'Tooned Out : Sale of Woodland Hills' Filmation to French Group Leaves Former Workers in Suspended Animation

Times Staff Writer

A drawing showing a female praying mantis devouring her mate was tacked to a bulletin board last week at Filmation's headquarters in Woodland Hills.

The cartoon factory's name was written on the unlucky male to symbolize the studio's death Feb. 3, when it was closed after being sold by its parent, Group W Productions, for about $30 million to a French television consortium.

On the female praying mantis was written the name "L'Oreal," the giant French perfume maker that is the consortium's principal owner.

For 10 months, Filmation was pursued by its suitor, which wanted the studio's cartoon library. Once the chase was over that Friday, Filmation's fate became much like that of the doomed mantis.

"The announcement just dropped out of the blue Friday morning: 'Put down your pencils and get out,' " said Tom Tataranowicz, a Filmation producer.

Nearly all of the studio's 229 workers were fired that Friday, a day before a federal plant-closing law took effect that would have required the workers to receive 60-day notices. A few employees remained at the Canoga Avenue headquarters, mostly to pack.

It was an unceremonious end for one of the nation's best-known cartoon studios. With hit shows starring such characters as Fat Albert, He-Man and She-Ra, Filmation in nearly 27 years grew from a two-man operation financed with a $5,000 loan into one of the nation's major producers of children's cartoons, with 1,200 television episodes, 50 series and five feature films to its credit.

Besides being a prolific producer of cartoons, Filmation helped change the animation business by showing the industry that huge profits could be made through bypassing the three major networks.

Historically, cartoons were developed to debut Saturday mornings on a network. In the early 1980s, however, Filmation's hugely successful "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" demonstrated that big money could be made selling new cartoons directly to television stations through the syndicated, or off-network, market.

But for all of Filmation's success in the early 1980s, the past three years have been difficult. A glut of cartoons on the market made it difficult for Filmation to sell its shows. In addition, programs on cable television and independent stations splintered ratings, and competition from fast-growing studios such as DIC Enterprises in Burbank and Toronto-based Nelvana ate into Filmation's market share.

What's more, the studio's costs were high by industry standards because, unlike most animation studio heads, Filmation President Lou Scheimer wanted to keep the animation work in the United States instead of sending it to low-cost studios, primarily in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. In addition, toy makers, who once underwrote a large number of cartoon productions to promote their products, began shying away because of their own financial troubles.

Filmation's problems were made worse with its "Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night," a $10-million feature film that bombed at the box office. Released for Christmas, 1987, the picture grossed just $2.7 million.

Filmation and its movie were blasted by critics, who saw the film as an attempt to cash in on the success of Walt Disney's classic cartoon based on Carlo Collodi's 1892 novel. One critic, Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune, called Filmation's "Pinocchio" "coarse, slipshod and, with its glaring primary colors, consistently rough on the eyes."

As Filmation's troubles grew, Scheimer came under increasing pressure by Group W (part of Westinghouse Electric) to ship cartoon work to Asia to save money. Such an arrangement was distasteful to Scheimer, who prided himself as a promoter of domestic animation work.

In April, 1988, the French group began negotiating to buy Filmation. Scheimer saw the deal as a chance to save the studio that he founded in 1962 and had headed ever since, even after selling it in 1969 in a stock deal with Teleprompter, which sold it to Westinghouse in 1981. In private, Scheimer said last fall that he believed the new group would not only keep the financially ailing studio open, but would also continue to let him do the animation work in Woodland Hills because the buyers believed in the quality of American animation.

Although rumors that the studio might be sold had circulated for several months, employees felt that their jobs were reasonably secure. Filmation had begun recalling furloughed workers to finish two new cartoons, "Bugzburg," a comedy about a town of bugs (see accompanying story), and "Bravo," about a group of people who live underground.

"Everybody started animating on the new shows, figuring there would be two or three years of work," said animator Louise Sandoval.

But the Europeans had other plans. Some former Filmation workers question whether the French group ever wanted to continue production. And it is unclear what will happen to "Bugzburg" and "Bravo." Former Filmation workers said the shows may be finished by a Far East studio if arrangements can be made by the French group.

The decision on continuing the shows likely will be made by the man who negotiated the acquisition, Michael W. Stevens, a secretive London financier who built a fortune in real estate. Stevens has been active in acquiring television programs for Europe, where the number of channels is growing rapidly. Last year, Stevens bought the foreign television, video and cable rights to De Laurentis Entertainment Group's film library for $69 million.

According to one source familiar with the deal, Filmation's buyer is Parafrance, a French entertainment company that Stevens and his brother, Anthony, bought control of in 1985. Last year, Parafrance was grouped with several other French firms into a company called Paravision, a Paris company controlled by L'Oreal.

Stevens did not return numerous calls last week to his hotel in New York. But Graham Dowson, an associate of Stevens' in London, confirmed Stevens' role in the Filmation acquisition, describing him as a partner with L'Oreal in television ventures.

David Jones, an analyst in Paris who follows L'Oreal for the investment firm S.G. Warburg & Co., said L'Oreal's television interests are growing fast, but remain a small part of the company's business. Jones said L'Oreal has revealed little about its plans for its television business, adding that the company's management probably considers television as a good place to invest some of the huge amounts of cash that the company generates.

The normally talkative Scheimer has refused interview requests since the studio closed. Scheimer's only message since the closing came in a full-page ad in Friday's Hollywood Reporter and Variety trade publications thanking his workers.

"I cannot say goodbye," he said.

Free-lance writer Charles Solomon contributed to this story.

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