If you told the basketball-dunking golden retriever Buddy what was in store for his name back in 1997 when the good boy starred in the family movie Air Bud, he wouldn’t have believed it.
Twenty-two years, two theatrical Air Bud movies, three direct-to-video Air Bud sequels, seven direct-to-video Disney Air Buddies films and two Disney Santa Paws spinoffs later, the Air Bud franchise from Malibu, California-based Air Bud Entertainment (ABE) continues to fetch eyeballs.
The series’ sixth film, Air Bud 2020, and a 22 x half-hour series are expected to launch next year as ABE tries to show a new generation of young fans and their Millennial parents (who grew up with the famous canine) some of its best tricks.
Its first-ever TV series, Pup Academy, will debut on Disney Channel US this summer with a special movie-event pilot. (Whether or not the series will head to Disney’s upcoming streaming platform Disney+ remains to be seen.)
Created by ABE president Anna McRoberts and directed by ABE CEO Robert Vince (both are exec producing), Pup Academy is about a group of talking puppies who learn to be humankind’s best friend at a secret school where pups are groomed to become dogs.
According to Vince, the company has carved out a unique place for itself in the kids and family biz with its in-house, franchise-focused strategy.
“We never strived to make any one-off movies. We’ve always been in the franchise business,” he says. “We’re focused on live-action, talking animal movies for kids ages five to 11 that can be co-viewed by families. We don’t make any other kind of movie, which gives us a tremendous advantage in terms of being the best at something.”
Since Disney launched its first Air Buddies movie in 2006, the US$220-million franchise has become the second-most valuable direct-to-DVD empire in the US behind Disney’s US$300-million Tinker Bell franchise, according to movie analyst Nash Information Services. And while the direct-to-video business made up 90% of ABE’s revenue, the company eventually turned to Netflix in 2013 when the market shifted to streaming.
ABE recently produced the fourth film for its popular Netflix franchise Pup Star. The song- and dance-filled holiday feature Puppy Star Christmas (pictured) hit the streaming service in November, fulfilling ABE’s contract with the SVOD.
“We can now go with any [streaming] company we want, and conversations are being had,” says Vince. “There are a lot of entrants and they all think very differently, so we’re talking to all of them about our next steps.
“Our focus on franchises and family content plays well in the algorithm-driven world of SVOD platforms,” he adds. “The bigger the footprint, the more traffic you can drive to a full library of content.”
Beyond video, another focus of the company’s growth strategy this year will be merchandising and licensing.
“One of the best-known pet brands in the world is one that we own, and we’ve never exploited it,” says Vince. “We’re less focused on items like pajamas and backpacks for kids and more interested in the pet market, where there’s more growth. No deals have been signed yet, but it’s a major initiative for the company.”
ABE will also continue to work with VCA Animal Hospitals as one of its promotional partners, and it’s using Pup Star to support an initiative that helps pets in disaster zones.
“VCA has been a big part of our franchise events since the original Air Bud and Air Buddies movies and is very important to us,” says Vince. “We try to support and help in the care and adoption of animals wherever we can.”