I love making preschool shows. I know that this type of specialization is out of vogue at the moment but that’s what I love to do. And it isn’t a business decision, it’s a calling. I don’t have a calling to make an app. And I don’t have a calling to make toys (but if nobody buys our toys then nobody finances our shows – so go buy our toys.)
But I love making the shows. And so does my staff. We don’t get giddy at Little Airplane about elaborate co-production deals that spread production across two or more continents. But we do get giddy rushing from the music room to the edit station to watch a Small Potato dressed as a Rastafarian singing the reggae tune, “Potato Love.” And we do get giddy when we hear a whole kindergarten class on the subway chanting, “What’s gonna work? Teamwork!” We are, quite simply, preschool TV geeks. We just put up with everything else so that we can make our preschool shows.
And, thankfully, all the other businesses – toys, apps, publishing, DVDs – are still largely dependent upon a successful preschool TV series. I do understand that this may change in the coming years but, at least for now, people still seem to need high quality preschool shows to generate interest and eyeballs for all the other stuff.
So how does a show maker survive? I don’t know, exactly, but I can tell you how this show maker survives: We don’t put all our eggs (or all our shows) into one basket. I know of many companies in the kids’ space who have reached the conclusion that they need to focus all their energy and resources into one or two BIG shows that tick all the boxes and have a good shot at becoming international mega-toy hits that will work across all known and unknown platforms.
To me, this is like going into a casino and putting all of your money down on one or two numbers on the roulette wheel. I don’t care how good you are at roulette, you still stand an excellent chance of leaving the table with nothing. Why? Because the audience that we all work for is simply too young and too fickle for any of us to predict what new property they will anoint as their next big hit.
So I take a different approach. I try to spread my bets across multiple tables. I make a long form series at this table, a short form series at that table and I shoot a batch of interstitials using an HD Flip Cam in our lobby. Since nobody ever knows WHICH show a preschooler will pick, it just seems logical to me that I have a better shot at making a successful show if I make a bunch of them. (Not to mention the fact that it’s a lot more fun this way.)
Now, I admit that we do have the luxury at Little Airplane of being able to create our own IP in-house and we have yet to find ourselves short of ideas for new shows. But many of the smaller indies I know have the same creative resourcefulness. I’m thinking about places like J.J. Johnson’s Sinking Ship Productions in Toronto or Jamie Badminton’s Karrot Animation in London or Suzanne Ryan’s SLR Productions in Sydney. All are thriving by being nimble, creative and very hard-working companies. Ironically, I find that the larger, wealthier indies have a harder time creating and producing their own IP because they’re so encumbered by their sluggish bureaucracies.
One of the tables Little Airplane loves to play at is the short form table. People always tell me, “There’s no money in short form.” This just isn’t true. What is true is that there is no fast money in short form. Most of our shows began as short form series, including “Oobi!” and “The Wonder Pets!” and it took years of chutzpah and hard work for these to become long form shows on Noggin and Nick Jr. Was this a burden for me or my team? No. We’re show makers so we were happy to be patiently developing shows.
As for long form, we have become very strategic about building alliances with great companies who are helping us develop and finance our next round of shows. Let’s face it, in a market like this one, everyone needs some rich friends. So, rather than going into the casinos alone, we now go in with very smart people who know many of the games far better than we do. Such relationships do require a willingness to collaborate which, I confess, is something I have had to learn over the years. But these days I do play very nicely with others and I now fully appreciate the value of listening to people who are smarter than I am. (Which, as it turns out, is pretty much everyone in the industry.)
So, regardless of whether you are just starting out or you’re an established producer, my message to all of you on this hot July week is to spread your bets. Make different sized projects with different sized broadcasters and media companies. Don’t be afraid to get on an airplane. And, whenever possible, gamble with other people’s money.