Leading distributors reveal how they work with producers to offer content that strikes a chord with children the world over.
When surveying kids’ content execs about the industry—from the overall state and the types of titles deemed worthy of investment to the nuts and bolts of production and development strategies—there is typically a rather linear throughline of supply and demand. It comes down to what the networks and broadcasters and streamers want and how distributors can bridge the gap with producers to supply it. Several months into the coronavirus pandemic, in speaking to the state of any industry, one has to do so with some trepidation, understanding that there will be a level of uncertainty for some time to come. Speaking to the state of the kids’ content industry, specifically, there is no question of the certainty that demand is high. And thanks to companies with stacked catalogs and the flexibility of animation, amid the concerns are plenty of reasons to be thankful for being in this particular sector, where the question is more often about how to meet the demand rather than if there is one.
“The kids’ content industry is still and continues to be a great industry to be a part of,” says Martin Krieger, CEO of Studio 100 Media. “Even in these special times, with challenging and heightened conditions, we have learned that it is still possible to produce outstanding animation—with some limitations, of course.”
Sharing Krieger’s optimism is Emmanuèle Pétry Sirvin, partner at Dandelooo in France. “Ironically, the COVID revolution has created a spotlight on children’s programs for kids staying at home,” says Pétry Sirvin. “Parents, teachers and broadcasters have increased their awareness and caring about the quality of programs, which I believe is beneficial to the industry by raising the bar in kids’ entertainment. It’s certainly enabling the opportunity to produce some amazing and outstanding shows.”
At U.K.-based Jetpack Distribution, the idiom “when one door closes, another one opens” is bearing out. The company may not be doing the business it was expecting to do, but it’s still doing business. “Right now, in the business of distribution and selling series, for every series we’ve had put on hold, deals on hold—mostly for budget reasons—we’ve had a deal that we didn’t see coming,” says Dominic Gardiner, CEO of Jetpack. “There are people buying because they’re filling production holes. It’s a good time to have a library.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
Looking ahead, Gardiner concedes the possibility that the road to new deals may take considerably longer to smooth out. “I think we’re still only at the beginning of the economic impact on advertising,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll feel the effects of the levels of advertising going into 2021 for some time because folks are probably still spending budgets that were set last year. We may see some people pulling back, making a few adjustments to their 2021 budgets.”
Gardiner adds, “We don’t know what’s coming, basically. We don’t know how long this is going to last. If it’s all over by Christmas, then we’re back on track in another six months and we should be good. I heard a quote right at the beginning that said, ‘Every World War, before it kicks off, people think it’s all over by Christmas. But, five years later, that’s not the case.’ I think we all need to be more cautious. Don’t expect a rapid recovery.”
Ulli Stoef, CEO and producer at Toon2Tango, believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored how vital kids’ content is for so many broadcasters and SVOD services. But he shares Gardiner’s more wary outlook that comes down in part to concern about budgets. “People are trying to stay positive, but I feel that the pandemic has slowed down many productions,” he says. “Broadcasters largely have to work on productions that have been stuck during the last few months of the pandemic, and so budgets for 2020 and 2021 are basically gone. I guess that most of the broadcasters are now working on 2022/2023.”
A less disputable positive about today’s kids’ content industry is its evolution to putting forth more programs for children that tackle topics like the environment and feature more diversity in their characters. “It’s amazing to see how the industry has evolved in these last few years,” says Studio 100’s Krieger. “The process of selection is now driven by strong core values and messaging like diversity and sustainability. We appreciate this very much, and before we make our decision to finance or distribute third-party productions, we take a closer look at what’s beneath [the surface]. It doesn’t make sense anymore to simply jump on trends; we are looking for content that makes a difference, that conveys some values but is also fun and entertaining at the same time.” Among the titles on Studio 100’s slate is the ecotainment show SeaBelievers, which teaches kids about real-life issues affecting the ocean while encouraging them to make a difference themselves.
Hand-in-hand with the diversity of content is the diversity of platforms to host them, according to Julia Rowlands, VP of sales, acquisitions and co-productions for Zodiak Kids. “The kids’ content industry is a much more diverse place than it used to be with the continuous emergence of new platforms, especially in the digital space,” she says. “This means, of course, greater opportunity for distribution and also co-production financing.” Rowlands, who also acknowledges the fragmentation of the market in both viewership and revenue that has led traditional linear broadcasters to expand their own digital services and compete for the same rights as the VOD platforms, believes it’s important for distributors to get in early on a project when possible.
“At Zodiak Kids, we have been fortunate to pick up the distribution rights for a number of Amazon’s kids originals, but it is very rare to find such fantastic content available for distribution once financing is closed,” she says. “To secure good content, distributors have to commit early and, in many cases, will influence the creative and drive the financing in the role as a co-producer.”
Toon2Tango’s Stoef isn’t too sure that every distributor would be up to the task of elevating a production, as it requires broad in-depth knowledge that may be lacking. “Many distributors think they can play an important role in the development and creation, but have never really produced a show in any great way,” he says. “On top of this, distributors often know just a part of the business, such as audiovisual distribution, but what about L&M, marketing, PR, digital in general, etc.? There are only a few companies who understand this well enough.”
At Jetpack, Gardiner is happy to keep the creative reins firmly in the hands of the producers as the distributor gets that creation into the hands of buyers. He explains the philosophy like this: “A good producer is focusing on production; in being a dedicated distributor, we can specialize and focus on the distribution. The producers don’t have to think about, What if I sold the rights to this person, does that mean I can’t sell it to that? We always say that’s where we come in to do that heavy lifting for them while they can concentrate on the bit that they probably enjoy more, which is making the series and being creative.”
A BOUTIQUE APPROACH
Jetpack is happy to offer a third-party opinion and give notes on an incomplete project but wants to remain out of the day-to-day involvement in production. “If we were investing in a property, then you would probably want more control because, in a way, you sort of become a co-producer even if you’re not doing the production yourself. You’re kind of in the mix. We try to stay out of that.” And that reluctance has done a service for the company, as Gardiner says that it can come as a comfort to producers to know that they won’t be competing for time and resources with any in-house productions. “We have pretty much the same commercial terms with everybody. You can feel rest assured that the deal that this guy is getting is the same deal that you’re getting. It’s not to say that this is the best way to do it, but we think that for us and for the size that we are, and specializing in kids, it works. We like to stay in our lane, and for now, that’s working for us.”
The dynamic at Dandelooo is slightly different, Pétry Sirvin says. “As we produce and also distribute, we have a very good internal relationship. We only produce shows that we believe will sell internationally. We, as in Dandelooo Distribution, can also offer MGs to independent producers to help them early in the development of their show in order to make sure the program will be right for the market.”
Referring to the involvement of distributors on productions, she adds, “It is still crucial that a project in-development somewhat coincides with what the international market is looking for. We need to make sure the balance between a commercially sellable show and creative originality is maintained.”
When eyeing projects to invest in, Dandelooo doesn’t subscribe to the idea of there being a tried-and-true list of necessary ingredients. “We trust in our experience and mostly in our instinct in spotting the projects that make our hearts accelerate, and we follow our hearts,” says Pétry Sirvin. “We believe in creative visions, and with our vast experience, we think that there is a demand for stories that are based on a child’s point of view; this has universal appeal.”
And in place of following the common wisdom that kids want CGI, round design, colorful, easy-to-absorb content they can “chew on,” Pétry Sirvin believes “that good stories linked to [kids’] daily concerns and everyday life—whether the series takes place in the middle ages or the future—are still key. We think it is crucial that children can acquire ‘take away’ information from a program, whether it is academic information—such as our new series Kosmixabout astronomy, or Cubs about animals—or gaining self-confidence (social skills) or laughing at their own silly mistakes such as in the comedy Stinky Dog. Kids are naturally smart and are eager to learn, so we need to foster/encourage this intelligence and curiosity.”
At Studio 100, the company sees the ongoing potential of gender-neutral comedy adventure for the preschool to school-age target groups. “At the same time, we believe that great content does not exclude the possibility of also having commercial appeal,” says Krieger. “Especially when you are looking at further exploitation, for example, in the L&M area, bringing an IP not only to the screens but also into the hearts and homes of the kids physically.”
For this content to travel, “in our experience, especially in development and production, it is of great value to get different perspectives on a show or topic,” Krieger adds. “If a production—our own or third-party—is created from the beginning by an international team, from different continents and with various backgrounds, the storytelling gets to be international too. Diversity doesn’t only happen on-screen; it needs to be behind the camera as well. We have learned that good humor doesn’t have boundaries at all. So comedy, combined with strong storytelling and core values, seems to travel a lot easier than many other genres.”
While keen to focus on animation for kids and families at Toon2Tango, which is behind titles like Hey Fuzzy Yellow and Aliens vs Cavemen, “it has to be different, very creative and represent a certain type of deep storytelling and character-related stories,” says Stoef. “All titles we are producing have international appeal. They can easily have a little touch of regionality, but we try to make sure that we are telling stories that are of interest to all kids regardless of where they come from, and we do that with great creativity and relevant stories.”
At Zodiak Kids, there’s a sentiment, shared by Dandelooo’s Pétry Sirvin, that there’s an unknowability in terms of what shows will truly resonate with kids internationally, so they keep an open mind. “International potential is key for distribution and while very few shows will become an outright global success, we need to be confident that the shows resonate in the key markets that drive the revenue,” says Rowlands. “There is so much content out there for kids nowadays that it is a challenge for any new show to break through. However, I think that great characters and good storytelling remain key for any audience, whether it is preschool or older. Generally speaking, animation tends to travel better internationally, as it is usually less culturally specific and can appeal to young audiences of different nationalities. Totally Spies is a prime example from our Zodiak Kids catalog that has transcended cultures and has been a global success for distribution.”
As the wheels of the kids’ content industry keep turning, with deals and production moving forward, albeit, at a distance, there is hope that a return to normal with the lifeblood of markets and face-to-face interactions isn’t too far away. “We are looking forward to meeting all our colleagues again soon in person,” says Toon2Tango’s Stoef. “We miss the markets and the personal contact with all of them, and most importantly, the fun we all have in our fantastic industry.”