COVER STORY : New Kings of TV’s Toon Town : In an era when product tie-ins lead to new series, and not vice versa, Nickelodeon has hit paydirt with a plan some might call Looney Tunes: Hire bright animators and let them do (almost) anything they want
The idea seemed simple enough--even fundamental--for a creative TV enterprise targeted at children: Hire people to develop original cartoon series.
In fact, however, it was almost radical. Television in the late 1980s had come to be dominated by cartoons that were based on characters children already knew--from toys (“G.I. Joe”), comic books (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”), movies (“Beetlejuice”), old cartoons (“Tiny Toon Adventures”), other TV series (“Muppet Babies”) and celebrities such as Hammer and New Kids on the Block.
“There was a factory, assembly-line mentality in Hollywood at the time,” recalled Herb Scannell, senior vice president of programming for Nickelodeon, the children’s cable channel. “If you were a producer with original ideas in animation, one place you could not go to was television.”
That fueled the hopes of Nickelodeon, which was looking to build its own cartoon franchise. In an effort to distinguish what they would call Nicktoons from the well-entrenched competition, executives decided to go after creators with unique ideas and let them animate their vision--the way cartoons used to be made.
“We were interested in what Disney did, where characters live inside their creator, the way Mickey Mouse lived inside Walt Disney,” Scannell explained.
Two years after the debut of “The Ren & Stimpy Show,” “Doug” and “Rugrats,” the gamble seems to have paid off handsomely for Nickelodeon--and for a growing number of animators, both there and elsewhere in the industry. But whether it’s primarily a creative triumph or an economic triumph is the subject of some question.
“Nick’s big innovation was to become a network that owns its own cartoons,” chided John Kricfalusi, who created Nickelodeon’s runaway hit “Ren & Stimpy,” and then was fired over creative differences. “That was a business innovation, not a creative one.”
“In the big picture,” countered Jerry Beck, an animation historian and independent producer, “Nicktoons is one of the best things to ever happen to TV animation. Despite their problems, they shook TV animation up by giving creators a chance to create, and artists and animators a chance to do original cartoons. All the new shows that have any kind of style have to tip their hat to ‘Ren & Stimpy’ and other Nick shows. They’ve pushed the envelope with what cartoons for kids can do.”
In many ways, Nickelodeon’s grand return to original animation driven by creators was more like “Night on Bald Mountain” than “The Nutcracker Suite.”
Nickelodeon began its animated drive in 1990, when the company set aside $40 million to develop Nicktoons. The goal was to build a permanent library of evergreen cartoons, the same way Walt Disney, Warner Bros. and MGM did in the first half of the 20th Century. It commissioned half a dozen pilots and, after conducting careful research and focus groups with children, chose three with a diversity of styles to turn into series.
Jim Jenkins’ Everykid “Doug” sprang from a series of personal doodles--intended to be a greeting card line--he did in his loft alone at night. Gabor Csupo and Arlene Klasky, who used to produce “The Simpsons” for Matt Groening, based “Rugrats” on experiences with their own toddler. And Ren and Stimpy--a smart-aleck Chihuahua and a happy but dumb cat--were two of at least 20 characters floating around in Kricfalusi’s head.
Soon after the trio premiered in August, 1991, “Ren & Stimpy” started a national craze that helped turned Nicktoons into a major new force in children’s animation while establishing a merchandising cash cow for Nickelodeon’s parent company, Viacom Inc., which had bought the rights to the characters on all three series before they were produced.
According to the current issue of Billboard magazine, “Ren & Stimpy” episodes occupy three of the top dozen spots in national home-video sales, and “You Eediot!,” a compilation of tunes from the show, is listed at No. 177 on the pop music charts--considered high for a novelty album.
“That’s the reason Nickelodeon wanted new characters, so they could own them,” said Kricfalusi, a struggling animator three years ago whose shot at making “Ren & Stimpy” was contingent on giving up the rights to the characters. In addition to his salary, Kricfalusi retained 5% of the adjusted gross of merchandising--although he had no control over how his characters were merchandised.
Nickelodeon abruptly fired its star player late last year and took control of “Ren & Stimpy” after a bitter battle waged in the national press. Nick executives charged that Kricfalusi had fallen far behind schedule, while Kricfalusi maintained that they were interfering too much in the production of his show. The cable channel formed its own cartoon studio, Games Animation, and turned production of “Ren & Stimpy” over to one of Kricfalusi’s partners, Bob Camp. But “Ren & Stimpy” episodes still trickled out, stalling merchandising efforts, as the new producers made the transition to their own production system.
Things now appear to be back on track. The network says new episodes for the third full season of “Ren & Stimpy” are due Nov. 20. And last month, Nickelodeon rolled out its first animated series since launching Nicktoons: “Rocko’s Modern Life,” featuring a wallaby with an Australian accent. It was created by Joe Murray, a San Francisco Bay Area commercial artist whose biggest animated credits were a couple of self-financed shorts--"The Chore” and “My Dog Zero"--that toured the animation festival circuit.
“Nickelodeon certainly has taken a different approach,” said Jerry Woolery, a director at Playhouse Productions, which is talking about making a pilot for the channel. “They seem to have thrown out the traditional rules. In fact, in our first meeting, they said, ‘Anything you’ve ever heard about working with a network, forget it, because we’re different.’ ”
Nicktoons have become successful, in part, because they have developed a strong brand awareness. Nicktoons, which air Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon, are budgeted between $300,000 and $400,000 an episode, slightly more than the average Saturday morning cartoon, and the network does a good job of researching and promoting the product.
During the last week in September, Nickelodeon’s cartoon block landed three programs in basic cable’s Top 10: The premiere of “Rocko” (No. 6) was watched in 2.3 million homes, “Ren & Stimpy” (No. 7) was seen in 2.2 million homes, and “Rugrats” (No. 10) was viewed in 2.1 million homes.
Those strong cable ratings still lag behind children’s programming on the broadcast networks. The top-rated cartoon on Saturday morning during the same period was “Addams Family” on ABC, which was seen in 3.5 million households. Yet Nickelodeon is commanding advertising rates competitive with those of some network children’s programming.
“MTV Networks (of which Nickelodeon is a part) has always--along with Turner Broadcasting--been a leader at getting premium rates for programs without premium ratings,” said Fred Seibert, president of Hanna-Barbera Studios. “Nickelodeon, MTV, CNN and Cartoon Network are leaders in the area of brand-oriented television. What it really comes down to, in addition to having steak, they’ve been able to sell sizzle. And when you have sizzle, people want a piece.”
More significant for viewers, Nickelodeon has also helped turn talented animators with unique concepts into sizzling Hollywood properties.
The hottest at the moment is Mike Judge, creator of MTV’s “Beavis and Butt-head.” The two mindless metal-head cartoon rockers, who disrespect authority and mete justice on unsuspecting crickets with a chain saw, have Nickelodeon to thank for their numb existence.
“Uh, yeah, that’s right,” agreed Judge, who was a bar-band musician in Texas before MTV asked him to turn “Frog Baseball,” his homemade animated short film with Beavis and Butt-head, into a TV series. “ ‘Ren & Stimpy’ played on MTV for a while and was a big success. They used that as a justification to pay for this.”
Now MTV is looking to put a second animated series into development, with the inside track going to Wes Archer, creator of the short animated film “Jac Mac & Rad Boy . . . Go.” And across the board in television, independent artists who were largely shunned by the few major animation companies are suddenly coming out of the walls and striking lucrative deals:
* Everett Peck, head of the illustration department at the Otis Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles, is developing a new adult-oriented cartoon series for cable’s USA Network called “Duckman,” for early next year. USA is also negotiating with Kricfalusi for a new TV series called “He-Hog: The Atomic Pig.”
* The best-friend team of David Bleiman and Ken Pontac recently sold ABC on 26 episodes of a scary, stop-motion animation series called “Bump in the Night,” about household monsters who come out after hours. “It’s great we’re getting away from pre-sold properties,” said Bleiman, a partner with Pontac in Danger Productions. “It allows you to do something more appropriate with the medium you’re using, rather than shoehorn a show around a property. Something that makes a great toy doesn’t necessarily make a great cartoon.”
* The cable superstation TBS is currently running the cartoon “2 Stupid Dogs,” from 24-year-old creator Donovan Cook. The CalArts graduate was an assistant director on “Ren & Stimpy” before Hanna-Barbera Studios secured an option on his longtime pet project and let him run with his vision. Hanna-Barbera has another TBS cartoon called “Swat Kats,” created by Canadian brothers Yvon and Christian Tremblay, who studied art and taught themselves how to draw in the basement of their parents’ home.
In the current issue of Animation Magazine, the Tremblays said they enjoy what they call a “new mentality” at Hanna-Barbera that says, “You create it, you take care of it.”
Hanna-Barbera’s Seibert is not so sure that Nickelodeon deserves all the credit for the industry’s willingness to move away from property-driven cartoons. He pointed out that CBS took some chances years ago with the stylistic “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” even though it was not a cartoon. And a couple of years ago Fox gambled and hit with “Bobby’s World,” inspired by a character comedian Howie Mandell developed in his stand-up act.
“Nickelodeon has been one of the keys in opening up the world of animation to different kinds of programming and different approaches to programming,” Seibert said. “It’s really true that an open, competitive framework is good for everybody. As to whether they were the ones to bring back creator-driven shows, that’s all chicken-and-egg.”
And there is a thornier issue. “Nickelodeon is saying they led the whole charge of creator-driven animation, but then they fired their biggest creator,” noted an executive at a competing animation studio. “So is ‘Ren & Stimpy’ a creator-driven cartoon anymore? I don’t know.”
Joe Murray, tall, dark-haired and slightly eccentric, shut down his small commercial studio in Saratoga, Calif., for the opportunity to work on “Rocko.” He’s an aggressively independent artist who makes cartoons that do not come from scripts but are developed scene by scene on storyboards in the tradition of the old Warner Bros. artists behind “Looney Tunes.”
“Rocko” uses a fruity palette of colors and a warped, twisted design style Murray describes as “wonky.” His animal characters--including Rocko’s best friend, Heffer, a bumbling steer, and his toad neighbors, Ed and Bev Bighead--squash and stretch in classic cartoon form. There’s cool background music and a lot of gross-out laughs.
Indeed, Murray’s style, humor, execution and inspiration are not far from Kricfalusi’s. And there appear to be shades of the same kind of creative hassles Kricfalusi experienced with Nickelodeon--although Murray is more committed to working them out. He described relinquishing the rights to his characters as giving his children up for adoption while still being able to care for them.
“A creator-driven show is not easy. It’s not. I don’t know the details about what happened with John, but I know it was very difficult for them to jump into bed with another creator,” Murray said. “Nickelodeon respects my talent and what I’m trying to do, and I respect them. For the most part, they agree with me and share my vision.”
Rocko is a child moving into an adult world, and Murray wanted to create a series entertaining to both adults and children. That has sometimes led to clashes over content--from the simple, such as not showing circus midgets juggling knives because kids might try to duplicate it, to the more sophisticated, such as Rocko applying for a credit card.
“In the world of animation for kids, you must remember that your first audience is always kids,” said Nickelodeon’s Scannell. “And a situation that comes up time and time again here--people have the impression that we are making ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle’ and we’re not. People think they can make a show for adults and kids will get it. But we’re in a kids-first medium.”
Critics contend that “Rocko” and “Ren & Stimpy” are being produced in-house so Nickelodeon can keep tight control of them. When Kricfalusi was producing “Ren & Stimpy” through his own independent production company, Spumco, fights routinely erupted over story content, as Kricfalusi tried to sneak bits into his cartoon that Nick executives had rejected.
“We learned a lot from our experience with John Kricfalusi,” said Vanessa Coffey, former animation vice president for Nickelodeon, who recently stepped down to pursue her own projects. She was replaced by Mary Harrington, a Nickelodeon producer who moved out from New York to help run the Nicktoons division that was a near-shambles after Kricfalusi was fired.
“We learned that it is best to be supportive of a creator and not have him be a businessman,” Coffey continued. “We learned to create a creative environment but a secure environment for our company. That’s what we did with Joe Murray. He’s working under our roof, where we can handle the business for him. His job is to be creative.”
Although Nickelodeon still plans to farm some future cartoons to outside producers, the company hopes Games Animation becomes a major player in the industry. Scannell pointed to other reasons to produce series in-house: Nickelodeon can put more of the budget on screen rather than paying profit margins to an outside producer, and the cable channel is more directly involved in the creative process as a collaborative partner.
“There’s a lot of upside in owning your characters and being able to do whatever you want with them,” observed Betty Cohen, executive vice president of the Cartoon Network, a rival cable channel.
Nevertheless, the new “Ren & Stimpy” production team seems content with the in-house arrangement. Creative director Bob Camp and producer Jim Valentine, who previously worked under Kricfalusi, have never seemed happier, now that they can work on the show without him. “We have a lot more efficient studio,” Camp said. “Last year, we were really struggling. Everything had to go through John.”
Camp even pokes fun at Kricfalusi in one of this season’s upcoming episodes, “Stimpy’s Cartoon Show.” In it, Stimpy makes his own cartoon show, “Explodey and Poopy,” and takes it to Hollywood with Ren as the producer. In one scene, Ren, drawn by Camp to strikingly resemble the real-life Kricfalusi, is seen as a taskmaster with a whip, mercilessly driving Stimpy--a comment on the way Kricfalusi pushed his former employees at Spumco.
“We want to leave all that crap with John behind,” Camp said. “It’s a dead issue, like the Cold War. It has nothing to do with what’s going on here now. One thing John would never admit is that he didn’t do everything on the show, and he needed people. I’m not afraid to admit I need the people around here.”
Kricfalusi considers Camp’s comments sour grapes. Every aspect of “Ren & Stimpy” did have to be cleared by him, Kricfalusi acknowledged, but that was done to protect his vision of the show. And Kricfalusi notes that without him, “Ren & Stimpy” has fallen even further behind schedule. New episodes don’t begin until November this year, instead of the August deadline that he had to meet the previous two years.
“The shows are later, they cost more money, and they’re not as good,” Kricfalusi said.
Camp and Valentine beg to differ, noting that most of the same artists and animators are involved.
“Everybody’s interested in keeping the integrity of the show intact,” Scannell said. “That’s the goal of the staff involved in the show, and that’s the goal of the network.”
After this season, “Doug” (with 52 completed episodes) and “Rugrats” (with 65) will cease production and go into daily reruns as Nick searches for new properties to build a permanent library of cartoons. It is moving forward with a slate of cartoon pilots. One is called “Monsters,” from Klasky Csupo, the company that produces “Rugrats.” Mike Pearlstein, author of the raunchy underground comic book “Amy Papuda,” did another pilot, called “Psyched for Snuppa.”
Sources say Nickelodeon recently conducted an informal national search to scout for even more artists, with a heavy emphasis on finding a woman creator in a field dominated by men. Playhouse Pictures may develop a pilot called “Krystine Kryttre,” from a female comic book artist of the same pen name, focusing on “two preteen female creatures” named Anemia and Iodine.
“In the future you can count on Nick coming out with an animated series a year, at least,” Scannell said. “Our ideas have been validated. The (broadcast) networks said kids wouldn’t watch something that wasn’t pre-sold and pre-marketed. We knew that was a myth. We knew they were interested in good stories and characters, and that idea has been validated.”