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Most major media companies today name shareholder value or profitability as their top priority. At Big Idea, our priorities are: people first, products second, profits third. Profiting is like breathing. As humans, we must breathe to live, but we do not live to breathe. As a company, Big Idea must profit to exist, but we will not exist merely to profit. Achieving our goal of building a top four family media brand takes a tremendous amount of capital, but we will never sacrifice the needs of kids or of our employees simply to increase our wealth. The world is full of media companies that are out to make a buck. The world desperately needs a media company that is out to make a difference.
Big Idea Productions, Inc. is one of the fastest growing film production companies in the United States, having quickly succeeded in becoming the largest animation studio in the Midwest. Big Idea with its VeggieTales and 3-2-1 Penguins video series has sold record numbers of children's videos through both Christian product retailers and national retail discount stores, including Target, Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Walgreens. VeggieTales characters are now among the most widely recognized icons of the preschool set. Founder and Chairman Phil Vischer, a devout Christian, sees Big Idea's mission as enhancing the moral and spiritual fabric of society through the use of creative media. The Big Idea vision is to "become the most trusted family media brand in the world."
The Dream Stage: Childhood Through the 1980s
Vischer began making movies when he was nine years old using his grandfather's 8mm camera. Vischer's interest in moviemaking became a sideline when his educational pursuits took him not to film school but to St. Paul Bible College (now Crown College) in St. Bonifacius, Minnesota.
Vischer pursued a Bible degree for several years but decided to leave the college to follow a vocation in computer animation, an area in which he had hoped to combine his passion of things biblical with a lively interest in storytelling and computer graphics. While at St. Paul Bible College, Vischer met close friend and puppeteer Mike Nawrocki. Nawrocki shared a vision with Vischer of creating quality, humorous, animated videos for children, videos that would bring positive messages to what the two saw as a values-starved industry. Nawrocki, Vischer, and Vischer's wife, Lisa, began collaborating on story ideas and producing character sketches that the fledgling company now referred to as "Sunday morning values, Saturday morning fun!" Previously created Christian children's videos were often serious, and somber, or had sickly sweet messages without a lot of universal appeal. The work the Vischers and Nawrocki began was refreshingly different.
Vischer attempted to make a go of it in his Chicago area home, but needed a good deal of funding in order to produce movies of the caliber he wished to make. Taking on computer design work for other enterprises was one way he tried to bankroll an animated film of his creation. Eventually Vischer compiled a few short films and many hours of homespun animation that were compelling enough for his family and friends to take a significant risk. Jeopardizing their financial security in order to establish the production company in earnest, Vischer's parents took out a second mortgage on their home while friends cashed in their modest retirement funds, and Big Idea Productions was born.
Producer or Producer at Last
Working out of a spare bedroom on an SGI Indigo computer system, Vischer experimented with his first computer-animated, three-dimensional snippet, "Mr. Cuke's Screen Test," a forerunner of the full-length VeggieTales videos. Vischer realized his artistic limitations early and settled on vegetable characters so he would not have to work with the detailed animation that body limbs and hair would require. According to Visher, his use of veggies was almost thwarted by a strong interest in animated candy bars. Much to the relief of many sugar-conscious parents, Vischer decided that vegetables would promote a healthier lifestyle to today's youth.
Larry the Cucumber, developed in 1991and voiced by partner Mike Nawrocki, was Big Idea's first character. Larry's sidekick, Bob the Tomato (Larry's Abbott to Bob's Costello), made his debut with Vischer himself providing his voice. With backing from Vischer's friends and family, Big Idea hired two part-time art students as assistants and embarked in 1993 on its first major production, Where is God When I'm S-Scared?
The video represented the first full-length, fully computer-animated children's video ever produced, and made use of humorous songs, entertaining characters, and a Christian faith-based message.
At first, the videos released by Big Idea were selling at a normal pace for previously unknown works, and marketing was initially restricted to Christian booksellers throughout the United States. Soon, however, the videos took on an almost cult following among college students at Christian colleges nationwide. Word spread and Where Is God When I'm S-Scared? and new releases from Big Idea were soon pouring off the shelves. By 1995, four separate videos were in the marketplace and with very little promotion 40,000 videos had sold that calendar year. It was soon believed that the Christian/values-driven consumer of children's videos had been greatly underestimated, but nothing even remotely similar to VeggieTales had been done before and the quality and humor behind the message had attracted a larger demographic than had ever been believed possible.
The appeal to college students would prove indicative of Big Idea's success. Parents and children alike could appreciate Vischer and company's innocent take on Monty Pythonesque humor. More sanctimonious Christians took comfort in the promise that Big Idea had never and would never portray Jesus in vegetable form.
The messages Vischer and his ever expanding staff chose to focus on often usurped biblical themes and with a little creative license and contemporary story lines presented the message in new packaging. For instance, in 1997 Big Idea released its eighth original title, Josh and the Big Wall! The story echoed the biblical story of Jericho but placed the scene in contemporary times with catchy tunes and interesting animated vegetable characters.
In 1998, Big Idea hit the big time. Discount giants Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart, and Walgreens began merchandising VeggieTales videos and products. Wal-Mart and restaurant chain Chuck E. Cheese added promotions based on VeggieTales characters to their offerings. Capitalizing on the popularity of VeggieTales mania, Chuck E. Cheese family restaurants added VeggieTales movies and songs to the entertainment menu at its 330 restaurants in 44 states.
In December 1998, Big Idea produced its first national television special based on its VeggieTales series. The VeggieTales Christmas Spectacular helped bring about sales of more than six million videos.
Keeping up with demand, Big Idea released one of its most popular films in the summer of 1999, Larry Boy and the Rumor Weed. The film was shown in theaters nationwide on a limited release. In a single day more than 350,000 people turned out to view the film. The film featured the popular Larry the Cucumber and his alter ego, Larry Boy, a cucumber superhero who helps save the metropolis of Bumblyburg from a nasty rumor weed and teaches children the lesson that spreading gossip can be harmful.
Larry Boy and the Rumor Weed continued the craze for home video purchase and by the end of 1999 sales hit eight million videos.
The biblical stories that Big Idea recreated included stories from both the Old and New Testament. Rack, Shack & Benny, a remake of the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the Old Testament book of Daniel included Nebby K. Neezer, a villainous zucchini; likewise, David and the Giant Pickle and The Gourds Must Be Crazy, were remakes, respectively, of the Old Testament story of David and Goliath and the New Testament story of Zaccheus the tax collector.
Big Idea was credited with starting a resurgence in Bible and Bible-story related consumer spending. According to an article in Newsweek magazine, "a new parental emphasis on spirituality has coincided with a boom in reading-age kids." In addition, Christian Booksellers Association President Bill Anderson claimed that, "VeggieTales are so strong that they are pulling up the rest of the market."
Big Idea's sales figures were also of epic proportion. According to VideoScan Inc., a national market research firm, four VeggieTales videos ranked in the top 30 among all children's videos in terms of sales. This was particularly noteworthy since the ranking was not only among videos with religious content, a feat never before matched by a faith-based production company.
Big Idea Growing Bigger
Quickly outgrowing its corporate office and studio space, Big Idea made plans in 1999 to relocate to downtown Lombard, Illinois. The city had courted the company to take over an historic downtown theater in dire need of renovation. The plan originally called for a $17 million corporate headquarters. Big Idea set up temporary offices in Lombard's Yorktown Shopping Center while moving ahead with design plans, but in a decision that strongly disappointed Lombard's community leaders Big Idea backed out of the theater location, maintaining that the company's rapid growth had unfortunately made the 2.5 acre theater project inadequate for future projected company growth.
When assessing its needs for a new location, the company made plans to include some sort of entertainment complex onsite. Big Idea envisioned a gift shop, studio tours, a theme restaurant (where of course kids would eat their "veggies"), and perhaps a small hotel.
By late 1999 the company settled on another Lombard site that was better suited to the company's growing needs: a 30-acre parcel of land that the company planned to develop over time.
In large marketing events, Big Idea began coupling new video releases with limited big screen premiers in major U.S. cities. In March 2000, King George and the Ducky played to sold-out crowds in Atlanta, Dallas, and Los Angeles at a Saturday matinee. Christian bookstores and churches also held screenings helping to promote VeggieTales and its "Sunday morning values, Saturday morning fun."
With the expansion of the company, Big Idea began to take its self-promotion more seriously. The company brought on Cornelius Lee, a former Motorola executive, and hired Carmichael Lynch of Minneapolis, Minnesota, to launch Big Idea's first real advertising campaign. The company had secured licensing agreements with Fisher Price, Hallmark, Hadaad Clothing, and Spring Industries. Merchandise with the recognizable VeggieTales logo was offered nationally by large scale retailers.
The appeal of VeggieTales was captured in a Seattle Times article dated August 5, 2000. The Times noted that Seattle's Family Christian Store sold 100 or more advance sales before the videos even came out. Manager John Stapp explained the mass appeal: "The reason they're so popular is they work on several levels of humor. The kids like them because they're cartoons, and they're funny and there's a lot of action, but the dialogue gets in things that are lost on the kids. There are zingers only adults pick up, they're just charming."
The Big Idea Production's web site was often frequented by VeggieTales fans. The family friendly site offered children's shockwave games, information on new releases, and places to post artwork and letters. The site was created using a variety of Macromedia web authoring products and provided entertainment in typical Big Idea fashion.
A New Cast of Characters
In November 2000, Big Idea promoted its new video property, 3-2-1 Penguins! Utilizing the Kennedy Space Center's Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral, Florida, Big Idea introduced four new space bound penguins into its cast of characters: Zidgel, Midgel, Fidgel, and Kevin. Like the company's VeggieTales releases, the Penguins! movies had a lesson to teach. The four space explorers experienced Trouble on Planet Wait-Your-Turn. The Penguins! series, like VeggieTales would be direct-to-video products sold through both Christian retail stores and other discounters.
Unlike the other movies, however, Penguins! made use of graphically more complex characters and was more sophisticated in its writing. The production costs associated with making 3-2-1 Penguins! were also significantly higher. While the VeggieTales classic Where Is God When I'm S-Scared? cost a mere $60,000 to produce, Penguins! cost in the range of $700,000 to $1 million.
Many viewers have likened Penguins! to a combination of Monty Python meets Chuck Jones, the classic Warner Bros. animator. The Penguins! series was meant to target boys from 9 to 12 years old who had outgrown VeggieTales on their most basic level, yet were still too young to understand the humor in the films that appealed to adults.
The next big enterprise for Big Idea was well underway for release in 2002. The first full-length big screen VeggieTales movie, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, was scheduled to appear in theaters nationwide sometime in 2002.
By that year Big Idea had already captured a huge new market of video entertainment, a market that it had pioneered and helped to shape. It appeared well positioned to attain its 20-year goal of becoming perhaps the "most trusted family media brand in the world." As they say in Lombard, "now that's a big idea."
Principal Competitors: Walt Disney Company; Warner Bros.; EBI Video (Treetop Studios); Tommy Nelson; Billy Young Productions.