First, “Lord of the Beans.” Big Idea premiered the newest VeggieTales production at the International Christian Retail Show in Denver last month. This is the first episode I’ve written since “Snoodle’s Tale.” (Of which I only wrote half. The Snoodle-y part.) When I ran Big Idea, we started premiering new shows at this convention way back in 1998, with Madame Blueberry. We rented a theater in Dallas that year and rented busses to haul in the conventioneers. I got up and talked about Big Idea, and everyone who attended got a 5th anniversary Big Idea snow globe. (Oh yes, we spared no expense!)In 1999, VeggieTales was exploding, Big Idea was growing like mad and the convention was in Orlando. We were just finishing “Larry-Boy and the Rumor Weed,” which was our biggest show yet (and, according to my original plan, the “last half-hour VeggieTales video”). We wanted to make a big splash at the convention, so we built a gorgeous tradeshow booth that cost something like $300,000, and planned a much bigger “Big Idea Event.” We rented the “Hard Rock Live,” the huge Hard Rock Café concert venue at Universal Studios, and bussed in about 1000 retailers and conventioneers from the convention center for a catered bash. Nicole C. Mullen performed the Larry-Boy Theme Song live, and then the band “The W’s” performed their cover version of “The Rumor Weed Song.” I got up and talked about Big Idea and how we were going to change the world, etc., etc. Then we played the film, which looked and sounded amazing in that venue. The film went over great. One Big Idea staffer approached the Hard Rock Café techie at the mixing board during the film and asked him what he thought of it. A semi-scary biker dude covered in tattoos, the sound guy turned and said, “It’s got a great message, but it’s funny as h—.” (Which is, to this day, still my favorite quote about VeggieTales.) It was, for myself and for many others who were there at the time, the high point of Big Idea Productions.CBA 2000 in New Orleans saw the introduction of “3-2-1 Penguins,” as retailers snacked on crawfish and, if I’m remembering correctly, farm-raised alligator.The following year, we premiered the second episode of 3-2-1 Penguins, “Trouble on Planet Bullamenka.” The party was noticeably smaller, given the financial difficulties the company was now having.2002 was a big year. The convention was in Anaheim, which, we thought, was a perfect location to give folks a sneak peak at “Jonah – A VeggieTales Movie.” Though the company was strapped for cash by then, we had to make a big splash with Jonah, so we rented screens at the AMC theaters at Downtown Disney for multiple side-by-side screenings, and rented the Rainforest Café across the street for an after-screening party. I hopped from theater to theater introducing each screening of the not-quite finished film. Volunteers from Biola University stood outside directing party-goers from the theater to the Rainforest Café. The film and the party went over well, but the severity of our financial situation and the mounting pressure for the film to grossly overperform expectations made the evening much less enjoyable for me, especially compared to the “We can do anything!” feeling of the Orlando bash three years earlier.
2003 saw no Big Idea event, as the world was in the midst of seeing no Big Idea.
Last year, CBA 2004, saw the introduction of “Big Idea, Inc.,” a subsidiary of Classic Media. The head of Classic Media made an appearance with Lassie in tow. Lassie barked her approval of the acquisition. I was called up to accept an award from the Christian Booksellers Association for my work over the prior 11 years. My time up in front was then over. New management ran the show and handed out popcorn. I stood off to the side in the back of the room and wondered how to feel about everything that was happening.
Which brings us to this year: CBA 2005. (Or, technically, “International Christian Retail Show 2005,” due to a recent name change. Catchy, isn’t it?) New Big Idea asked me to introduce the Lord of the Beans, which seemed reasonable, since it was a story I had conceived. Since Mike directed the show, it was determined that we should both introduce it. So… the doors opened at about 6pm and nearly 800 people streamed in. They got popcorn and soda. (No crawfish or alligator this year.) At 6:30pm, new Big Idea’s COO, Terry Pefanis, took the stage and introduced Mike and I. I came up and talked about the inspiration for writing the script. Mike talked about bringing the story to the screen. Then the lights went down and they rolled the show.
At 51 minutes, Lord of the Beans is the longest VeggieTales video ever. (A fact from which the animators in Toronto are still recovering.) It’s a bit more dramatic than most episodes, in keeping with the tone of the “inspirational material.” (I’m not supposed to mention the work on which it was based. Lawyers get really nervous about that sort of thing.) The show was a big hit. Fans of the “inspirational material,” in particular, absolutely loved it. It was a bit loud and boomy in the convention center ballroom, but it looked great. Mike and I signed autographs afterwards. Lassie was nowhere to be seen. Someone in a “Hermie the Caterpillar” costume inexplicably showed up around the signing table and Bob & Larry photo-op booth after the show, almost provoking a Christian character rumble. (Sure, Bob and Larry outnumber him, but he’s got all those hands!) A Big Idea staffer discretely ushered the trespassing caterpillar off the premises, and order was restored.
So that’s the story of the Lord of the Beans. It looks like it’s going to be a hit. Attending a “Big Idea Event” when Big Idea is no longer my ministry is a bit weird, but it’s gradually getting easier. Especially when I was spending the rest of the convention running around the show floor with a small band of friends wearing T-shirts that announced the launching of a brand new ministry and a brand new company. The back of the T-shirts said, “The new Creative Shop from Phil Vischer.” The front of the T-shirts said, “Jellyfish.”
A new company!
Okay, this is all very new, but it’s also very exciting so I want to give you some details. By losing Big Idea I also obviously lost the ability to introduce new ideas with “Big Idea” on them, so at first I figured any new ideas would just have to say, “Phil Vischer Productions” or something similar. But frankly, I couldn’t get very excited about that. Nothing against my own name, really, but I think just slapping your own name on your company is kind of boring. Boring at best, egotistical at worst.
I spent the last year playing around with some new creative ideas, and now that it was time to start launching them, I had to figure out what name would go on the box, over the title. I decided I needed a new brand. So my wife and I spent a drive to Minneapolis and back brainstorming. I wanted a name that was interesting, kind of fun and playful, but yet communicated something deep and spiritual about what I have been through – about what God has taught me. We played around with probably 100 different names. But the playful ones were mostly meaningless, and the meaningful ones were mostly boring. Or worse – sappy.
About an hour outside of Chicago on our return drive, with my wife now asleep, I was getting desperate. We had nothing. And then it occurred to me – What about an animal? Or a bug? Or a fish? Was there some weird little bug or something that, while being in and of itself weird or goofy, might have a characteristic about it that would remind me of a spiritual lesson God had taught me? And so I thought about sea monkeys and I thought about naked mole rats and I thought about the great dugong, and then I thought about jellyfish. And I thought of the characteristic of jellyfish that matched perfectly with the biggest lesson God has taught me. And I said, “Yes! That’s it!”
So the next day I told my wife and my friend Paul, and they said, “Yes! That’s it!” And Paul told his wife what it meant and she said, “I like it!” And I told my mother and she said she didn’t really get it and so I explained it harder and she said, “Maybe I just don’t like jellyfish very much” and I said, “Okay, so maybe my mom doesn’t have to like ALL my ideas…” and so we went ahead anyway and designed a logo and put it on T-shirts and walked all over the International Christian Retail Show passing out buttons and postcards with little jellyfish on them and collecting a lot of strange looks in exchange. But the people who had the time to hear my stories about what God has taught me and why it’s all summed up by a cute little jellyfish (not the big ones in Australia that can kill people – we don’t associate with those jellyfish) got big smiles on their faces and said, “I really like it.”
And by the second day of the convention when I walked into a screening of Steve Taylor’s new movie starring Michael W. Smith, someone from the back of the theater yelled out “Jellyfish!” And I knew it was working already. We had successfully launched a new brand at the International Christian Retail Show with nothing but a few T-shirts and buttons. Like Gideon with his torches and horns.
So what DOES Jellyfish mean, and who works there besides Phil? Stay tuned… more info is coming next week, plus pictures of “Team Jellyfish” in action at CBA!