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Cardiff A Contender As A Cartoon Capital

The Welsh capital is a challenger for the title of Europe’s premier ‘toon town, the result of a decision by Welsh-language network S4C to invest in animated fare as a way of establishing its international profile and generating foreign tv sales.

It’s a policy that has paid off handsomely. A total of £ 9 million ($17 million) of co-productions will pass through Cardiff in the three years up to the end of 1992, of which S4C is putting up £ 3.5 million, or just over £1 million a year.

Not even a dot on the animation map a decade ago, Wales has now established itself as one of the leading lights of the cartoon biz, thanks to the success of S4C-commissioned series such as “SuperTed” (Siriol Prods.), “Fireman Sam” (Bumper Films) and “Wil Cwak Cwak” (Siriol). The principality now hosts six specialist production houses and about 150 animators. The biannual British Animation Awards also takes place in Cardiff.

However, S4C and Welsh animators are beginning to break out of the confines of short kidvid series. They are now applying their brushstrokes to more ambitious projects, like full-length animated features or cartoons aimed at a crossover adult/kidvid market.

At the same time, local producers are teaming up with international power players such as MCA, Hanna-Barbera and Japan’s NHK Enterprises for co-productions.

Among the $17 million of projects in production or development are:

* “The Princess And The Goblin,” a $6 million, 90-minute feature produced by Cardiff-based Siriol Prods. and Hungary’s Pannonia Film, and co-financed by S4C and NHK Enterprises. The first animated feature to be produced in Wales, “Princess” is set to bow at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. A major U.S. cabler is poised to sign for North American tv rights.

* Siriol also is producing a 50-minute special of “Under Milk Wood,” using the original 1954 radio soundtrack of the Dylan Thomas poetic drama with the voices of Richard Burton (as the narrator), Rachel Roberts and Hugh Griffith.

Budgeted at about £ 800,000, the film is set to air on S4C (in Welsh) and the BBC (in English) on St. David’s Day (the Welsh national day) 1992. The project is also backed by the BBC.

* The Dave Edwards Siriol Animation Studio and S4C are co-producing, with MCA Home Video and Booker Enterprises, a 30-minute version of the American classic “The Little Engine That Could.” The project, which carries a $1.2 million tag, was initiated by Mike Young, creator of “SuperTed.”

MCA has U.S. tv and world homevid rights, while S4C retains all other tv rights. MCA is also looking at the option of a theatrical release as a support program. Dave Edwards, who used to be a partner in Siriol Prods., is lining up pilots for two other series, “Hot Rod Dogs” (the Fox Network and Saban are interested in co-producing) and “The Radio Adventures of J.P. Jones” (possibly with Nickelodeon and Saban).

* Dave Edwards Siriol and Metta Films are co-producing with Moscow’s Sojusmultfilm a £ 2.5 million anim skein of six Shakespearean plays running 30 minutes each.

* Naomi Jones’ Cartwyn Cymru (Welsh Cartoon) is co-producing “Toucan ‘Tecs,” a 13xl0-minute series, with Yorkshire TV. Jones is also co-producing “Satellite City” for TV-a.m., which supplies the daily wakeup service for the ITV web.

At the same time, another Cardiff-based animator, Tony Barnes, has signed a deal with BBC Enterprises to produce a new kidvid series, “Transylvania Pet Shop.”

According to Chris Grace, head of animation at S4C, “The market has really taken off for quality animation” geared to appeal a wider audience. Grace cites the success of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” as one of the factors in that boom.

The exec, who doubles as head of sales arm S4C Enterprises, claims the explosion in ancillary outlets such as cable, homevideo and satellite tv has made top-notch animation a relatively safe investment. “It’s much less of a gamble to make high-quality specials than 65 half-hours for syndication,” he avers.

It was Grace, then a sales exec at fledgling S4C Enterprises, who persuaded S4C to take the plunge into the high-cost business of animation. The move was predicated on the supposition that animation was a safer syndication bet than sales of local Welsh programming. Animation travels well, is easily dubbed and has the advantage of long shelf life.

Window on the world

“Animation is very important because it gives us a profile in the world outside,” notes Geraint Stanley Jones, chief exec of S4C. “It was an act of faith for us at the beginning. Now it’s coming to fruition.”

The international success of series such as “SuperTed” (S4C’s first effort), “Wil Cwak Cwak” and “Fireman Sam” have more than justified that decision. “SuperTed” has been sold to about 30 territories, including the U.S. where it airs on The Disney Channel.

“Fireman Sam” has been a smash hit in video in the U.K. The series has sold 330,000 tapes in sell-through since its release by BBC Video three years ago. At the same time, Heineman Books has sold a million “Fireman Sam” titles, reaping about $2 million in royalties to S4C. “‘Fireman Sam’ did a lot better than we thought it would,” admits Grace.

As sell-through gains a foot-hold in markets such as France, Spain and Germany, the outlook for animation “classics” continues to look rosy. “Good animation never dates,” says Grace.

To secure Wales’ future prominence in cartoons, S4C has invested in training arts students from local Welsh colleges. And while big London studios can pay higher wages, especially for advertising work, many claim that’s outweighed by the attractions of living where there’s a steady flow of work. “People have a greater commitment here,” says Robin Lyons, head of Siriol Prods., which has about 25 people on the payroll.

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