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MacCurdy’s cartoon empire skyrockets

In 1983, Jean MacCurdy left her position as a production executive at Warner Bros. Cartoons to take a similar job with Hanna-Barbera Prods. Now, 14 years later, she is working for both studios, only this time, MacCurdy is in charge … of both studios. “It’s amazing what happens in life,” she says with a laugh. “It truly is.”

As president of Warner Bros. Television Animation, which she rejoined in 1989 and helped transform into a major TV force, and programming head of the Kids WB weblet, MacCurdy is one of the most powerful people in the animation world, and certainly the most powerful woman. Despite her impressive titles, however, MacCurdy’s passion for the animation art form appears as genuine as ever, after 20 years in the toon biz.

In addition to overseeing Warners’ ever-expanding TV cartoon operation, last year’s merger between media giants Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting also placed the running of the legendary Hanna-Barbera studio — a Turner subsidiary for several years — on MacCurdy’s plate, after studio president Fred Seibert resigned shortly after the merger. She maintains offices at both studios, shuttling frequently from the Sherman Oaks headquarters of the WB TV unit to Hanna-Barbera’s North Hollywood studio. From those twin vantage points, she oversees full production schedules on both fronts, while dealing with the programming demands of WB Kids, which will increase its weekly schedule to 19 hours this fall.

MacCurdy admits there is sometimes a battle for her time between the business and creative demands of her job, but she is determined not to drop her involvement in the creative arena. “I love sitting around with writers and talking ideas and looking at artwork, all of that, and whenever I can, I steal moments to do that,” she says.

In addition to the continuing series “Superman,” “Batman,” “Tweety and Sylvester Mysteries” and the Steven Spielberg-produced “Animaniacs” and “Pinky and the Brain,” MacCurdy is adding two new shows to the Kids WB Saturday lineup this year: “Umptee-3 TV,” which is exec produced by Norman Lear, and “Calamity Jane,” an animated Western produced by the French studio Contreallee. MacCurdy is particularly excited about its title character: “We’ve finally found a heroine that I think boys will watch, too,” she says.

Even before the merger was finalized, there was widespread speculation about the survival of Hanna-Barbera as a separate entity, with some fearing that the venerable TV toon shop would shut down or be gutted. There have been layoffs at H-B’s animation operation, but they appear to have occurred chiefly on the administrative side so far, with existing Warner Bros. departments taking over those functions. On the executive front, most Turner-placed execs departed once WB officials started running the studio, but for the most part, the creative staff has remained intact, at least for the time being.

MacCurdy admits there may be more changes in the future — “We’re still early in this (merger) process,” she notes — but, for now, H-B does appear to have escaped the fate of Turner Feature Animation, which effectively ceased to exist as an entity once the merger was complete.

One thing MacCurdy says will not change is the name of the studio. “My intention is that this is Hanna-Barbera and it will continue to be called that,” she insists.

At present, H-B is finishing work on new episodes of “The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest,” which debuted simultaneously on three Turner cable outlets last fall, while three more series — “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Cow and Chicken” and “Johnny Bravo” — are in production for the Cartoon Network, which also fell under the WB umbrella as a result of the merger.

MacCurdy also plans to continue H-B’s much-touted “What a Cartoon!” shorts program — created by the studio’s previous regime under Seibert — though not as extensively as in the past. “Forty-eight (seven-minute cartoons) were done originally, and we will probably not do that many,” she says. “But I think it is a very interesting model, not only in terms of finding new talent, but also as a development tool for series, and that’s where we’re going to put our emphasis.” With the exception of “Quest,” a new version of the classic ’60s Hanna-Barbera action cartoon, all of H-B’s current series are derived from the shorts program.

While Hanna-Barbera has not been absorbed into Warners TV Animation, as some in the industry had speculated it would be, there have been numerous instances of creative cross-pollination between studio personnel. “We borrow from Peter to pay Paul and vice versa, and I hope to continue to do that,” MacCurdy says. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for artists and writers because it opens up a whole panoply of potential opportunities.”

Similarly, network cross-promotion already has begun, as two-hour marathons of WB shows recently aired on the Cartoon Network to promote the weblet’s Saturday morning lineup. The Kids WB has also picked up Turners’ FCC-friendly “The Adventures of Captain Planet” for its fall weekday block.

While she anticipates that someone else eventually will be brought in to oversee Hanna-Barbera, MacCurdy says the venerable studio does have a future. In particular, she sees ample opportunity to further promote the H-B stable of classic characters, in much the same way as Warners has done with its Looney Tunes stars.

“What’s interesting with Hanna-Barbera is that not only is there a lot of young talent here right now who have the ability to develop and produce new concepts, which needs to be encouraged and continue, but there are also great characters here,” she says. “I think there is an opportunity to further develop and re-introduce them to a whole new generation and also have some fun with them. I’m looking forward to that, as well.”

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