The home video pick-up scene

As the world gears up for this year's VSDA Convention and West Coast Video Show, KidScreen takes a global look at the video market. Execs at the U.S. majors discuss what they look for in video pick-ups, and production companies around...
July 1, 1999

As the world gears up for this year’s VSDA Convention and West Coast Video Show, KidScreen takes a global look at the video market. Execs at the U.S. majors discuss what they look for in video pick-ups, and production companies around the globe relay their successes-and failures-at infiltrating the States. When it comes to cracking the largest market around, frustration abounds in Australia, Asia, Canada, the U.K. and France, but the ones who make it reap big rewards. After all, U.S. acquisitions teams want to pick up the next big hit just as much as the foreign prodcos want to provide it.

‘I don’t want to have the 15th story about Jack and the Beanstalk,’ notes Paul Newman, VP of family entertainment acquisitions and production at Columbia TriStar Home Video. Discussing his strategy for picking up roughly 10 video acquisitions a year, Newman adds that besides uniqueness of story, he looks for projects that have marquee value, wide exposure and acceptance at retail. Sources for new product are shifting from traditional trade shows like VSDA and MIP, to perusing publications on pop culture and trends, such as People and Entertainment Weekly, where Newman searches for ‘things that are ringing true for kids.’ Comic books, Internet sites, video games and toys-all are arenas that help the acquisitions executive clue into what might be an upcoming hit.

While Newman has no carved-in-stone annual acquisitions quota, he does follow sales cycles which inform him of potential release slots to exploit, such as seasonal specials and product that would be appropriate for summer and back-to-school slots. As to sourcing product, it’s not all U.S.-driven. For instance, responding to a request from an associate in the Australian region, Newman picked up the Australian video rights to The Wiggles, produced by The Wiggles Touring Pty. All told, Newman estimates that 70% of Columbia TriStar Home Video’s product is domestic, and 30% international.

Synergy with existing product at the studio is another consideration for Newman. Recent animated pick-up The First Snow of Winter, acquired from Link in the U.K., is notable for its perfect fit with Columbia TriStar Home Video’s existing library of high-end, illustrative British animation, including Father Christmas and The Snowman. ‘It’s a fourth quarter title, but not a Christmas title,’ he explains. ‘I knew it made perfect sense for us.’

Additional recent pick-ups include The Wind in the Willows, produced by U.K.-based Martin Gates Productions and acquired from All-Time Entertainment in the U.K., and the latest installment in the Berenstain Bears franchise, part of an ongoing acquisition from Stan Berenstain in association with Random House.

Over at Fox, the mission is to release product in keeping with Twentieth Century Fox’s overall entertainment strategy, says Hosea Belcher, VP of marketing at Fox Home Entertainment. ‘The whole Fox attitude permeates the culture here in home video. We try to do things that are a little more daring-things that other studios may have shied away from,’ he notes. Picking up one to four kids and family titles per year, Belcher looks for very unique titles with strong commercial appeal. Acquired product joins dozens of in-house releases each year, including numerous Fox Kids, Saban and BBC-related product, plus titles such as Bartok the Magnificent, the DTV sequel to Anastasia, and Fern Gully II.

Belcher says DIC Entertainment co-production Our Friend Martin, acquired in 1998, demonstrates the qualities Fox is looking for in its targeted niche acquisitions. ‘We look for a success rate or guaranteed high equity,’ he notes. Aardman Animation’s clay-animated classic Creature Comforts, another recent niche pick-up, had similar prestige, notes Belcher. Our Friend Martin fit the bill because it deals with a widely known public figure who spawned a national holiday. ‘The subject matter was unique-an animated adventure about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. You don’t want to acquire `same-old’ or `me too’ video product,’ says Belcher. ‘It had great top-of-mind franchise appeal.’

In choosing its unique properties, Fox does not go on instinct alone, but uses consumer research and in-house quantitative studies to find out what audiences like and don’t like about a property.

On Fox’s acquisitions slate, which is approximately half animation and half live action, other recent pick-ups include Rusty the Talking Dog: The Great Rescue, produced by Saban Entertainment, and BBC TV production Invasion Earth.

Universal Family and Home Entertainment is releasing a great deal of product this year, but so far the year-old division has yet to make any straight video acquisitions. That’s not to say they’re not looking, says Louis Feola, head of Universal Family and Home Entertainment. ‘We look at a number of different projects, ranging from animation to live action, mixed media to CGI,’ he says. ‘As simple as it sounds, we’re really looking for product that might compliment our existing strategy, or fill a niche we might not have product in.’ Currently, Feola’s strategy involves building strong franchises that will serve to bolster the new kids and family brand.

One to three titles per year will be picked up by the division, whereas six to eight feature-length DTV titles are produced in-house each year. The vast majority of the division’s product is domestic, but Feola says foreign projects are considered. For instance, the U.S. video rights to the U.K.’s Maisy franchise were recently picked up by another division at Universal.

Universal produces ‘an enormous amount of animation in-house,’ says Feola, so he is most receptive to live-action product. Describing the criteria for pick-ups at Universal Family and Home Entertainment, Feola says, ‘We’re driven by quality product, quality characters. We look at potential acquisitions from a variety of different sources-book properties, original ideas, and product based on TV programs.’ Feola notes that should TV properties be acquired, they would be reworked for video. ‘It’s not likely we would simply release episodes. We would want to come up with strategies to take unique advantage of the characters.’

Currently slated on the division’s in-house video roster are a holiday 1999 release entitled The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus and a video sequel to Charlotte’s Web, co-produced with Paramount.

Amy Sprechter, PolyGram Video’s VP of acquisitions, says her division acquires one or two kids and family titles each year. Of its video product, 25% is produced in-house, and about 75% is acquired. Overall, PolyGram Video’s product is 75% North American and 25% international, and the studio is looking to double its kids and family video releases from 12 to 24 this year, focusing on classic brands that haven’t yet been exploited in video. About half of PolyGram Video’s releases are animated, and many preschool properties are at least partially live action, as full animation is sometimes hard for the preschool demo to grasp, Sprechter says. Most of her video acquisitions deals are multiyear deals, from three to five years in duration.

Current examples of this strategy can be seen by looking at Nelvana’s Franklin and the Enid Blyton Company’s Noddy franchises, two of the studio’s most recent kids acquisitions. ‘The reason why Franklin and Noddy fit into our overall plan is they’re based on literary brands, based on something that pre-exists in another media,’ Sprechter says. ‘Unless you’ve got a known brand, it’s hard to break out.’ Both properties debuted as series in the U.S. last year-Noddy on PBS and Franklin on CBS. Franklin later joined Nickelodeon’s preschool block, where it currently airs twice a day.

‘We wanted to make sure the TV property hit first,’ says Sprechter. ‘Noddy will be on the air in the U.S. six to nine months prior to breaking on video. Video doesn’t serve as a [franchise] driver,’ Sprechter says. ‘You need other mediums to take hold.’ Sprechter obtained U.S. video rights to Noddy in 1998, and plans to start releasing videos this spring. The line will be comprised of original Noddy episodes from the U.K. which the studio will reversion and Americanize with new live-action footage shot State-side.

Following this strategy, PolyGram obtained U.S. video rights to Franklin prior to its 1998 fall TV debut, but only recently released the first Franklin title, Franklin Gives A Birthday Party, comprised of reversioned episodes. ‘You cannot take a series off the television and expect the episodes to have perceived value,’ Sprechter says of the reversioning. ‘Parents have to know there is skill-building or a theme like a holiday in order to buy them.’

Paramount Home Video stepped up its video acquisition plans this year, thanks in part to the rejuvenation of the division now that it’s distributing all of Nickelodeon’s product, including The Rugrats Movie and Blue’s Clues. Ellen Pittleman, VP of worldwide acquisitions, sources film festivals and hears pitches on a constant hunt for ‘brandable, franchisable’ product. The executive says any number of acquisitions can be made each year in both live action and animation, and that six in-house titles will be released this year. ‘I’m interested in anything I think is marketable,’ Pittleman says.

Reversioned series are also on Paramount Home Video’s slate, including Nelvana’s Little Bear and Nelvana/Media Lab co-production Donkey Kong Country, some of which may be spun off into feature-length DTV titles (see ‘Canuck kid vids thrive south of the border,’ page 33). High preschool product sales also make franchises a target for acquisitions at Paramount Home Video, adds Pittleman, especially those with book properties attached.

Buena Vista Home Video has no acquisitions policy per se, as the vast majority of its slate hails from in-house sources.

However, isolated pick-ups do occur at the studio, such as Japanese animated Kiki’s Delivery Service, which was picked up from Japan-based producer Studio Ghibli in 1998. According to a studio spokesperson, Disney’s acquisitions strategy mainly consists of obtaining primary ownership of independent studios such as Jumbo Pictures and ABC-owned DIC Entertainment, whose product then is distributed by Buena Vista Home Entertainment. Two cases in point this year are Doug’s 1st Movie and Madeline: Lost in Paris, from Jumbo Pictures and DIC Entertainment, respectively.

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