Toon titans drawing up TV skeins

Nick, D'Works pair on animated projects

Toon powerhouses Nickelodeon and DreamWorks Animation are joining forces on a pair of potential weekly series based on DreamWorks features.

One skein will be based on the upcoming film “Kung Fu Panda”; the other is a spinoff of 2005 hit “Madagascar,” centered on its popular penguin characters.

“Panda,” due in theaters in May 2008, revolves around a lowly waiter in a noodle restaurant whose shape doesn’t lend itself to kung fu fighting. Movie features the vocal talents of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Dustin Hoffman and Ian McShane.

DreamWorks Animation will take a back seat on day-to-day development of the Nick projects. Cabler will take the reins on physical production out of Nick Studios.

“We’ve given them all the elements that exist in the movies and then, really … we’re pretty deferential on this,” DreamWorks Animation chief exec Jeffrey Katzenberg said. “They spent a lot of time with the creators, directors, producers and talent involved in the two movies, but it was more to pick their brains and then take the properties and make them their own.”

Both projects are in the early stages of development. Tom Martin (“The Simpsons”) will pen the pilot script for “Panda.” Paul Rugg (“Freakazoid!”) is aboard to write the “Madagascar” offshoot, centered on penguins Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private in a series of new adventures.

Teaming brings together two of the biggest brands in animation: Nick is still home to genre’s top-rated “SpongeBob SquarePants” franchise, while DreamWorks Animation counts “Shrek,” “Shark Tale” and “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” among its feature hits.

Partnership also marks the first stab at series projects for DreamWorks Animation since 2004, when the studio partnered with NBC on the short-lived CGI comedy “Father of the Pride,” which was created, developed and produced internally at DreamWorks Animation.

Katzenberg said plans to collaborate on new TV programming for Viacom’s stable of cable TV networks — which include MTV and Comedy Central — had been in the works since Paramount’s acquisition of DreamWorks in December.

“From the outset, one of the highest priorities for us was to share with Nickelodeon our movie properties,” Katzenberg said. He added Nick’s entire senior executive team visited the DreamWorks Animation Burbank headquarters a year ago to see a presentation of the studio’s upcoming movies. “One of the greatest opportunities in making the deal with Viacom was their interest and enthusiasm for repurposing or adapting our properties into their world and their TV networks,” he said.

Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon and MTV Networks Kids & Family Group, said bringing existing franchises to the kids cabler is something Nick is “more willing to do these days.”

“We know what’s in our own pipeline, and so we look for things that would be additive,” Zarghami said, noting Nick has produced more than 30 cartoons on its own. “We thought the characters in ‘Kung Fu Panda’ were very funny and could live beyond the movie universe. And everyone loves those penguins.”

Timing with “Panda” is “sort of perfect,” Zarghami added. “The movie is being released in 2008, the same year as the Olympics in Beijing, and if we like what we see, a series would follow shortly.”

As for DreamWorks Animation’s future endeavors in the TV landscape, Katzenberg wouldn’t close the door to working with other nets but said as far as kids go, “We don’t want to be anywhere else.”

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