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WB Ramps Up Toons

Mar 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Warner Bros.’ re-energized TV animation unit has determined its next potential project, Homeward Hounds from animation legend Joe Barbera, with the aim of keeping its recent programming streak on a roll.
The unit also is taking advantage of its corporate synergies to build new franchises in an era where the kids business is contracting at most companies. It has developed synergistic relationships with the Cartoon Network and the Kids’ WB to help launch new brands, which makes for an easier sell internationally.
At the center of the new business plan is Sander Schwartz, who took over as president of Warner Bros. Animation in 2001, with responsibility for physical production of theatrical, television, direct-to-video and classic animation as well as oversight of creative development for television and direct-to-video animated programming.
“We will sustain as many shows as make sense for us,” Mr. Schwartz said recently at his new offices in Sherman Oaks, Calif. “After all, the company expects us to turn in at least a modest profit. Seriously though, its important for us to look for different styles, not just keep doing the same show but in a different location. Unlike Nickelodeon and Disney we don’t have a house style, and that diversity helps a lot of buyers know they can count on us to deliver whatever they’re looking for. That’s our secret of success, and even though the business has contracted, there are more channels out there than ever before, and we have a pretty good batting average with them.”
On a recent day, surrounded by animation icons past and present, Mr. Schwartz was reviewing a tape of Tom Jones’ performance of the theme song for upcoming Cartoon Network show Duck Dodgers.
“Music can be just as important a part of making the highest quality series as storytelling and animation,” said Mr. Schwartz. “I think Tom really adds a new dimension to the (Flaming Lips-written) song. It’s great.”
Duck Dodgers is just one of a slew of properties coming down the path for the resurgent animation company. Earlier in the year, based on explosive ratings growth, Kids’ WB decided to give early renewals to a trio of freshmen cartoons, Ozzy & Drix, Mucha Lucha and What’s New Scooby-Doo? for fall 2003. That kind of commitment, which comes two months ahead of schedule, was unprecedented for the kid’s network.
Of course, those three series also typify Warner Bros. Animation’s business plan: to introduce two or three new series a year using “the highest-quality shows,” which can come from one of three places-franchise characters (What’s New Scooby-Doo?), new feature films (Ozzy & Drix from the feature Osmosis Jones) and brand-new properties (Mucha Lucha.)
Potentially on the way in will be Homeward Hounds from animation guru Joe Barbera about a group of golden retriever puppies. The studio has already added the characters to an upcoming episode of What’s New Scooby-Doo? as a quasi-“backdoor pilot” for either the Cartoon Network or the Kid’s WB-maybe even both outlets.
At the combined Kid’s WB/Cartoon Network upfronts last month, the outlets announced that they will bring the Warner Bros. Animation produced series for the Kid’s WB, Xiaolin Showdown, for the 2003-04 season. Showdown, from Craig Bartlett, creator of Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold, follows four teen monks who are studying at a venerable temple of martial arts.
Both Kids’ WB and Cartoon Network had seen top executive shuffles in the past few months and recently decided to merge their ad sales units at the end of the broadcast season. The new combination affects only the ad sales divisions for now; programming and marketing will remain separate. Yet the beating heart sustaining the two outlets continues to be Mr. Schwartz’s division.
The move came after he launched Sony Pictures Family Entertainment, where he was responsible for creating character-based entertainment targeted to the all-family audience and for overseeing the development, production, marketing and worldwide distribution of the division’s television and direct-to-video titles.
Under his watch, SPFE produced traditional cel animation, 3-D CGI animation and live-action properties, including such current hits as Jackie Chan Adventures, Max Steel and Men in Black: The Series for Kids’ WB; Dragon Tales (co-produced with Sesame Workshop) on PBS’s “Ready to Learn Block”; Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles, Jumanji and Extreme Ghostbusters, for syndication.
“We had to start from scratch,” he noted of his former home. “Running against companies that had a rich tradition of animation forced us to take a different mindset and look for opportunities. I realized that our one big advantage was that we were a large corporation with a strong library of movies and [we were] able to turn those properties into a pretty good slate of programs, such as Godzilla and Jumanji. Then I headed for Warner Bros., where animation wasn’t only a business but a tradition, and realized I was in heaven. The library here literally transcended pop culture.”
The Warner Bros. classic/contemporary animation library currently boasts 14,000 animated episodes and shorts, which air on domestic broadcast networks and cable networks and in national syndication, direct-to-video in 175 countries around the world. In 1996, the company added to its Looney Tunes and DC Comics core of characters, more than 6,000 episodes from Hanna-Barbera, 422 titles from Ruby-Spears, 320 animated shorts from the MGM library (including 200 Tom & Jerry cartoons) and 224 Popeye cartoons. Beloved characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Road Runner, Sylvester and Tweety, Wile E. Coyote, Yosemite Sam, Batman, Superman, Tom & Jerry, Popeye, Droopy, the Flintstones, the Jetsons, Yogi Bear, Jonny Quest and Scooby-Doo now reside under one roof.
Sander Schwartz intends to make the most of them. He noted that several series featuring lesser-known DC Comic heroes are in development to join the upcoming Teen Titans and the recently renewed Justice League on the Cartoon Network and Static Shock. Soon the company will bring Bugs Bunny back to the big screen in Looney Tunes: Back in Action, starring Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman and Steve Martin. The feature is set for a November 2003 release and joins Baby Looney Tunes and Duck Dodgers as new ways to extend the classic brand.
And according to Mr. Schwartz, those opportunities will keep coming as long as children are around.
“We want to continue adding valuable negatives to the Warner Bros. library,” he said. “After all, nothing repeats as well as animation with a new generation of kids six or seven years. That’s where growth is in my mind and that’s where the magic is in theirs.”