The success of Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, like The Passion of the Christbefore it, has reminded retailers, Hollywood studios, networks and animation houses of various sizes that Christian consumers exist, and that they are willing to spend on family-friendly andvalues-based entertainment.
Popular general-market properties with Christian themes, such as Narnia, “continue to help remind buyers and retailers that these faith-based customers are there and that they will buy other products as well,” says Dan Lynch, svp and publisher of Tommy Nelson, a Christian publisher that distributes DVDs to Christian stores.
Lynch points out that faith-based properties can do well in all channels of distribution, from Christian stores to discounters. Christian author Max Lucado, for example, has driven sales of 50 million books for adults and children, with a significant percentage of those occurring outside Christian channels. (He also is responsible for the number two children’s DVD franchise in Christian stores, after Veggie Tales, Tommy Nelson’s Hermie & Friends.)
Properties like Narnia have an influence in Hollywood, too. “Producers look to what’s working,” says Denis DeShazer, evp/exec producer at Exclaim Ent., which creates Christian-themed animation for preschoolers and families. “Something like Narnia certainly catches the eye of the studios.”
Studios Join the Fray
A number of major studios have been interested in Christian-themed entertainment after the successes of Narnia andThe Passion, among others. One of the most significant initiatives has come from 20th Century Fox Home Ent., which partnered with Word Distribution, a leading Christian distributor, to form the DVD imprint FoxFaith in early 2006. The banner encompasses productions with overtly Christian content, often based on stories and books by bestselling Christian authors. They will be released on DVD, sometimes supported by limited theatrical runs.
An animation property from FoxFaith is The Bug Rangers (formerly The Roach Approach), from Wacky World Studios, with 3D animation done by Wet Cement Prods. (Wacky World formerly had a distribution agreement with EMI, but FoxFaith bought the rights.) The four episodes, the first of which debuted a year and a half ago, feature four cockroaches that tell Bible stories. Distribution is in Christian stores only, but is expected to widen once licensed products become available to supplement the videos, according to Wacky World’s president and founder, Bruce Barry. The company has signed with licensing agent United Media.
DIC Ent. also entered the faith-based market in 2006, forging a joint venture called Promise Media with Thomopoulos Prods. “It was formed to provide high-quality, positive-value programming for families,” says Tony Thomopoulos, president of Thomopoulos Prods. and co-founder of Promise Media. “We develop value-based properties and incubate them in faith-based stores, then migrate into the secular market.” The first releases are expected in the fourth quarter of 2007.
Exclaim Ent. was founded by Dennis DeShazer, one of the creators of Lyrick Studios’ Barney the Dinosaur (now owned by HIT Ent.), and Jon Green, also a graduate of Lyrick, in 2003. It became part of Reel FX Creative Studios, a 12-year-old, 100-employee company with studios in Dallas and Southern California, shortly thereafter. Exclaim’s goal is to create entertainment properties for children and families that include faith values as well as educational concepts, DeShazer says.
Its first property is BOZ, The Green Bear Next Door, a Christian brand for preschoolers. The first two DVDs, each of which contain three 15-minute episodes plus extras, released in March 2006, debuting as one of the top three children’s DVD brands in the Christian market, according to Exclaim. They were followed by additional titles in August and November 2006, and four more are in production.
Even the Vatican is getting into the children’s animation field, distributing a DVD that tells the story of the life and death of Pope John Paul II. Called Pope John Paul II: The Friend of All Humanity, the DVD is being created by Barcelona’s Cavin Cooper Prods. and producer Jose Luis Lopez-Guardia, in partnership with the Vatican Television Centre.
The spectrum of faith- or values-based content encompasses all styles of animation, from 3D to Flash, and ranges from stories that feature family-friendly, positive values to overt Christian productions that tell Bible stories, include prayers, or feature characters from the Bible.
BOZ, for example, stars in titles such as Thank you God for… Colors and Shapes. Stories reflect how preschoolers experience God and explain how God loves them, DeShazer says. They include prayers that preschoolers and families can say together, as well as physical comedy and catchy music. (There is also a series of BOZ books from Christian publisher Zonderkidz.) Exclaim also is doing a one-off half hour called The Very First Noel, a family production that tells the story of the first Christmas. “Consumers are very eager for something that tells ‘the reason for the season’,” DeShazer reports.
Promise Media will develop a combination of general values-based content and faith-based productions. “We try and have values that represent everyone’s point of view,” says Thomopoulos. “It’s not running away from the Bible. There are Judeo-Christian values behind it, but there’s a universality to it.” He cites a full-length animated DVD feature based on It’s A Wonderful Life as a quintessential Promise Media program. It is about the Bailey family, with one of the sons, now 10 years old, serving as the protagonist. He misplaces his library money and thinks he has no value, until the guardian angel Clarence hears his story and shows him what the world would be like without him.
The company is also developing other properties with a stronger Christian message, such as The Animated Adventures of Sophie and Sam. Written by Tori Cloud, the wife the bestselling author Dr. Henry Cloud, Sophie and Sam is based on the Boundaries concept made famous in Dr. Cloud’s books, which sell in both Christian and secular stores.
Thomopoulos formerly worked at The Family Channel, and that led him to the idea behind Promise Media, which is to create content that the core, strongly faith-based audience of The Family Channel would be happy with, but that also has appeal to a wider audience. “What I saw there was an enormous appetite for positive-value content,” Thomopoulos says. “It’s not just about the content, it’s about building a brand that people will come to trust to deliver this content. That’s a very big part of it.”
Flying Rhinoceros, a publishing and entertainment property developer, also creates faith-based animation that it hopes will have a wider appeal. “We’re genuinely reaching out to a general market audience as well as a Christian market, without it feeling forced,” says Ranjy Thomas, president. One of the company’s scriptural properties, On the Farm, features the voices of Vince Gill, Amy Grant and Randy Travis, country singers who are popular both in mainstream country music and Christian music. “That was intentional,” Thomas says. “Both markets call them their own.”
He adds that the general market is not usually turned off by a Christian property if it’s respectful to all faiths, and if the faith message is associated with a specific character or characters. For example, people from all belief systems liked the classic TV show The Waltons, he says, which was about a family for which faith played a great role. “I’d like to think that anything we create will be well-received by both markets,” Thomas explains.
Many marketers of faith-based and values-based DVD animation establish their properties first in Christian stores, before expanding into the secular market, which includes traditional toy, gift, and entertainment stores as well as department stores and discounters. “They absolutely want to see you succeed,” DeShazer says of the Christian stores, many of which have been boosting the number of children’s DVDs they carry.
But the size of the Christian market is limited. “The CBA [Christian Bookseller Assoc.] market has a cap that limits its potential,” explains Lynch, noting that these stores are a destination for Christian and inspirational material, but just a small percentage of that is for children and a small percentage of that is DVD. “There’s only so much floor space,” he says, adding, “The real growth is outside the CBA market.”
Barry points out that with Veggie Tales and Hermie & Friends so dominant in Christian stores, it can be difficult for a new property to succeed even there. “It’s hard to break through that barrier,” he says, reporting that The Bug Rangershas managed to do so, selling about 400,000 units in the last year and a half.
Tommy Nelson is about to announce a mainstream distribution agreement for Hermie & Friends, with product expected to hit secular shelves in 2007. Another Tommy Nelson-distributed property, Flying Rhinoceros’s On the Farm, is sold exclusively at Wal-mart (outside of Christian channels), according to Thomas. Other Christian DVD properties from the company, also with Tommy Nelson, including The Horned Avenger and Princess Gigi.
While there are more than15 million Americans who profess a Christian faith, “most don’t know where a Christian bookstore is,” Lynch says. “We want to be anywhere middle America shops.” Hermie, for example, will be distributed in mass merchants and specialty stores, as well as drug and grocery outlets. Noting that mass merchants have seen explosive growth in categories such as Christian music, Lynch believes it’s up to the video marketers and producers to educate buyers on the fact that Christian video will sell there, too. “It’s the same shopper,” he says.
Greg Fritz, vp marketing for Big Idea Prods., producer of Veggie Tales, notes that a new property has to succeed in secular stores right away, compared to the slower build it is allowed in Christian stores. Veggie Tales commands lots of space in stores such as Wal-mart, and has been merchandised on palettes and endcaps at Wal-mart, Target and Costco. But that success isn’t taken for granted. “We always have to be delivering the numbers,” Fritz says.
Jon Green, Exclaim’s evp/exec producer and BOZ co-creator, notes that traffic in Christian stores has been declining over the last decade. “There’s so much Christian content available at general retail in a substantive way,” he says. “Consumers no longer need to make a special trip for Christian content.”
So far BOZ is distributed only in Christian channels, through Provident, the Christian arm of Sony BMG, as well as via direct mail and on the Exclaim website. “We have larger and grander plans,” Green says. “But we’ve been very thoughtful in our business strategy and executed it deliberately.”
Thomopoulos says the key to establishing a property, especially in Christian stores, is “finding titles that have significance to the faith-based market.” In addition, building word of mouth is critical. “Viral marketing is a big aspect of it,” he adds, noting that Promise’s strategy is to talk to Christian groups about the company’s properties as they launch.
Similarly, FoxFaith reportedly has developed a network of 90,000 congregations through which it can distribute promotional materials. In fact, Narnia, The Passion of the Christ, The Bug Rangers and Veggie Tales all have been marketed to churches and church groups through tactics such as screenings, marketing materials, and lunch menus in parochial schools.
Direct-to-Video Is Prime Format
Typically, faith-based animation properties, whether half hours or full-length features, are launched in the direct-to-video format. Promise Media, for example, plans direct-to-video as its main launch platform, although “that doesn’t preclude other distribution,” Thomopoulos says.
Tommy Nelson’s properties are all direct-to-video, includingHermie, which has sold some two million units to date, all in Christian stores. “We’re building the experience base from the production itself rather than from TV,” Lynch says. “It’s a slower build, and we don’t have the financial resources [that a TV property would].” While properties such as Hermie compete with the SpongeBobs of the world, Lynch points out that Veggie Tales had sold nearly 50 million DVDs before debuting on television this fall.
The direct-to-video market relies on word-of-mouth to succeed, and therefore, Green cautions, “is very dependent on having programming that’s relevant to kids.”
“You have to have great content,” DeShazer agrees, noting that parents talk to each other about what DVDs to buy for their kids, especially when it comes to values-based programming. “They want to try new things, and they will tell their friends.”
Veggie Tales has been so successful on DVD over the last 14 years that it caught the eye of NBC, Telemundo and the i network (formerly PAX), which air it as part of the new qubo programming block. 3-2-1 Penguins and LarryBoy Adventures, two other series from Big Idea — a subsidiary of Classic Media, which, along with Nelvana and Scholastic, is a partner in qubo — also are part of the three-hour block.
The stories have been mainstreamed for TV, as NBC and its subsidiaries do not allow overt references to scripture or God. Big Idea created new opening and closing animation that takes place at the character Bob’s house; the new content bookends edited versions of the video episode storylines.
“We did have to adapt to network guidelines,” says Fritz. “But we saw it as a great opportunity to bring a quality program with a strong message based on a Judeo-Christian worldview. We would have loved the episodes to be brought over intact, but we can’t change network practices all at once.”
Wacky World is in talks with broadcasters about a series of 13 22-minute Bug Rangers episodes. It, too, would be a more mainstream version of the video production, without the overt Christian references. “It’s more like, ‘you shouldn’t have stolen the cookie, dude,” Barry says.
Lynch reports that there has been interest in Hermie from broadcasters, and that TV is a possibility for the future. The seventh Hermie & Friends DVD was just released, and numbers 8 through 11 are in various phases of production, so there are not enough episodes yet for television.
Meanwhile, Exclaim is looking into the possibility of The Very First Noel as a TV special; it will come out on DVD this November, no matter what the TV support. BOZ will remain a direct-to-video program, at least for the time being.
Thomas believes that streaming video will be a growth area as far as distribution of Christian properties is concerned. He notes that properties that have “very large niche audiences” can do well in the broadband space. Specially made episodes of On the Farm and The Horned Avenger run on a website called Fraboom.com, which features both Christian and general market properties. “It seems like a smart way to build a large audience,” Thomas says. “We may find a correlation between what’s streaming big and what’s selling in the general market stores.”
Not many Christian animation properties find their way to a theatrical release, but it can happen. A five-minute Bug Rangers short is screening in theaters before the Strawberry Shortcake movie. Universal Studios will release a second Veggie Tales feature film, The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything, in early 2008. The latter is a follow-up to the 2002 release, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, which grossed $25 million theatrically.
Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).