After poking around in worldwide syndication for nearly two decades, ’50s clay-animated character Gumby is limbering up for a cross-media comeback in 2003. Although rights owner Clokey Productions signed on merch agent Heat Licensing three years ago, upping Gumby’s kid connection has been a slow-build process. However, ABC’s recently announced plans to develop the property as a Wonderful World of Disney made-for-TV movie should help speed things along.
While Los Angeles-based prodco Karz Entertainment was brought on-board as far back as two or three years ago to develop a Gumby TV project, the greenlight finally came after long-time Gumby fan Susan Lynes–then VP of movies and mini-series, now head of ABC Entertainment–got involved.
ABC’s on-air relationship with the classic character stretches back to summer 2001. Scouting for a cool, but wholesome icon to be its channel spokescharacter, ABC decided that the look, feel and color scheme of Gumby and sidekick Pokey fit the channel’s overall look. The duo flanked the ABC station ID logo and introduced summer reruns. Both Clokey Productions and ABC received a ton of fan mail inquiring about a possible TV and merch comeback for the character, referencing the ID tags. Royalites–which had bottomed out before last summer, according to Clokey–skyrocketed once the ID spots began airing, and holiday 2001 sales for nostalgic merch were quite high. In remodeling Gumby, Karz Entertainment faces a classic producer conundrum–how to appeal to the tastes of a modern kid audience without detracting from the original’s market cachet. ‘We need to update the look,’ says producer Mike Karz, noting that CGI hits such as Shrek and Monsters, Inc. have raised the production bar that much higher. Karz is considering a live-action/animation hybrid along the lines of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or The Mask. The movie may incorporate various animation styles, but will rely primarily on live action and clay animation.
Gumby is no stranger to the makeover process, having undergone several metamorphoses in his near-50-year TV history. When The Gumby Show debuted on the Howdy Doody Show in the ’50s, Gumby spoke little, and plotlines revolved around the day-to-day of Toyland. In the ’60s and ’80s, deeper story lines were developed, including one that saw the Gumby crew help George Washington cross the Delaware. The original series also enjoyed a four-year run on Nick in the mid-’90s.
Evolutions aside, the remodeled Gumby should stick fairly close to the original’s spirit. Clokey Productions president Joe Clokey compares the project’s strategy to what Disney has done with Winnie the Pooh–’they kept it pretty traditional…and look how successful that has been.’
Karz believes that the TV movie will be a launching pad for a larger family franchise. ‘It’s rare to find a character that resonates so immediately with both kids and parents,’ he says. ‘I’d like to work on a Gumby project every year for a long time.’
While TV has historically been the property driver, this time around, merchandising and home video sales will serve to promote the movie and any potential TV series. Licensing wasn’t originally part of Art Clokey’s idealistic game plan for what he saw as a wholesome property with a message. ‘I didn’t allow any merchandise for the first seven years,’ says the Gumby creator. The first-ever Gumby product–a six-inch bendable figure–hit shelves in 1964, followed by apparel and bedding.
Three years ago, right before Heat signed on as the property’s agent, Gumby’s merch life had dwindled. ‘It started to fade in the ’80s,’ says Heat president Patrick Lauerman, ‘and no categories were being licensed when I took over.’ With two dozen licensees–spanning categories from apparel to hard goods–producing Gumby merch for the nostalgic market, Heat is currently looking to age the property back down to kids, specifically aiming to tap untried categories including educational products, computer games and other software-based offerings.
On the entertainment front, Rhino Home Video re-released the classic eps last month on DVD and VHS, and further series, direct-to-video and big-screen development are being considered.