In the world of children’s film and television, it is rare for the names of character creators to generate their own magic. Of those that have, Walt Disney, Hanna-Barbera and Muppet creator Jim Henson are perhaps the most recognizable to audiences.
While the Disney name now extends to a global entertainment giant encompassing networks, stores and theme parks, and Hanna-Barbera is owned by another multinational media conglomerate, The Jim Henson Company has stayed closer to its roots, yet enters the new millennium as a thriving, independent operation-active across the globe as a producer, broadcaster and distributor.
Under president and CEO Brian Henson, who took control of the company after his father’s untimely death in 1990, JHC has built an enviable reputation for quality family entertainment.
Aside from The Muppets, which continue to be the ‘lifeblood’ of the company, JHC can boast a new generation of children’s hits such as Bear in the Big Blue House, Mopatop’s Shop, Construction Site and futuristic prime-time drama Farscape-which recently debuted in the U.S.
In addition, the model-making genius of Henson’s Creature Shop has been instrumental in the making of films like Gulliver’s Travels, Animal Farm, The Odyssey, Babe, Loch Ness and The Flintstones. Through the Odyssey and Kermit Channels, the company is also building broadcast outlets for its shows in the U.S. and beyond.
Brian Henson believes the power of the Henson brand derives from ‘the quality and continuity of the work we have done. We have always worked extremely hard to deliver on the audience’s expectations.’ The delivery service spans Jim Henson Television, Jim Henson Pictures and Jim Henson Interactive, as well as publishing and licensing divisions.
Being an independent player is central to the company’s editorial ethic. But in a market dominated by vertically integrated film and television studios, it is a tough proposition, says Henson. ‘If you want to survive, you have to be flexible and fast enough to reflect a market that is changing all the time.’
Part of that flexibility involves an open-minded approach to markets outside the U.S. ‘The U.S. and international are not separable anymore,’ he says. ‘We aim to produce shows that are generated by a certain territory, but we always have an eye on the potential of the entire international market.’
To some degree, this internationalism is ingrained in JHC’s culture. In the mid-1970s, every U.S. network ‘turned The Muppet Show down twice’ before the U.K.’s ITV network picked it up and made it a hit. Today, Brian Henson presides over offices in L.A., New York and London.
Charles Rivkin, president and COO, was hired by Jim Henson in the late `80s. Over the last decade, Rivken, in tandem with Brian Henson, has guided the company through a series of global strategic alliances. Rivkin says, ‘We are actively looking at a number of opportunities that will expand our core businesses globally.’
Henson’s corporate HQ in L.A. acts as gateway to the movie business and houses the fast-growing interactive division under Craig Allen. New York is home to domestic and international licensing, as well as puppetry. Here, Bear was conceived and produced before debuting on the Disney Channel US in October 1997.
London, for so long a key part of the JHC business model, is responsible for distributing Henson properties and unearthing international finance. Recent deals with ITV for Mopatop’s Shop and Construction Site underline its significance. London is also home to a burgeoning licensing outfit and the highly renowned Creature Shop.
While everyone loves Kermit and the gang, for all the residual affection and awareness that the Henson name attracts from the public (evidenced by 95% awareness of The Muppets in the U.S.), there was a feeling until recently that the company was underselling itself.
Rod Perth, who left USA Networks to become Henson’s head of television six months ago, says: ‘Before I came here, I had a view of Henson as a high-quality, wonderful brand. But I was slightly blurry about what they were doing.’ Once on-board, Perth ‘began to realize Henson had not been getting the credit it deserves.’
One of Perth’s priorities was to set the record straight within the business. ‘I started selling to the sellers-the likes of CAA, William Morris and Endeavour, who control talent. I made a ten-minute MTV-style film to excite the creative community about the Henson story and Farscape in particular. Then we started signing up talent.’
At the same time, Perth and Henson laid out a blueprint for expansion. ‘It is clear that we must aim to be the leading provider of family entertainment in the business,’ says Perth. ‘That means we must be more assertive than in the past-but also selective in the kind of projects we develop. We have to thoughtfully expand the business-not be all things to all networks.’
In this respect, the company has made significant strides with Farscape, which is rating very well on The Sci Fi Channel in the U.S. Perth sees further opportunities in drama, adult comedy and shows targeted at older kids. He is also keen to launch a Henson ‘family television movies division.’
In terms of a new direction on the feature front, Jim Henson Pictures and Angry Films are doing two Manga-based films as CGI/live-action combos-Kodansha Publishing’s Parasyte by Hitosi Iwaaki, and Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka (see ‘Astro Boy makes a comeback,’ page 13).