To Snarf or not to Snarf was the unusual question facing exec producer Sam Register and the creative team at Warner Bros. Animation as they were developing an updated version of the 1980s hit cartoon show “ThunderCats.”
“You had to ask the question; it was in the room,” says Register, who describes Snarf as “the most annoying animated character ever created.”
The final call came down to a group affectionately dubbed “ThunderDads” — fans of the original series who now have kids of their own — and whether they would accept a “ThunderCats” show without Snarf.
“We were like, ‘The ThunderDads will flip out if we don’t (include Snarf),’ ” says Register, who as exec VP, creative affairs of Warner Bros. Animation leads the creative side of the studio’s productions. “And we do not want to upset the ThunderDads.”
That call has paid off, with “ThunderCats” debuting on Cartoon Network as a top-rated show. And despite having been off the air for 20 years, “ThunderCats” still had enough brand recognition to launch a toy line that’s been selling well for Warner Bros. Consumer Products.
The series is a prime example of the model Register has used to revitalize WB Animation in the three years since he took the reins, plumbing the studio’s vast catalog and working with sister companies like WBCP, Cartoon Network and DC Entertainment for properties to reinvent as TV shows that double as profitable brands.
WB Animation operates from an unassuming one-story building just inside the gate at the ranch complex north of the main lot in Burbank. Past hallways lined with display cases packed with animation memorabilia are production offices for the seven series the studio has in production. Each show has its own area, with cubicles and walls plastered with sketches, model sheets and artwork.
Register’s spacious office features original comic and animation art on the walls, as well as stacks of old comicbooks and piles of new toys. He speaks with a fan’s enthusiasm. After briefly attending the Kubert School for comicbook artists, he went into advertising and specialized in toy ads because, well, he loves toys. In 1997 he became senior VP and creative director of Cartoon Network Online and quadrupled traffic to the site. He later become a creative exec at Cartoon Network, overseeing such hits as “Teen Titans” and “Ben 10.” He took over WB Animation at a time when the studio’s output was at an all-time low and has quickly turned it around.
“At Cartoon Network, I felt like maybe most other networks, that you have to fill slots, and here we have to make great stuff to fill other people’s slots,” he says.
Register says his mandate from Warner Bros. Television prexy Peter Roth is to make the most compelling content possible. The biggest and best tool for doing so is WB’s enormous library of animated characters, which includes the Looney Tunes gang, the output of the Hanna-Barbera and the comicbook library of DC Entertainment.
“I think we at Warner Bros. forget that we have this big library and there are other animation studios — both TV and theatrical — who would do anything to have access to the library that we have,” says Register.
But producing shows that double as brands that can be exploited across studio divisions has become essential for animation in the past decade. Gone are the days when distribution fees and syndication alone could put a show in the black. Now revenues from ancillary departments — especially consumer products — are essential.
“You can recoup a certain amount of the budget from the actual distribution of the show, but not nearly what you could 10 years ago,” says Brad Globe, president of WB Consumer Products. “That means other divisions, whether it’s the consumer products division, the video division, the game division, need to monetize the cost of the animation.”
The ease in selling established brands to retailers and consumers is another reason to exploit the studio’s vast library, and Register has sought out star properties as he’s ramped up production to seven series.
In addition to “ThunderCats,” the studio relaunched its signature characters this summer with “The Looney Tunes Show.” The series relocates Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and their pals to the suburbs for a modern, half-hour comedy show. Supported by a handful of theatrical shorts, the show preemed well on CN. Ratings have been on the rise, with the Sept. 6 episode delivering a series high 4.6 rating, up 24% from 3.7 the previous week, in the key kids 6-11 demo. A second season has been ordered.
The studios’ other productions are “MAD,” a sketch comedy show for kids derived from the magazine that is routinely the No. 1 series its timeslot across all key boy demos; “Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated,” an update of Hanna-Barbera’s crime-fighting teens and dog; and a trio of DC superhero series in “Batman: The Brave and the Bold,” “Young Justice” and a new CG-animated “Green Lantern” series to build on the release of the live-action feature. The company is also producing features for home entertainment, including the DC Universe series of comicbook adaptations, and “Tom and Jerry & the Wizard of Oz,” which merges two classic MGM properties.
There’s no secret to the development process, Register says, other than to try to maintain the essential elements that define each franchise and putting everything else on the table.
“The real challenge with this stuff is if you go out to make exactly what was made before, we will fail,” says Register. “You can’t put that lightning back in the bottle, you need to create something new and at the same time leave your core elements.”
Internally, Register works closely to develop the shows with a small group of WB Animation vets, such as superhero icon Bruce Timm, exec producer on “Green Lantern” and the DC Universe features; Tony Cervone and Spike Brandt, supervising producers on “Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated” and “The Looney Tunes Show”; Peter Girardi, senior VP, series and alternative animation; and Jay Bastian, VP, series.
“I try to let the creatives just be creative and I personally am trying to stay more aware of the brand,” says Register. “I know that there are things that the toy company is going to really need and I know that there’s things that consumer products is going to really need to make a successful toy line. … If it’s driven only by the needs of the toys the show will not be good.”
Globe echoes that sentiment. “If the kids don’t value the shows from a content perspective, then in the long run it’s really probably not going to help your consumer products business as much as you need it to.”
Collaboration with other departments also is essential. For example, “MAD” came from Cartoon Network execs who asked for a certain type of show, matching that need to the right property. “That is a stunning example of a Warner Bros.-owned property that fits exactly into the Cartoon Network brand plan, and it’s No. 1 in its time slot,” says Rob Sorcher, CN’s chief content officer.
“MAD” averages a 4.0 rating among kids 6 – 11, improving Cartoon’s time period performance by 21% vs. 3.3 during the same time frame last year (Aug. 22-Sept. 9, 2011 vs. Aug. 23-Sept. 20, 2010); it also averages 2.055 million total viewers, improving over the time period by 11% vs. 1.854 million last year.
Another example is “DC Nation,” a programming block set to debut next summer that’s a joint venture between WB Animation, Cartoon Network and DC Entertainment. The block will spotlight all aspects of the DC brand, from comicbook news to behind-the-scenes info on upcoming DC movie projects and a new series of animated shorts.
DC Entertainment chief creative officer Geoff Johns says it helps immensely that Register and WB Animation respect and care about DC as much as anyone and have been successful in giving its characters the exposure they need to become brands.
Register says he intends to expand the output of WB Animation, and there are plans for what he calls alternative series that are aimed at an older, “Adult Swim”-type audien
But for now the plan is to stick with the library and make shows for kids, with a new “Tom and Jerry” series next in development, Register says. “I think that we still have a lot of great characters that pop up in the library that we still need to get to get to.”