Former FremantleMedia Finland and Friday TV chief Marika Makaroff has landed rights to Scandinavian kids property the Moomins through new prodco, Gutsy Animation. She tells Jesse Whittock about rebooting Tove Jansson’s characters for a family audience.
While there’s been no shortage of brand refreshes and character updates in kids and family entertainment in recent years, none is undergoing as radical a change as the Moomins.
First committed to print by reclusive Finnish children’s author Tove Jansson in Sweden in 1945, its hippopotamus-like characters have since been the basis of numerous European children’s cartoons, with their values of family and adventure at the core.
The newest, and perhaps most international version of the property yet, Moominvalley, takes those tenets and moves them on to primetime schedules for the first time.
Former FremantleMedia Finland and Endemol Shine Nordics-owned Friday TV chief Marika Makaroff, best known as a drama and formats developer and producer, is the driving force behind the project. She tells TBI she has secured a 20-year licence to produce Moomins programming until 2036 through her new Finnish prodco, Gutsy Animations.
“This came about as I was living in Sweden and working for Endemol Shine,” she says. “After that ended, I wanted to do something on my own that I could choose, and I have this mentality of focusing on and creating meaningful projects.”
Launching Gutsy just over 18 months ago, Makaroff has worked quickly to put together what is potentially one of the biggest family series currently in development.
After licensing the rights from Moomin Characters, which creator Jansson founded with her brother Lars to protect the brand, and an Indiegogo crowdfunding process raised more than US$250,000, Finnish pubcaster YLE’s drama division joined the project at development stage, and Sky 1 in the UK and Ireland has joined as prebuyer.
Makaroff had already established a Bristol-based animation production arm, Gutsy UK, and she then drafted in former Aardman Animation pair Steve Box and John Woolley as director and producer respectively, and Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler to write.
“This is really Marika’s baby,” says Woolley, who worked at pioneering stop-motion studio Aardman for 16 years on shows such as Shaun the Sheep and Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention.
The resulting 13x22mins series (two seasons of which have been ordered) is using a new hybrid animation technique that renders characters in 3D environments with some illustrated or painted elements. “We are doing something different in that we’re taking it into a new medium, but we’re also actively returning to stories from the original source material,” says Woolley.
The big reveal came in September, when Gutsy revealed a glut of A-list acting talent had signed on to voice the series.
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) will play caring matriarch Moominmamma, Matt Berry (Toast of London) is her adventurous husband Moominpappa, Taron Egerton (Kingsman) voices the central character Moomintroll, Kate Winslet (Titantic) is Mrs Fillyjonk, Warwick David (Life’s Too Short) is Moomintroll’s adopted brother Sniff, Akiya Henry is the flirtatious Snorkmaiden, Will Self is the philosopher The Muskrat and Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd) will play The Ghost.
“The amazing thing was most of these guys were almost waiting by the phone for the call,” says Makaroff.
However, even with the talent attached, reworking a classic children’s property into a primetime family series is a tough ask.
“There has only ever been one truly global primetime animation, The Simpsons, and we are now trying to bring something different to that global audience,” says Makaroff. “We really have to keep our minds on the high production values and Tove’s world.”
Makaroff began her career as a radio and television journalist in Finland before moving into TV production, initially on youth and unscripted programming. She later became CEO of FremantleMedia Finland, working on local versions of shows such as The Apprentice, Dragons Den, Idols and The X Factor, and then joined Minute to Win It and Clash of the Choirs prodco Friday TV just before parent Shine Group merged with Endemol. She then joined The Bridge creator Filmlance International as chief executive shortly before going it alone.
Gutsy has financial backing from private investors in Finland and further afield, Makaroff says, which has helped with the large budget needed to attempt to tackle the task of Moominvalley as a first project.
“Gutsy has the rights to produce for the Moomins for the next 20 years,” she says when questioned on expectations. “You do feel the weight of the responsibility – the last series was produced over 25 years ago.”
That series, Moomin, was an Asian-European preschool series that played on TV Tokyo in Japan and CBBC in the UK.
The project has even taught Makaroff some new productions skills. “Primarily, I’ve been in entertainment and serious drama, but it has been a really good mix throughout my career,” she says. “With Moominvalley, we have added some of our own touches to the scripts, but I’ve also been really happy to learn some new tricks at my age,” she quips.
Makaroff and Woolley went to MIPCOM to debut the programme at an event on the Croisette. With the Moomins second as a Finnish cultural export only to mobile-app-turned-TV-series Angry Birds, expectation is indeed high. “This is an expensive animation, but we believe we have found the right concept for it,” says Makaroff.