“Wait a minute… wasn’t Jonah conceived as a movie?” No, not originally. I thought jumping from Larry-Boy and the Rumor Weed straight to a feature-length, film resolution project would be too ambitious. The next logical step, I decided, was a 44-minute video project that would be longer and more elaborate than anything we had done before (thereby justifying a bigger marketing budget to create more “buzz” and a higher sale price to cover the added expense), but not as complex as a feature film. Our first real, honest-to-goodness movie, I figured, would come further down the road.
So what happened? How did Jonah wind up on the bigscreen? That would be my doing. As Rumor Weed headed into production, Mike and I worked out an outline for a 44-minute Jonah. It was at this point that we decided to “bookend” the biblical story within a modern-day setup/wrap-up involving Bob, Dad Asparagus and a van full of veggie kids on their way to a Twippo concert. (Although technically, Mike first had them heading to a “Tweezerman” concert. Why “Tweezerman?” Like many of his ideas, Mike could never really articulate where the name came from. We changed the name during the film’s production when someone noticed that “Tweezerman” was the registered trademark of a company that makes – you guessed it – tweezers. Mike then proposed “Twippo.” Where’d that one come from? Again, he had no idea.) So Mike started writing the setup as I was directing Rumor Weed. As brilliantly funny as he is, Mike isn’t always the most disciplined of writers, and seventeen pages into his script he was still in the modern-day setup. He was just having too much fun with a van fulla veggies and a weird old seafood restaurant. My first thought was, “Well, he’ll just have to throw it away and start over again.” But when I read it, I really liked it. It was fun stuff. So here’s where I made a large mistake: I let my fondness of Mike’s pages overrule my business conviction that we were NOT ready to make a movie. Instead, a little voice in my head was whispering, “Well, maybe just a little movie…”
I ran some numbers. The recently released Christian film “The Omega Code” had surprised everyone by grossing $13 million at the US box office with a tiny marketing budget of less than $2 million. Using “The Omega Code” as a model, I estimated a small VeggieTales film with a $7 million production budget and a $7 million marketing budget needed to do $18.5 million at the box office and sell 3 million videos and DVDs. I figured the 3 million video mark was achievable since our relatively low-budget half-hour VeggieTales Christmas video had already passed the 2 million unit mark. As for the $18.5 million figure, it was only 40% more than The Omega Code and our film had a larger built-in audience and would launch with a much larger marketing budget. The great thing was that if we hit these numbers, not only would our investment be returned, we’d also make about half the money needed to fund our second movie. Looking at the numbers, it seemed like a no-brainer. Write on, Mike! Write on! We’re gonna make a movie!
In my excitement, the question of whether or not we were ready to make a movie somehow escaped me.
As small companies grow, the experts at Inc. magazine observed, their need for top-notch management often arrives years before their ability to attract or even afford top-notch management. Many small companies fail to survive “No Man’s Land” because they either never find the management talent they need to make the leap from “small” to “big,” or even worse, they bring in the wrong management.
In 1999, as I pointed the company towards our first feature film, no one was running the animation studio. The last head of the studio had departed in 1998, and as Jonah rolled into development, we were in the midst of a search for his replacement. The world in 1998 was not awash with seasoned CGI animation studio chiefs. The pool of those willing to relocate to Chicago to make Christian films was even smaller. Pathetically small. In lieu of a production head, the studio was being managed by a committee composed of the studio’s team leaders, most of whom were quite young and only one of whom had any previous management experience. The process at times resembled “The Lord of the Flies” more than “The Art of Management.” In the end, the studio would go “headless” for more than a year as our recruiter scoured Hollywood for the right person and Jonah barreled towards production like a runaway locomotive.
Our search finally ended in 2000 with the arrival of two seasoned industry veterans from Dreamworks Feature Animation. One would act as Jonah’s producer while the other ran the studio. Given that the new studio head had never actually run an entire studio before, and the producer had only worked on traditionally animated films (and never in the role of overall producer), both faced a steep learning curve. Jonah would be well into production before the two had enough of a grasp of our unique production system to assemble a budget for the project. They were inheriting a process and a crew that had been built and rebuilt over the years by a series of managers. On top of that, a fair amount of hiring had already taken place with Jonah in mind. Some department leaders had carefully thought through their own plans for Jonah and had begun hiring accordingly. Others later admitted they started hiring simply “because everyone else was.” The first budget forecast came in at $10 million. I gulped. Not the $7 million I was hoping for, but – heh, heh – it could be worse.
Within a few months, it would be.
Continued in Part 4 >