Fresh, new and branded. This is a line that is being uttered by acquisition and development executives at both NATPE and KidScreen Summit. What in tar-nation does this mean? How can something fresh and new be branded? Is Taffy Entertainments latest hit, Pet Alien, a brand?
Brand by its very nature is an established production that is consistent in delivering to its audience a quality product that is always the same like Coke or Pepsi. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Brand is a class of goods identified as a product or a particular firm or producer.
Can a new show like Pet Alien be classified as a brand so early in its life?
MYP approaches each production with a brand management mentality. Not dissimilar to a toy company like Mattel, which fiercely protects each toy line by keeping focused on what it believes is the brand, Taffy/MYP principals, Mike Young, Liz Young and Bill Schultz do the same for their studio/properties.
We take care with everything we do for Pet Alien, said Bill Schultz, one of the three partners in MYP. It is our commitment to the properties creative integrity that gives a focus to our passion and vision. It helps us to see Pet Alien as a brand. We made a show that we like and would watch, said Schultz.
Pet Alien didnt just drop onto the Earth and into the laps of MYP. It was the original concept of Jeff Muncy, a creator with a background in concept art and plush characters and pajamas. He came up with the idea of Pet Alien while creating one of his pajama lines. He licensed the plush alien character key chains to Best Ever Co., as a premium item to be sold in mom & pop gift shops and boutiques nationwide. The key chains sold very well, said Muncy, but the sales reps wanted a story about these creatures. This is when Muncy came up with the Pet Alien story that he self-published as a book to be sold with the plush characters. Then he set up a website to coincide with the publishing of the book and characters.
It was Puzzle Zoo on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, that helped make the plush an even bigger success. Wanting Muncy to do a book signing, the owner of the store offered him the opportunity to design the store window. With a friend, Muncy designed a window display that wowed all that walked by. But it was a Disney executive that called with great interest. Muncy signed with an agent who suggested showing this property to other development executives. To speed up the process, Disney asked MYP to help with the animation. Mike Young, chairman/ceo, had worked with Muncy before and when the deal with Disney was not working out, Mike stepped in.
Mike was passionate about the show, said Muncy. This gave me the ability to do what I wanted, which was a Tex Avery-type show, with squash-and-stretch that appealed to the 6-11 year olds. Disney wanted the show for toddlers.
Because Muncy designs all of his characters in 3D, it was a natural to do this show in 3D, said Schultz. The question was how do you get squash-and-stretch to work in TV animation. Motion pictures had succeeded with Monsters, Inc. and The Mask, but could the economies of television budgets allow for this slapstick humor to be rendered in CG?
In TV the budget is always a factor, he said. This property was meant to be 3D CGI and could not be properly translated in 2D, the audience will see the truth.
CG technology has come a great distance in a short time, said Schultz. When we worked on Voltron with Netter Digital, one of the first 3D shows, we could not get the cloth on Princess Alluras dress to move without coming up with additional budget. Since Voltron, CG has come a long way allowing for the realistic movement and more detailed textures. Not wanting the show to look computerized, MYP took a 2D cartoon approach to the production.
Andrew Young, a director of Pet Alien, was partnered with Muncy to develop the show. While working on the show bible they both knew they wanted to age the original characters to make them older. Eric Robles, a traditional 2D character designer, was working on another project, but asked if he could help with the redesign. Robles designed the characters traditionally, but 3D was their goal. They wanted the show in 3D but with a 2D sensibility. To achieve this they used hand-painted textures on the 3D backgrounds, further giving a 2D feeling to the show.
Young said the mission statement for this show was to make it feel 2D, not 3D, in terms of timing, artistic direction and every element of the show. To achieve this Young turned to the traditional X-sheet as the means to direct the timing of the show, even though they needed to teach CG animators to read these traditional cartoonist instructions.
Muncys wife, Sadaf Cohen Muncy, a former producer with Saban, suggested that Dan Danko and Tom K. Mason join as storyeditors on the development team with Schultz and Josh Fisher from MYP. They kept the story premises simple. They left room in the storyboards to allow for the voice actors to add to the comedy. The actors translated the attitude and gave the characters richness, said Schultz. Everyone on the production had the same vision.
Under the voice direction of Jess Harnell, a recognized voice actor, a small team of voice actors does all of the work. Charlie Schlatter, Charlie Adler, Candi Milo and Harnell, give all of the characters life in the very entertaining Friday morning recording sessions that everyone is eager to attend, according to Schultz and Young.
With such a lively dialogue track, the show needed to prove that squash-and-stretch could be done in CG animation on a TV budget. A pilot was produced in an Indian animation studio to see how effective the Tex Avery style could be achieved in CGI. That pilot was shown to broadcasters, as a trial balloon. It immediately got support from Dominque Poussier, of Frances TF1 and also Mark Wilson and Brian Hughes at GMTV, a U.K. network. Later, Finn Arnesen, Bob Higgins and Terry Kalagian, all of Cartoon Network, showed great interest when they saw it. They bought in on the concept and were very supportive during the series development.
With TF1 on board, MYP started to assemble the co-production team to include Frances Antefilm, which is now known as Moonscoop, brought in Telegael from Ireland and Crest Animation from Indian.
With only one minute of animation, the Cartoon Network people were ready to support the show, but they needed to see the first episode. When they did, they bought it for all of their channels worldwide. This was a first for CN. CNs regional channels in the U.S., Latin America, Europe, Japan and Asia Pacific all program independently. This is the first time all of the regions actually acquired the same show at the same time, said Schultz.
In addition to broadcaster promotion, Taffy Ent. embarked on its own publicity and advertising campaign to drive up awareness for the program within the animation community.
Consumer branding of the property lies in the experienced hands of Eric Stein, vp of licensing, a veteran licensing and merchandising pro who is working under the Taffy Ent. banner, a distribution and licensing company founded by MYP. When your creative team spends their work day laughing at their own stuff, it usually is a good sign and makes for a really good television show, said Stein.
Brand is a product with an identity, said Stein. This show has a definable identity and attitude. When someone watches it they get what they expect. Pet Alien is off the wall and funny.
From a merchandising point of view, Stein wants Pet Alien to be experiential not commemorative. All great brands have a creative integrity. Make the best possible show you can make, Stein said. Stick with the creative integrity of the property and be consistent. Audiences need to form an affinity with the characters. As for the question of when we will see consumer products based on Pet Alien, says Stein, Of course this brand is very licensable, but merchandising will be there when the audience wants it.
Stein actually already found an affinity with the licensing world before Pet Alien launched in the U.S. at Jan. 23, 2005, at 10:00 am and in the U.K. Jan. 24 at 5:30 pm on Cartoon Network. He had deals with American Marketing Enterprises for sleepwear, Berkshire for accessories, Jay Franco for domestics, JEM Sportswear for t-shirts and sweatshirts, SG Footwear for footwear, Baby Boom Consumer Products for cuddle pillows, Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Co. for gift and specialty market plush, Childrens Apparel Network for apparel, Fast Forward for bags and backpacks and Mello Smello for stickers.
Pet Alien continues to capture the attention of leading companies across all categories, said Eric Stein, vp of licensing for Taffy. The buzz about the successful launch of Pet Alien in territories like France, where the series premiered on
When Pet Alien premiered Jan. 3 in France on TFI, it received a 50.3% share, a significant number when taking into account the usual share for TF1 is 43%.
With major broadcaster premieres and a load of licensing deals in place in a short space of time, Pet Alien most definitely is fresh, new and branded.
Jan Nagel, the entertainment marketing diva, is a consultant involved in the business of animation and visual effects since 1991. She represents creative producers and productions companies worldwide, including j9 Productions and AGOGO Corp. Hong Kong, as well as being a frequent guest lecturer on the subject of the business of animation. She is also a founding member and current president of Women in Animation International.