Far away in distant lands, some of Canada’s most beloved cartoon characters such as Franklin the Turtle and Benjamin Bear rule the airwaves. Canadian children’s cartoons are popular around the world, snapped up by broadcasters in dozens of countries including the United States, Germany, France and Egypt.
Canadian animation companies have traditionally relied on these international markets to boost their finances since their home country is small. The challenge for them is to safeguard that success at a time when economic uncertainty and new media trends are changing the TV business.
“It does catch me by surprise how well we’ve done exporting,” said Colin Bohm, managing director of Nelvana Ltd., the giant of Canadian kids’ animation. “Canada is known for being a very capable, industry leader in kids animation.”
Toronto-based Nelvana has more than 80 shows that can be viewed around the world via broadcasters, DVDs and digital media. Its current hits include Babar and the Adventures of Badou, Franklin and Friends and Backyardigans (popular with the preschool set), along with Bakugan and Beyblade for older boys.
Along with the TV shows it produces, Nelvana counts on related merchandising products, such as toys and DVDs to drive sales growth abroad.
Nelvana, which is owned by Corus Entertainment Inc., does not disclose its revenue. Canada is an important market: Shows get a good start as regulations mandate that 60% of the programming schedule on TV stations must be Canadian.
But Bohm says that in terms of TV sales, the majority of sales come from outside Canada. The same goes for the merchandising business. The biggest markets for Nelvana’s shows internationally include the U.S., France, U.K., Germany and Brazil.
“The Canadian market has never been big enough to support an inwardly focused animation business,” Bohm explained. “From the get go, we’ve been looking beyond our borders to partner with our companies and countries.”
Cartoons are an expensive business. Take Vancouver-based studio Big Bad Boo’s 1001 Nights, which is shown in 60 countries in 15 different languages. It costs between $6 million and $8 million to make 52 11-minute episodes of 1001 Nights, said president Shabnam Rezaei. On average, 140 people are involved in the production of each episode.
Fortunately, it is easy to take cartoons abroad. Unlike other products, such as food or appliances that need to be adapted for each market, children’s shows—especially those for preschoolers—travel well across various cultures, Bohm said. The only changes these shows typically require is the dubbing into another language, whether it’s French, Arabic or Portuguese.
Many Canadian production companies, including Nelvana, team with foreign studios to produce shows. The main reason is financial, because a partnership makes a show more affordable, according to Bohm. He estimates that between one-third and one-half of Nelvana’s productions are made with foreign studios. For example, Beyblade and Bakugan are co-produced with Japanese studios.
The history of Canadian co-operation with foreign studios stretches back several decades, according to Dustin Chodorowicz, a London-based partner at Nordicity, an international consulting firm for the entertainment sector. He refers to vintage Canadian hits such Inspector Gadget and Babar as examples.
German children’s TV station KiKA currently has 11 Canadian shows on its programming schedule from studios including Nelvana, Cookie Jar Entertainment, and Sinking Ship Entertainment. Sebastian Debertin, head of fiction, acquisition and co-production at KiKA, describes Canadian shows as “high quality” and Canadian studios as “reliable” co-production partners. “They often have a rather European feel—the content as well as visually—so that they are familiar to German children,” Debertin wrote in an e-mail.
Big Bad Boo’s Rezaei moved her business from the Philippines to Canada five years ago in part because of the financial incentives offered by the Canadian government. She credits that support for giving the industry an international presence.
￼She said U.S. studios, which can’t rely on the same level of government support, have outsourced their animation to countries such as India and Canada. But Canadian studios, she said, have succeeded in keeping their cartoon industry at home.
“One of the reasons we moved our company was because of the tax credits, which enable an entire industry to exist here,” Rezaei said, referring not only to the studios but the schools that train the artists. “You’re able to see the effects of it on a worldwide platform.”
For now, Canadian kids’ cartoons remain in the spotlight abroad. At an important industry conference to be held this month in France, known as MIP Junior, Canada will be the country of honour. Nelvana will be there with new productions, including two Franklin and Friends specials.
Last year, seven of the top 30 most-watched shows at MIP Junior were from Canada. Big Bad Boo’s 1001 Nights secured that top spot, beating more than 1,000 other shows from around the world. “We were really, really proud to hit the No. 1 spot,” Rezaei said.