Get Real!

5-Live-ActionThere’s a wealth of live-action kids’ programming making its way across the globe, from educational fare for preschoolers to angst-filled dramas for tweens.

Miley Cyrus. Nick Jonas. Margot Robbie. Britney Spears. Ant & Dec. The list of big-name celebrities who started their careers in kids’ television goes on and on. But live-action children’s programming is much more than just a launching pad for talented youngsters. It’s big business as kids’ and youth platforms look to deliver content that is relatable and aspirational to their audiences.

“Kids want to see themselves represented on screen, so series with authentic experiences that are representative of real things kids can do are strong performers,” says Diane Rankin, the senior VP of international sales and acquisitions at Distribution360 (D360), which boasts a slate that includes Splatalot! and the factual-entertainment franchise This Is. “It’s important to give kids that visual; it builds confidence and shows them what is possible.”

Cristiana Buzzelli, the senior VP of licensing and acquisitions at Rainbow, has seen a boom in the demand for live-action shows recently. That trend prompted the Italian animation powerhouse to deliver its first entirely live-action series, Maggie & Bianca Fashion Friends, which combines comedy and drama with a focus on such themes as music, fashion and friendship.

“The demand for live action is higher than in the past due to many factors: the shorter production and lead time [compared with animation], the wider span of the target audience and probably also the great success of some live-action shows aired in the last couple of years.”

Genevieve Dexter, the founder and CEO of Serious Lunch—home to Operation Ouch!, Horrible Science and Art Ninja—observes, “Everybody seems to be saying that there’s overproduction of animation and not enough good live action.”

One of the reasons for that shortage could be the fact that the genre is generally harder to sell around the world when compared with animation. The previously mentioned relatability aspect is both a blessing and a curse—kids can identify more with live action because they see children who look like them doing the kinds of things they do in the types of places that they do them. However, kids living thousands of miles away in different locations may not feel the same connections.

“Animation seems to travel more easily internationally,” says Patrick Elmendorff, the CEO of Studio 100 Media. “Live-action shows are often subject to trends like fashion, music and stars; they always answer strongly to the zeitgeist, which might not be a global one.”

Studio 100, however, has had success globally with its live-action kids’ series, including Ghost Rockers, Night Watch and House of Anubis, the latter of which has sold to 60 countries. Newer live-action highlights from the company are The Adventures of Lolly Laffalot and Kosmoo, which Elmendorff notes “are receiving huge interest in multiple European territories.”

A good way to ensure that live-action kids’ content will have international appeal is by incorporating themes that resonate with young viewers around the globe, including family and friendship. Friendship is an underlying theme in several of DHX Media’s live-action kids’ highlights, which include Degrassi: Next Class, Make It Pop, The Other Kingdom, Hank Zipzer, Airmageddon and Teletubbies. (Side note: although the new Teletubbies episodes are enhanced with CGI, the show’s characters are live action.)

“Those shows are DHX-produced and owned,” says Ken Faier, the senior VP and general manager of DHX Studios. “There are also shows that we distribute and commission for our channel,” he adds, mentioning the teen drama Backstage, which airs on DHX Television’s Family Channel.

MarVista Entertainment boasts a number of live-action TV movies that are ideal for kids to watch with their families, including Jessica Darling’s It List, Raising the Bar, Annabelle Hooper and the Ghosts of Nantucket and All Hallows’ Eve. “As co-viewing has been increasing, those live-action movies are becoming more important for us,” says Vanessa Shapiro, the company’s executive VP of distribution. “There is an increased demand, so we’re making more.”

According to Serious Lunch’s Dexter, today’s live-action kids’ programming is mostly geared toward older children, although there is a demand for younger-skewing content. “Everybody’s crying out for good live action for younger kids because wherever that is [aired], it seems to be very popular,” she says.

Whatever demo a project is targeted to, a big part of what can determine its success is the on-screen talent, whether it’s young actors or adult presenters.

“We’re always looking for genuine talent,” says Dexter. “For Operation Ouch!, Maverick [the show’s producer] identified Doctors Chris and Xand [van Tulleken], who are twin doctors for real. They’re charismatic and they’re funny and they can also carry out detailed lab experiments on camera. With Art Ninja, [host] Ricky has a massive wealth of knowledge about art. So it’s not just about casting somebody who looks right; you’re trying to tap real talent.”

MarVista’s Shapiro notes that it’s also helpful to secure young personalities who are already recognizable to today’s youth. “We’re always looking at who’s the next up-and-coming star that we could cast,” she says. “That’s very important because kids are so into social media and they know who’s who, so we have to be aware of who’s who and who’s up and coming—and that’s who we’re trying to cast.”

At Rainbow, Buzzelli says that with Maggie & Bianca Fashion Friends, the studio needed to look for more than just on-screen charisma.

“In our case, singing talent has been very crucial as Maggie and Bianca are going to sing in the show and also for live concerts that we are already planning around Europe.”

Finding a good script and the right talent for a live-action kids’ program is only half the battle. Once filming begins, there are several other production and distribution obstacles to overcome.

DHX’s Faier lists budgetary concerns as one of the biggest issues. “It can be quite costly—you spend a lot of money in a very short period,” he says. “Animation might take 18 months to produce a show, and from a creative point of view you can continuously improve throughout the process; with live action, you’ve got a lot of risk in a short period of time.” Faier also mentions such logistical filming hurdles as weather and the availability of cast and crew.

“You can also have limitations on the number of seasons you can make as kid casts grow up,” says D360’s Rankin. “With buyers looking for long-running and returning series, this can be a challenge.”

Serious Lunch’s Dexter mentions the challenges of managing talent, including their residuals and on-set insurance. “In a way it’s just all much more complex than animation,” she says. “One of the challenges we have with Operation Ouch! and Art Ninja is that the BBC always insists on having an original music track, which we then can’t clear internationally. So before we start to distribute, we have to replace all of the music.”

Another issue that live-action distributors have to contend with is shelf life. Young ones latch on to, and abandon, trends quickly. “Live-action shows might [become] out of date when the look of a series doesn’t ‘fit’ anymore,” says Studio 100’s Elmendorff. “But there are also live-action classics that are evergreens and therefore timeless. As with animated series, the good ones with universal appeal can and often do have a very long shelf life.”

“Anything featuring fashion and trends will always have a certain shelf life, but they seem to come around again and have a renaissance,” says D360’s Rankin. “Live action can certainly be timeless; more often than not the core themes that resonated with kids ten years ago are still important to kids of that age today, particularly on the younger side. Do it well and it will sell.”

Live-action kids’ programming is benefiting from the rise in digital platforms, which can give series a second life. For example, an older show that has stopped airing on linear TV might become available on a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon, thus extending its presence in a way that was only previously possible through DVD release.

“There’s probably a longer shelf life than there might have been historically, just because of the platforms that are available out there,” says DHX’s Faier. “It can be dated, but for kids, it’s almost like it’s a window to a fantasy world 15 years ago, but the issues are still primarily the same.”

It also helps if a series is a remake, which may spark young viewers’ curiosity to go back and watch the original version on-demand.

One area of opportunity for distributors of live-action kids’ fare is formats. Studio 100’s House of Anubis, for example, originated in Belgium and then an English-language version was made in the U.K. for Nickelodeon in the U.S. and around the world. Nickelodeon’s Every Witch Way, meanwhile, was adapted from the Latin American hit Grachi.

“To have a successful format, you need a subject matter that is internationally recognizable or relatable,” says MarVista’s Shapiro. “As long as the story line is relatable and can apply to anywhere in the world, then you should have a successful show. It’s when you get too localized in the [subject] matter that it becomes more difficult.”

But internationally relatable subject matter is not the only ingredient in the recipe for a successful format. “You’ve got to produce a very detailed production format bible, and that will encompass everything from set designs to lighting direction to budgets, equipment, shooting schedules, etc.,” says Serious Lunch’s Dexter. “You’ve got to be able to take all of your production notes and put them into a format that makes sense to somebody else. So there’s quite a lot of hard work that goes into it.”

There are also opportunities in live-action shows for producers from multiple countries to collaborate.

“It’s something that we do,” says DHX’s Faier. “We are working with producers in the U.K., Canada, the U.S., etc. We look at where the idea comes from and if there’s a good creative reason to co-produce. It starts there. [But] it adds challenges and costs, so there has got to be a really good reason to do it as a co-production. Animation’s almost easier to do just from a practical point of view, so for live action, it’s got to work for the story.”

Live-action co-pros are common for Studio 100. “A large portion of our hit shows are born out of co-productions with local and international channel partners,” says Elmendorff. “Our channel partners have a direct link with their audience and provide us with valuable input to tune every production to the audience’s tastes and needs. We regularly reach out—even at a very early stage of production—to potentially interested international-distribution partners to get their feedback and input to ensure that we can also cater to the specifics of their market if we are able to, even though they are not co-producing as such. This kind of openness is beneficial for both parties.”

Studio 100 is among the companies to have found slots for its live-action fare with Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, which are prolific producers of the genre.

“Disney and Nickelodeon are the big players, but for independent producers, there is a very nice sweet spot to work on as long as you compete with the ‘big guys’ in terms of original themes and concepts,” says Rainbow’s Buzzelli. “If you are able to position yourself in a specific market space and deliver something fresh, original and new, then there is room for independent producers as well.”

“While they do produce a lot of live-action content in-house, we have sold live-action shows to both Disney and Nickelodeon, so there is an opportunity there [for independents],” says D360’s Rankin. “Public broadcasters, regional, educational, and national commercial channels like YTV in Canada and POP in the U.K., among others, are strong buyers, and the VOD business is also creating more and more opportunities.”

No matter who makes it, how it’s made or where it comes from, it seems clear that there will always be a demand for live-action kids’ programming.

Pictured: Rainbow’s Maggie & Bianca Fashion Friends.