Mitchell Kriegman, the creator and executive producer of Bear in the Big Blue House, ventured to MIP-TV last April to get a flavor of the international market for the first time. He discovered that it is an acquired taste.
But while winding his way through a blur of buyers and sellers representing a dizzying volume of properties that left him both humbled and reenergized, he learned much about how American productions are perceived beyond the Statue of Liberty.
As he began production of the second season of Bear, produced by the Jim Henson Company and airing on Disney Channel, his experiences at MIP forced him to think about how certain creative elements of his show may be interpreted differently by international audiences, and how to implement subtle alterations without sacrificing his creative vision.
‘[Going to MIP] made some of the cultural issues concrete in my mind creatively, and it made it impossible to some degree for me to deny [that they existed],’ Kriegman says of his opportunities to discuss his program with people who didn’t view it through an American prism.
Often, it was seemingly minor elements of the show to which international buyers raised objections. Scandinavian buyers alluded to a scene in which the character of Tutter the Mouse dreams of a drawer full of cheese. They claimed that to have a drawer with many cheeses when only one kind of cheese would suffice was ‘so American.’ Others commented that the Big Blue House itself was too luxurious and had too many furnishings.
‘It got me thinking that even dreaming about luxury and comfort might be American to a degree,’ says Kriegman. ‘I had to start looking at the show for those hidden cultural things, and once you start looking at your property in that way, you can start seeing things.’
An example of how his MIP experience affected his show is the way he uses words in stories, such as in pictures appearing in the backgrounds or in the ways characters say things. ‘I enjoy having to think about these things now,’ he says. ‘How is this new character going to be perceived? How are these issues going to be perceived?’
That doesn’t mean that Bear is going to be stripped down into some conspicuous multinational product (like, let’s attract the French by setting an episode in Paris!). Rather, it’s more about having a sensitivity and openness to how other people discern the show, and understanding the cultural issues that may determine whether it will work in that territory. In the U.S., Kriegman says that it’s important that the character group reflects a multicultural background (the voice of Luna, the moon, is African-American; the Shadow Girl’s voice is Celtic). In Spain, multiculturalism is irrelevant; all of the character voices must be Spanish. ‘You hope you create a property that holds up to those different interpretations,’ he says.
Kriegman learned from his days as the producer and creator of Nickelodeon’s Clarissa Explains It All of the importance of not being exclusionary. With Clarissa, he made sure the show appealed to both boys and girls. The same lessons are applied to Bear. ‘If you don’t eliminate people from the creative enjoyment of the show, then you are inviting them in.’
Because he was at MIP to observe rather than to sell, his presence at meetings between Henson and potential suitors disengaged the principals from the sell for a moment and turned the focus onto the creative, which, in a sense, is a great sell. He was able to round out what Henson executives could say about the show, and explain how to watch the show. ‘In a big market like that, things sort of get reduced to their basic categories,’ he says. ‘I needed to tell them that when Tutter is dreaming about lots of cheese, he’s just having the richest fantasy he can, as opposed to wanting all the cheese he can get. The result is that you can cross some of those cultural lines and, in the process, learn something too.’
Kriegman isn’t sure if creators should make a practice of going to MIP. In theory, he believes that it is useful, but feels some creators may be appalled or overwhelmed by the sheer volume of product there.
‘It was interesting, but at the same time, it was sort of seductively misleading,’ he says. ‘I don’t think I could take a steady diet of it. To see all of these things that looked interesting and. . . maybe they weren’t. It brought me back home to what I do and what is my base of creativity, and how programming from my point of view has to not be deal driven, but creatively driven.’