ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 5.7 - OCTOBER 2000
Toy Stories: Merchandising Success Without TV or Movie Exposure
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The project grossed $100,000 in 1997, on an investment of $15,000. In 1998, with two titles, sales totaled $1 million. The third year, they did $4.5 million, all without a shred of TV exposure -- and no advertising of any sort.
"It was all word of mouth," says Aigner-Clark.
Baby Einstein's holiday offerings include a special CD and video. © 2000 The Baby Einstein Company LLC. All Rights Reserved.
They project $10 million in sales in 2000. The total employee count is now six, including Julie and her husband, Bill. They still work out of their home. They use a number of distributors, including Artisan Home Entertainment, which purchased 20% of the business. They've expanded their product line with more Baby Einstein videos and other lines such as Baby Mozart. As of September, 2000, the Baby Einstein Company was working on three licensing deals, in toys, publishing and apparel. All three, independently, came to Aigner-Clark, who had been too busy minding the store to go looking for them.
Aigner-Clark's advice: "Focus on one thing. Build something fabulous and make it very strong on its own. Then you'll have the opportunity to grow."
Phil Vischer, Big Idea's founder and CEO, as well as the voice of Bob the Tomato. Photo © 2000 Big Idea Productions.
Strategies such as those pursued by the Paraskevas, Montoya and Aigner-Clark provide a solid base that allows you to maintain the integrity of your product. For instance, Big Idea is a production company that makes VeggieTales, videos that teach Christian values to kids using animated vegetables.
The company was founded in 1993 by Phil Vischer, a computer animator and storyteller. He started in a spare bedroom, as the Big Idea Website explains, with one computer, little capital and no connections.
The first half-hour episode of VeggieTales, "Where's God When I'm S-Scared?" was released before Christmas, 1993. It sold 130,000 units through 1995, 750,000 by the end of 1996, and passed the two million mark in 1997. Initial marketing was almost entirely through Christian bookstores.
In the midst of this spectacular growth, Big Idea was approached about putting VeggieTales into mass market outlets like Target, Wal-Mart and K-Mart. They loved the idea. There were just one or two problems.
"They wanted us to change it," recalls Diane Teigiser, Big Idea's toy and licensing maven. "Take out the Bible verse at the end. Take out the God reference."
Right out of the produce section and onto video, these good looking vegetables have helped make Big Idea a huge success. © 2000 Big Idea Productions.
For some reason, Phil didn't want to do that.
"A year or two later," says Teigiser, "they came back and said, 'Okay, leave the God in, but take the Bible verse out.'"
Phil still refused.
Early in 1998, VeggieTales passed the two million mark. "We got so successful, they said, 'We'll take it just the way it is,'" says Teigiser.
By the end of 1998, they passed the three million mark. Today, Christian spokesmodels like Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber and Mr. Lunt, the decorative gourd, have sold over 20 million videos, and employ over 130 people.
On the creative front, Big Idea has expanded into space penguins. On the commercial side, they've got books and music. Fisher-Price/Mattel and Learning Curve International have licensed VeggieTales for toys. Hallmark Cards has licensed it for stationery, gifts, greeting cards and party goods. Other licensees use VeggieTales characters on children's pajamas, shoes, bed and bath products, clothing and accessories. Still others make VeggieTales fabrics and wallpaper borders, cardboard puzzles and board games, dinnerware, cake decorations and balloons.
Big Idea still has little or no media exposure and operates almost exclusively direct-to-video.
Doing the Right Thing
The Paraskevas are going through a similar process with "Jr. Kroll," Betty's favorite among her own characters, as she's demonstrated by writing four books about him. She sees Jr. Kroll as a primetime TV show, in the same class as The Simpsons. Major studios have shared that vision. But there are always one or two problems, as Betty explains: "They ask, 'Can we get him out of the double-breasted blue suit?' I say, 'No. Jr. doesn't give in to peer pressure.' They ask, 'Can we give him a Hispanic nanny?' I say, 'No. He doesn't have a Hispanic nanny. He's already in four books and a toy in FAO Schwartz, and there's no Hispanic nanny. You can't spoil my character.' About that time, I get up and walk out."
The Paraskevas were doing just fine with children's books (supplemented by the occasional toy) before they ever started talking to the studios. That makes it a lot easier to do the right thing rather than the easy thing when the pressure is on.
One disadvantage of the strategies discussed in this article is that you don't have the muscle of a big media company's legal department behind you. It's important, whether you get your projects out through books, comics, radio, the Internet, or direct-to-video, not to send them into the wide world unprotected.
"I've been hurt by being a trusting person," says Aigner-Clark, "thinking that everybody was going to be okay, and that people don't steal people's ideas. It's happened to us."
"Be careful who you deal with," advises Howard Leib, a Manhattan-based attorney specializing in children's entertainment. "Mass mailings of your project to people in a directory is not a great idea. Get references. Find out who they've worked with, what they've done. Find out if they're reputable. It's easier to protect yourself up front than have to fight down the line."
And register your trademarks and copyrights, adds Leib. A copyright costing only $30 can protect a collection of works. At $325, trademark registration is more expensive, but still within reach for nearly anyone.
When asked what final words of wisdom he would offer to fledgling creative entrepreneurs in children's entertainment, Michael Paraskevas' immediate response: "Get a lawyer." (He did laugh, but there was an edge to it...)
Lawyers can be costly. However, as Leib points out, you can always find out how much it will cost you to get a lawyer, but you never know how much it will cost you not to get one.
Michael Hurwicz believes in fairy tales, cartoons, music, trees and chocolate.
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