When it comes to exploiting a property’s ancillary potential, indie producers often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Landing a spot on domestic nets dominated by in-house productions is tough, but getting a global toy deal without a U.S. broadcast berth may be even tougher – especially in a retail environment as risk-averse as it is right now. And that’s exactly where Toronto, Canada’s Decode Entertainment found itself with its digital 2-D animated preschool series Franny’s Feet two years after its 2003 debut. The show had sold into 165 countries, but without a U.S. home, toycos weren’t biting. What follows is an in-depth look at how Decode turned it around, and what went into finally inking a master toy license with heavyweight Hasbro’s Playskool division last October.
2005 – Finding U.S. placement
Franny’s Feet centers around a precocious five-and-a-half-year-old girl whose feet take her on globe-trotting adventures when she secretly tries on shoes from her grandfather’s repair shop. For example, she slips on sandals and is magically transported to a beach in Mexico, and a pair of trekking boots land her on a mountaintop in Tibet. Putting a fresh twist on the classic girls play pattern of dressing up makes the show naturally toyetic. But with 39 half hours produced and three years of pitching the IP at Licensing Show, Decode and licensing agent The Sharpe Company, helmed by president Charlie Day, weren’t making any headway. The show had to find a U.S. broadcaster.
As Decode put more eps into production, partner Beth Stevenson says the studio consciously self-policed storylines and content to make it align broadly with most U.S. broadcaster curriculums. The company even brought an educational consultant on-board to help shape the show’s preschool content with that goal in mind.
In the meantime, girls preschool properties were gaining traction with U.S. audiences. Dora the Explorer was soaring on Nick Jr., and Disney Playhouse had JoJo’s Circus. The only major player without a girl-focused program for two- to five-year-olds was PBS, and it had begun to show some interest in Franny.
To make it happen, Stevenson says Decode realized it needed to hook up with one of the stronger affiliate stations in the PBS collective, where both member channels and its headquarters have a say in programming decisions. The company began serious discussions with Thirteen/WNET out of New York, one of a few affiliates with a solid reputation for partnering with production companies to shape potential PBS hits.
There was some work to do, however, to make Decode’s 11-minute show meet the station’s half-hour time slot requirements. With input from WNET, Decode’s team developed and produced six-minute interactive interstitials, called Franny’s Treasures, for PBS KIDS GO! that fleshed out the show’s running time.
The spots also satisfied PBS’s curriculum by expanding on educational concepts explored in the main story. In the added minutes, Franny talks directly to viewers and asks for help figuring out game-like challenges. The interstitials also direct kids to a PBS website where they can click on some of Franny’s adventures, sing along with her music videos and play interactive games.
Once Thirteen/WNET had taken the show under its wing, Decode was able to sign a national deal with PBS. At Licensing Show in 2005, the prodco announced that Franny’s would be going wide on PBS in July 2006, and it was at this point that the company began to field serious interest from some major toy players.
February to August 2006 – Testing time
Decode and Day went to Toy Fair in 2006 with a detailed style guide that catalogued every visual element of the property, from Franny’s various facial expressions to her shoes, treasures and backdrops. And, as is standard operating procedure, Day had worked up possible toy applications for the license. ‘We thought Franny would work primarily in terms of a preschool doll and playsets,’ says Day. The shoes and fashion elements that are part of the whole Franny world tap into some classic play patterns.
Playskool had shown interest and went back to Hasbro headquarters in Pawtucket, Rhode Island with episodes of Franny’s Feet in hand. Some may be surprised to learn that toy companies do a significant amount of internal research before they come close to making a formal overture to a licensor, and Playskool’s consumer research arm certainly got to work. It began by sending the videos home with several moms and tots to watch, and then compare against other popular shows. The results were favorable.
‘Moms just loved Franny as a character. They loved that she took them on adventures, and they thought the idea of her putting on the shoes to do it was really sweet,’ says Leigh Anne Cappello, VP of marketing for Hasbro’s preschool brands. The test groups gave Franny high ratings overall. ‘The more global a deal is, the bigger the volume opportunity, and we think Franny’s Feet has the potential to be a significant property in the U.S.,’ she adds.
By August that year, Hasbro was ready to pitch its master toy proposal. Though other companies had tested Franny at the consumer level, Hasbro’s detailed and lengthy consumer research to evaluate how far the property would resonate with preschool kids and their parents won over Decode and Day. ‘They are very selective in making property acquisitions that are a strong strategic fit, and are prepared to really get behind the properties that they select,’ Day says.
For her part, Stevenson admits the amount of thought Playskool had already put into the proposed product line for the pitch was impressive. Though the toys are still top-secret, she lights up when talking about the plans. ‘The products are very complementary. They keep Franny in more of a classic place,’ she says.
October 2006 – It’s a done deal
The Franny’s team finalized the master toy deal with Playskool at the end of October. Shortly thereafter, the group began round-table discussions with Playskool about developing the toy line. However, Playskool/Hasbro keeps pretty tight-lipped about its testing formulas, and neither Decode nor Sharpe was in on creating the prototypes, involved in their testing or privy to the final results. But Cappello suggests prototypes are put through the paces in focus groups that help zero in on viable concepts. Children get invited to Hasbro’s in-house research facility, dubbed the FunLab, and play with the toys. The company measures the general appeal and ergonomics of the playthings. And besides structured qualitative groups, Playskool execs often observe free-form play through a glass wall in the Fun Lab to get a sense of what toys are striking a chord with kids.
February 2007 – On the road to retail
Playskool is busy developing, testing and producing toys, which will pass by Decode for final creative approval. New product is scheduled to hit shelves in early 2008, but not before other ancillary deals, spurred by the master toy license, are out of the blocks. Since signing with Playskool, Decode is in the process of securing two publishing heavyweights to crank out books in different categories. Home video launches this month, and apparel will roll out further down the road.
Getting the products to market will be a combined effort. Day says the brand marketing strategy will ultimately be helmed by Decode and Sharpe. However, they’ll work with Playskool and their publishing partners to determine the best route to market.
As the show itself gains popularity on PBS and yields reviews in mainstream media, Decode, Sharpe and Hasbro will work closely on getting as much exposure as possible for the brand to launch the first products.
In the meantime, Decode is back to the drawing board. Stevenson says her team is busy developing another 13 half-hour eps of Franny’s Feet, and this time around, there won’t be any guesswork. The content will be tailored to fit PBS’s time requirements and curriculum, and the various rights partners are in the loop. ‘It makes sense for those partners, publishers and toy companies to know early on about the storytelling process for further episodes so there are no surprises when the shows hit the TV screen,’ says Day.