Classic revival is always a double-edged opportunity in which the possibility of tarnishing the property’s original appeal is weighed against the need to contemporize in order to capture the attention of a modern fan base. New York-based Classic Media has been specializing in this tricky business since it acquired the UPA library in 2000, a key buy that was quickly followed by the pick-ups of Harvey in May 2001 and Golden Books in August 2001. Beyond striking the right balance between nostalgic appeal and contemporary standards, CM is grappling with choosing the ripest comeback candidates from its newfound wealth of aged properties and the best path to get them back into the limelight.
Bob Higgins, CM’s senior VP of production and creative, always starts off by lobbing a barrage of key questions at each property to test its redux potential. If you take the well-known name away, will it still work as a TV show or film based on the strength of its story and characters? Does it have the kind of cachet that will attract talent (be they animators, writers or directors)? Can it be placed on daytime TV? Are the ancillary characters strong enough to support the story and protagonist?
In some cases, quite a bit of creative tweaking is needed to get a concept up to modern snuff. Poky Little Puppy from the Golden Books catalog is a prime example. The book property has sold just under 15 million copies since it was first published in 1942, but with just one main character and 10 pages worth of preschool-level editorial content, the property initially had minimal on-screen potential. So Higgins is currently drawing up an animated TV series blueprint that rolls in all the characters from the Little Golden Books line, including Toodle the Train and Scruffy the Tugboat.
While Higgins weighs each property’s screen potential, the licensing team scrutinizes its retail performance. As a rule, the properties that CM ends up putting through the revival wringer share one common characteristic: continued recall and consistent sales of existing merch. The Lone Ranger, which is destined for a big TV future with a live-action drama debuting on The WB in January 2003 and toon series hitting Kids’ WB! in September 2003, has what Classic’s director of worldwide licensing Gary Hymowitz is looking for.
The original Lone Ranger radio show has been steadily selling on CD and cassette for years, as have other categories like T-shirts, collectible figurines and playsets. And in December, following an on-pack Cheerios promotion for the cereal’s 60th birthday (marking the first time a character has appeared on a Cheerios box), CM and Rhino Home Video began shipping the original TV series on VHS and DVD. ‘We’ve always focused on the collectibles side before series development,’ says Hymowitz, and then when each leg of TV or film is reached, the merch team starts expanding the lines into other categories. ‘For example, when The Lone Ranger animated series comes out, we’ll start focusing on the six to 11 group’ with products like video games and playsets, he says.
So besides The Lone Ranger and Poky Little Puppy, which properties have come through this ordeal with a greenlight for development in tow? An Underdog live-action/CGI feature is in development with SpyGlass Entertainment for Disney in 2004; and NBC is gearing up to air specials based on Mr. Magoo (this Christmas) and Peter Cottontail (spring 2003).
In addition to tapping these well-known properties, Higgins is mining a more obscure source of material–Gold Key Comics, an old Golden Books comic label known for ’60s comic characters like Turok (now an Acclaim video game), Doctor Solar and Magnus Robot Fighter. The long-forgotten catalog has yielded a hidden gem called Jet Dream, which Higgins likens to Men in Black. While enjoying cultish indie success in a limited run, MIB still existed in relative mass-market obscurity until it hit the big screen, when the first movie in the franchise grossed over US$500 million.
Jet Dream only had a one-issue run, but Higgins thinks the stuntwoman by day, crimefighter by night premise has tremendous Charlie’s Angels-esque appeal for teens and adult women. Although few details about this property have been set in stone, Higgins says he’s developing it as a TV concept.