Since launching last year, LA-based indie prodco Gadget Studios is batting 1,000 when it comes to greenlights from streaming services for its original live-action kids and family features.
On November 1, the company’s 45-minute mixed media feature L.O.L. Surprise: Winter Disco debuted as an exclusive Amazon Prime Original movie. Gadget’s first original IP Adventure Force 5 (pictured), meanwhile, will debut in December as Walmart AVOD Vudu’s inaugural original movie.
For its L.O.L. Surprise content, Gadget’s ties to the popular collectibles toy brand come from co-founder Isaac Larian, the CEO of L.O.L. Surprise creator MGA Entertainment. Larian co-founded Gadget with executive producer Michael Younesi to build a slate of original live-action movie properties with strong appeal for consumer products. The pair first joined forces when Younesi’s studio Concrete Media made branded content for MGA, which resulted in projects including Netflix original series Project Mc2 and short-form YouTube series L.O.L Surprise! Unboxed!.
Prior to the formation of Gadget, Larian and MGA VP of entertainment Sadaf Muncy pitched L.O.L. Surprise: Winter Disco to Amazon’s head of animation and family programming Melissa Wolfe and her team.
“I can’t speak to MGA’s toy strategy, but Amazon was very interested in what we were able to do with the short-form L.O.L. Surprise! content on YouTube and were trying to make sense of what could work for their platform,” says Younesi. “Winter Disco originated as a way to expand the L.O.L. digital content further into TV and movies and broaden the demo of the L.O.L. brand to appeal to more of a co-viewing audience.”
Amazon greenlit the movie for Gadget earlier this year, around the time it announced it was shifting away from original content commissions for preschoolers and kids and focusing on family co-viewing and young adult projects instead.
The movie features YouTube stars Tahani and Mykal-Michelle from L.O.L Surprise! Unboxed! and blends live-action and stop-motion done by Gadget with CG animation from Australian prodco Pixel Zoo.
“It is a huge leap forward in terms of production value compared to what we’ve done online,” says Younesi. “We used more animators, the stop-motion took longer to animate, the sets were more elaborate and we incorporated CG, which we hadn’t done in the past.”
He notes that the production process was fast because MGA had to release a Winter Disco doll line exclusively for amazon.com on October 11. Beyond the quick turnaround, one of the biggest challenges, according to Younesi, was the fact that Gadget feature Adventure Force 5 was ordered by Vudu at about the same time Amazon boarded Winter Disco.
“We were working on both projects at once and their post timelines were very similar,” he says. “For a new company it was exciting, but it was also a mad dash.”
Written and directed by Younesi and inspired by ’80s movies like E.T. and The Goonies, Adventure Force 5 (formerly MakerForce 5) brings together five kids—a gamer, a comic book geek, an inventor, a skater and a martial artist—to protect their peaceful beach town from an alien invasion using their wits, DIY gadgets and love of sci-fi. LA-based Studio71 nabbed the worldwide film rights to the 90-minute picture in July 2018 and joined as an executive producer.
Before Gadget pitched the movie to Vudu, it was in discussions with Netflix because Younesi and Larian were coming off the SVOD’s Project Mc2 series. But because Netflix began a kids and family reorg at the end of 2017, Gadget’s strategy changed.
“Netflix was undergoing big changes in its family department after the departure of kids head Andy Yeatman,” says Younesi. “New execs that we didn’t know were coming in, so it wasn’t perfect timing.”
Fortunately for Gadget, Studio71 had already signed on to Vudu’s first original series Mr. Mom, an adaptation of the 1983 film starring Michael Keaton. Younesi says its Adventure Force 5 partner introduced Gadget to the streamer and the parties moved forward from there. Julian Franco, Vudu’s head of AVOD content and advertising, was Gadget’s exec on the film. (Franco was not available for an interview.)
“We had a really good meeting and they seem excited about the project and launching it as Vudu’s first original movie,” he says. “At that point we didn’t push through any further pitches and Vudu agreed to fully-finance the movie.”
Though Younesi would not reveal the film’s budget, he says more than 400 VFX shots from its Buenos Aires-based VFX/animation partner 3Dar were integrated with the live action.
“As for the scale of the story and production, we shot with Panavision anamorphic lenses and aspect ratio, primarily on location, but also with a number of studio days,” says Younesi. “We also had tons of stunts and heavy action and battle scenes, including martial arts.”
Younesi says the streamer was looking for four-quadrant content that kids and parents could watch together. “They wanted something that had a little nostalgia factor, but also felt modern,” he says. “It also didn’t hurt that there was potential for merchandising in the future.”
While L&M plans at this time are unknown, Walmart does have an Adventure Force toy brand—though Younesi says the film and the brand only share the same name. “The gadgets and the characters were developed independently of that and there isn’t a specific product integration at this point,” he says.
As for Vudu’s additional kids and family content, little has been announced beyond Adventure Force 5 and Mr. Mom, but the service did ink an exclusive deal with Viacom to air the first three episodes of Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues remake Blue’s Clues & You. Walmart first forayed into original entertainment for Vudu in October 2018 when it struck a deal with MGM to create original series based on its movie and TV franchises, which include James Bond, Pink Panther, Fame and Teen Wolf.
For Younesi, Gadget isn’t only targeting streamers for its movie projects. “Obviously, we love that there is a little bit of creative freedom and we can do things a certain way in these particular SVOD and AVOD partnerships, but in the future we’re definitely interested in doing theatrical projects,” he says. “We just need to figure out what the right project is and who the right distribution partner would be.”