It’s arguably never been more difficult for independent companies to make a go of it in the kids business. But in just over two years, London-based Ludorum has managed to get its first property, train-centric preschool series Chuggington, rolling down the track to global success. Charlie Caminada, COO and ex-HIT Entertainment bigwig, took some time recently to share his development strategy and upcoming plans with managing editor Lana Castleman.
What made you decide to start from the ground up again after leaving HIT Entertainment in late 2005?
CEO [and former HIT exec] Rob Lawes and I thought there was a tremendous opportunity to create a company using a different model. HIT started in 1989 as a TV distributor and became a rights-owning studio, creating properties or buying them. We wanted to be much more focused on building global franchises from the start. TV licenses cover barely 15% of the production budget now, which means there’s an even greater pressure to deliver properties that have every chance of becoming a global franchise. We were fortunate to have several large institutional shareholders prepared to help us set up Ludorum in 2006. We have now finished production on Chuggington and have sold it into 140 countries – we did it with eight people and no debt. We wanted to stay in the business and have a fair bit of experience between the two of us and we felt if we could assemble a first-rate creative and commercial team, we had as good a chance as any to be successful.
You mentioned how important finding the best people is to being successful. What is it you look for?
Track record, experience and taste.
Can you tell us about Ludorum’s unique relationship with Chuggington master toy licensee RC2?
RC2 contributed 50% of the production budget for Chuggington in return for receiving global master toy rights to the property. You normally get a licensing advance, but we gave RC2 the opportunity to fund the production budget in return for long-term rights. We felt it was a much better relationship than the traditional licensing model because RC2′s a more vested partner and will take a much longer-term view than a typical five-year toy partner.
Did RC2 have a lot of input on the series’ creative?
Our EVP of concept and development Don Toht had designed the characters and knew what our master toy partner would want to have in that world. The only thing RC2 had official approval on was the final character designs of the trains. As for the sets and everything else, they were all designed in-house by the team.
So you found a way for commercial and creative interests to peacefully co-exist?
Yes. The heart of that was Sarah Ball, the producer/director of Chuggington, who had a lot of experience on Bob the Builder, teamed with Don Toht, who spent 12 years designing toy systems for Thomas & Friends and Bob. He was able to design trains and sets that he knew would translate into a fantastic play system and offer a lot of play value.
How is the property performing?
We’re sold into 140 countries and had a soft launch last fall on BBC2′s CBeebies block and then the plan was to move to CBeebies in the New Year. We got a 5:30 p.m. daily slot and that’s when things started to rock. Chuggington is the number-one show on CBeebies and the third-highest rated series in CBeebies’ history, and when we launched on Super RTL in Germany in January, we had a 67% share of boys three to five.
How are you following up Chuggington?
Dennis and Gnasher, based on Beano from DC Thompson [which owns 20% of Ludorum], launches on the BBC this fall and channel 9 Australia, which is a co-producer. As worldwide distribution and licensing representative, the key for us this time is to really write the shows, both for anyone who’s read Beano comics and viewers who have never seen one in their lives. To do that we worked very closely with Margaret Loesch, and she assembled a fantastic team of US, UK and Australian writers. We wanted stronger scripts with more action and bigger licensing opportunities than the first two series. We’re in the process of selling to toy companies, more broadcasters and licensees. Publishing will be done through DC Thompson.
What are the biggest challenges for you right now?
Having owned and managed Bob and Thomas, we’re very aware of all the hoops you have to jump through to make successes like that happen. We don’t take that task lightly, it’s a huge amount of time, resources and money, and you have to assemble the very best team to do that. We have a lot to do to get to that point. It’s very early days. Ratings are positive, but you can’t take anything for granted. At the same time we’re looking to work with as many third-party creative people as we can to find the next property. At the end of the day it’s the merits of the idea and concept that will win our attention. If we find the right property, we certainly have the ability to raise the money to do it. The economy’s not good. Retailers are suffering and I suspect a few more will fail. It’s the strong properties that will endure and that’s what we’ve got to aim to build.