Growing market animates tot shop

The hottest TV tot shop is tucked away in Gotham’s Fashion District where it’s been churning out TV and Web-originated animation for the past three years.

Its latest effort “Kappa Mikey” — a hip anime sitcom that puts a new spin on the Japanese art — has just landed on Nicktoons.

Along with an earlier series of Web-originated shorts called “Princess Natasha,” which now airs on Cartoon, “Kappa Mikey” is jumpstarting the action at the Animation Collective.

AOL’s kids programming topper Malcolm Bird recently termed the upstart outfit “the hottest animation studio in America right now.”

Now that the tween-targeted “Mikey” has gotten off to a respectable start on Nicktoons, Viacom brass expect to parlay it onto other platforms: In May, “Mikey” will start rolling out across Nick’s international channels in both Europe and Asia. The growing market for content that can be exploited across platforms is sparking the production community, particularly those with expertise in kids content.

Formed barely three years ago by cartoon impresario Larry Schwarz, the privately held Collective employs more than 110 staffers over three Gotham locations, gathered together, according to Schwarz “in a kind of primordial soup.”

Schwarz, whose background includes standup comedy, essentially calls all the shots. He oversees the drawings, the computer-generated plotlines and the licensing of product, although he claims this is not because he doesn’t trust anybody.

Instead, it gives the Collective an almost unique status. Despite the growth of indie companies that create content for the Web and TV, Schwarz’s outfit not only produces but also owns most of its material. Other Gotham-based companies, such as NoodleSoup or Curious Pictures, have strong animation units, yet they often option their shows to majors such as Warner (“Gotham Girls”) and Disney (“Little Einsteins”).

“Being independent and owning our product enables us to do more projects that we want to have fun with — and as a result, they’re better,” Schwarz says.

In addition to “Natasha” and “Mikey,” the company has placed several other shows on cable nets — this despite the fact cablers produce most of their kids shows inhouse. (Nicktoons VP Keith Dawkins says 75% of the content on his cabler is created that way.)

The Collective is also the largest outside provider of content to AOL’s Kids Online interactive site.

For some in the biz, Animation Collective’s growth has much to do with these new platform plays.

“Kids’ brains have no problem multitasking on the Internet,” says Bird, AOL’s senior VP for Kids and Teens Programming.

“With kids on the Web at an earlier age — 3 or 4 years old — and with the greater penetration of broadband, you can see the Internet being an attractive location for kids content,” he says.

The multiplatform mantra means indie producers may be able to get a foot in the door.

“Before, independent companies were locked out of the market, with only big companies with deep pockets and distribution outlets getting their content out. Now, smaller companies are gaining more leverage,” Nicktoons Dawkins says. The Collective’s “Natasha” is a textbook example.

Pulling in more than 3.5 million unique hits on AOL, licensing deals were struck, first moving the series to Cartoon Network in March 2005, then inking a publishing deal with Little, Brown and establishing a comic strip with DC Comics.

The transition from Webisode to episode was a first within the AOL family of product.

“Obviously, people still reach the largest audience of kids through TV; other platforms are at the moment merely an enhancement,” says Magna Global’s associate director of broadcasting research Lisa Quan.

But a Magna Global report does suggest that kids are shifting their viewing to other platforms and outlets.

Schwarz is aware of the shift, without exaggerating it: “The challenge remains brand-building, and, as such, we are still pushing for TV projects above other forms of content. You can create a fan base through other media, but that doesn’t necessarily gain you a company and a business. Once you’ve built up a library, then you can start thinking about putting it out on other platforms.”