A recent BAFTA seminar highlighted the ongoing dilemma over the role of consumer products in the development of children's programming. It's a subject frequently debated: licensing cannot be relied on as a sure source of income but it is a vital component in the modern programme making mix. To highlight the dialogue between commerce and creativity, we are going to track the development of a newly commissioned pre-school animation called Hana's Helpline in its quest for commercial and critical success. In February, we went to visit the production.
Hana is a duck and an agony aunt. Animals who need emotional support can call her special helpline (on telephone number moo, baa, double quack, double quack) for refreshing and genuine help. The problems she helps to solve form the basis for a new animated series called Hana's Helpline, being made right now in Cardiff by Calon, to a commission from UK broadcaster Five.
The episodes include stories about a giraffe that is bullied because it's so tall and a squirrel that has forgotten where it buried its nuts. Hana is surrounded in her work by strong regular animal characters including her son Francis (who rather wishes she was at home more) and a chaotic PA called Betty Bat, and by a host of others who need help or can help with solutions.
The idea for the show was first mooted by a husband and wife team of children's book illustrators and sent to Calon's script editor, Andrew Offiler. He says the stories were irresitible; memorable, humorous and gentle. So Calon optioned the concept for a TV series for 4-6 year olds and pitched it at Cartoon Forum in 2003. ZDF and S4C came on board immediately; Five soon confirmed its interest and To Entertain signed up as the video distribution partner. Funding started accumulating; a grant from Media Plus followed and the final 10% came from the welsh IP Fund, the hardest bit to get and the end of a very long haul, during which, Calon worked on the new Fireman Sam series.
26 x 10 minute episodes of Hana's Helpline were commissioned by Five and the team began production early this year. The series is due to air on S4C then Five in 2007.
Calon (formerly Siriol) is no stranger to the potential of consumer products and licensing. Its previous credits include Super Ted, which inspired many licensed products. In fact, Super Ted vitamins and ice lollies are still available. Calon also made Hilltop Hospital, a series that was highly acclaimed but never able to realise its potential for licensing. Partly with this in mind, Calon and S4C International (which represents the rights for Hana's Helpline) has taken on Start Licensing, to help it make the most of product opportunities.
For Calon and S4C, licensing isn't just about making money. As S4C's Anna-Lisa Jenaer suggests, 'broadcasters want to see life beyond the screen - it's about PR, marketing and raising awareness of the show as well as a return on investment. Commercial or licensing success is also a good calling card for the future.'
Start's managing director Ian Downes has been to see the production and is forming a licensing plan, which includes making tentative suggestions about the production itself. Stop right there! Isn't that what's at the centre of this debate? Getting product-minded people on set with bright ideas about what makes a good toy could compromise the creative direction of the animation. Or can it? Calon's studio manager Lynne Stockford takes a pragmatic approach. 'If someone who is thinking ahead suggests small changes that will make the characters or sets more appealing to potential licensees then we'd be very silly not to take that on board.' As a result of Ian's suggestions, for example, Hana's telephone now has symbols rather than numbers on its keys to make it unique and obviously hers, and her desk is more colourful. 'Subtle changes, such as colours and character names, might improve the show's chances and make it easier for licensees to work with. But some areas you just don't intrude on!' says Ian.
Hana is a dream for a plush licensee; the animation models themselves are almost plush toys already. Their particular handstitched look with visible seams (a nice reference to the mending Hana does) was created by Bekah D'Abord, spotted while still a student at Wrexham College by the producer Robin Lyons.
Calon hopes the first episode (in which Hana helps an ostrich who wonders why he can't fly) will be ready to show at MIP TV, to secure more international sales. In the meantime Ian is considering just how much to show licensees. 'It's fascinating for them to see work in progress but you also want them to see a polished product at the right time. We have to get Hana onto the decision making lists of licensees and retailers without being too far ahead that we lose impact,' he says.
Ian prescribes a non-formulaic approach to consumer products. 'The consumer or parent has expectations for toys and other products but it's important to be realistic and to get the timing right,' he says. Ian's priorities are to secure partners for publishing (hopefully attracted by the early international programme sales to Germany, Scandinavia, Belgium and others) and, of course, plush. He'll move swiftly onto apparel and feature items such as Hana's desk and telephone.
At the end of our visit, a simple question to the director about accessing visual material for a potential publishing partner prompted furrowed brows and, potentially, an early practical hurdle. There are plenty of raw digital files of animated scenes available but each one lacks crucial post-production. How much finished material from the whole series will be available within a publisher's (long) lead time?
And with that we'll leave the furrowed brows, wish the sales team good luck at MIP and catch up in June.
Next time we report on the progress of Hana's Helpline, production will be half way through, the sales team will be back from MIP and Start Licensing will have made its first pitches to licensees and retailers who will, no doubt, have some suggestions . . .