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Q&A with Hanna-Barbera president Fred Seibert

It has been 37 years since Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera created “Ruff and Reddy ,” a six-minute original cartoon for NBC, and the studio they founded is now celebrating the Year of the Flintstones. In May, Universal will release Amblin’s live-action Stone Age feature, which stars John Goodman. Hanna-Barbera’s most successful series, which debuted on ABC in 1960, is still telecast every hour of the day somewhere in the 80 countries carrying it.

Hanna-Barbera Prods. — acquired by Turner Broadcasting in 1991 — is in a transition under Fred Seibert, who took over all responsibilities as president in April 1993, after a year in charge of TV development.

Seibert met with Variety special reports associate editor Phil Gallo and writer Richard Setlowe to discuss the company’s new six-year plan, its relationship with Turner Broadcasting and Turner’s new movie companies, and the changes in the ‘toon biz.

Daily Variety: Has Hanna-Barbera established a definite synergy with the other Turner Broadcasting operations?

Fred Seibert: I never really use the word synergy at Turner Broadcasting. It makes me a little nervous. But we have a guy who started the company who is one of the most entrepreneurial people on earth. As soon as the company was purchased, everyone started talking about what are the entrepreneurial opportunities with Hanna-Barbera and all the individual Turner Broadcasting companies.

Two years later, “The Flintstones” is the project where you are going to see all that come true. Our publishing division is going to put out a high-quality coffee table book on “The Flintstones,” and the Bedrock Press has launched a line of mass-market children’s books that have all the Hanna-Barbera line. And you’ll start seeing a whole series of specially marketed Hanna-Barbera products coming out of our wholly owned Turner Entertainment Home Video.

By the very consequence of having a very entrepreneurial company with an entrepreneurial boss, we naturally end up looking into all these things. We’d be fools not to.

DV: What is your six-year plan t o bring back all your characters?

FS: Up until the time Turner Broadcasting bought Hanna-Barbera, it was essentially an independent studio whose planning cycle had to be nine months. You got a pickup in January, and you put it on the air in September. That’s been the cycle. Aside from having all these vertical integrations that make things possible, Ted Turner is a long-term value player. And one of the things he saw was the long-term value of the various characters and families of characters.

If you mentioned Hanna-Barbera to people, they said, “Oh yeah, Flintstone, Yogi, Scooby-Doo, Jetsons,” and that was pretty much it. We have characters with very high recognition factors and great films, but no organized plans for really making the most of them and increasing their value. We’re now going to organize our whole company, all of the Turner Broadcasting companies, in a very massive way. Every year there’s an A, B and C list of characters to pay attention to. We don’t allow our Turner Broadcasting family to cherry pick and have them each do their own thing. The homevideo guy decides that Space Ghost is good, and a publishing guy decides that Dino is good — we’re not going to do that. All of our companies follow the program. By the end of the century there will be 40 characters that have been exposed in a very systematic way. My background is that I’ve spent a lot of time marketing entertainment. One of the old saws in package goods is you can take something that is popular and you can make it more popular. But if you take something less popular, you can’t automatically market it into the same success as something that’s already popular.

DV: Will Hanna-Barbera be more active in feature films?

FS: What’s different now from when “The Flintstones” movie deal was put together is that our parent company has purchased Castle Rock and New Line. We now have access to direct distribution. Even “The Pagemaster” (a combined live action and animation feature with Macaulay Culkin and Christopher Lloyd) is in a partnership with Fox, but that was the viable option that was in front of us. It’s now different. You will not see us licensing out our properties to another producer again.

Castle Rock and New Line each have their strengths, but the great thing about New Line is that they are a real focused-market, niche-market player who understand franchises. They probably understand the franchise business in motion pictures better than anyone else out there. They are more successful in taking franchises and extending them over a period of years than any other studio. In relating to the kind of properties we have, that’s really a good thing.

The studios are very good at launching mainstream product. But other than Disney, as soon as it’s an animated picture, people look at it askance and question its viability in the marketplace. Any animated picture from a marketing perspective is not a mainstream picture. Very few players at any of the studios know how to market those animated pictures. The niche marketing that New Line has will be a great strength for us.

DV: What is your relationship with the Turner networks?

FS: The Hanna-Barbera library is probably the biggest library by itself in the world — 3,300 half-hours. What that does is give us a lot of flexibility on what we can offer anywhere. In the marketplace today we already have stuff in all forms of distribution worldwide.

DV: The market has changed from just three network buyers to four networks, firstrun syndication, cable, worldwide distribution. Does that make it tougher or easier?

FS: In certain ways it’s tougher. Before you knew exactly who your buyers were. You had long-term relationships with them, and you had an understanding what they wanted from day to day, year to year, decade to decade. There was a sense of what worked and what didn’t. There was even a sense of what constitutes working.

A lot of people were up in arms when Nickelodeon launched their Nicktoons series with a rating that would have gotten anything canceled on a network, and they were out there claiming huge amounts of success. Ironically, even though there’s more opportunity than ever, you can’t spend as much in development. You’re not as sure that you’re going to bring things to market.

DV: There was an identifiable Warner Brothers, Disney and Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Now with so many players and characters, they all begin to blur. How do you remain distinct and competitive?

FS: What we’ve decided to do — and if you look at Warner and Disney, what everyone’s decided to do — is stick with the house styles. The other players who take properties that have been created in other media and adapt them to animation are not the houses that go the biggest distance. They are very capable of getting things out into the marketplace, but they are not the longest-term players. The long-term players are those with a point of view, and who develop that point of view very strongly.

DV: What do you look for in a cartoon property?

FS: The first thing I look for is the talent that’s making it. I think talent is probably the most underrated quality. Everyone is so focused on the property, the property, the property. But people who can make lines on a piece of paper funny, can make other lines on a piece of paper funny. That’s what they do.

DV: Will you try primetimeon a piece of paper funny. That’s what they do.

DV: Will you try primetime again? (In ’92 H-B’s animated “Fish Police” on ABC and “Capitol Critters” on CBS were canceled after short runs.)

FS: The networks don’t really have an appetite for animated property. Whatever the success or lack of success, they just don’t have the stomach required for primetime animation. You need a year in advance and a commitment of a certain number of episodes to make it economically possible to be in the business. But the Cartoon Network is this unique and great venue that is on 24 hours a day. What we want is a cartoon that can play at midnight and at noon equally well. That puts another great creative challenge in front of us.

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