Cabler renews emphasis on nurturing offbeat in-house productions

When Rob Sorcher returned to Cartoon Network as chief content officer in early 2008, he had a sense that a generational shift was underway in animation. The first generation of artists to grow up with the Internet (and Cartoon Network) as a household appliance were hitting the job market, fresh out of CalArts, Gotham’s School of Visual Arts and other art institutions. These millennial toonsmiths were coming through the door with very different sensibilities about material, characters and especially humor than even their older brothers and sisters.

“Their brains don’t work the same way,” Sorcher says. “You could just feel it as we started talking to young artists.”

One of Sorcher’s first official acts was to establish what he dubbed the Cartoonstitute, a development lab within the cabler’s Burbank production facility. Sorcher had been part of the Cartoon Network exec team in the mid-1990s, when a similar initiative yielded such hits as “The Power Puff Girls,” “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Johnny Bravo.” He was surprised upon his return, after stints at AMC and USA Network, that Cartoon wasn’t devoting any resources to letting animators run wild in-house with ideas.

This time around, Sorcher admits he doesn’t always “get” the material that sparks the twenty-something artists at work for Cartoon Network Studios. But he surely gets that the first regular series to spring from the Cartoonstitute push has blossomed into a signature hit. “Adventure Time,” which originated as an online short for Frederator Studios before Cartoon nabbed it for development, is essentially a buddy adventure-comedy about a goofy teenage boy with heroic ambitions, his wise dog and their adventures with a host of good and not-so-good creatures in the Land of Ooo.

Regular Show,” about the misadventures of a blue jay and a raccoon, is another recent success story. This week, Cartoon is greenlighting two more offbeat comedies from “Adventure Time” alumni. “Steven Universe,” created by Rebecca Sugar, is a coming-of-age tale of a teen who is part of the magical Guardians of the Universe. “Uncle Grandpa,” from Pete Browngardt, revolves around a guy who is magically an uncle and grandfather to everyone in the world.

In another sign of changing times, “Steven Universe” marks the first Cartoon series created by a femme in the cabler’s 20-year history.

“The soul of Cartoon Network brand is this genre of (offbeat comedy),” Sorcher says. “We shifted the whole environment so that gifted artists can take what starts as a spark and fan it into a fire. We’ve designed the studio around the fact that they’re relatively inexperienced in working in series TV.”

It takes a level of commitment from execs above and below Sorcher’s station to get behind projects that start not with scripts but on storyboards, to be as animator-friendly as possible. When Sorcher and others saw “Adventure Time” creator Pen Ward’s initial ideas, there was skepticism.

“We all said, ‘That’s a weird little show. Is it a kids show? It feels different,” Sorcher says. “But that’s the sense of humor we’re talking about. These cartoons have a randomness and a sincerity to them. It’s what the audience is asking for. They love the random humor that is packed with all kinds of references. It’s all informed by a generation that has always grown up with the Internet.”

Cartoon Network’s hits have never been as big or flashy as those of Disney Channel or Nickelodeon. But the cabler has long enjoyed a big edge over its rivals in the older boy demos and the hipster young adult cartoon buff demo, an advantage that extends into latenight with its sibling Adult Swim net. Sorcher knew that as successful as the cabler was with its more traditional fare — such as “Ben 10″ (one of Cartoon’s biggest global hits) — they were missing a huge opportunity by not playing more to their strengths with oddball shows. It’s in keeping with the maverick spirit of Cartoon’s founder, Ted Turner, something that has been top of mind this year as the cabler celebrates its 20th anniversary.

“I think we have the chance to move the vocabulary of animation forward in a really important way,” Sorcher says. “That’s the magic of these new cartoons.”

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