London-based prodco and IP house Chorion has been picking up momentum on the kids scene since its management-led buyout in mid-2006. Last year, it delivered an innovative take on Roger Hargreaves’ classic property Mr. Men to Cartoon Network, scooped up licensing agency The Copyrights Group and signed a global deal with Nickelodeon for the upcoming CGI series based on literary star Olivia. And the company’s just getting started. Energetic and enigmatic executive chairman Waheed Alli has an ambitious goal to turn Chorion into a US$2-billion kids entertainment powerhouse by 2012. KidScreen Editor Jocelyn Christie sat down with the former magazine publisher and ITV producer – who’s also a member of the UK’s House of Lords, co-creator of reality hit Survivor and a self-made millionaire – to discuss his plans for future growth and love of the creative process.
You’ve had such a storied career history. What would you say is your favorite professional experience?
Well, the success of Survivor was extremely gratifying because co-creating a program that was so phenomenally successful globally was a real high to leave television on. Even
this morning, when I was walking to the office, I passed a poster that had Survivor: China on it, and I thought to myself, ‘That’s mine. I did that, and
I own it.’
What is your vision for Chorion?
I want Chorion to be a global media content company, with children at the heart of its business. I want to specialize in characters and content that are classic and iconic, but most of all, they have to be loved. And by 2012, I want Chorion to be a company that has a market value in excess of US$2 billion. That’s the framework. But our commercial success, in my view, is going to be directly linked to the trust our children’s characters and brands inspire in parents. I want to put us and the characters we work with on the side of caring, aspirational parents, and at the same time, I want to stimulate, educate and entertain our most important audience – children. We want our brands to be loved and trusted by children and parents alike.
How do you plan on getting there?
You make sure the company is creatively driven, that it takes brilliant properties and reintroduces them in contemporary marketplaces. But you do it by finding things you love. All the great organizations of the world have been founded on passion and creativity. In the end, maybe they’re drowned by the bureaucracy of business management, but at the heart of it, there’s got to be some creative vision.
Bulking up is not a goal, so what are you looking for in future acquisitions?
We are not a financial company looking to build a business by buying things, consolidating them, clearing them out and reselling them. We’re about finding brilliant properties and investing in them, and we’re doing that one at a time. We’ll never bring 10 to the market at the same time. In 2007, it was Mr. Men, this year it’s Olivia. At best, we’re going to do two a year – likely a preschool one, followed by another children’s property. But we do need the help of broadcasters. We are selling in a marketplace where we are investing huge sums of money, and broadcasters are paying a tiny percentage of what it costs to make a show. And if we are to continue to create top-end entertainment for television, then we have to be supported by broadcasters. They can’t pretend they’re simply buyers, sitting down to pick and choose. They have to be our partners because we need some security and help from them because both our futures are now linked together. More and more, terrestrial television networks are getting rid of their children’s content, and if we’re to suspend that, we have to produce brilliant stuff and make it work. And we’re both fighting a losing battle, so joining forces is what it will take.
How do you respond to pundits who say the traditional TV business model for content is dying?
To a degree that’s right. I think content will migrate. But there was a time when people said that television would replace newspapers and magazines. But they’re still stacking the shelves. Television may become different and do new things, and it won’t have the pre-eminent place it has now – it will be part of an offering. What will have a pre-eminent place, though, is content. So whilst Paddington Bear and Mr. Men and Olivia may not achieve all they’re going to achieve on television, they will still be online, they will still exist as books, they will be across all platforms because it’s the characters that people are looking for in their entertainment experiences. No one has ever sat down and said, ‘I want to experience television.’ They want to watch their favorite show, play their favorite game – they want to be entertained.
What else does Copyrights bring to the table beyond strong existing brands like Paddington Bear and Beatrix Potter? What did you see in the strength of its infrastructure that also attracted you?
There’s a depth of experience and strong market reputation in Nicholas Durbridge and Linda Pooley that appeals to me. I think what they’ve got is a range of long-standing relationships that I hope will work to our benefit. They’ve also got a very good creative team in terms of product development, and that will help our licensing & merchandising team in Europe. They have no presence in the US, but in Europe, they’ll help us a great deal.
How do you inspire strong creative work?
First of all, by making sure your company is creatively led, by making the creatives in the organization count for more, by letting people follow their hearts, by giving them the resources to develop ideas, and by the example that you set yourself. You inspire it by wanting creative excellence, by wanting brilliant product, and not accepting inferior imitations – even if you can make a quick buck.
What do you look for in people?
Passion above all. We argue all the time in our organization, but it’s a creative argument. Competence is also important. And I want a team around me that understands that we can build an organization that proves quality can be commercially successful.
What is your key point of difference amongst competitors operating in the same space and going after the same target audience?
I’m not looking at them. A friend in politics once said to me, ‘Be very careful that you don’t spend so much time covering your back that someone turns around and stabs you in the front.’ And it stayed with me for quite a long time. I want to be a creative company. I want our products to succeed. I want our characters to live again. I want Mr. Men to be successful because it deserves it. I want Olivia to be loved by four- to six-year-old girls because she’s an amazing character. I want Paddington to provide the comfort to a three-year-old. These are the things I want. That doesn’t mean I want someone else to fail, but that just doesn’t come into it. We’re focused on us and our characters.
What part of Chorion’s business do you think has the biggest potential for growth?
Our children’s business, and particularly the preschool part.
What is the biggest challenge you’ll face over the next two years?
It will be to make sure the animation, characters and television we’re making are properly positioned. It’s a tough world out there. We’re putting a lot of money into making the shows, and we need it marketed properly, and that’s not in my hands. I’m not Nick and I’m not Cartoon Network, and they can choose to do whatever they want with our product. And so for me, the biggest challenge is to make them want Olivia and Mr. Men to succeed as much as we do, and to make them feel like the shows are their own.
What’s your biggest opportunity over the next two years?
It’s to make our characters live in a new world in the digital landscape – it’s a new frontier and it’s global.
Tell me three things most people don’t know about you.
First off, I’m a very bad driver. I close my eyes when I go around roundabouts. Second, I’m obsessed with Agatha Christie, which luckily I own. I’m just now re-reading the entire Agatha Christie collection, again. And I eat too much – especially if it’s fried.
What keeps you up at night?
‘Nothing, I sleep like a baby.’