When you sell 50 million of anything, you get people’s attention. Not only did VeggieTales attract a great deal of attention, it also inspired a lot of people to try their own hands at video production. I still remember my shock when, in Big Idea’s heyday, we made our first recruiting visits to art schools and were mobbed by fans. What surprised me the most, though, were the number of kids pursuing animation at those schools who said, “VeggieTales is the reason I went to art school.” Once I got over my surprise, my next emotion was a strong sense of responsibility. I had, after all, inspired these kids to pursue art as a form of ministry. Now I needed to help them.
My first response was to give jobs to as many as I could. This works well, up to the point where you have hired more mouths than you can feed. Then, as we discovered at Big Idea Productions, things fall apart very rapidly, and soon you aren’t helping anyone at all. Since Big Idea’s bankruptcy I’ve been trying another approach: Advice. Help likeminded artist/ministers avoid the mistakes I made. Save them the trouble. In the last few years I’ve had email conversations with dozens of artists and artistic entrepreneurs all across America and in several other countries. To disperse my nuggets of hard-earned wisdom more broadly, I’ve decided to write a few articles, which you can read here first.
So… you have an idea for a Christian kids video series that you’re pretty sure could be the next VeggieTales. Cool. You probably have a few questions about how to bring your own big idea to life. The first step? Make sure you’re asking the right questions.
About a year ago I got an email from an excited young potential video producer with a burning question for me: “When you made your first VeggieTales video, did you burn the DVD’s yourself, or did you hire someone to do that for you?” Very politely I pointed out to the young would-be producer that, firstly, when we made the first VeggieTales video, DVD had yet to be invented. Folks were buying VHS cassettes, and there were enough VHS duplicators competing for work that there was no reason for anyone to duplicate their own VHS cassettes. Secondly, I pointed out that he was asking the wrong questions.
What are the right questions? Well, let’s start with this. The production of a video, film or TV show is secondarily an act of art, and primarily an act of commerce. It is a business venture. Even if your production funding comes from donors who wish never to see their money again, you will still need to work through exhibitors, broadcasters and/or retailers to reach your audience, all of whom are commercial operations with commercial motivations. Regardless of your artistic (or ministry) aspirations, producing your video or film and delivering it to an audience is, first of all, a business proposition. Your ability to accomplish your artistic or ministry objectives depends largely on your understanding of the business behind your venture. So the first question any budding producer should ask is this: “Do I understand this business?” If you want to make a home video, the first step isn’t to write a script or learn computer animation, the first step is to learn the home video business. What’s working? What isn’t? What are the trends? Where is the business headed? Same for the feature film business, the TV business, or the dry cleaning business, for that matter. Never attempt to launch a business without a decent working knowledge of the industry you are entering.
So what’s the first step to launching any new business venture? Learn. Learn everything you can about the industry. Every industry has trade magazines, and, now, trade websites. Subscribe to the magazines. Read them. Frequent the websites. Attend tradeshows. Opportunities are created by trends, and trends are identified by watching conditions change over time. Because I am in the entertainment industry, I read Variety every week. I have done this since 1994 in the very early days of VeggieTales, when the $250 subscription price really could have been used for other things – like food. Why? Because something deep inside me told me my ability to minister through this crazy, mixed up industry was dependent on my knowledge of its trends – of what was working today, and, even more importantly, what wasn’t. I started reading production magazines like Millimeter, Videography and Cinefex while I was still in high school in the early 80s. I loved learning how things worked – how my favorite films were crafted. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this insatiable curiosity would be a huge competitive advantage – the reason my films would be more likely to reach an audience than the films of someone equally creative but less curious.
Contrary to popular belief, VeggieTales was not entirely a ‘happy accident’. While its success was far from a sure thing, when I conceived VeggieTales in the Fall of 1990, I was very deliberately crafting a creative venture that grafted my desire to minister to kids atop the societal and technological trends I had been observing for several years. What trends were those? On the technical side, it seemed to me that CG software and the UNIX workstations that powered it were finally reaching a point where a very simple character could be feasibly animated in a half-hour program. New developments in multitrack digital audio recording ( in particular, the ADAT 8-track recorder) and non-linear editing (the Media 100 as a low-cost alternative to established but expensive Avid) were dramatically reducing the cost and expense of long-form video production. Without the development of any one of these tools – Softimate 3D software, Silicon Graphics workstations, Alesis ADAT digital multi-track recorders and Media 100 non-linear editors – VeggieTales could not have been produced for the tiny amount of money I was able to raise, if at all.
But physically producing the first show was only half the battle. The flipside of the coin were the societal trends in motion at the time. In 1990, as I sat down to brainstorm a new kids show, Christian bookstores were on the rise. There have always been Christian bookstores around, mostly selling Bibles and church supplies, but the rise of the Christian music industry in the late 1970s, coupled with the success of a new wave of Christian celebrity authors like James Dobson had expanded the scope of Christian retail through the 1980s. Christian bookstores were growing even more as the 80s drew to a close, fueled by the success of superstar Christian artists like Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, and the heightened sense of self-identity in the evangelical community following the rise of the Moral Majority and then the Christian Coalition as major players on the national political scene. It’s as if the conservative Christian community was saying, “We’re here! We’re somebody! And look – we’ve got our own stores!” The first generation of kids raised on Christian rock started having kids of their own, and Christian music labels responded in the early 80s by producing Christian kids albums like Agape Force’s “Bullfrogs and Butterflies,” the Christian world’s first platinum-selling kids album. Christian bookstores were now about much more than just Christian books. They were about Christian lifestyles.
By the end of the 80s, as Amy Grant brought Christian music to the masses, something else was invading American homes in record numbers: VCRs. VHS cassette decks were now “must have" items, and entrepreneurial producers were responding by cranking out videocassettes by the millions. A few Christian music labels attempted to produce video versions of their kids albums, with mixed results. Then, just as I was sitting down to think through my own filmmaking plans as a 24 year-old animator who loved to read trade magazines, James Dobson’s uber-ministry Focus on the Family delivered to Christian bookstores the first big budget Christian video series, McGee & Me. While most of Hollywood would never hear about McGee & Me, my mother was working at a Christian publisher at the time, and so I knew what Variety didn’t. McGee & Me was selling a ton of VHS cassettes direct to Focus on the Family's fanbase, and, more importantly, through Christian bookstores.
To me, the trends were clear. PBS and the TV networks had no interest in overtly Christian kids shows. But for the first time in history, that didn’t matter. VCRs provided direct access to living rooms for films that the networks wouldn’t air. Christian bookstores provided access to those parents who most wanted their kids immersed in Christian values. I wanted to minister to kids, and I was pretty sure the solution involved VCRs, Christian bookstores, Softimage, Silicon Graphics, ADATs and Media 100s. Remove any one of these elements and the whole thing falls apart. The key to throwing a touchdown pass is not to throw the ball to where the receiver is, but rather to where the receiver is going to be. (And that's coming from someone who hates sports analogies.) The key to a project like VeggieTales, and to any new business whether motivated by money or ministry, is to craft an idea not for where the world is right now, but rather for where the world is headed. Entrepreneurship is a lot like divination – do it right and it looks like magic. But it isn’t magic, it just involves lots and lots of reading.
Learn. Read. Absorb. Everything. This is lesson one. If you’re still with me, and you still want to minister to the world through films, I have good news and bad news. Stay tuned – there’s lots more to talk about.
Continued in Part 2>