Anatomy of an Amazon original
As the race for differentiation intensifies in the SVOD space, online heavyweight Amazon is taking a novel crowd-sourcing approach to help determine its original slate for entertainment-hungry kids. The studio’s new pilot initiative has helped set Amazon’s Prime Instant Video service apart from its biggest US competitors in the kids space—Netflix and Hulu Plus. Using a unique selection process, where Amazon users view pilot submissions online and post their feedback, the studio determines which entries get greenlit for full series production.
Since the pilot program’s April launch, three pilots aimed at younger kids have been put into full-series production, and five brand-new pilots for the six to 11 demo have been earmarked for the user-feedback process. The first three series—Annedroids (Sinking Ship), Creative Galaxy (Out of the Blue) and Tumbleaf (Bix Pix Entertainment)—are set to stream exclusively on Amazon’s Prime Instant Video and UK-based LOVEFiLM later this year.
For Toronto, Canada-based Sinking Ship co-founder and Annedroids creator JJ Johnson, the chance to work with Amazon was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down, considering its latest accomplishments with digital media. In this year’s second quarter, digital products dominated Amazon’s bestsellers list, including Kindle and Kindle Fire devices and digital versions of movies and TV shows. Additionally, Amazon’s nine-month-old Kindle FreeTime Unlimited service for kids ages three to eight now boasts a library of more than 1,000 eBooks, games, TV shows, movies and educational apps.
“With other shows, you have the challenge of finding retail partners, but the fact that Amazon is the biggest online retailer suggests that if your show does well, entering into merchandising could be that much easier,” says Johnson.
“Partnering with a company that owns the Kindle device also means we can already think about how to integrate apps into the show and envision what the experience will be like for viewers watching it on a Kindle. If Amazon can capitalize on these things, it will be a challenge [for its competitors] to beat it.”
For Angela Santomero, of New York-based Out of the Blue Enterprises, linear broadcast remains an integral part of her business, but having a new model enter the kids content market has been a welcome addition. “In the US, there are very few large broadcasters we can take our content to, and we’ve worked with almost all of them,” she notes.
“Obviously we’ve worked very well with PBS, and Nick is the first home of Blue’s Clues, so we hope to continue to do more with them. But the idea that new original programming strategies are opening up is exciting for people like us who constantly have creative ideas.”
Johnson and Santomero also applaud Amazon for so far taking a strong collaborative approach, given that their respective pilots’ paths to production have been markedly different.
Creating a science-based, live-action/CGI show was an idea Johnson had been kicking around for a long time, but he was stymied by how to present simple science experiments in an age-appropriate way. “We wanted to do a show that would focus on the kind of science I think kids want to see, which involves explosions and things melting. But I couldn’t figure out a way to do it so kids wouldn’t try to replicate the experiments at home and possibly hurt themselves,” he explains.
Johnson solved the problem by introducing robot characters that could assist the show’s leads. Aimed at kids ages five to eight, Annedroids follows the adventures of kid-scientist Anne, her three android creations, and her assistant Nick as they perform experiments in her junkyard laboratory. “So, if the robots get damaged, you can show that the experiments are dangerous. But because robots don’t feel pain and can be repaired, it enables us to explore all the wonderful story potential that surrounds awesome science experiments.”
Sinking Ship was admittedly in a different position from the two other first-round pilots that made the cut. In fact, Annedroids already had financing lined up and was in pre-production when Amazon announced the pilot program. “The series is not exclusive to Amazon. When it picked us up, we were a week away from shooting the first episode,” says Johnson.
Skipping over developing the concept with a network first, Sinking Ship went straight to shooting a four-minute pilot for the US$250,000-per-episode series three years ago. At the time, Johnson says a number of networks liked the concept, but were hesitant because it was a science-based show with a female lead and a high danger quotient.
“That’s the burden of live action—it does feel [more real than animation], but we were lucky because we had a lot of interest from [public broadcasters] around the world and didn’t have to rely on core commercial networks.”
Before Amazon selected the pilot, Sinking Ship brought on TVO (Canada), SRC (French-speaking Canada) and KiKA (Germany) as partners for the 26 x half-hour series (seasons one and two included). “It’s our first full half-hour series; we’re currently on episode seven and we’re lucky that TVO has already picked up season three and four,” says Johnson. He adds that the series needs one more sale to its existing partners to be fully financed for the third and fourth seasons. But with all of its early success, submitting Annedroids to Amazon did not come without its challenges.
“Because Amazon needed a full 11-minute demo and we were headed into pre-production and hadn’t picked our new cast, we had to provide an animated version and a live-action teaser,” explains Johnson.
Fortunately, online viewers watched both versions and many commented that they preferred the live-action segment. “It was awesome to see the Amazon feedback on a much larger scale with more at stake [than showing demos to internal circles],” says Johnson. “The feedback was mostly helpful, but some was very cruel—someone even called us ‘robot apologists for the oncoming robot revolution.’”
He adds that some commenters criticized Anne’s character for being a little bit too dark and morose, which led to a change in how she was portrayed. “Those were good notes for us. We had to make sure that we lightened her within the first episode. She’s meant to be a little standoffish, but not so much that the audience doesn’t connect with her.”
Amazon’s support for the show’s multi-ep story arcs that are best viewed in chronological order has also been a bonus. “Kids haven’t seen shows done this way in a long time. Series are often so rigid, in that episode one has to be able to play beside episode 52. But Amazon gets the need to make event television,” Johnson contends.
Of course, getting an audience to tune into the event is a bit of a different story, he admits. “The challenge is, we need people to actively search out the series because we don’t have a lead-in TV show to rely on. But I love that we need to stand on our own.”
With production well under way, meeting Amazon’s early 2014 delivery date has become a key goal for Johnson’s team. “We’re rushing to hit delivery because the animation takes anywhere from four to six months to incorporate into live action and we’re just trying to lock our first cut now,” he says.
For Santomero’s mixed-media, interactive art series Creative Galaxy, time is also of the essence. She says the speed of production on the 26 x 11-minute animated series has been its biggest hurdle. “We want the quality to be there, but the challenge is managing quality plus the time,” she says. “It’s aggressive in terms of our production schedules.”
Although Santomero and co-creator Traci Paige Johnson had been bouncing around the idea for the series since their early days working on Blue’s Clues, it was still in development by the time Amazon came into the mix. At press time, however, the series was in the middle of scripting, and Toronto, Canada-based 9 Story Entertainment was working on design, the first storyboards and animation tests.
Like Sinking Ship’s Johnson, Santomero was also drawn to Amazon’s reputation in digital media. “Amazon’s level of interactivity and its potential is what attracted us to their pilot proposition,” she says.
The series, which stars a lovable alien artist, inspires kids’ creative thinking through crafts, story, music and dance, and features a live-action DIY crafting segment at the end of every episode.
Amazon, according to Santomero (whose new Wishenpoof! project is one of Amazon’s five newly selected pilots), has been in contact with her team at least on a weekly basis. “We’re not just on our own. Amazon has a point of view and has been very supportive.”