Adult Swim President Michael Ouweleen Pushes International Expansion (EXCLUSIVE)

ANNECY, France — Michael Ouweleen, president of Cartoon Network, Boomerang and Adult Swim, a major force behind the rise of adult animation, has signalled at Annecy the company’s intention to ramp up its presence in Europe and international markets at large.

“We very much want to see Adult Swim originals coming from anywhere in the world,” Ouweleen told Variety at the French festival.

More from Variety

The stars are aligning for the overseas drive.

In the U.S., Adult Swim is on a roll. In the fourth quarter of 2023, Adult Swim saw greater primetime growth among 18-49s than any other major cable network. It bowed the top three new animated series on cable in 2023: “Unicorn: Warriors Eternal,” “My Adventures with Superman” and “Royal Crackers,” Cartoon Brew noted.

As Ouweleen enthused at an Adult Animation Annecy panel on Friday, he added, “the distribution of adult animation just this week got better.” On June 11, Max, offering Adult Swim, launched in France, Poland and Monaco, three of the 25 countries across Europe where Max will be made available over May 21 through July 1.

“My great hope is that as more people in Europe [who are] going to art school and more creators see more and more Adult Swim content and become part of the family and make stuff for Adult Swim. There’s nothing more gratifying than that,” Ouweleen said during the panel.

Much of a fun – and sometimes downright hilarious – Adult Swim studio focus on Thursday involved Adult Swim bosses pitching the audience – made up in its main of prestige French animation school students – of the company’s love of and ability to handle first-time animation full series creators. Ouweleen was joining on the day by Kelly Crews, head of production, and Suzanna Makkos, executive VP, original comedy and adult animation.

Crews recalled working with a first-time series creator called Pendleton Ward. Cartoon Network rejected the first six storyboards for his first series. What they got to in the end was “Adventure Time.”

Two greenlit full-season orders were announced during the Thursday panel, both from first-time series creators: Adele “Supreme” Williams’ “Oh My God, Yes! A Series of Extremely Relatable Circumstances” and “Haha You Clowns” from Joe Cappa.

Adult Swim also screened a clip from a third debutant series director: Gonzalo Córdova’s “Women Wearing Shoulder Pads,” an ‘80s Ecuador-set telenovela about a businesswoman campaigning for people to stop eating guinea pigs and start adopting them as pets.

Little wonder the panel was entitled Adult Swim: Defying Expectations.

Ouweleen himself does that. He’s no suit.  When he’s not smiling, he’s laughing. He grew up in Rochester, New York, drawing comic books, which his Dad would Xerox. His first job was building fireproof safes on the night shift.

Working in advertising at J. Walter Thompson, where he made a pilot for Nickelodeon, at a Christmas party, someone asked who wanted a job at Cartoon Network. “My now wife is like, he does,” Ouweleen recalled. The following Monday, he has an interview at the headhunters’ office and is appointed Cartoon Network creative director. That was in 1996. Three years later, he championed and co-founded Adult Swim, serving as its first creative director at launch and co-creating one of its earliest shows, the cult favorite “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.”

Since then, as he said on Friday’s Adult Animation panel, he’s had “every sort of job possible” at Cartoon Network and Adult Swim. “It’s my life,” he added, uttering a heartfelt sentiment.

Variety chatted to Ouweleen on Adult Swim’s plans for international expansion, and almost inevitably Genndy Tartkovsky, before its Annecy Studio Focus, where Tartakovsky pitched a new show to Adult Swim and the Annecy audience, having made the last season of “Samurai Jack” and “Primal” for the company.

Where do you see Adult Swim internationally in one or two years?

Ouweleen: We already do shows that come out of different countries. “YOLO” out of Australia, “Women Wearing Shoulder Pads” animated in Mexico and we have “Rick and Morty Go Anime.” But we very much want to see Adult Swim originals coming from anywhere in the world and for [creative talent] not to be trying to give us an American show.

So, you’d be interested in producing French talent?

Ouweleen: Hopefully. Part of the audience we are addressing today in the room at our Studio Focus is first-time creators, new creators. What are their Adult Swim shows?

And would you co-produce with French companies? 

Ouweleen: Our bias is more directly with talent, but whatever. Either way. And then deploy that content globally. It has to work for a global audience. Its global talent for global use, not a regional approach to releasing.

How can new talent pitch Adult Swim?

Ouweleen: The creators of “Common Side Effects,” which we premiered at Annecy on Wednesday, got asked if they shopped the idea around at Festivals. I said: ‘Let me try and help answer this for us. On animation and particularly adult animation, you don’t have to wait for a festival to pitch. Just pitch us and we want to hear it. It should be relatively easy, at least, for us to see what your idea is and decide if we’re going to spend time talking about it or not.’

I get the sense in Europe, young talent is accustomed to pitching face-to-face…

Ouweleen: What we’re going explain today at the Adult Swim Studio Focus is how to engage us is through our Smalls program [of two-minute shorts, like Joe Cappa’s “Haha You Clowns”].

What advice would you give to talent about what to pitch? 

Ouweleen: Don’t come to us and say: ‘I have written an entire season.’ Don’t give us the cake fully baked because you haven’t done this before. Let us help you with the cake. You know we’re not going to help you write it, but we’ll give you advice and direct you. My hope, is that over the next couple of years, we build a relationship with the community here [in France] so that we find a Genndy [Tartakovsky] from somewhere else. Not a one-to-one Genndy [clone], but a Genndy level of person.

And you’d look to form the kind of relationship you have with Genndy?

Ouweleen: We’ve known each other since we were 24, 25. I was the creative director on the promos for “Dexter’s Lab.” I might choke up weirdly here. He’s just so in our DNA. We’ve never explicitly spoken about this, but I think for him and for me and for everyone in Adult Swim, it’s really, at the end of the day, about working with people you love and whose work you respect and then great stuff comes out of that. And so we weirdly try to approach it by: Who do we want to be with? And then the stuff happens.

You form a relationship with the talent and you hope you have the money for them to do what they want to do.

Ouweleen: That’s well said. That’s exactly right.

Is Max’s international roll-out a game-changer for Adult Swim?

Ouweleen: We’re linear in the U.S., linear in Latin America on three channels. With Max worldwide, we’ve been wherever Max was distributed. We might be the only media entity that when we release in the U.S. on linear, the show goes out globally day and day in other languages everywhere we are. With Max sweeping across Europe this summer, it’s perfect timing because our fan base was frustrated. They didn’t know how to get our shows overseas if they knew about them. So now it’s the perfect week to be here.

Do you see adult animation, especially in series, beginning to bloom in international and Europe, for example?

Ouweleen: Yes I do. Especially because there are so many great schools in international, and particularly in France. Everyone has been so good about preschool and kids animation here for decades but has spent less time thinking about adult animation.

But that’s changing now?

Ouweleen: I’ve sensed over the last two Annecy Festivals that the attention now is sort of switching a little bit and there’s more of an emphasis toward adult animation. And we want to be partners with people to enable that and help them figure it out because the way they’ve been approaching kids’ animation won’t compare for adult….

One of the great revolutions in animation will be international adult series.

Ouweleen: Yes, it’s been latent for a long time.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.