Penguins! What’s the Big Idea?

Space-traveling penguins? Reverential nods to Brit comedy troupe Monty Python and Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones? It hardly sounds like a description of your typical Christian kids video, but then its producer, Big Idea Productions, isn't interested in furthering conventions. The...
December 1, 2000

Space-traveling penguins? Reverential nods to Brit comedy troupe Monty Python and Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones? It hardly sounds like a description of your typical Christian kids video, but then its producer, Big Idea Productions, isn’t interested in furthering conventions. The Chicago-based prodco that made Veggie Tales-an all-CGI DTV series about a talking cucumber and tomato-into the number-one selling Christian kidvid series of all time is hoping to strike lightning again with its newest offering, 3-2-1 Penguins.

Released to Christian bookstore retailers last month, the initial installment, 3-2-1 Penguins: Trouble on Planet Wait-Your-Turn (US$14.95), is the first non-Veggie Tales video Big Idea has released in its seven-year history, and for the company it represents a leap in production values.

‘Penguins is much more elaborate in terms of the complexity of the characters and the writing. It also makes greater use of the latest in computer animation hardware,’ says Big Idea CEO and creative honcho Phil Vischer, sitting in a hotel in Cocoa Beach, Florida, 20 minutes south of the Kennedy Space Center, where the company was planning to hold a premiere screening event for the property.

A team of 12 animators and storytellers-many of whom had recently left jobs at Disney and DreamWorks to join Big Idea-spent a year producing the all-CGI video. It’s a far cry from the size of the production staff Big Idea began with back in `93, which consisted of Vischer cranking out the animation for Veggie Tales in his apartment on an SGI Indigo Extreme computer and, along with college pal Mike Nawrocki, voicing the property’s two characters. There’s also a big difference in budgets. Whereas BI’s first Veggie video, Where’s God When I’m S-scared?, cost US$60,000 to produce, the budget for Penguins was in the US$700,000 to US$1-million range.

‘If you’re debuting on home video, you can’t approach [the production] like it’s a TV series, and knock out 10 episodes at a time and have them all look the same, because then they’re not going to be very collectible. To get that collectibility, the videos have to look like little movies, kind of like a Wallace & Gromit film. If it feels like a movie, people will want to own it and watch it over and over again,’ says Vischer

The appearance of Penguins, which Vischer says was inspired by the simple,yet stylized look of Chuck Jones’s animated short Duck Dodgers and other early Warner Bros. cartoons (though you hear their voices, all the of the adult characters in Penguins appear only from the waist down), should appeal to boys ages nine to 12, a demographic that has yet to glom onto Big’s Veggie Tales series. Says Vischer: ‘I don’t think [boys nine to 12] get the Monty Python humor or maybe they find the talking vegetables too cute. That’s where Penguins is going to be really strong, because there will be lots of wacky spaceships flying around.’

Penguins’ main story line concerns feuding tween twins Jason and Michele, who are sent to stay with their grandmother for the summer, a sweet, bulbous Brit ex-pat who sounds like John Cleese doing a turn as the spam-and-chips lady from a famous Python skit. Bored out of their skulls at Gran’s cottage, the two kids venture to the attic, where they soon discover a tiny spaceship left behind by their long deceased eccentric grandfather. In no time, the spaceship collides with some of Gran’s porcelain penguin figurines and-by way of cartoon logic-both magically come to life. In the first ep, the dimwitted Penguinauts enlist Jason to help save Planet Wait-Your-Turn, a far-off world populated by talking vacuum cleaners that have a propensity for butting in front of one another, and who are in danger of seeing their planet crash into the sun if they don’t recognize the folly of their behavior. Eventually, Jason shows them the error of their ways and saves their planet from certain destruction by quoting scripture from the Bible that underscores the virtues of patience. Subsequent releases will follow a similar format, Vischer says, with the kids and the Penguins trying to resolve moral dilemmas.

‘The goal of this company is to grow older with kids. We’ve been making Veggie Tales for seven years now, and as our fans mature, we want to be able to give them more characters and stories that help their parents teach them values,’ says Vischer.

Even though it has enjoyed success at mass with Veggie Tales, Big Idea is distributing Penguins exclusively through the Christian bookstore channel, at least for the first few releases. It’s a choice some might view as foolish, considering most in the mainstream kidvid biz perceive getting placement at Wal-Mart as a life-and-death proposition. But then there are many things about the success of Big Idea that defy conventional kidvid market logic. In just seven years, without the aid of a TV, film or publishing pedigree, Big Idea has managed to sell over 20 million Veggie Tales videos. Today, the series has grown to include 14 half-hour episodes; it has spawned a merchandising program that includes major licensees such as Mattel, Haddad and Hallmark; and it remains the top-selling entertainment brand in the Christian bookstore retail channel, where it accounts for 60% to 70% of all kidvid sales.

The series has also attracted a faithful following in the general retail market, where Lyrick Studios began distributing it two years ago. According to market research firm VideoScan, last year the series ranked fourth among top-selling direct-to-video kids series, behind Pokémon, Blue’s Clues and Scooby-Doo. So how did a relatively obscure prodco manage to challenge the might and wisdom of the more established deep-pocketed studios?

‘The key was that we were appealing very strongly to an audience of parents who were looking for this kind of [religious-based] entertainment,’ says Vischer.

‘The vast majority of Americans want their kids to grow up believing in God, and yet they can watch Nickelodeon or Disney 24 hours a day and never hear a character say that they believe in God. By reaching out to that audience through Christian bookstores and churches, we were able to establish the series very early on,’ he says.

To be sure, the Christian Booksellers played a significant role in the Veggies’ initial success. ‘In the early days, at the store clerk level there was a real buy-in to the product. It was like `Hey, you got to check this out.’ So once that excitement level began, it was really a question of us coming in and trying to feed it,’ says Ben Howard, Big Idea’s VP of core markets.

Along with Big Idea’s rise to success, the Christian kids video genre has seen significant growth too. Led by Veggie Tales, sales of kidvids in the Christian bookstore channel have doubled to between US$50 million to US$60 million in the last five years, estimates Bob Starnes, a buyer at Christian bookstore chain Lemstone Books, which operates in 20 states.

Even today-though Big Idea sells half of its videos through general retailers like Target, Wal-Mart and Kmart-Christian bookstores represent an important channel for the company. ‘They’re much more predisposed to micro-marketing. Eighty percent of our sales in the Christian bookstore market are sold through five chains or marketing associations. So we have been able do some pretty elaborate promotions with those stores that create a real marketing push for our new releases,’ says Howard. One of Big Idea’s major initiatives includes a presale campaign, which awards discounts or premiums to customers who order one of the company’s videos in advance. The second plan involves facilitating premiere screenings of new videos at local cinemas and churches. In `98, after hearing stories about retailers who were selling out tickets to local theaters to show one of Big Idea’s videos, the company started mailing out kits to retailers with tips on how to hold a premiere Veggie Tales screening.

The kits helped quadruple first day sales of new Veggie Tales releases, says Vischer. For its last VT release, Story of Esther, 500,000 people attended screenings across 48 states to watch the 30-minute video. The phenomenal response to the screenings eventually caught the eye of major studios. In October, DreamWorks co-opted the tactic and organized premieres at churches for the DTV release of Joseph: King of Dreams, the follow-up to its `98 animated movie Prince of Egypt.

For the Penguins launch, Big Idea didn’t run presale promotions or organize mass screenings. Instead, it did a lot of direct mail advertising to Big Idea customers, hoping to generate the same word-of-mouth buzz for the property that had occurred for Veggie Tales. Big Idea did send out pre-shipment displays announcing the countdown to the Penguins release in October, and last month it shipped posters and other P.O.P. items to retailers, but the company won’t likely do more elaborate promotions for the property until spring 2001, when the next video will be released.

With obvious consumer affection for Big Idea’s brands at both the Christian book and mass retail channels, it begs the question: Why doesn’t the company just ink a deal with a broadcaster to carry Veggie Tales or Penguins and allow the TV exposure to carry its video sales to new dizzying heights?

Though a Veggie Tales Christmas special, The Veggie Tales Christmas Spectacular, has aired on Pax TV in the U.S. for the last two years and will appear again this December, a deal that would give the company a regular presence on the dial remains elusive. That’s not to say Big Idea hasn’t received offers, but agreeing to the terms proposed would have meant giving up too much control over its product.

‘We had opportunities in the past to be on TV, but [the networks] would say `gosh, we really don’t want the God part in. Can you remove it?’ That was something we weren’t interested in doing,’ says Howard.

Before Lyrick Studios began distributing Big Idea’s videos to mass retailers in `98, some stores also refused to carry the video unless the company deleted the references to God. Those retailers eventually came around and are now carrying Veggie Tales.

Howard realizes that attaining dedicated TV exposure will be crucial to the company’s future growth. And it’s a goal that, considering the privately-held Big Idea’s big ambitions, could force the company to compromise some of its convictions.

‘Our 20-year goal is to become the most trusted family media brand in the world,’ says Phil Vischer. ‘The problem with companies working in children’s media today is that they belong to huge conglomerates that are driven largely by Wall Street. They’re much more concerned with the value of their stock price than they are with the value of the stories they’re telling children. [From day one, our company] has wanted to tell stories that are about more than selling Happy Meals. We want to be in TV and movies. We want to open a theme park one day. There’s so much we could do, but we want to be able to say that we’re doing it for all of the right reasons, not just to make money. That’s what Big Idea is all about.’

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