Featured Business: Cartoon Saloon
Name: Paul Young, CEO and co-founder of Oscar-nominated animation company
Two feature films, two Oscar nominations. What next for Cartoon Saloon? This year it begins production on a third feature film, The Breadwinner, which will take two years to complete, as well as the second instalment of television series Puffin Rock.
The projects will see the Kilkenny-based studio double its workforce to 75-80 for 18 months.
Cartoon Saloon is owned by Tomm Moore, Paul Young and Nora Twomey. Tomm and Paul met on a character animation course in Ballyfermot Senior College where they had the idea to make Rebel, which later became Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells.
Support from FÁS and the Irish Film Board helped them continue their education in the workplace.
However, as Paul recalls, many people in the business in Ireland thought they were a bit mad to make a feature film. Even today there’s not a lot of people doing it.
Animated TV series productions are new too, he adds. The company now has two under its belt; with Skunk Fu, it became one of the first Irish companies to have a TV series on the go. Meanwhile Puffin Rock, which first aired this year on RTÉ, is a venture between Dog Ears, Penguin and Cartoon Saloon.
When Cartoon Saloon set out to sell The Secret of Kells, nobody was trying to sell feature films except Gerry Shirren (then CEO of Terraglyph, and who joined Cartoon Saloon in 2012).
He suggested pitching to European distributors at a forum called Cartoon Movie. Connections made on this trip were fruitful.
Paul figured out how to raise finance in Cannes at the Mipcom and TV markets. He asked salespeople he met there how they did it, and by getting introductions to key figures in the industry. “It was literally going out to the market and working between the hours of 10 o’clock and three in the morning. You find out so much more than you would otherwise; it’s like your school of business for the film industry.”
While it is a mix of a service company (commercial projects) and IP development, Cartoon Saloon works on one idea at a time with passion and the belief that it will do it well. The people buying what it creates can clearly see that.
Interview with Paul Young
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
Myself and Tomm were in college, and the inspiration was not wanting to get jobs that didn’t involve drawing. We started to get the odd bit of CD-ROM or website work. I did the illustration and Tomm did the animation. We were surrounded by other artists as well who were happy to take on work while they were in college.
How did you initially fund your business?
When we finished college we had the idea to make Rebel, which turned into The Secret of Kells. Mike Kelly from the Young Irish Film Makers helped us get a FÁS Millennium Fund grant. We brought about 15 people down to work on a trailer for The Secret of Kells. We kind of generated our own FÁS course, the purpose of which was to train ourselves in making a feature film – we made the trailer and took it to markets. We supplemented the FÁS wages with commercial work. We also had help from a business angel called Dessie McLoughlin. He guaranteed our first bank loan and, because he had an IT company selling hardware, he fast-tracked us with kit. He got us up and running very quickly.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
When we started out, our mission statement was to make original, unique, evergreen film and TV. That’s what we always wanted to do. That was very hard to do at the outset. You can raise money for those things like we did for The Secret of Kells and Skunk Fu. It took five years to build up the money for each of those. Along the way we did commercials, which is not exactly what we wanted to do as a service, so basically we were mixing a service company with an IP development company because we were making product.
What have been the highlights to date?
One of the highlights always is when you close finance. It’s such a hard job. We were kind of lucky we started trying to make The Secret of Kells. It still took us seven years to finish the film after the trailer. Thankfully our funding rounds have narrowed. Song of the Sea and Puffin Rock still took a long time to get financed. Our slate going forward is strong, with two Oscar nominations. With The Breadwinner, it was the fastest we’ve ever financed. It took us two years from meeting the guys who had the book to pitching it around to finding the right people to put money into it.
What’s the bravest step you’ve made in relation to your business?
I’m not sure if it was very brave. Mostly we were naïve; we really only cared about having enough money to draw or animate. Most people thought we were bananas, most people might think that’s brave. We were more like, “This is what we want to do and we’re going to figure out how to do it.” We did find that out, and we found out where to get the money, and were an inspiration for a lot of people to try and do the same.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
At the moment I’m enjoying myself even more because we have Gerry (Shirren, MD) and Catherine (Hehir, studio manager) who are dealing with the finance, and the headaches that come with cashflow. My favourite part is working with the talent we have. We have a fantastic team of people. I’m surrounded by super-talented artists all the time and I like looking at what we do. I don’t draw so much anymore. It’s more producing material, cheerleading and sales. I get to work on early parts of the script, I like seeing how things shape and develop with the writing. I still like to travel but I don’t as much any more as I have a two-year-old. The reason I became a producer was purely by default, as I was the one willing to fly everywhere, meet people and make connections.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
I’ve no choice, I have a two-year-old. Most of my time is sucked into the work. I had a social life in Kilkenny and travelled around. I made some of my best friends doing business in other countries. When I’m going to a market they’re the people I see most times at the different events over the years. They’re like my friends.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
The traditional good animation studios like Disney or Pixar are amazing and have a brilliant set-up. Pixar had good backing from Steve Jobs and originally George Lucas (Pixar was Lucasfilm originally). In Europe it would be people like Didier Brunner, the French producer with whom we co-produced The Secret of Kells, who knew how to put together money for making a feature film.
What tools or technologies do you use that benefit your customers or business?
What has made it easier to work in a place like Kilkenny and with people abroad is the advent of heavy file sharing, the internet and broadband. On The Secret of Kells we had to ship paper – that’s 12 drawings a second – to Brazil and Hungary to be cleaned up. There was the cost of actually shipping the paper. Now we don’t have to do that as we’re drawing directly onto cintiques or Wacom tablets. There’s no paper involved, it’s all digital, but we’re still drawing by hand. We’re still painting water colour. Song of the Sea still has hand-painted water colours in it, adjusted digitally in Photoshop. The irony is that, over Christmas, there was a blockage in the sink and the whole floor flooded. The only thing that saved the server was all the animation paper from The Secret of Kells, which was stacked [beside it] because we were about to archive some of it with Trinity College. It soaked up some of the water, which then didn’t get into the server, and that saved our digital film.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
On Song of the Sea we showed the storyboard version of the film, timed out with rough voices, to kids in school and asked them questions afterwards. Our other customers might be Disney or Nickelodeon who have asked us to do pilots or work on their shows with them to develop the look – or do the animation. We’ve learnt to build up relations by going to events in London or the US. They’re our customers, but ultimately their customers are kids as well.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
A lot of the time it has been the cashflow. And we’ve had to take on jobs that weren’t necessarily good for the brand of the Saloon, or for our employees, as they weren’t the quality we wanted to work on. But we’ve done that for investment in cashflow. The challenge has been convincing investors. Ultimately, the golden egg is the merchandising deals you get. It was really hard trying to explain that – an intellectual property that has a value.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
Making the stuff. Now, more and more, it’s the pitching and the selling. I realised that being a producer is actually more about talking people into things and having enough confidence in your own ability to do something good. I knew that we were good at what we did. When I was going to talk to the good people in Disney, or the co-producers, at least I was convincing enough to them that we know what we’re doing.
How did you scale/grow your business?
A series and a feature film is much better than trying to do a commercial or a short film. The long-form TV series is great to get, especially if you own it as we do with Puffin Rock. We’re partnered with Penguin and Dog Ears in Derry. It was a very unique deal. We pitched Puffin Rock in 2008 and I didn’t get any strong bites from buyers at the time. We re-imagined it a bit with help from Laura Campbell from Dog Ears. We worked together and self-published a picture book. Penguin saw that at an event and said it would like to put the Puffin label on it. It was looking for something just like it and trying to get into something more cross media. Penguin became a third partner, and that’s the first time they had done that with something that wasn’t already a TV series or a book. It was brand new and original, and Penguin took a big risk. That money closed the gap, and we were funded for the full series.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
We have constant development meetings: twice a week. There are loads of ideas out there, so it’s really about how you execute them and who executes them. Our business, like most businesses, is about investment in people. So we say “Is this a person we could trust with taking it from an idea to being able to direct a TV series or feature?”
What motivates you to stay running a business?
I love animation and I love film. I started out wanting a career drawing, I love feature films, and now I’ve got a combination of both.
What’s your vision for the future?
Just to keep making high quality evergreen feature films and TV series. When I say evergreen I mean like The Jungle Book – it’s still enjoyable to kids now. We try to avoid doing current references. We want the story to be a traditional, good story that you would watch in any decade.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
It’s probably from Gerry (Shirren, MD), and it was “Keep showing up.” I would be coming up to a market at Mipcom, with the expense of going over and the time it would take and thinking “We don’t have anything to sell, we just have this basic idea.” But the most important thing for people starting out in any business is to go to these conventions, meet the people and network. Even if you don’t have anything making a big impact that year, you’re meeting the people and when the time comes you can tell them you have this project. Most people won’t do business with you until they meet you seven or eight times. You’re not a flash in the pan, you’re taking it as a serious business then.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
When you’re setting up partnerships with people, remember you might be in these partnerships longer than most marriages. Make good relationships and work with people who show a bit of integrity.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
If we had time to go back, I would have been a bit braver about saying no to jobs or service work and not being too scared of the cashflow. We wouldn’t be here without the service work, but sometimes we could have afforded to say no to some jobs and focus on our own IP.
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