Children’s video indies prove that size doesn’t matter

Talking to independent kidvid producers and distributors, one quickly realizes that each, in his own way, is constantly reinventing the wheel. There is no set model for success when you go it alone in an industry so rigorously dominated by the...
July 1, 1998

Talking to independent kidvid producers and distributors, one quickly realizes that each, in his own way, is constantly reinventing the wheel. There is no set model for success when you go it alone in an industry so rigorously dominated by the majors, so the hardy few who take on the job have to improvise. While their methods are diverse, a common thread among all the video indies is a fierce belief in their product’s viability-its appeal to kids and parents. Beyond that, creativity, marketing savvy and general chutzpah all contribute to their ability to build solid businesses on the fringe of the video industry.

‘We have found a niche in certain genres of video,’ says Real Entertainment’s executive vice president, Todd Ruhalter. ‘If the product is well-produced and well-marketed, we have found that we have not been impeded by the majors.’

Real Entertainment in Woodland Hills, California, markets a humorous, kid-targeted documentary series titled Animal Crackups and a family-oriented, Wild America animal-based line. Like all independents, Real had to find a niche in kidvid. In this case, developing ancillary marketing activities to provide additional revenue streams was its ticket to financial viability.

‘Besides the properties themselves, our company is somewhat unique in that we offer one-stop shopping for studios that want to market [videos],’ says Ruhalter. Branding services that Real provides include direct-response advertising, production of packaging and display kiosks, purchase of media time, in-house telemarketing, creation of revenue-generating Web sites and access to retail and international sales teams. All marketing services are done in-house.

According to Ruhalter, the children’s area is one of the most difficult sectors of the video business. ‘It’s a major studio-dominated area, and it’s hard to achieve prominence and visibility in such a crowded field,’ he says. Why put up with all the headaches? ‘We’re in the kids business because we enjoy it and it’s fun to do,’ he says.

Distinctive products and packaging are needed to break through the clutter on the kidvid shelves. A strategy employed by the company in marketing its Animal Crackups line was to encase the videos in fuzzy animal sleeves that could be used as puppets. Promotions are also done on a market-to-market basis, such as the recent Animal Crackups sweepstakes at Movie Gallery retailers in Alabama, which offered customers the chance to win a trip to the San Diego Zoo. ‘With this, we’re not looking for monetary success, per se, but for better visibility,’ says Ruhalter. ‘There are intangible benefits in any promotion that are not as easy to gauge on a balance sheet.’

Globalstage Productions of San Francisco is differentiating itself from other kidvid producers by recording international theatrical productions around the world aimed at the children’s audience. Videos of the productions are offered for sale by mail-order subscription, wherein the subscriber receives a tape of a play, such as the current release Cyrano, every other month. Cyrano was filmed in Antwerp, Belgium.

Globalstage’s unique sales setup was modeled after the Book of the Month Club concept. Subscriptions for the videos are marketed via small ads in consumer magazines, including The New Yorker, Sunset, Family Life and Working Woman. Globalstage has also secured limited retail distribution, primarily at upscale kids retailers. In addition to phone-in subscriptions, a Web site ( allows customers to order.

‘I really don’t think a lot about the majors,’ says founder Lizbeth Pratt. ‘The reason I started this was I didn’t like what was being offered. If I listened [to how mainstream producers operate], I would just be creating product like the majors.’

Knowing her niche market and its needs is part of Pratt’s long-term strategy. ‘It’s people who really seem to not be finding what they want in children’s entertainment.’ One challenge Globalstage faces is that this target group typically doesn’t buy videos because they generally don’t watch TV.

With a new release coming out every other month, the company is in active production most of the time. Pratt admits that consumer prices for the tapes ‘are more expensive because we have to be self-financed.’ However, strategies to add value to the line are unique. For example, the Cyrano release comes with a small swatch of Belgian lace, which costs the producer from US$1.50 to US$2.50 per subscriber. During the month when no tape arrives to subscribers, Globalstage sends subscribers ‘a little souvenir made by local artisans,’ says Pratt. In addition, a specially made postcard keeps all subscribers abreast of the upcoming production. ‘The goal is to involve them in the whole adventure of the production,’ says Pratt.

As for financing, Pratt and her husband privately finance the company, which they hope will become profitable in a few years.

San Diego video independent EKA Productions has put out a line of preschool videos centered on a plush cow character named Wilbur. The three partners in the company-Kim Anton, Jill Luedtke and Tracey Hornbuckle-all hope not only to sign major retail contracts this year, but to eventually land a television deal. The trio note that being independent has advantages. ‘When you have a homegrown business, you’re in touch with your consumers,’ says Luedtke.

EKA’s partners are well aware of the difficulty of obtaining shelf space in stores where the majors dominate the retail space. Retailers want to see positive reviews in major kid and family publications, says Luedtke, and EKA’s public relations efforts helped to land the Wilbur line a fair amount of positive press from magazines such as Parenting.

Packaging is another key ingredient of the independent launch, the team notes. While EKA’s first release was encased in self-produced packaging, the team realized ‘the importance of the first impression,’ according to Luedtke, and hired a professional designer to provide all subsequent packaging design.

While they are in the process of pitching their character and video line to retailers, as well as television outlets, the partners plan to hold onto the rights to ‘everything,’ says Luedtke. The team’s hope is that retailers and programmers will notice the property’s similarities to Barney: a singular character and sing-along music emphasis, a combination of puppets and live action, and preschool educational content.

‘Without multimillion-dollar advertising and marketing budgets, we have to look for products that can, to some extent, market themselves from within,’ says Frank Florio, president of Chester, New Jersey-based Animazing Entertainment.

That thinking was a factor in Animazing’s acquisition of The Swamp Critters of Lost Lagoon, a 52-episode television series written and produced by popular songwriter and singer Bobby Goldsboro. The show, which teaches kids environmental awareness and family values, features fully orchestrated music in each episode. Goldsboro not only writes the songs, but sings them and does the voice for some 35 characters.

‘As an independent, you absolutely need good-quality product, but you also need to go to other markets with your products-markets that the majors aren’t necessarily targetting,’ says Florio. For example, Animazing has created a 12-page educational guide that is being sent along with a videotape of a Swamp Critters show to day-care centers across the U.S. The package has a built-in lesson plan for day-care instructors to use in teaching kids a family values lesson.

This year, Animazing is also launching a lineup of Swamp Critters products in retail stores. The products include videos, plush toys, read-alongs, coloring books and an audio CD and cassette.

Tom McComas, producer of the I Love Toy Trains video series from TM Books/Video in New Buffalo, Michigan, says his train, hobby-based video and book business is growing despite the fact that no plans are under way for a television series. ‘We’ve been producing videos and films since 1987, through niche marketing targeted towards train hobbyists,’ says McComas. The fifth of the I Love Toy Trains line-the line is the company’s only kid-targeted offering-was released recently.

According to McComas, the kids video series is the company’s top-selling product. ‘We’ve sold 500,000 copies of I Love Toy Trains. That is not a large number for the majors, but for an independent, that’s a huge number.’ The line is currently making a profit, via sales through direct-response catalogues and at retail. The videos are sold at train specialty stores, kids retailers such as Zany Brainy and Noodle Kidoodle, and hobby stores nationwide in the U.S. McComas attributes the videos series’ ability to land shelf space to the quality of the creative product. As well, ‘publicity and articles touting the quality of the videos help a great deal,’ he says. The toy train videos received television exposure when talk show host Tom Snyder had McComas on his show. ‘If you get lucky, for instance, if Rosie O’Donnell buys your video and goes on TV to tell people about it, there’s [an instant] market for your product,’ says McComas.

McComas also attends VSDA and hires reps to get the line into places like Publishers’ Clearing House catalogues.

One advantage indies enjoy is that smaller retailers are reluctant to carry videos that are offered at reduced prices at discount department stores, says McComas. This makes these outlets more receptive to independents’ lines. ‘If you’re a smaller chain, you want lines that don’t sell to chain stores.’

Overall, the I Love Toy Trains series’ biggest advantage is its enduring appeal to kids and their caregivers, says McComas. ‘Kids love it. If [a video] strikes a chord with them and they really like it, they’ll watch it over and over. There’s great brand loyalty in kids video.’

Spellbound Productions in San Francisco also emphasizes kid loyalty in its marketing approaches. Independently financed, Spellbound’s first video, the kid-targeted release Take Joy! The Magical World of Tasha Tudor, has won critical acclaim, including an award from the American Library Association, and is distributed widely at libraries and schools nationwide in the U.S. As for survival against the majors, Sarah Kerruish, director and writer of the title, notes, ‘We don’t even think about that. We’re so small right now that we just focus on what our next film is going to be and how to get it into people’s hands.’

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