An Israeli animation company for pre-schoolers is attracting networks in the US, Canada, Europe and even Qatar with content that is aimed to expand creativity, knowledge and fun.
Cartoons for kids have been around for almost a century and have evolved from a medium that focused on pure entertainment to a vehicle that aims to expand creativity, knowledge, reasoning, social development and motor skills in an atmosphere of fun and wonder. Those are the stated goals of Israel’s Smartoonz, a division of Zeppelin Animation.
Smartoonz appears poised to become a leader in providing quality entertainment and educational programs for the pre-school set. Shows from Smartoonz are already being broadcast to kids in Europe, North and South America and Canada and also feature on Qatar’s Al-Jazeera children’s network. Eighteen months ago one of the shows, Monkey See, Monkey Do was sold to Disney Latin America, and at this year’s MIPCOM entertainment content industry show in Cannes the company made deals with broadcasters in South Korea, China, France and South America.
CEO Yuval Levy tells ISRAEL21c that Smartoonz is all about the kids. “I got the idea for Smartoonz a few years ago, when I was asked by the new Baby cable TV network here in Israel for help in creating content,” he says.
Levy was already well known in the Israeli animation business, thanks to Zeppelin Animations, where he produced programs and ads for local television programs and movies. “Just a short time before, we had our first child, so we saw first-hand that there was a lack of content for very young children. We sought ideas by looking at programs that were being broadcast elsewhere, but we didn’t find the kind of valuable educational content and interactivity we hoped for,” he recounts.
Much more than passive viewing
Levy took the initiative and collaborated with educational experts, psychologists – and his wife Tamar, an early education expert – to develop content for the network that would be both entertaining and educational. “We worked with specialists on every step, from conceptualization to post-production. We applied their expertise to every detail, from the character design to the dialogue and storylines,” Levy says. And the network was pleased.
Realizing that Smartoonz shows might have international appeal, in 2006 Levy teamed up with entertainment industry veteran Henri Zimand, and produced six programs. It was with Zimand that he set up a booth at the MIPCOM industry show.
The ‘Monkey’ series, which mixes live action and 3D animation, has been Smartoonz biggest success to date. The show features an animated monkey leading children on the program in a series of dances, exercises and activities, accompanied by original kid-friendly music. “It’s not just passive viewing, it’s an activity,” says Levy.
“Energetic pre-schoolers are able to practice their motor skills, learn new words and definitions, and identify with the live-action kids they’re watching on-screen.” Besides Monkey, Smartoonz offers five other programs, and is currently developing other projects, including a show to promote good nutrition among pre-schoolers. “Given the interest in children’s health today, we expect that one to be a big hit,” Levy declares.
Ready for the Internet TV revolution
Having great content is important, but so is standing out from the crowd and creating buzz among viewers, says Levy – and in order to create that buzz, about three years ago Smartoonz set up its own YouTube page, where it posts selected programs in each of its series.
So far, more than 11 million people have watched Smartoonz programs online – with more than seven million checking out Monkey See, Monkey Do. Noting the numbers, Levy says that the company is working on content specifically for websites and upcoming Internet TV services. “The Internet TV revolution is coming, and we plan to be ready for it,” he says.
Smartoonz has several distribution deals, the largest one with HiT Entertainment (formerly owned by Jim Henson Productions). Networks showing Smartoonz programs, especially Monkey, include the aforementioned Disney LATAM; France 5, Minimax (Eastern Europe); TVA, TVO and Knowledge (Canada); PBS Kids (70,000 kids watch the two Smartoonz-produced programs daily); and Al Jazeera, which Levy says seems to have no problem showing quality Israeli-produced content.
“We got calls from many of the top companies – Warner Brothers, Disney, and others – who told us that they were extremely impressed with our content,” he relates.
Despite the deals, Levy says the company is still very much in startup mode and is actively seeking investors, especially for an Internet platform he wants to build to distribute Smartoonz content. So far, he says, the company has five full-time employees, and all production emanates from its Tel Aviv office. Mostly self-funded by its partners, Smartoonz has received some investment money from angels.
Still, Levy believes that the company is close to becoming self-supporting: “As our programs become more widely distributed, we will be able to go into merchandising, and at that point, perhaps in another year or so, we expect to be able survive on our sales.” Judging from the reception worldwide so far, chances are Smartoonz programs will be coming soon to a kids’ channel near you.