Building Blockbusters

Truly great ideas are rare and ones that actually realize their full potential are rarer still. This might explain why most kids TV shows, toys and films ultimately don't become the critical and commercial successes they set out to be. And when it comes to kids entertainment, most ideas are simply not worth pursuing, and many of those worth developing are inadvertently malnourished.
February 17, 2009

Truly great ideas are rare and ones that actually realize their full potential are rarer still. This might explain why most kids TV shows, toys and films ultimately don’t become the critical and commercial successes they set out to be. And when it comes to kids entertainment, most ideas are simply not worth pursuing, and many of those worth developing are inadvertently malnourished.

In fact, while many think they have it, the ability to consistently identify and properly nourish great ideas is a rare gift that few actually possess. In my 30 years in the kids’ entertainment business, I have had the great honor to know many wildly talented people. The truly successful ones instinctively get it right more often than not, and in this article I’m aiming to outline the key things I have learned from them about creating genuine blockbuster entertainment for kids across most media and consumer products. Implementing the following core principles is vital, particularly in times when world economies fall into recession and capital flows only to those ideas that promise the greatest potential.

How do we want kids to feel?
Surprisingly, many entertainment and product executives get so excited about an idea that comes across their desks that they often push the concept right into product or screenplay development without ever asking the most basic question. Before you start plotting storyboards or getting material quotes, it’s necessary to ask how kids will feel when they play with the toy or watch the movie inspired by the initial idea – determining whether or not the idea meets children’s emotional needs is really the crux of the matter. An idea that satisfies a core emotional need will clear the first hurdle to becoming successful.

And the emotional needs that children strive to satisfy are not all that different from those of adults. Kids want to be safe, loved, accepted and appreciated by those around them. They crave friendship and self-respect and want to be proud of their achievements. A sense of independence, rebelliousness, power, creativity, control, silliness and attractiveness (at later ages) is also important. Kids also want to realize a number of core fantasies, and transformational fantasies figure quite prominently. These include transforming from dumb to brilliant, ugly to pretty, rags to riches, weak to strong, novice to master, small to big, victim to victor, coward to brave heart, unpopular to popular or nobody to celebrity. Related, tangible fantasies inherent in these include being a rock star, a super hero, a warrior, a princess, an adventurer, a spy, a wizard and more.

Executives who dissect ideas in search of these deep emotional drivers are on the road to achieving success. The core desire of attaining power to defeat evil, for example, stands behind the likes of entertainment hits such as Superman and Power Rangers. The timeless rags-to-riches fantasy has helped create Cinderella’s story and Monopoly. The desire to taste the fruits of fame and celebrity provided a solid foundation for Hannah Montana. The need to feel edgy and nonconformist is inherent in Bart Simpson and Bratz. Too often, toys and screenplays and TV scripts meander through the development process without really coming to grips with the core question: how do we want kids to feel?

Getting your ducks in a row

Once gurus zero in on the core emotional driver(s), they instinctively align all elements of product and marketing development so that key efforts are made in lockstep.

Lego is a good example. At its center, Lego’s play pattern helps children realize their hearts’ desires in physical form – it’s all about mastery, skill, achievement, and pride. And every Lego product and its features and play patterns are aligned to satisfy those emotional needs.

Conversely, toys that have too many bells and whistles that stray from the core emotional driver(s) will fall flat, as will screenplays with too many twists, turns and sub-plots. That’s not to say, for example, that a comic film can only be funny and have no action/adventure. Balance is good, but a decision needs to be made as to what lies at the film’s emotional core, first and foremost.

Interestingly, choosing a name plays a key role in keeping the idea on track. Superman, Baby Einstein and The Lion King are great names that entice. Importantly, they communicate the central idea of the concept while subtly hinting at the primary emotional need, fantasy and benefit. It’s easy to grasp the fantasy inherent in Superman, Lion King, or Iron Man, for that matter. Names need to be both strategic and playful. Too often they are only one or the other.

How do you entice a larger audience?
This question, unfortunately, often comes very late in the development process. Too often I’m presented with a toy or screenplay in its final stages of development and I’m asked how to extend its appeal to a broader audience so that it does not skew too young or too old, or too boy or too girl. The implications are dramatic. If you divide the kids’ audience into four demos (older boys, younger boys, older girls and younger girls) an idea that only targets younger girls, for example, immediately cuts out 75% of your potential audience or consumer group. This is fine if you’re targeting just one segment, but a blockbuster by nature has much broader appeal.

The best way to address a skew that might hamper appeal is in the very early stages of concept development when many elements are flexible enough to affect changes. (For suggestions on which direction to take see ‘Crowd Control’ on p. 72) The sooner the question ‘How do we attract a broader audience?’ gets asked, the better. I was recently consulted on a screenplay that was all girl-girl-girl and was asked how to achieve a balanced boy/girl audience. My answer? Start over.

Solid storytelling underpins success
Studios and game companies understand the importance of creating an enticing story, but many other entertainment-related companies do not. I’m still surprised by the number of toys that are developed as standalones with no sense of story or characters. This goes for packaged goods as well. All stand to benefit from a good story. Even a pack of paintbrushes can be created with characters and a backstory that will help inspire a broader franchise.

So from the outset of hatching an idea you need to ask your team what’s the story and who is the central character? It’s also necessary to define his or her goals, strengths, weaknesses, persona and challenges. The inclusion of archetypes kids expect to see is also important. Does the narrative make room for the aspirational character (the hero I want to be), the relatable character (the character that I am), the nemesis (the one I must survive/defeat), the dimwitted character (the one I can feel superior to), the bratty/mischievous one (the character who does stuff I’d like to get away with), the friend character (the one I share my trials/secrets with), and the dateable character (for romance scenarios)? Kids also expect archetypes to be realized as extremes of their key trait; they know when one is not powerful or mischievous or beautiful enough. Extreme characters faced with extreme situations have an edge in today’s world. Kids also expect character conflicts derived from the clash of these personas; smart characters must suffer the dumb ones, unpopular characters must suffer the popular ones and great Good must be challenged with great Evil.

Creator see, creator do
Blockbuster entertainment has inspired trends and fads in the past, but more often than not they take advantage of current trends and fads in popular culture. For example, the introduction of skateboards got a boost from the emerging surfing culture of the 1960s. Barbie launched at a time when the notion of girl power was bubbling to the surface as women’s career choices were broadening. And The Dark Knight always arrives on cue to provide a true hero that we can count on in troubled times.

Right now, trends and themes to watch include growing ethnicity, obesity, world awareness and altruism, terrorism, patriotism, pop star madness, environmental sensitivity, personalization, ‘do something’ products, category co-mingling (i.e. a toy can also be food), 24/7 connectivity, sensory explosions, grandparent power, and a turn to magic, mysticism and forensic science to name a few. A key parental trend in these austere times ahead will involve them asking for more entertainment and play value for less money and returning to simpler times. Having a firm grasp on these trends will help foster blockbuster ideas or, at the very least, help nurture ideas so that they will take on the aura of the trend.

Moving beyond year one
Many toy and content ideas are too narrow and conceived in ways that makes them nearly impossible to refresh season after season. They violate the Ever-Cool formula I articulated several years ago that involves starting out by meeting kids’ timeless emotional need(s), but routinely dressing the product/content up in a current fad or trend.

That’s how fashion dolls stay cool year after year; they satisfy a girl’s desire for glamor, beauty and fashion, but are easily updated each year to reflect the current trends driving this play pattern. Similarly, kids TV shows need to be based upon a fantasy that is strong enough to keep children emotionally satisfied, but broad enough to encompass a variety of storylines and themes. That’s what accounted for the relative longevity of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Its core emotional drivers were boys’ twin desires for power and to be a teenager, but the show wrapped itself season after season in the cultural zeitgeist, trading on the ninja and space adventure/exploration crazes in successive years, for example. If you can’t generate ideas for year two quickly and easily, the concept may be too narrow and won’t have the broad appeal and longevity most blockbusters possess.

Can I have a franchise with that?
A franchise is the Holy Grail of the entertainment industry and any idea with franchise aspirations needs to be multifaceted. Consider whether the idea is just a toy or can it become an animated TV show? The ironic thing is that the great majority of toy inventors still pitch their ideas as toys and the majority of writers continue to pitch their ideas as screenplays or TV series, often leaving it to others to detect broader potential. But the more thought that the creator can give to how the idea extends into other media and formats, the more likely the idea will be successfully sold and nurtured.

Gene Del Vecchio is an independent consultant, researcher, and the author of ground-breaking books Creating Ever-Cool, A Marketer’s Guide to a Kid’s Heart, and The Blockbuster Toy, How to Invent the Next Big Thing. Meet him during his presentation at KidScreen Summit in February, or call 661-287-9995.

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