When people think of animation, they often think of majors such as Disney, Warner Bros., Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. But after 40 years, one firm stands tallest among independent animation companies: Nelvana, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

Based in Toronto, with offices in Paris and Los Angeles, Nelvana is one of the world’s top producers and distributors of animated and live-action content for children. The company, founded in 1971, has amassed a library of more than 4,000 half-hour episodes of kids programs that air in more than 100 countries. Its best known shows include “Babar” and “Max & Ruby.”

“It is a business that we are extremely proud of,” says Colin Bohm, the managing director of Nelvana Enterprises at Corus Entertainment. “Our success is in telling great stories for our audiences.”

But storytelling is not Nelvana’s only skill. The company has successfully moved into merchandising with brands that are born from its television shows, with such products as toys, apparel and stationery. 

“Some animation companies do not like partnering with other firms to build brands, but Nelvana prefers it,” Bohm asserts. “We are a company that has partnered with pretty much everybody under the sun when it comes to new properties,” he declares. “We’re [also] used to reaching out beyond the Canadian market.”

This approach allows Nelvana to partner with companies that bring a diverse range of skills to the table. “We recognize that each partner brings different strengths to the table,” Bohm states. “We have an adaptability to working a lot of different ways.”

Corus Television President Doug Murphy adds that Canada’s co-production treaties with more than 50 countries nurture this philosophy. “We pride ourselves on the ability to work with any culture, anywhere,” he says. “I would venture to say we have done more co-productions than any other animation studio in the world.”

At the Top

Nelvana is focusing its efforts at the moment on developing the viewership and merchandise for three of its shows, including “Beyblade,” a boys’ action anime series with a plot centered on spinning top toys. It was a hit for Nelvana, d-rights and Hasbro in the early 2000s.

In 2010, Nelvana and d-rights relaunched the “Beyblade” series with a line from Hasbro that updates the toy with a metal gear system and an online virtual battle component. Since its premier, “It’s just been a phenomenal success,” Murphy reports.

The “Beyblade” products are available in more than 50 countries and 120 million of the new tops have been sold worldwide. The tops have made the top toy lists this holiday season for Walmart and Time to Play magazine.

Nelvana is also developing the merchandising for “Max & Ruby,” a series based on the children’s books by Rosemary Wells that follows the adventures of two bunny siblings. The series is a hit on Nickelodeon.

“It is one of the top preschool shows in the United States,” Bohm says. Naturally, many leading retailers are showing strong interest in the property. 

“We’ve been getting a lot of action,” he states. “We have enormous confidence this could be [another] ‘Strawberry Shortcake’ or ‘Dora the Explorer.’”

Nelvana also is reviving a classic property with the new CGI “Babar and the Adventures of Badou” series. Created 80 years ago when Jean de Brunhoff first illustrated the story of Babar, an elephant living in the jungle whose mother is killed by a hunter, Babar has appeared in more than 30,000 book titles, in over 18 languages, with more than 13 million books sold. When Jean died in 1937, his son, Laurent de Brunhoff, continued the Babar legacy.

“It is one of the few remaining classic properties,” Bohm says. The series airs on top international broadcasters, including Disney Junior in the U.S., Discovery Kids Latin America and ABC Australia. 

Already a huge hit in France, Nelvana, along with its partner The Clifford Ross Company, plans to fully launch the merchandising program in 2012. “It’s a slow build for this one,” Bohm says. “We want to make sure we build it properly.”

Bohm says he is confident in Nelvana’s future.“We think the model we’ve got is working,” he asserts. “As I look into the future, our reputation as a world-class partner will serve us well.”

Murphy agrees, and notes that Nelvana can create models that result in less risk for merchants. “We know how well these properties do on the air,” he says. “We want to convince some of these trades to take a step forward, make the minimum quantity order and let the consumers tell both of us that our instincts are correct.”

Nelvana also plans to build on its huge success in the boys’ action space, with a couple of promising new properties in the pipeline. With its parent company Corus owning a number of the top children’s television channels in Canada, “We have the ability to incubate on-air opportunities in a way that’s unique,” Murphy says. “We’ve proven that Canada can be a great launch pad for future marketplaces.”