6353 Sunset Boulevard
Klasky Csupo, Inc. is one of Hollywood's leading independent animation studios. The firm's work includes television programs like Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys and their spinoff feature films, as well as commercials, animated title sequences, and music videos. Klasky Csupo also operates a publishing division and two record companies, Tone Casualties and Casual Tonalities, which feature electronic, ambient, and experimental music. The privately held firm is owned by founders and co-chairpersons Gabor Csupo and Arlene Klasky.
Klasky Csupo was founded in 1982 by the husband-and-wife team of Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo (pronounced Chew-po). Born in Hungary in 1952, Csupo had studied both music and animation before escaping his Communist homeland in 1975 by way of Yugoslavia. After spending time in a German refugee camp he settled in Sweden, where in 1979 he met graphic designer Klasky, who was there on vacation. They fell in love, and after he moved to join her in California, they were married.
Csupo initially found work animating episodes of Scooby-Doo for Hanna-Barbera, but after being laid off, he, Klasky, and two partners decided to start an animation/graphic design firm in the couple's spare bedroom. They soon began working on commercials, title sequences, and other projects, and in 1987 the busy company moved to larger quarters.
In 1988 the firm animated a series of one-minute shorts for The Tracy Ullman Show called "The Simpsons." Though created by Matt Groening, many key design elements were the work of Klasky Csupo, including the characters' yellow skin tones and mother Marge's blue hair. The shorts were a hit, and, after a one-hour musical special for HBO, the program began running in December of 1989 on the Fox network as a half-hour situation comedy.
Rugrats Debuts in 1991
In 1989 the firm also began work on a new series called Rugrats for the Nickelodeon cable network, which had recently committed $40 million to producing original animation for children. Co-created with Paul Germain, it debuted in 1991 and quickly became a Saturday morning hit. Based on a simple premise ("If babies could talk, what would they say?"), Rugrats featured an infant's view of the world, rendered in a distinctive two-dimensional, Eastern European animation style. Big-headed, bald, diapered Tommy Pickles; nervous, orange-haired Chuckie; and twins Phil and Lil got into mischief or were tormented by three-year-old Angelica while their oblivious parents and grandfather went about their own business. The look of the show and its characters was largely the work of Csupo, while Klasky took charge of their story lines. Rugrats also featured a distinctive keyboard-based music score courtesy of former Devo front man Mark Mothersbaugh, whose work had come to the attention of Csupo via an experimental solo album.
Klasky Csupo's other work of this period included music videos for Luther Vandross and the Beastie Boys, title sequences for shows like 21 Jump Street and In Living Color, and numerous short segments for Sesame Street. The growing company moved to a new, larger space in Hollywood in 1990.
In 1991 Klasky Csupo began using computers to color its cartoons, after scanning black and white line drawings into data files. The company did not generate each animation cell, but rather produced a series of key images for its Korean subcontractors. Those firms then hand-drew and inked up to 23,000 separate pictures that were shot sequentially to yield 22 minutes of action.
In 1992 the studio spent $400,000 of its own funds to produce a 16-minute animated pilot film called Duckman, Private Dick, Family Man, which was based on cartoonist Everett Peck's edgy comic about a cigar-smoking, foulmouthed duck. Despite the familiar voice of Seinfeld actor Jason Alexander, the adult-themed show was initially turned down by the networks. The year also saw the loss of Simpsons animation work, which was shifted to a company called Film Roman. In 1993, a new Klasky Csupo series debuted on Nickelodeon. AAAHH!! Real Monsters! followed the adventures of a group of young monsters who were learning to scare humans. The year also saw production of "Recycle Rex," a ten-minute educational film for Disney, and a pair of half-hour specials that featured comedian Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann character for ABC.
Duckman Debuts on USA in 1994
March of 1994 saw the USA Network primetime debut of Duckman, which was lauded by critics and began a two-season run. As with Rugrats, the studio had turned to a subversive popular musician for the soundtrack, Csupo's longtime inspiration and friend Frank Zappa. Though Zappa had died of cancer in December of 1993, his music was adapted for the series' first season, and his son Dweezil was asked to voice one of the characters.
The popularity of Rugrats reached critical mass in 1994 when reruns began appearing on Nickelodeon weeknights at 7:30, in addition to Saturday mornings. The show had already been recognized with two daytime Emmy awards, and it became the network's signature program, as well as inspiring a flood of spinoff products. Nickelodeon was running only the 65 episodes it had already commissioned, however, and, except for primetime specials, no new episodes would be made by Klasky Csupo for several years.
In November 1994 former Will Vinton Entertainment head Terry Thoren was named president and CEO of the studio, with Klasky and Csupo taking the roles of co-chairpersons. His goal was to expand the firm's activities into feature films, video games, and other new media projects. By now the company had assembled a large staff of animators, which ranged from recent film school graduates to Eastern European émigrés.
The year 1994 also saw Gabor Csupo found a record label called Tone Casualties to issue recordings of ambient and experimental music, including some of his own work. Two years later a more commercial sublabel, Casual Tonalities, was added as well.
In 1995 a new children's cartoon called Santo Bugito debuted on CBS, which had financed it with ITV and Nickelodeon UK. The program about cartoon bugs living on the Mexican/U.S. border was the first to be owned by Klasky Csupo, bringing potentially lucrative licensing rights, but it was cancelled after just 13 episodes.
Klasky Csupo Commercials Founded in 1995
Klasky Csupo now employed 200 and had annual revenues estimated at more than $21 million, of which 10 percent or more came from commercials. In 1995 a separate unit, Klasky Csupo Commercials, was formed to take on more of this work. The company was producing ads for agencies that represented such major firms as MCI and Oscar Mayer.
In 1996 the studio signed a three-year "first look" agreement with Viacom unit MTV Networks, whose holdings included Nickelodeon, MTV, HBO, UPN, and Comedy Central. A feature film version of Rugrats was now on the drawing board, which would be released by Viacom division Paramount Pictures. The firm's contract was later extended to five years, with movie development and production made exclusive as well.
In early 1997 Csupo and Klasky divorced, though they continued to work together. At this time the Hungarian animator was opening an art gallery/performance space/restaurant called Lumpy Gravy with his soon-to-be second wife, but it lost money and was closed after two years. In that same year the firm invested several million dollars in new computer equipment so that it could create high-definition animation suitable for conversion to 35-millimeter motion picture film, as it geared up to complete the Rugrats feature. During the year production of new Rugrats episodes started up again, but Duckman and AAAHH!! Real Monsters! were cancelled.
In 1998 a new Klasky Csupo series called The Wild Thornberrys debuted on Nickelodeon. It followed the story of children whose parents hosted a nature-themed TV show and traveled around the world, with 12-year old Eliza able to communicate with animals. The show became a hit, and it would be produced for a number of seasons.
The Rugrats Movie Tops $100 Million in 1998
On November 20, 1998 The Rugrats Movie debuted around the United States. Opening weekend ticket sales for the $25 million film were an impressive $27.3 million, and it went on to top $100 million in the United States and Canada, becoming the first non-Disney animated feature to reach this mark.
Other projects at this time included the first of several 40-minute cartoons starring McDonald's clown Ronald McDonald that were sold on videotape at the restaurant chain, and Stressed Eric, a downbeat adult show produced for the BBC. Despite critical accolades, only six episodes were produced by Klasky Csupo and American networks expressed little interest in the series. The company also changed the name of its animation unit to the phonetically accurate Class-Key Chew-Po Commercials during 1998.
In August of 1999 a new Nickelodeon show called Rocket Power was introduced. Aimed at preteens, it involved a group of surfers and skateboarders growing up in Southern California, and proved a hit with its intended audience. The year also saw the firm move to a five-story building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, which featured Cooltoons, a store that sold its products.
In November 2000 Klasky Csupo's second film, Rugrats in Paris, was released, and the $30 million feature went on to take in $76.5 million at the box office in North America. The fall of 2000 also saw the debut of As Told by Ginger, a new series produced for Nickelodeon about a teenage girl dealing with the pitfalls of life in junior high school. It proved popular with teens as well as critics, and received an Emmy nomination.
In 2001 Rugrats celebrated its tenth year on television, and the show was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was now seen weekly by 27 million viewers, making it the top children's program in both the cable and broadcast arenas. It had been translated into 30 languages for broadcast in 75 countries, and its popularity was a key factor in making Nickelodeon the number one cable network in the United States, with one-third more viewers than nearest competitor TBS, and more than double the total of the Disney Channel.
Ka-Chew!, Global Tantrum Formed in 2001
In 2001 Klasky Csupo also formed a new live-action commercial division to focus on the youth and young adult markets, Ka-Chew!, as well as Global Tantrum, a new adult film unit that would produce either animated or live-action features. The latter had been created in part to give the firm's artists additional creative outlets, with the first announced project a film based on the writings of underground L.A. poet Charles Bukowski.
In the fall of 2002 Klasky Csupo had three of the ten most popular Saturday children's programs on television, and two of the ten most popular weekday ones. Merchandise sales and other tie-ins to the company's creative properties like Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys had accounted for $3.7 billion in sales since the start of 1997, but the firm's cut was small compared with Nickelodeon's.
In September 2002 a story about Klasky Csupo's alleged dissatisfaction with Viacom appeared in Forbes. The firm's contract, under which it was paid $450,000 per 22-minute episode, was about to expire, and it was reportedly seeking a larger share of the profits its work brought via syndication through the media giant's various outlets. The article also reported that the company had hired auditors to examine Paramount's books, as it was disputing the share of profits it had received from the two Rugrats movies. The first look contract with MTV Networks limited its ability to perform work for other networks as well, and a recent order of just 20 new cartoon episodes (down from 76 several years earlier) had forced the company to lay off 75 of its staff of 350 animators. However, two weeks after the story was published Csupo told Variety that there was no bad blood between the firms.
In late December of 2002 The Wild Thornberrys Movie was released, though its business did not approach that of the Rugrats films and it earned just under $40 million in North America. Also in 2002 Klasky Csupo Broadcast Design unit was formed to create animated graphics like the opening segment of MTV's The Osbournes. It would later be merged with the firm's commercials unit to operate under the Ka-Chew! banner.
In the summer of 2003 a combined Rugrats/Thornberrys film, Rugrats Go Wild, was released. It, too, peaked at $40 million in ticket sales, despite the presence of celebrity guest voices and the gimmick of "scratch and sniff" cards given away at Burger King and Blockbuster outlets. The firm's recently announced plans to build a ten-story building adjacent to its studio and to hire 750 more employees to work on features were subsequently put on hold.
All Grown Up Begins Run in 2003
In 2003 a new series, All Grown Up, began airing on Nickelodeon. Based on a 2001 Rugrats two-part special called "All Growed Up," it continued the Rugrats' story with teenaged versions of the same characters, making its debut as the Rugrats series itself was officially declared at end. The company's TV animation business was now hurting, in large part due to the success of its long-term employer. Nickelodeon's biggest current hit, SpongeBob SquarePants, had come from its own in-house animation studio, and that unit was churning out many of the network's series in place of independent firms like Klasky Csupo.
In 2005 the irrepressible Rugrats appeared once again with a new series of special shows, Tales from the Crib, which would feature reworked versions of classic fairy tales. The first, Snow White, was aired on Nickelodeon in September and was simultaneously offered for sale on a Paramount DVD, which included two episodes of a Rugrats spinoff called Pre-School Daze that had never been used. The year also saw CEO Terry Thoren leave to form a new company of his own, Vibrant Animation. During his 11-year tenure at Klasky Csupo, the firm had produced more than 610 episodes of TV animation, 4 feature films, 14 television pilots, 600 commercials, and 66 music CDs, with another 175 TV and movie projects put into development.
In early 2006 Gabor Csupo took on an outside project for Walt Disney Pictures, directing a live-action film called The Bridge to Terabithia. It was based on the Newbery Award-winning book by Katherine Paterson about two children who created an imaginary world.
Nearly a quarter century after its founding, Klasky Csupo, Inc. had established itself as one of the leading independent animation firms in Hollywood, with a string of successful television programs, feature films, commercials, and other work to its credit. The vagaries of television broadcasting had reduced its presence on Saturday mornings, but the firm still had many projects in the pipeline, including animated films for adults.
Ka-Chew!; Tonal Casualties; Klasky Csupo Publishing; Global Tantrum.
Nickelodeon Animation Studios; The Walt Disney Studios; Sony Pictures Animation; DreamWorks Animation SKG, Inc.; Blue Sky Studios, Inc.