The bear has long been a ferocious projection of Russia’s power at home and abroad. Lately, a Russian bear that’s more like a kindly uncle has been winning hearts from Baltimore to Berlin: the affable and patient companion of a mischievous girl in the cartoon Masha and the Bear. The series, which has won accolades worldwide, is one of the top-rated channels on YouTube and made its debut on Netflix in August. The producers are planning a licensing push into everything from yogurt to burgers to plush animals.
Moscow production company Animaccord has released 52 six-minute episodes in which the hyperactive Masha typically annoys her long-suffering companion, who’s more interested in fishing or playing checkers. In one story, she wakes him up from hibernation and demands that he teach her to ice skate; in another, he must repeatedly launder and mend her dress after she’s covered in mud, food, and ashes. “Our six-minute series suits the YouTube format very well,” logging a total of more than 5.5 billion views, says Dmitry Loveyko, co-owner of Animaccord. “No amount of promotion could have gotten us to that level. The Internet is a very honest thing.”
Loveyko started Animaccord in 2008 with Sergey Kouzmin, a friend from his time at Novosibirsk State University in the 1990s. They teamed up with animator Oleg Kuzovkov, who had the idea of adapting the traditional Russian stories of Masha and her bear to a world of TVs and cell phones. They sought to do for television animation what Pixar Animation Studios and DreamWorks Animation were doing for the big screen. The company uses software from Pixar and Autodesk but also developed its own programs to render images such as water, the bear’s fur, and snow (in abundant supply in stories set in Russia). Animaccord says the show costs about $50,000 per minute—expensive for TV—and that the first 52 episodes took seven years to make. An additional 26 are in the works, to be released over the next three years.
Animaccord has grown from about 60 employees two years ago to more than 100, including 70 animators. It’s developed two spinoffs from the series, one in which Masha narrates fairy tales but confuses the details, and another called Masha’s Spooky Stories, aimed at kids slightly younger than the original’s primary audience of 3- to 9-year-olds. Loveyko says he doesn’t have the production resources for a feature-length film or a series with new characters, but he doesn’t rule them out.
The series in February won the best animation award at Kidscreen, an annual children’s entertainment conference in Miami. In October it was the No. 5 channel on YouTube, with 383 million views for the month, according to researcher Tubefilter. The most popular episode, “Masha + Kasha,” has had almost 1 billion views, far ahead of anything from the likes of Walt Disney or Nickelodeon. Masha has been translated into 25 languages and airs in more than 100 countries. An English-language YouTube channel, introduced in September 2014, has garnered more than 240 million views. Animaccord hired Elsie Fisher—the voice of Agnes, the youngest of the three girls in the Despicable Me films—to dub Masha. Netflix shows Masha in North America and says it’s considering adding it in other countries.
Animaccord doesn’t release details about its finances, but researcher Social Blade estimates the series earns as much as $1.5 million a month from advertising on YouTube. The real money, though, is in licensing, which Animaccord says accounts for about two-thirds of revenue. Loveyko expects retail sales of licensed goods globally to jump next year by about 25 percent, to $300 million, which would mean about $15 million in profit for his company. Last year, Italian confectioner Ferrero sold 37 million chocolate bars with Masha and the Bear on the label in Russia, and Danone sold 33 million licensed yogurts in Ukraine. Burger King has been offering a Masha-branded kids menu in Russia since January, and German toymaker Simba Dickie is introducing Masha-themed plush animals and construction sets. Masha has “proven that it works perfectly for merchandising, not only for toys but apparel, school bags, and sweets,” says Michael Sieber, Simba Dickie’s chief executive officer. “It has great potential. It won’t be just a short hype but a long-term story.”
The bottom line: Sales of licensed goods from Masha and the Bear could reach $300 million next year as the Russian cartoon’s popularity soars.