Looking back, Brian Henson believes the first milestone for the Henson brand was his father’s decision at age 20, to retain ownership and control of his characters. ‘I think that is really the root of why he was so successful,’ says Henson. ‘He really had a gut instinct for business.’
Henson senior’s first major TV breakthrough came in 1969 with the launch of Sesame Street. ‘Prior to that, he had been a novelty live act in places like Las Vegas or doing short TV sequences on the Ed Sullivan Show,’ recalls Brian. ‘Sesame Street was a chance to fulfill his ambition. In the first season, he did all the puppetry and a lot of the animation sequences that you still see today.’
The show filled a huge void and by 1970, Big Bird made the cover of Time magazine.
After this breakthrough, Jim Henson’s tenacity proved crucial as he sought to take The Muppet Show into an evening TV slot. ‘He felt that The Muppets had an irreverent humor that would work for family audiences, so he refused to soften the concept for a daytime show. Eventually, in 1976, ITV’s Lew Grade saw what he was trying to do and put it on during the evening in the U.K.’
That positioning ‘reached the audience demographics that any business would want to achieve,’ says Henson. The Muppet Show won an Emmy in 1978 (all told they have won 18 Emmys).
The next step in 1979 was to make The Muppet Movie, ‘which meant we were then in two businesses.’
In 1981, Jim Henson broke into a new line of business when he produced a fantasy feature film called The Dark Crystal. ‘That gave the company something other than Muppets,’ says Henson. ‘It was a medium success as a movie, but for the company, it opened up a new set of expectations from the audience and started up the Creature Shop.’
Fraggle Rock hit the scene with a new cast of puppet characters in 1983, and in 1987, the fantasy sensibility born in Dark Crystal was taken into the TV medium with the creation of The Storyteller for NBC. ‘That meant we had two big areas of activity across film and television: the Creature Shop/fantasy and the Muppet/puppet businesses.’
After Jim Henson’s death in 1990, the next major creative highlight was Dinosaurs, a show for the U.S. market in which Brian Henson sees a fusion of the two strands. ‘Prior to that show, people either liked Dark Crystal or The Muppets, but couldn’t reconcile them both as Henson. Dinosaurs brought the two together by being smart and irreverent like The Muppets, but using sophisticated Creature Shop techniques.’ Dinosaurs ran to five series, debuting on ABC in 1991.
Although JHC production in the 1990s has more than matched the output of the two previous decades put together, the early part of the decade was overshadowed by business dealings.
Prior to Jim’s death, the company had a handshake agreement to merge with Disney. ‘I think my father wanted to sell to Disney to get some creative control back. The Muppets were pulling really hard and he wanted to be in theme parks shooting film. He loved theme parks and wanted to get some freedom back.’
After Jim’s death, Brian, his sister Cheryl and president/COO Charles Rivkin attempted to pick up the pieces of the deal and push it through, but it quickly became clear that things were not working out. ‘There was a corporate culture clash at that time,’ says Henson. ‘And we negotiated for too long. In hindsight, we were very young and probably wanted too much protection in the contract.’
When Disney then sought a reduction in the price, it was clear the deal was going to fall through. But by this time, ‘we had all started to feel quite proud of the company and everyone rallied round. In the end, everyone was thrilled when we went back to report on a failed merger-even though some of them would have made a lot of money from the deal.’
During negotiations, all Henson production, development and licensing had effectively stopped. Distribution had also been spun off by Peter Orton, who used the JHC sales arm to launch his own company HIT Entertain-ment. So when the deal fell through, ‘we had to start again from scratch, looking for financing for shows and rebuilding distribution.’
As a short-term measure, JHC signed a five-year distribution deal for all its existing properties with Disney, so ‘it wasn’t until 1996 that we got our rights back. In retrospect, that wasn’t very good for building the brand.’
In the meantime, the company appointed Angus Fletcher to build up distribution and international financing from out of the U.K. After getting a show called Secret Life of Toys away, Fletcher successfully created a kids wildlife series called The Animal Show, which sold widely overseas. This provided the core of the distribution business until the Henson rights reverted from Disney.
Subsequently, the company has been well placed to greenlight international properties such as Bear in the Big Blue House, Mopatop’s Shop, Construction Site and Farscape.
Of the many JHC production credits this decade, Brian ‘feels strongly that in five to six years, Farscape will be recognized as a milestone for this company. It is a very contemporary drama with the anarchic, rule-breaking feel that we always try to bring to our work. We knew it wouldn’t work for the U.S. networks, but the Sci Fi Channel stepped up and paid for it, and it is now their number one show.’
Henson claims Farscape has ‘taken the genre of sci-fi and blown it away.’ He now wants to make mold-breaking drama in other sub-genres. In addition, Farscape is significant because it is a ‘showcase for the Creature Shop,’ says Henson. ‘We were finding that only a small part of the Shop’s business was our own productions. In future, we want to capitalize on our capabilities in both film and television. Creature Shop fundamentally reflects our creative mission as a company.’