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COVER STORY : New Kings of TV's Toon Town : In an era when product tie-ins lead to new series, and not vice versa, Nickelodeon has hit paydirt with a plan some might call Looney Tunes: Hire bright animators and let them do (almost) anything they want

October 17, 1993|DANIEL CERONE | Daniel Cerone is a Times staff writer.

The idea seemed simple enough--even fundamental--for a creative TV enterprise targeted at children: Hire people to develop original cartoon series.

In fact, however, it was almost radical. Television in the late 1980s had come to be dominated by cartoons that were based on characters children already knew--from toys ("G.I. Joe"), comic books ("Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"), movies ("Beetlejuice"), old cartoons ("Tiny Toon Adventures"), other TV series ("Muppet Babies") and celebrities such as Hammer and New Kids on the Block.

"There was a factory, assembly-line mentality in Hollywood at the time," recalled Herb Scannell, senior vice president of programming for Nickelodeon, the children's cable channel. "If you were a producer with original ideas in animation, one place you could not go to was television."

That fueled the hopes of Nickelodeon, which was looking to build its own cartoon franchise. In an effort to distinguish what they would call Nicktoons from the well-entrenched competition, executives decided to go after creators with unique ideas and let them animate their vision--the way cartoons used to be made.

"We were interested in what Disney did, where characters live inside their creator, the way Mickey Mouse lived inside Walt Disney," Scannell explained.

Two years after the debut of "The Ren & Stimpy Show," "Doug" and "Rugrats," the gamble seems to have paid off handsomely for Nickelodeon--and for a growing number of animators, both there and elsewhere in the industry. But whether it's primarily a creative triumph or an economic triumph is the subject of some question.

"Nick's big innovation was to become a network that owns its own cartoons," chided John Kricfalusi, who created Nickelodeon's runaway hit "Ren & Stimpy," and then was fired over creative differences. "That was a business innovation, not a creative one."

"In the big picture," countered Jerry Beck, an animation historian and independent producer, "Nicktoons is one of the best things to ever happen to TV animation. Despite their problems, they shook TV animation up by giving creators a chance to create, and artists and animators a chance to do original cartoons. All the new shows that have any kind of style have to tip their hat to 'Ren & Stimpy' and other Nick shows. They've pushed the envelope with what cartoons for kids can do."

In many ways, Nickelodeon's grand return to original animation driven by creators was more like "Night on Bald Mountain" than "The Nutcracker Suite."

Nickelodeon began its animated drive in 1990, when the company set aside $40 million to develop Nicktoons. The goal was to build a permanent library of evergreen cartoons, the same way Walt Disney, Warner Bros. and MGM did in the first half of the 20th Century. It commissioned half a dozen pilots and, after conducting careful research and focus groups with children, chose three with a diversity of styles to turn into series.

Jim Jenkins' Everykid "Doug" sprang from a series of personal doodles--intended to be a greeting card line--he did in his loft alone at night. Gabor Csupo and Arlene Klasky, who used to produce "The Simpsons" for Matt Groening, based "Rugrats" on experiences with their own toddler. And Ren and Stimpy--a smart-aleck Chihuahua and a happy but dumb cat--were two of at least 20 characters floating around in Kricfalusi's head.

Soon after the trio premiered in August, 1991, "Ren & Stimpy" started a national craze that helped turned Nicktoons into a major new force in children's animation while establishing a merchandising cash cow for Nickelodeon's parent company, Viacom Inc., which had bought the rights to the characters on all three series before they were produced.

According to the current issue of Billboard magazine, "Ren & Stimpy" episodes occupy three of the top dozen spots in national home-video sales, and "You Eediot!," a compilation of tunes from the show, is listed at No. 177 on the pop music charts--considered high for a novelty album.

"That's the reason Nickelodeon wanted new characters, so they could own them," said Kricfalusi, a struggling animator three years ago whose shot at making "Ren & Stimpy" was contingent on giving up the rights to the characters. In addition to his salary, Kricfalusi retained 5% of the adjusted gross of merchandising--although he had no control over how his characters were merchandised.

Nickelodeon abruptly fired its star player late last year and took control of "Ren & Stimpy" after a bitter battle waged in the national press. Nick executives charged that Kricfalusi had fallen far behind schedule, while Kricfalusi maintained that they were interfering too much in the production of his show. The cable channel formed its own cartoon studio, Games Animation, and turned production of "Ren & Stimpy" over to one of Kricfalusi's partners, Bob Camp. But "Ren & Stimpy" episodes still trickled out, stalling merchandising efforts, as the new producers made the transition to their own production system.

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