Karen Raugust looks into how HIT uses direct-to-video releases to establish a hook for promotions and product extensions.
For HIT Entertainment, direct-to-video (DTV) productions are an important part of the brand strategy for its childrens TV series, including Bob the Builder, Thomas the Tank Engine, Barney, The Wiggles and Angelina Ballerina. Typically, each property boasts at least one original video production each year, along with other episodic video releases.
While the strategies and specifics of the marketing campaigns vary depending on the property, a direct-to-video production always provides several significant promotional benefits. If theres a strong built-in audience, we try to drive the purchase of items by those already aware of the property, says Jamie Cygielman, HITs senior vp of consumer products. We drive them deeper into the catalog and into other products in the line. For example, advertising to support a DTV release also may mention older titles featuring the same property. That was the case for Lets Go to the Farm, a March 2004 release featuring Barney. The titles advertising campaign also promoted two previous titles, Lets Go to the Zoo and Lets Pretend, both of which HIT thought would be of interest to the same consumer.
For newer properties, such as Angelina Ballerina, DTVs help drive attention to the franchise overall and to new product lines of which consumers may not be aware. Two upcoming Angelina DTV releases will be timed to the introduction of new book and toy lines, respectively, driving consumers to stores to purchase those products. They include the September 2005 release Princess Dance, which will support the toy launch from new licensee Sababa, and the spring 2006 release All Dancers On Deck, which will come out in conjunction with the launch of a full publishing program from an as-yet-unannounced licensee.
DTV productions also help maintain awareness for the TV series and the brand in general, of course, although with several DTV and episodic video titles released continually throughout the year, it is difficult to track the specific impact of individual releases on ratings, Cygielman says.
DTV programming typically features more involved storytelling than a standard television episode and is longer than a TV show. Some productions are considered feature-length. Calling All Engines, for example, is the first full-length special for Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, and is being released in September as part of this years celebration of the characters 60 years in publishing, dating from the first book released in the U.K. in 1945. Similarly, a feature-length film starring Barney, called The Land of Make-Believe, releases August 30. It was shot on location at Universal Studios Theme Parks.
Some DTV releases provide additional backstory for the property beyond that revealed in the TV series. The August 2005 Bob the Builder DTV special, Bobs Big Plan, will describe the story behind Bobs new TV series Project: Build It, which debuts this September on PBS.
In some situations, HIT creates in-pack DVD originals as do many other licensors and toy companies these days to accompany various items in its licensed product lines. Certain plush Angelina merchandise will come with a DVD original featuring an eight minute episode and a live-action production about how to dance, for example, which will add value. The more kids read or watch our content, the more they connect with the property, Cygielman explains.
HIT sometimes themes other entertainment initiatives around DTV video content. For example, the live concert tours that support some of HITs properties, including The Wiggles and Barney, sometimes incorporate the same themes that are featured in one of that years direct-to-video productions.
Promotional and Product Opportunities
When positioned as an event, a direct-to-video release becomes a platform for extensive marketing activity; both for HIT itself and its licensees. HIT typically advertises DTV releases in multimedia campaigns involving print, radio (especially for properties such as The Wiggles, where music plays a big role), national TV, online (a growing means of reaching parents) and/or outdoor advertising.
Calling All Engines will be the occasion for the first TV advertising campaign ever to support Thomas the Tank Engine. A new television series debuted in September on PBS Kids Thomas had been off the air for six years, during which time video and publishing sustained the property and additional new episodes will start in fall of this year. As with many of HITs direct-to-video productions, a promotional partner will create a tie-in involving the title.
Amtrak, the new underwriter for the Thomas TV series, will conduct a sweepstakes, with entry forms included in the video box. The winner will have the opportunity to take an Amtrak train to one of 40 cities in Day Out With Thomas: The Celebration Tour, a series of live events featuring a full-sized train engine. (Several other promotional events and campaigns are planned throughout the year to celebrate the 60th anniversary.)
In addition to promotional opportunities, DTV productions give licensees a theme around which they can create products and promotions. Publishing licensees often create a tie-in book featuring the storyline from a direct-to-video release, for example. Theres a good synergy there, says Cygielman.
Simon & Schuster is developing a book based on a Project: Build It DVD that contains both a TV episode and a special DTV feature. Random House often publishes Thomas titles to coincide with direct-to-video releases for that property, and will do so for Calling All Trains. Scholastic is releasing a book based on Barneys Land of Make-Believe.
DTV-themed toys are also possible. RC2/Learning Curve and Tomy, the two licensees that market Thomas the Tank Engine toy trains, are creating special train sets themed to Calling All Engines, for example. Meanwhile, an upcoming Angelina Ballerina title, Princess Dance, has Angelina visiting Queen Seraphina and two princesses at their castle; Sababa will create a princess castle to allow girls to play along.
While toys and publishing are the main categories for DTV tie-in products, other items sometimes are appropriate as well. For example, a few apparel items featured artwork from Snowed Under: The Bobblesberg Winter Games, a Bob the Builder DTV released in 2004.
Many of HITs DTV productions, as well as video/DVD titles based on TV episodes, include on-pack merchandise to increase play value and enhance collectibility. A trilogy of Angelina releases in 2004 included The Magic of Dance, Silver Locket and Big Performance, which were packaged with a tiara, locket and pink tutu, respectively. They work as promotional tools to drive purchase, Cygielman explained, noting that girls can collect all three and use them to put on a show, just as Angelina does in the trilogy.
The three Thomas videos being released during the 60th anniversary year, including Calling All Trains, each will be packed with a special limited-edition collectible train in gold, silver or platinum.
HITs direct-to-video productions are distributed through mass merchants, toy stores and electronics and entertainment chains, among other retail outlets, as are all of the companys video titles. We also look at new and unexpected channels when there are opportunities specific to the property, says Cygielman, citing Lowes home improvement stores as a current channel for Bob the Builder video releases and books, and train stores for Thomas videos.
As all the examples mentioned here illustrate, releasing direct-to-video productions throughout the year helps maintain awareness for a franchise, creates fresh content for use by licensees, and provides a vehicle for high-profile marketing activity. Its an opportunity for us to take our evergreen brands and create an event around them, concludes Cygielman.
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).