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Rugrats Duo Draws on Shared Vision

Company Town | THE BIZ

November 17, 2000|Claudia Eller

Throughout their 20-year odyssey through Hollywood, Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo have remained fiercely independent artists with a sensibility so quirky it's the definition of cool.

Meet the Rugrats' real parents. Longtime partners, formerly married, Klasky and Csupo shunned the corporate trappings that would have turned their unpronounceable animation outfit (Class-Key Chew-Po) into a cartoon factory.

Instead, the dream hatched in a spare bedroom of their rented Hollywood duplex has grown to fill a sleek, block-long animation studio in the heart of old Hollywood. That's where Tommy Pickles and the gang and their other irreverent series--"The Wild Thornberrys" and "Rocket Power"--come to life.

This weekend, the industry's leading independent creator of kids' TV animation unveils its second full-length movie, "Rugrats in Paris," a film as highly anticipated by parents as by the under-11 set that has made these babies household names.

Defying convention, Klasky and Csupo joined Viacom's Nickelodeon cable channel and Paramount Pictures. They retain creative control and a percentage of the revenues while Viacom pays much of their studio's overhead but owns the shows.

It's a deal that won't make them a hot investment for venture capitalists but has allowed them to build a big, booming . . . mom-and-pop shop. Filling a 100,000-square-foot artists' playground, 350 employees work in stylish cubicles enjoying on-site drawing, film and aerobics classes.

The partners can afford to spoil their employees. "Rugrats" is firmly in the $1-billion-franchise club along with other such perennials as "Batman" and "The Simpsons," the series on which Klasky and Csupo first learned the tricks of the TV animation trade.

Their shows, the very embodiment of Nick's trademark "kid's rule" philosophy, form the cornerstone of the programming on that network.

"Right now, Klasky Csupo is the hit maker of Nickelodeon--our Steven Bochco," says Herb Scannell, president of Nickelodeon, TV Land and TNN (The National Network), referring to the successful "NYPD Blue" producer. "They create characters that kids can relate to," and like Nickelodeon, "they view kids as the ultimate underdog."

Klasky Csupo's newest series, "As Told By Ginger," launched three weeks ago, was the highest-rated debut of any new Nick animated series in the last three years, says Scannell.

Airing 17 times weekly--three times a day during the week--"Rugrats" is the highest-rated kids show in America and top among kids age 2 to 11 for four consecutive years.

The series' first feature, 1998 hit "The Rugrats Movie," struck gold with $100 million in box-office receipts, breaking the record for a non-Disney animated film. It cost a mere $25 million. The sequel cost $30 million to produce.

Now, Klasky Csupo is considering expanding into live-action movies and television. Early next year, the company also plans to launch a separate banner devoted to art house and Internet animation for adults. By May, the company expects to have more than 450 employees.

According to Klasky Csupo's president, Terry Thoren, the privately held company is profitable. Although he declined to give specific numbers, Thoren said Klasky Csupo gets a cut of all revenue streams including merchandising and soundtrack sales.

Presently, 85% of the company's revenue comes from TV and movies, the remainder from commercial production, two experimental record labels, art house book publishing and special projects such as 60-minute direct-to-videos for McDonald's, he said.

Klasky Csupo will never have a market value in the league of family entertainment producers such as the Jim Henson Co., Nelvana, Hanna-Barbera and Saban Entertainment, which own their own content and compile program libraries. Most of those companies, unable to compete with the media giants that control distribution, have sold out in recent years to deep-pocketed corporations. Nelvana recently sold to Canadian broadcaster Corus Entertainment for nearly $400 million.

"Gabor and I, on different ends of the planet, both had a passion for art," said Klasky, a Michigan-born graphics artist who grew up in Southern California where she used to hang out with surfers in Huntington Beach.

Klasky first met Hungarian-born Csupo in 1978 in Stockholm, where he was working at the animation studio of a friend. Csupo had been in Sweden for two years after escaping communism with four other artists, all of whom he said felt opportunities in their own country "weren't rosy enough."

Not long after they met, Csupo moved to Los Angeles, where Klasky had an on-air promotional graphics business with two partners. He fell in love with Hollywood, the place. "Hollywood was dear to me," said Csupo, who imagined that even the grimiest shops sheltered dreamy artists.

For Klasky, the attraction to Hollywood was and remains the cheap real estate.

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