Wendy Jackson reports on the second annual BrainCamp, an exclusive think tank for executives in the kids' entertainment industry.
With the countless industry conventions, conferences, trade shows, symposiums, seminars and festivals being offered these days, there is little room in anyone's calendar. Ironically, this is the sentiment that inspired the launch of a new industry event, BrainCamp, which recently held its second edition, March 25-26 in New York City.
A Brief History
BrainCamp co-founder Howard Leib, a New York-based attorney, consultant and jack-of-all-trades, has been organizing a recurring event called Kids Entertainment Seminars (KES) for five years. "As the children's entertainment industry grew," he recalled, "I felt there was a need for a forum for the 'big guys' to play, to get together and exchange information and ideas." With input from industry players such as Tom arreca, and in partnership with animation industry executive Fred Seibert and event planner Lina Maini, BrainCamp was born, as an "informal, free-wheeling forum where ideas are exchanged, insights are gathered and new alliances are born." Seibert, who drew some of his inspiration for BrainCamp's format from the Monterey TED (Technology/Entertainment/Development) conference, said it is intended to be "the only thing in the kids business that people will `want' to go to rather than `have' to go to."
The first BrainCamp took place in New York in June, 1997. Presentations were given by John Kricfalusi of Spumco, Shelley Day of Humongous Entertainment, Joel Ehrlich of DC Comics, Amy Friedman of Nickelodeon's Creative Lab, Tom Corey and Scott Nash of design studio Big Blue Dot, Diana Huss Green of Parents' Choice, Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's and Ron Dubren, co-creator of the top-selling toy, Tickle Me Elmo. "We have to get speakers who are interesting enough that a room full of corporate presidents and vice presidents want to hear what they have to say," said Leib, "BrainCamp is a place to really meet your peers and get to know them on a one to one basis."
Unlike other industry seminars aimed at offering "networking opportunities" to aspiring achievers, BrainCamp is a small, invitation-only event reserved for a limited number of high-caliber attendees. "BrainCamp is an exclusive event. We make no bones about it," explained Leib. "While we will probably grow a little larger over time, I never want us to become one of those 'cattle car' events with hundreds of people crowding a stage after each presentation hoping for 30 seconds of a speaker's personal attention." The high price tag for admission ($1,795. two months in advance, $1,995. afterward) insures that attendees are of serious rank.
So what makes busy executives shell out nearly two thousand dollars to hear their own peers speak? My curiosity was peaked. I went to New York to check out the second annual BrainCamp.
The first day started out with an 8:30 a.m. breakfast, where I greeted familiar faces and met new ones. The entire event took place on the seventh floor of the Coleman Conference Center, a few blocks from Times Square. The elbow-rubbing included top-level executives, presidents and CEOs of a varied group of companies including Cartoon Network, Warner Bros. Feature Animation, Discovery Channel, Mattel, MGM, Universal, Harper Collins and Nickelodeon. I counted 35 people in the room, and a few others who made brief appearances (Viacom's headquarters are nearby, so there were a lot of people stopping by from MTV and Nickelodeon).
We settled into seats at round tables facing a podium, chalkboard and two TV monitors in an intimate, very air-conditioned room. Howard Leib and Fred Seibert warmed up the crowd, saying BrainCamp is like "the best kind of cocktail party," and encouraging an open dialogue during the event's frequent breaks.
The first presentation was given by several people involved in Nick Jr. and its hit pre-school series, Blue's Clues. Nickelodeon president Herb Scannell started things off by filling us in on the history of Nick Jr., the brainchild of Brown Johnson. The pre-school program block was launched in 1993 with what Johnson said are three main principals: "problem solving, partnering and planning." Reeling with excitement from a glowing article in the previous day's New York Times ("Move Over, Big Bird: A New Blue Dog's in Town"), Angela Santomero and Traci Paige Johnson, two of the three co-creators of Blue's Clues, described the rules which were broken with the series and the intensive research and testing process used in the show's ongoing development. We were shown a split-screen tape of kids watching the show. The kids talked to the TV, pointed and jumped around in a manner that was anything but a passive television viewing experience. While the show's interactive nature may seem like an idea whose time has come, Nickelodeon took a big risk, admitted Scannell, by agreeing to air one episode a week: the same episode every day, five days in a row. The risk has paid off with record high ratings, a consumer-induced merchandising campaign and an expansion which includes a web site, a magazine and CD-Rom games coming in the fall from Humongous Entertainment. The next day I visited the Blue's Clues production studio and was amazed by the fact that the entire show is animated and composited in Adobe After Effects software, by a relatively small team of artists. But this is another story...
The second presenter was Michael Silberkleit, chairman of Archie Comic Publications. He talked about the rebirth of the Archie Comics property which is "still going strong" after 57 years. They have one weekly and six daily comic strips in syndication, an animated series in production and a live-action feature in development, as well as several ancillary projects in the works such as a chain of family restaurants and a new pop music group (remember "Sugar, Sugar"?). Admirably evergreen though the Archie property may be, however, I found Silberkleit's presentation to be dry and out of touch with the present state of the entertainment industry.
A delicious buffet lunch presented an opportunity to meet and greet. Leib, Maini and Seibert make it their duty to introduce everyone. Next, Rhino Records vice president of strategic marketing, Neil Werde talked about the growing kids music business, revealing such interesting tidbits as "the kids [music] business is still 60-70% cassettes, not CDs" and "competition is driving prices down like in the video market." Rhino recently struck a deal with Nickelodeon to release product based on Nick properties, such as "The Best of Nicktoons." Licensing deals like this have been the key to Rhino's success. Their product line includes more than 40 titles based on animated properties: from Schoolhouse Rocks to The Simpsons to Hanna-Barbera theme songs. Another strategy lies in packaging, and what Werde calls "product bundling." In a big department store, "it's better to be in the action-figure aisle than the audio aisle," he noted. So, Rhino is packaging its audio products with toys to get better placement in stores.
Speaking with attendees after BrainCamp, one of the favored presentations was by Charles Rivkin, president and CEO of The Jim Henson Company. Rivkin, who joined Henson in 1988 (he was previously in investment banking), has seen the company through the tragic death of it's founder and central figure, and the subsequent restructuring of the entire company. He talked about what the company has been through, including the canceled merger with Disney after Jim Henson's death in 1990. The studio now has a deal to produce 3-5 features a year with Disney. Earlier this year, the company made a bold move by hiring former Fox Kids CEO Margaret Loesch as president of its new Television Group, a move which Rivkin said, "has already changed our company dramatically." The company has since made a deal to produce a hybrid puppetry and CGI series, BRATS of the Dark Nebula, for Kids WB! and announced plans to launch a cable network, The Kermit Channel, with Hallmark Entertainment. Rivkin said the company is looking to the future while firmly rooted in concepts instilled by its founder: innovate, act with integrity at all times and "when in doubt, throw penguins."
Another enlightening presentation was given by Kit Laybourne. Titled "Below the Radar: Emerging Voices in Digital Animation," it looked at the development of desktop animation as today's equivalent to the independent animation movement. He noted that as a result of the trend of small, Independent projects "from the margins" taking off as big hits, studios are deliberately creating margins of their own to develop new material. Nickelodeon, where Laybourne currently works as executive producer of an animated TV series and feature in development called Hank the Cowdog, has taken this route with its Creative Lab and Oh Yeah! Cartoons project which is spearheaded by Fred Seibert and modeled after Hanna-Barbera's What a Cartoon! series. This Animation World Magazine editor was so impressed with Laybourne's presentation that he was invited to write an article, which is included in this issue.
The second day of BrainCamp was notably less energized, with about half of the attendees and few of the previous day's presenters. Bob Friedman, president of New Line Television spoke mostly about the company's feature film efforts such as Lost In Space, which was screened for BrainCampers the night before, along with the 1961 Oscar-winning animated short, Munro, based on a story by Jules Feiffer. Feiffer himself made a rare appearance as a presenter, with a delightful slide show in which he recalled highlights of his career as a cartoonist, including a stint at the fledgling Terrytoons studio, where he met Gene Deitch, who eventually directed the film Munro from his studio in Prague.
Disappointingly, in place of an ill, London-bound Anna Home, chair of the World Summit on Television for Children, Carole Rosen from HBO and Linda Kahn from Scholastic filled in by giving a hasty encapsulation of the event, including the formation of a new 26-country co-production, Animated Tales of the World.
So, did it work? Is BrainCamp tuition worth the price? Yes, if you can afford it. Group conversations between presentations were lively, often launching into debates. Overall, participants seemed energized by the interaction with their peers, and even with their competitors. At this level of executive, many people know each other and have even worked together in the past.
Did I mention the goodies? If nothing more, go for the party favors. Thanks to corporate sponsors and presenters' companies, each and every participant went home with a full bag of gifts. I counted the following: branded t-shirts, baseball caps and bags; souvenir programs from Feld Entertainment's Barnum & Bailey Circus and Hercules on Ice, Batman comics from DC Comics, a Betty Boop book from Kitchen Sink Press (a publisher recently purchased by Fred Seibert), books from Jules Feiffer, a Blue's Clues note pad, a Big Comfy Couch book , a TVLand board game, a video of animation for babies and one about Christian music, and a few CDs from Rhino. A few weeks after the event, every BrainCamper received a package including pre-printed rolodex cards with the contact information for each participant. All this and a giant chocolate bar!
Next year's BrainCamp will take place March 25 and 26, 1999 in New York City. For information, contact Lina Maini at firstname.lastname@example.org or (516) 593-5494.
Wendy Jackson is associate editor of Animation World Magazine.