Karen Raugust delves into how more animation producers are going after the growing faith-based market, feeding the need for family-friendly programming.
This autumn has produced a bumper crop of animated properties with religious themes, many from animation companies new to the Christian market. While the new players see commercial potential, they are often primarily interested in creating animation that reflects their beliefs.
Cartoon Pizza, producer of Stanley and PB& J Otter, introduced Hoop Dogz, a video series based on the Ten Commandments, and has other faith-based properties in the works. We couldnt afford to spend our time and sizable investment on this unless there was a chance for success, says David Campbell, ceo/co-founder, with Jim Jinkins, of Cartoon Pizza. On the other hand, its dicey, he adds, noting that few people have been able to establish faith-based franchises.
In addition to Hoop Dogz, new properties include The GodMan, a 48-minute photorealistic-style video/DVD financed by The Book of Hope International, produced by freelance writer/producer Jeff Holder and animated by 3DBob Productions; The Hugglers, a 3D/live-action preschool property from Reel Inspired Entertainment (a company formed by the owners of work-for-hire studio Keyframe Digital Productions), released by Crash Kidz and distributed by Sony Red; and The Animated Adventure Bible, a 12-half-hour 3D-animated production from The Kids Bible Company of Australia.
While many content providers have tried to emulate the success of Big Ideas VeggieTales series, with limited results, executives now believe the market is poised for growth, in part because parents are looking for family-friendly programming. Theres some good moral stuff out there, but theres also an incredible diet of blow-`em-up stuff, especially for boys, says Brian Stewart, director of Car Angel, a Christian nonprofit thats producing its first childrens animation, a DVD series that takes place in Biblical times and stars a donkey and his brothers.
Theres a hunger in [the Christian] marketplace for high-quality animation, explains Bob Arvin, president of 3DBob. Its not like Christians dont watch TV.
Watching an animation of [a Bible] story brings you a whole new experience, says Nelson Saba, ceo of Visual Book Productions, which produces Ilumina, a CD-ROM that includes animated Bible stories, among several other features. What they are watching is scripture. It gives a lot of depth to the storytelling and makes it very interesting and captivating. So far 37 out of a possible 300 Biblical stories have been animated for this digital Bible.
Many producers credit the current interest in faith-based properties to Mel Gibsons The Passion of the Christ. Mel and his little film really helped make the world see that Christians have the money to spend, says Angela Costello, director of animation and creative services for the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). Theyre seeing that maybe the VeggieTales thing wasnt a fluke.
Darren Cranford, partner in Reel Inspired Entertainment, agrees. Before The Passion, if you had a Christian video you were almost apologetic, but now buyers are actively looking for Christian product, he says. The Passion made it OK to be a Christian.
An Established Market
Of course, faith-based animated properties have been available for decades. Davey and Goliath, stop-motion animated by Art Clokey for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), ran on commercial television from 1960 to 1976 and has been in reruns ever since. The Clokeys created a new one-hour special, Davey and Goliaths Snowboard Christmas, which ELCA hopes to have on a broadcast network soon, according to Rev. Eric Shafer, ELCAs director of communications, who oversees Davey. Video negotiations are ongoing for the special, as well as the 65 15-minute and six 30-minute episodes of the classic series.
Monster Distributes has been in the faith-based market since 1977, when it sold The Storykeepers to British network ITV. The series outrated Rugrats on Sunday mornings and eventually was sold into 108 countries. We established a niche for commercial animation with a religious theme, says Monster chairman Andrew Fitzpatrick. Other Monster properties include TLCs Kids Ten Commandments; Lightning Bug Flixs Bugtime Adventures, distributed by Tyndale in the U.S.; and Max Lucados Hermie & Friends, produced by Glue Works Entertainment.
Two other long-time players in the faith-based market are CBN Animation and Focus on the Family Films. CBN released its first series in 1982 and has sold productions including Storyteller Café, Spunky and Superbook into more than 120 countries in 60 languages. Meanwhile, Focus on the Family has introduced some of the most successful series in the Christian video market, including Adventures in Odyssey. One of its more recent series is Ribbits!, for younger children.
Mainstream entertainment companies have released religious videos over the years as well. Sony Wonder offered The Beginners Bible and Angel Wings with Time-Warner and Tyndale, respectively, while Richard Rich Productions introduced a series of animated Bible stories. Many of PorchLight Entertainments productions appeal to both the Christian and secular markets.
Faith-based childrens book publishers are the primary distributors of videos into Christian stores. They include Zonderkidz, which holds the rights to The Storykeepers, Tyndale, owner of the successful series McGee & Me, and Tommy Nelson, distributor of Hermie & Friends, the number-two Christian childrens brand after VeggieTales.
Other distributors in the market include EMI CMG Marketing, which primarily handles Christian music but has released several video series since the 1990s, including Hide `Em in Your Heart and Prayer Bears. It is introducing three new franchises this year, including Hoop Dogz, The Roach Approach from Wacky World Studios and Angel Wars, a joint venture with TeleStory. We see [video] as a space thats underserved in this market, says David Crace, EMI CMGs svp of marketing.
Video/DVD Drives Sales
In the U.S., video drives the market, since very few television networks buy faith-based animation. The mainstream broadcasters wont touch a religious production with a barge boat, says Fitzpatrick.
Primary customers are niche cable and satellite channels such as the Sky Angel, the Inspiration Network and Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), which carries Tommy Nelsons The Wemmicks and Kids Ten Commandments. Theyre the smallest of the small, says Holder. Other outlets include the Hallmark Channel and syndication. Producers had hoped the PAX network would purchase faith-based animation, but that hasnt come to pass.
There are more opportunities for television outside the U.S., both on niche channels such as the pan-European God Channel and on commercial networks. Countries that have a state religion often mandate a certain amount of religious programming, and some networks choose to satisfy this requirement with animation.
Many of the networks that have aired The Storykeepers, including the U.K.s ITV, Germanys ZDF and KIKA, Italys Mediaset and Frances Canal Plus, are looking for additional shows with similar content, according to Fitzpatrick of Monster, which has sold Kids Ten Commandments to ITV and KIKA.
While some organizations make money from their faith-based productions, others do broadcast deals mainly for exposure and video distribution, and religious networks frequently license shows for little or no fee. CBN sells established series such as Superbook, which has close to 115 episodes and has been on the air for 20 years, but also gives away programming packages to governments and networks. Animation helps us get into some countries where we wouldnt be otherwise, Costello says.
Most distribution of faith-based videos in the U.S. is through Christian stores, or the CBA market, named for the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA). The CBA has 2,500 store members in the U.S. and more than 1,000 in 40 other countries. Annual sales through this channel top $4 billion, but only about 3% are of videos.
Christian video marketers in the U.S. are increasingly looking at mainstream retail chains like Wal-Mart and Target as potential sales channels, with several expected to announce distribution deals soon. Lets face it, thats where we all shop, says Costello. It becomes important that the Pringles and the videos are in the same store.
Yet mainstream retailers can be interested in faith-based product. They care about sales per square foot, says Dan Lynch, svp and publisher of Tommy Nelson, who reports that, if buyers see potential, theyre very open to product, both on the publishing and video side. In addition to Hermie and The Wemmicks, Tommy Nelson distributes Inspirational Baby, the Wild & Wacky series and a Christian version of Jay Jay the Jet Plane.
Some religious properties have gotten exposure at mainstream retail even without video distribution there. Rachel Beavers, EMI CMGs director of childrens marketing, reports that Wacky World did a promotion with the beverage brand Shasta Shorts that put The Roach Approach s main character, Squiggz, on containers in Wal-Mart stores.
Quality on the Rise
Animation quality is improving in the faith-based market due to a number of factors. They include the entrance of animation specialists with Hollywood experience, the lowering of animation costs and the realization by producers and religious organizations that quality is important if they are to compete with mainstream properties.
With religious programming, theres the assumption of mediocrity, says Costello. We get so caught up in the message. Just because theres a message, theres no reason for me to be lax in the quality. CBN uses a network of 211 freelance animators around the world. They all have to have mainstream experience, Costello explained. I cant afford to have less than cutting-edge imagery.
There has been an improvement in quality, but its been gradual. There have been huge missed opportunities, says Bob Garner, partner in Forest Rose Productions and exec producer/creator of Ribbits! Good talents being drawn to it. Thats the key, to do it right or not do it at all.
At the same time, there is still room for progress. There are still a lot of bargain basement things happening, Cranford says.
Even without production values, it needs to be well-written and well-performed, Arvin believes. You can smell the low budget on most Christian projects.
Were approached by a lot of people wanting to do Christian animation and very seldom does anything happen, reports Mark Simon, producer/director at A&S Animation, which does the storyboards for Ilumina and produced three animated shorts called A Message from God, for Raven Moons Gina Ds Kids Club before it was relaunched as a secular show. The conversations end almost as soon as money is discussed.
Religious organizations also must commit to a property for the long term, since it can take a while for sales to ramp up. Many companies have only secured enough financing for a couple of videos, leading to the possibly premature end of the franchise. Compounding the issue is the fact that, as with any animated video, retailers pull properties if theyre not successful right away. While CBA stores might keep a production on shelves for a year or so longer than mainstream stores that still isnt much time. You have to wonder, would VeggieTales succeed in todays market? asks Lynch, noting that it took three to four years for that property to become a force in the market.
The faith-based sector is unique in that its productions both those that are strictly evangelical and those that are more values-driven face the challenge of balancing entertainment and message, with many productions leaning toward the message. They approach it very much from a Christian, didactic point of view instead of an entertainment point of view, says Fitzpatrick. They put religion before entertainment.
A lot of [productions are] too sweet, Garner says, noting that Ribbits! is not as edgy as I wouldve liked it. A little bit of edginess is part of a kids real life.
Its harder to be an animation director in a Christian industry than to be an animation director, says Costello. You have to be more creative. You cant rely on the old fallbacks of crass, crude, ridiculous and vulgar. Those things are not in my tool box.
We can understand the concerns [of the Christian audience]. We are members of that audience, says Campbell. But even though [Hoop Dogz is] religious in nature, we dont want to be preachy. Its just the next step, a more religious incarnation of what weve been doing. We think its the funniest thing weve done yet.
Crace emphasizes that the same moms buy Disney as buy religious programming. The challenge has been that we havent had quality products that could compete, he says. When companies like Cartoon Pizza come into our space, it can do nothing but help the category.
At the same time, there can be some challenges when the faith community and Hollywood meet. Its two worlds trying to figure each other out, Arvin explains.
Word of mouth is an important factor in CBA market success, and many organizations promote their brands through churches to drive video sales. VeggieTales has had no TV and almost no traditional marketing support, but has sold 35 million videos, 5 million CDs and 2 million books. That was all at a grassroots level through the church, says Crace, who notes that 120 million Americans, or 42% of the population, go to a worship service each week.
ELCAs publishing house, Augsburg Fortress, rebranded its quarterly devotional magazine to focus on Davey and Goliath and features the characters in its Vacation Bible School curriculum. Sales of the latter increased 30% in the first year the characters were used; customers included 5,000 congregations, half of which were Lutheran. The church has also created animated TV spots for congregations and youth groups.
Car Angels DVDs will be distributed to church-based and secular libraries and preschools, and the property has been licensed at no cost to Campus Crusade for Christ, a nonprofit organization that reaches a wide audience.
While these efforts can be successful, marketers need to be careful about using traditional advertising and promotional techniques. Marketing is a problem in the Christian market, says Garner. Gorilla chest-beating doesnt work, but at the same time you have to get the word out.
Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).