‘Spies’ gives ’em an Eiffel

U.S. cabler's BevHills-set toon has a lot of Gaul

PARIS — Every week, French TV production exec Vincent Chalvon Demersay makes a beeline for Saturday morning’s U.S. TV viewing figures to check out the audience for “Totally Spies” on ABC Family.

Unusual for U.S. television, the show about three dizzy Beverly Hills teenage secret agents is a product of France — the brainchild of Chalvon Demersay, a partner in Gallic production outfit Marathon.

Since its debut last fall, the series has drawn an 8% market share, making it the American cable channel’s most watched program this season.

But for how much longer will it get U.S. play? Two 26-episode half-hour series were acquired by Fox execs, but now that Disney has taken over ABC Family, the goalposts may shift.

Running with Marathon

“It’s the big question,” says Chalvon Demersay ruefully. He teamed up with French fiction and docu production outfit Marathon 2½ years ago after a decade making animation series with Saban Paris. Marathon’s Olivier Bremond and Pascal Breton wanted to develop their fledgling animation business. A joint venture was born, which today represents a third of Marathon’s $42.8 million in annual revenues.

“Totally Spies” grew out of Chalvon Demersay’s fascination with the buzz surrounding U.K. girl band the Spice Girls.

“I said to myself, we’ve got to come up with a trendy series for girls. I thought of making them spies and dressing them in cat suits,” recalls the producer. “Then a colleague had the brilliant idea of adding a touch of ‘Clueless’ to the recipe,” he adds, referring to the Beverly Hills schoolgirl comedy starring Alicia Silverstone.

Leading private web TF1 and Fox boarded the $18 million project. “Totally Spies” sold to broadcasters around the world before a single episode was made, cleaning up at last fall’s Mipcom.

Each episode costs a pricey $300,000 to make. The creative pre-production work is carried out in France at Marathon’s animation studios, under former Saban helmer Stephane Berry; the series is penned by former Nickelodeon staff writers Robert and Michelle Lamoreaux in Los Angeles; the voice talents are U.S. voice actors (“SAG — very expensive,” comments series co-producer David Michel); and the industrial animation is done at South Korea’s Koko Enterprise, producer of Warner Bros. series including “Justice League.” The theme song and music are by Brian Higgins, who wrote and produced Cher’s “Believe.”

“We wanted to get the best talents wherever they were,” says Chalvon Demersay.

As for Marathon’s big ambitions in the toon department: “We’re not a success yet,” says Chalvon Demersay cautiously. “The TV business is a lottery.”

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