The potential was there. If everything worked, we’d be in good shape. If almost everything worked, we could probably squeeze by. Much less than that and we were in trouble.
Everything did not work. The “Cartoon Adventures of Larryboy” hit stores and was roundly drubbed by our fans. “It looks cheap!” “It looks like something my kids can watch on the Cartoon Network for free!” Our experiment in lower-cost production methods was not going over very well. Within an episode or two, it was clear that Larryboy in 2D was not going to save Big Idea.
3-2-1 Penguins had launched in 2000 with much fanfare. In a very fun marketing move, we had rented the Kennedy Space Center for a world premier event and produced a 1-hour live radio show from beneath the giant Saturn V rocket that was carried on more than 1000 Christian radio stations. The first episode launched with the biggest numbers ever achieved by a non-VeggieTales video in the Christian market. But the second episode sold 25% less than the first, and the third 25% less than the second. When sales finally stabilized, the shows were still selling more than any non-veggie series, but not enough to cover the $1 million production budgets. 3-2-1 Penguins was not going to save Big Idea.
Produced by Clear Channel, America’s leading theatrical production company, “VeggieTales Live” opened to near-sellout crowds in Minneapolis. “It’s working!” we hollered. But as the show moved from city to city, it didn’t appear to be making any money. In fact, it was losing money. The producers at Clear Channel had approved elaborate sets and overscaled props for the show that ultimately filled four semi-trailer trucks, rather than the more typical two. The show, it seemed, was doomed to barely break even because of the expense of the two extra trucks, extra union labor for eight-hour load-in/load-out marathons at each venue, and even an extra full-time staff member to travel ahead of the tour, planning load-in strategies for each upcoming site. We worked with Clear Channel to try to simplify the show as it toured, but the damage was done. “VeggieTales Live” would not save Bob & Larry.
Through it all, Jonah lurched ponderously toward its release date, like a… well… like a whale. But now it would need to do much more than just justify it’s own existence – it would need to save the company. We huddled together with Artisan Entertainment, Jonah’s new distribution partner, to plan our strategy. My original plan to spend $7 million to release the film, they assured us, wouldn’t give the film a fighting chance. Although the production process had been chaotic, the finished shots that were beginning to roll out of the studio looked good. Really good. Like a real movie. Like a movie that could do much more than $18 million at the box office. “We need to spend $12 million if you want to give it a chance,” Artisan said. Yikes. $12 million was a lot more than $7 million. If we spent $12 million to release the film, it would have to do much more than $18 million at the box office. But those pictures… they looked really good. Maybe this was how God was going to save Big Idea – by taking what was supposed to be a modest, 44-minute video and turning it into a surprise box office hit. A big hit. Wouldn’t that be just like God?
I approved the budget.
Meanwhile, back at Big Idea, we were having a bit of a problem. We were running out of cash again. The $20 million my new president had raised was paying for new 3-2-1 Penguins videos, Larryboy videos, VeggieTales videos, the Jonah production, and the rest of the company’s overhead in marketing, design, human resources and other areas. Not to mention our new office and staff in Los Angeles. At the rate we were spending, we were going to run out of money before Jonah even hit theaters. But wait, weren’t we still selling VeggieTales videos? Didn’t we still have a hit children’s property, selling millions of books, videos and little stuffed cucumbers and tomatoes? Yes we did. But there was a catch. The $20 million we had raised was in the form of advances on future income. What we had done was the equivalent of getting an advance on your next paycheck. It’s a great way to solve this week’s problems, but you’d better have a good plan for next week because when you get there, there isn’t going to be a paycheck. We were still selling hundreds of thousands of VeggieTales videos, but our distributors were keeping all the money to recoup the advances. Our new books with Zondervan were selling like hotcakes, but Zondervan was keeping all the money to recoup their advance. Our cashflow had dropped to a trickle. And the $20 million was going very, very quickly.
Now wait a minute, you’re thinking – didn’t you guys see that coming? You weren’t that dumb – wereyou? Yes, we knew we were borrowing against our future, and that our actual income would be greatly reduced until the advances were recouped, but frankly, we didn’t see another option. It’s sort of like when your house is on fire and the only escape route is to jump out the window into your neighbor’s yard, but you know your neighbor has a rather ill-tempered Pit Bull. The hotter it gets, the more likely you are to say, “Let’s solve the fire thing first, and worry about the Pit Bull later.” It isn’t a perfect plan, but if it’s the only plan you’ve got…
It was clear now that we had escaped the fire, but the Pit Bull had us by the leg. This new cash crisis led us to the most painful decision we ever had to make. We had a second feature film in development – the Bob & Larry Movie. If Jonah was a Sunday School lesson on steroids, the Bob & Larry Movie would be our “Toy Story.” It was funnier, more exciting and more emotionally involving than Jonah. It was really good. We already had a team of about 10 people working on it, designing sets, props and characters. Test animation on some of the lead human characters (yes, it involved humans!) was being done. Except we didn’t have the money to continue the work. The only option, for the time being anyway, was to shut it down. Which meant that most of the artists in the animation studio would have nothing to do once their work on Jonah was completed.
When you own an animation studio, lacking the money for your movie really means you lack the money for your animation studio. It isn’t a good position to find yourself in. The next choice became painfully clear, and painfully, well, painful.
In late summer of 2002, just a few weeks before Jonah’s release date, we had a premier event just for the company and production crew. The film was done. It looked great. Even many of the freelancers flew in to see the finished product and attend the wrap party on a boat in Lake Michigan the next night. We rented the “big room” at the McClurg Court theaters for our premier – the room that had been set up for digital projection by George Lucas’s company for one of their own events. The film looked and sounded amazing. The crowd was thrilled, and thunderous applause followed the credits. But I barely made it through my speech thanking everyone for their work, because I knew, along with just a few other leaders in the room that night, that the next morning we would announce that the wrap party was cancelled, the Bob & Larry Movie was postponed indefinitely, and more than half the studio would be laid off. For those of us who knew what was about to happen, it was the most bittersweet night imaginable.
The next morning Big Idea’s nine-year effort to build a feature animation studio ended. Worst of all, the folks who got laid off were many of those who had worked the hardest on Jonah. People who had put their lives on hold to help launch Big Idea into the world of feature films, who had just fallen across the finish line in exhaustion, found themselves rewarded with… pinkslips. Many were understandably angry. One artist sent out an email to the whole company as he was packing his things saying simply, “Has anyone seen my copy of ‘Where’s God When I’m F-f-fired?!?’” Another said he would never again work so hard for an employer. But others were remarkably gracious, pointing out to their peers the friendships that were forged at Big Idea during Jonah’s production. I honestly wondered if keeping the company alive was worth the emotional toll on those let go as we tried to save it. But throughout, I clung to hope. “If Jonah works,” I thought, “I’ll bring them all back.”
It was a nice thought. It would only take a couple of weeks to find out if it had the faintest chance of actually happening.
Continued in Part 8 >