It’s been five years since the Henson family bought back its company from German media conglom EM.TV, and in the immortal words of The Muppet Show’s theme song, it’s time to get things started at MIPCOM. ‘Our development slate is now maturing,’ says director and producer Brian Henson, who has brought in veteran distribution consultant Sam Ewing to help sell the studio’s shows at the market, and who expects to be churning out between three and five new projects a year from 2009 on.
The newest Henson concept to hit the scene is Dinosaur Train, a 26 x half-hour CGI series that has a tentative deal with PBS Kids attached to it. Created by Craig Bartlett, a veteran Jim Henson Company writer and creative mainstay, the toon stars a precocious Tyrannosaurus Rex foundling who lives with his adopted family of Pterandons. In every episode, they board a dino-run train and travel through tunnels leading to different prehistoric eras, where they learn about a new species of dinosaur each time. Henson says episodes will likely have live-action footage of a real kid playing with a toy train and dinosaurs as the lead-in to a CGI adventure. He also expects that the target demo, officially pegged at preschool, may skew as old as 10 because of the dino subject matter.
The personalities of the characters, the writing style and show’s format are all very Henson in sensibility, but because the cast is on all fours (as opposed to the studio’s signature anthropormorphic puppet style), the project isn’t right for the Digital Puppetry Studio, the company’s proprietary technology that applies the control system used to operate animatronic puppets to digital characters. So the cost of producing this one will be roughly US$300,000 per episode, and Henson needs a co-pro partner to move it into production.
In terms of straight-up selling, Ewing will be working on securing international deals for Sid the Science Kid, a 40 x half-hour CGI preschool series co-produced with KCET/Los Angeles for PBS Kids, where it just debuted at the beginning of the month. This one stars a curious boy named Sid who explores the science of everyday life, and it’s the first full series to run through the Digital Puppetry Studio.
Also a product of this process (in fact, the project that tested it), The Skrumps is a character-driven vehicle based on a line of collectible figures and illustrated storybooks created by artist John Chandler in 2005. Its ensemble cast of quirky teenage slackers bumble their way towards rock star fame with their band, GrumbleBelly, in between holding down part-time jobs to pay the rent.
Henson says Chandler originally pitched the project with a box of little Muppet-influenced toys that the company actually kept working with to develop character personalities and voices. The webisodes launched last summer on Yahoo! Kids, and interest in the property has been high enough that Henson is now in the process of developing two long-form DVDs (budgeted between US$3 million and US$5 million) that build the narrative out even more. Henson says he would love to find a partner to put together a TV series for the characters, and will be pitching the idea to like-minded production companies at MIPCOM.
Staying true to the company’s roots and core competency in puppetry, there are a number of new hand-puppet projects in development that Henson is keeping close to his chest for now. But Pajanimals, a short-form series splicing live action with four lovable puppet characters who help prep kids for bedtime, is going to air exclusively on PBS Kids Sprout in November. Licensing deals are signed for publishing and plush, and although the shorts have been co-produced with 4Kids Entertainment, Henson is also free to explore doing a full-length TV series, which would mean expanding the scope of the concept beyond bedtime to touch on other parts of a preschooler’s life.
Going forward, The Jim Henson Company plans to focus on developing characters and series concepts that can work in any combination of mediums, including TV, feature films, live shows, online and consumer products. Though most of the studio’s projects are generated in-house, Brian Henson is open to pitches for great character-based content that fits within the parameters of the family-friendly Henson brand. He’s also keen to find projects that can feed into the Digital Puppetry Studio. ‘That is one area where we’re a little more open to work-for-hire production…because we’ve got this factory that needs to keep running,’ he says.