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Promo Partner Personals: Planetarium dome shows open up a new universe for kids brands

If your memories of schooltrips to the planetarium involve Laser Floyd and ceiling starscapes, I'm afraid you're a bit behind the times. But more importantly, you may be missing out on a valuable property-building opportunity because today's planentarium theaters are looking to partner with educational kids brands to offer their younger patrons a little more fun.
October 1, 2005

If your memories of schooltrips to the planetarium involve Laser Floyd and ceiling starscapes, I’m afraid you’re a bit behind the times. But more importantly, you may be missing out on a valuable property-building opportunity because today’s planentarium theaters are looking to partner with educational kids brands to offer their younger patrons a little more fun.

Spitz is a Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania-based company that creates programming for roughly 150 full-dome theaters worldwide, from traditional space shows to animated reef adventures. But creative media director Mike Bruno has recently noticed an increase in demand for edutainment designed to appeal to kids up to age 12. And to meet it, Spitz has signed a deal to develop a new half-hour dome show starring the characters of The Zula Patrol.

The 26 x half-hour CGI series, created by Dr. Deborah Manchester and produced by New York’s The Hatchery, teaches four- to seven-year-olds critical facts about science and astronomy against a narrative backdrop of hilarious outerspace capers. The show’s main baddie, Dark Truder, constantly seeks to upset the balance of the galaxy. But since his evil plots are usually based on inaccurate info, the members of watchdog organization The Zula Patrol are always able to foil Truder and keep the universe in order.

Bruno was attracted to Zula’s curriculum because it sits perfectly in line with U.S. science education standards. But he also looks for content beyond completed TV series because prepping programming for dome-casting involves much more than simply throwing an episode up onto the larger screen.

A typical 22- to 25-minute animated dome show can take more than a year to produce (compared to a TV half hour’s typical three-month cycle). Not only is the resolution for the giant screen much higher, but changes to story pacing, visual design, scene length, sets/background and character interaction all come into play. ‘The shots play out longer, the screen is huge, and your audiences need to spend more time looking around to take everything in,’ Bruno explains, adding that if the action is too fast-paced, it can literally make people sick.

In terms of cost, Spitz typically spends US$500,000 to make a planetarium-ready half hour of animation, and some shows that go heavy on special effects can easily top the US$1-million mark. But Bruno stresses that the company always tries to limit its production costs in order to recoup on the investment.

Everything is negotiated on a deal-by-deal basis, and the revenue split between Spitz and the property owner depends on how much each partner contributes. On the distribution front, smaller theaters that welcome 30,000 visitors annually will pay US$8,000 to US$15,000 to license a show for one year, and larger venues in major cities typically fork over at least US$25,000.

Spitz normally offers either a fixed-fee contract based on the market size, or a royalty per ticket sale. ‘This is still a new medium,’ says Bruno. ‘People who run planetariums are used to making their own shows or paying US$500 for a show kit they own forever, so there’s a fair bit of customer education involved in making a sale.’

Kids properties with licensed merchandise programs can also make waves in planetarium gift stores. Metropolitan planetariums are early adopters on this front, with New York’s Hayden Theater agreeing to carry Sesame Street and Star Wars merch even without full-dome shows, and Manchester is looking for licensees to manufacturer Zula Patrol products in time for the show’s full-dome launch in Q2 2006.

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