Crawfords, Protocol saddle up for success

Bryant novels turned into TV skeins, direct-to-video pix

SYDNEY — Crawfords Australia and Canadian producer Protocol Entertainment are parlaying the worldwide popularity of “The Saddle Club” novels by U.S. author Bonnie Bryant into a multimedia franchise.

The tales of three horse-loving girls facing the challenge of becoming teenagers have been spun off into a TV series, now entering its second season, and direct-to-video movies accompanied by numerous licensing tie-ins.

The first series screened in 2000 on Australia’s pubcaster ABC and Canada’s YTV and earlier this year on Discovery Kids in the U.S, triggering huge responses from girls ages 8-12, the targeted demo. That was reflected in the 2.5 million visits to the “Saddle Club” TV Web site last June when the show aired on Discovery Kids.

The producers structured the episodes in blocks that could be turned into feature-length movies.

The first vid, “The Saddle Club Adventures of Pine Hollow,” sold 400,000 copies in North America via Warner Home Video, according to Crawfords CEO Nick McMahon, who co-produces the show with Protocol.

Two vids have been strong sellers Down Under, released by ABC Video, and a third is due out soon.

McMahon says the second series, which rolled Aug. 29 in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, is being similarly structured. Illustrating the cost-effectiveness of shooting Down Under, the budget for the 26 half-hour segs is A$8 million ($4.4 million).

The co-producers raised that coin from pre-sales to Discovery Kids, the ABC and YTV as well as an advance from London-based international sales agent Eaton Films and production investment from agency Film Victoria.

Worldwide licensing agent Gaffney Intl. has inked licensing deals Down Under for a wide range of goods, including games, toys, sleepwear and cosmetics. Gaffney and McMahon are now scouting for U.S. licensing partners.

Protocol, headed by Paul Bronfman and Steve Levitan, brought the project to Crawfords, the production house owned by Bermuda-based Aussie Bruce Gordon.

“The first series has set up a franchise,” says McMahon, who’s confident it will be further entrenched by the second skein, and in turn that will lead to a third.

The cast is headed by Canadians Keenan MacWilliam and Sophie Bennett and Aussies Lara Marshall and Heli Simpson.

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