Off the Rocks: Studio B Productions Defrosts Yvon of the Yukon

yvonBlitz Magazine, September 2000

It is an average day in the Yukon Territory town of Upyermukluk. A bored 14 year-old is driving around on his snowmobile with his dog. The dog jumps off to pee. When he relieves himself on a mound of snow, it’s discovered that the mound is a block of ice encasing a 300 year-old man named Yvon. Yvon is a smelly, crude boob of a French explorer. An underpants-clad egotist who still plans to conquer the town in the name of the French king, and who is let loose on the town and its oddball citizenry.

This is the story of Yvon of the Yukon, a cartoon series created and produced by Vancouver’s Studio B Productions and premiering on YTV this month. This is also the story of how and why an animation studio makes the transition from service bureau to producer, and how an animated series gets sold.

Studio B was founded 12 years ago by Chris Bartleman and Blair Peters. The studio has worked for, and continues to work for, Nelvana, Walt Disney Television, Nickelodeon and CBS, as well as companies in the UK, Germany, France and China. Its roster now boasts 150 animators and it’s successful, but Bartleman says that the transition from service provider to producer was necessary.

“The business has changed. Animation is more popular than ever, but there’s not that much service work going on. Not that long ago, there was too much work and not enough people to do it. Then a couple of people demonstrated that they could look to Asia, and get good ratings for next to nothing. That somehow became the rule. Now the US market is dry, there have been lots of lay-offs in LA, and studios are struggling to keep their people busy.

“In order to survive, animators have to get into their own productions. But they have to go the co-production route because they can’t afford to make shows on their own. Five years ago, the network would pay 50% of your budget in a US sale. How it’s 10% max. If you want to make a show to sell to a US network for the Saturday morning market, you have to come up with that 90%, and that’s a lot of money. Plus, everybody knows that US sales are the key to worldwide sales. So things are going to turn around completely. I would say that in five years or less we’ll be paying the US broadcasters to air our programs.”

Bartleman believes that the Internet is still not a viable alternative for animation firms.

“There’s no model for making money in animation on the Internet, and people are still throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. There’s no money in it unless you’re a dot-com company listed on the stock exchange—people aren’t going to pay to download a cartoon. Some people are looking at corporate sponsorship of entire shows, the way it was at the beginning of television. But we decided to build on the reputation we’d acquired through doing service work and pitch our own shows to broadcasters.”

The idea for Yvon of the Yukon came up three years ago when its writers, Terry Klassen and Ian Corlett, brought the project to Peters and Bartleman. Everyone felt that it would be a sure-fire hit, the characters were designed, the series developed. In January, Studio B signed with YTV, then Alliance Atlantis Communications division AAC Kids. ‘Sounds easy enough. But it has been a time-consuming process involving lots of money and effort.

“It takes a long time to take a show from idea to on-air,” says Bartleman. “It took us longer because we had to build relationships with broadcasters, funding agencies and distribution companies. We had to start from square one, the way we’d started with service work.

“When you’re an animation studio doing service work, you get to know the production managers, then you grow from there until you eventually get to the top of the heap. So you’d think we’d have a head start and that we’d already know the decision-makers. In fact, you could do endless series work and the broadcasters won’t know that you’re the ones doing the work for the shows airing on their stations.”

Peters and Bartleman started building relationships by attending festivals and trade shows in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and Banff. Meanwhile, three series were in development—Yvon, plus What About Mimi? which airs on Teletoon this fall, and The Myna Leagues, which has been picked up by CTV.

Bartleman and Peters also had an idea that made it possible to reduce the amount of funding they needed. They entered into a co-production deal with one of their suppliers—Shanghai’s Hong Ying Universal Animation.

“Hong Ying is a 34% partner in Yvon through doing 34% of the work as an investment,” explains Bartleman. “In television animation, all the in-betweening and colouring gets done in Asia anyway. We do the key drawings, but there are 20,000 drawings per every half-hour show and it’s too expensive to do it here. We’d hire Hong Ying to do the work anyway, so we said ‘you invest your time in the show, you become a partner, you share the back end and have your territories’. We made the co-production deal an extension of our regular business.”

yvon4

Studio B spent $40,000 on developing the show, then the cost of producing the 13-show series of half-hour episodes came to $5.2 million. Financing came via distribution advances against pre-sales, the co-production deal, Canadian and US sales, and grants from BC Film, Telefilm Canada and the Canadian Cable Production Fund. Alliance is responsible for international sales; Studio B kept control of Canada and the US and has played a large role in the marketing of Yvon, spending about $15,000. In the animation business, this is unusual.

“A lot of animators just do their thing and let the distributor handle marketing and promotions—they’re animators, not marketers,” explains Bartleman. “But Blair and I have done a lot of advertising work and we have a good sense of marketing, of what makes things interesting, of how to put on a good dog-and-pony show.

“If we’d produced a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, it would be different. But we created Yvon. It’s important to us that the show’s a hit and part of ensuring that is getting involved in marketing and promotion. We had to make the buzz go.”

They had a lot to work with. Yvon has 10 main characters, all unusual individuals with distinct personalities. Locations include the bingo hall, the town’s greasy spoon cafe, the jail, ‘The Tundra’. The town has a con man, a sexpot cop, an incompetent outdoorsman and a nerdy bureaucrat from the Ministry of National Malfeasance. Episodes have titles like ‘Call of the Mild’, ‘License to Smell’, ‘Fromage to Eternity’ and ‘An Affair to Dismember’.

yvon1

Yvon also has a double market category. It’s written so that 6-9 year-olds will think it’s hilarious, but parents will also get a kick out of it. So it will air in prime time. Although the two-tier appeal will undoubtedly help sales, that wasn’t the intention.

“Our priority was to make a funny, entertaining show which we liked and believed in,” continues Bartleman. “It was after the show was finished that we started thinking about outside influences. You have to love your product before you can focus on marketing.”

Yvon’s marketing began with the creation of an exhaustively comprehensive, leather-bound information package including a four-colour booklet with character outlines and interactions, episode synopses, colour scene plates, bios, press clippings etc. It was expensive, but it was worth the cost.

“They put together a fabulous, solid pitch on Yvon,” recalls Suzanne French, the former manager of co-production at YTV who is now VP of AAC Kids. “That tipped the scale with both YTV and Alliance. It showed how they approach execution and it gave them credibility. Few companies do demos, but B Plus provided an animated title sequence and recorded a song for it.

“Sometimes we get pitched on an animated property without being provided with visuals—just a written description. Some producers don’t know what their target market is, who the appropriate broadcasters are, who their international partners would be. This is their one chance to make a good impression and they just hope you’ll see through their bad presentation. But a bad presentation is not going to get the project to the right desk—past the gatekeepers who review submissions before they arrive at the decision-makers. Studio B’s presentation gave us confidence—it showed that they were good producers who would deliver on their promises.”

Studio B’s publicist, Ruth Atherley, feels that her clients’ attention to marketing and media relations is key to their success.

“They realize that animators have to promote themselves and their products. You can make the best cartoon ever, but it won’t matter if you don’t get the word out and get people to watch it.”

Atherley says that, until very recently, there wasn’t a lot of external marketing done by Studio B. Internally, Bartleman and Peters made sure that their staff stayed hyped about the show. Everyone was kept in the loop, there were parties for the crew, t-shirts were distributed. It wasn’t until the show was picked up by YTV and Alliance that external efforts began.

“We knew that YTV and AAC Kids have other projects to promote and we wanted to help them get the word out about Yvon,” continues Atherley. “So we created an e-mail campaign with three quick-time video clips taken from the show, as well as notices to tell people to watch a sneak preview that was airing on YTV in June. We had each Studio B employee commit to e-mailing these messages to 20 people, then I sent out another 400. And we had Yvon post cards printed and distributed all over Vancouver—in places like coffee shops. The idea was to get a grassroots movement going; to get people talking about Yvon.”

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One of the bigger Yvon events was a media and industry party that Studio B hosted at a bar in Banff, during this year’s Banff Television Festival. It happened that YTV aired the sneak preview of Yvon in the middle of the festival. For the party, Yvon was frozen into a block of ice, banners and balloons were made, more post cards went out.

Atherley notes that the partners are also committed to, and keenly aware of the power of, media relations.

“Since the beginning of the development of Yvon, Blair and Chris have been talking to the Vancouver Sun and The Province, and they were included in a V.TV show on animation careers. They’re not expecting to be on the cover of Time, but they were as thrilled to have the North Shore News do an item on them as they were when the Wall Street Journal called [for comment on its article on the state of the animation industry]. And they went ahead with production on the show before their contracts were signed. They wanted to have something in hand—you can’t go to the media and say ‘We have a great animated show but we can’t show it to you’.

On Studio B’s web site (www.studiobproductions.com) there is, of course, a comprehensive section on Yvon—which also includes information on, and links to the sites of, YTV, Telefilm Canada, AAC Kids and Hong Ying. Trade print ads have been placed, and marketing-related gimmicks are in the works—things like compasses and glycerin soaps encasing Yvon. More parties are planned and, as a result of requests from people who saw the preview, an Yvon fan club has been created.

So the buzz is going and the network is thrilled (the results of the preview were such that YTV is talking about a second season). What remains is international sales, the job of Gail Rivett, VP Marketing at Alliance Atlantis Television.

“The international marketing is generally done by presenting the products at major television trade shows—the big one is Mipcom/Mipcom Junior at Cannes next month. Yvon is one of the premier products for AAC Kids, so the marketing budget assigned to it is top-tier. We’ll have a very large booth complete with meeting rooms, and our team of salespeople who will meet one-on-one with the buyers.

“We’ll also have sales materials—a four-colour, four-panel pocketed brochure. We’ll give away things that people will want to keep and use, like the soaps. The materials required to market these shows have to be very high-end, representative and fun.

“This is a fast-paced business, the international kids market is very competitive and the buyers are being pitched by dozens of shows a day. These meetings are not 30 minutes long, and we need to make the best impression possible in the fastest way. So we’ll also have a high-end sales trailer that will tell them everything they need to know—but not too much. Once they’ve seen that, they’ll make the decision as to whether or not to go to the next step of viewing the episodes, then purchasing the series.

Rivett’s main markets are the UK, Spain, Italy, France and Germany, to which she’ll sell dubbed shows at prices set by audience numbers in each country.

“The great thing about animation is that it travels well. And we’re hoping that Yvon is creative enough, interesting enough and different enough that it sells itself. We need those marketing materials, and we’ll have the media relations accomplished prior to Mipcom, but we don’t have to do much spin on this show. The one-liner is enough—‘An adventurer gets peed on by a husky and gets set free’. That’s funny.”

Once the show is sold, Rivett has the required confidence that Studio B can deliver. “The party at Banff on the night of the YTV premier was very innovative—something we don’t often see. And when I saw the promotional package that Studio B produced, and saw that all the elements were there in terms of story line and character development, we felt that the studio could deliver what we need to pass on to broadcasters. Anybody who comes to us with a creative, well-organized approach like that is more impressive. We’re only as good as the materials and images the producers provide, so it makes for a better strategy if animators also think of the marketing aspect.

“The studio has provided us with what we need for a marketing campaign,” continues Rivett. “After we sell it, we can provide broadcasters with the same products so they can create market-by-market promotions on their own channels. So it’s important for us to have some indication of what we’re going to get out of the studio. Because if you deliver bad master tapes or images to broadcasters, you’re sunk. They’ll remember that more than your great trailer.

“AAC Kids was launched a year ago, and Yvon is one of the true examples of what’s come out of its development cycle. Development cycles, especially in animation, are very long. Many shows look great at first but often, by the time they’re ready, something else has come out that blows them out of the water. Or the genre has gone out of fashion—like sci-fi. Sometimes, in the interim, the stations have started producing their own shows so your clients become your competition. But Yvon of the Yukon is fresh and funny; it has great animation and story lines. We’re pretty pleased about launching it.”

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