It used to be a challenge and now it’s a plus. People have discovered the importance of empowering characters that represent minorities and different perspectives. It’s about being authentic. There is now recognition of the importance of seeing yourself on screen, regardless of who you are, and that’s exciting.