Russell Dever talks about his return to TV with Boy and the Dinosaur - Licensing.biz

Russell Dever talks about his return to TV with Boy and the Dinosaur

1461 Ltd executive director Russell Dever tells Licensing.biz about new series Boy and The Dinosaur, the 'retro-fresh' return for Little Monsters and returning to TV production after a ten year break
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How does Boy and the Dinosaur mark something of a return to the industry for you?

It’s my first CGI project. I’ve always worked in 2D before and I haven’t produced directly for over ten years. I basically sat on my laurels and earned my income from royalties from old projects. Then I saw this graduate piece and I thought the idea and the story was really charming. The creator, Jason Harding, would say it was rough around the edges as far as the animation is concerned, but that doesn’t matter because in this business, whether it’s TV, licensing or merchandise, it’s always about the story.

If you get the story content right, the rest of it doesn’t really matter. You can have the most amazing CGI animation in the world to look at, but if you don’t have the right story it’s a waste of time and money because no-one will buy into it. My hero Walt Disney said there were only three important things in animation: story, story and story. Fundamentally, we still like to get round the campfire at night and hear, and tell, a good story.

The Boy and the Dinosaur was really strong visual storytelling because it’s all about the emotional relationship between two characters. It’s never implicit whether the dinosaur is a real dinosaur or whether he’s a figment of Boy’s imagination. The family have bought into the idea that they live with a dinosaur but families do. My daughter had a little friend who used to join us for dinner in the evening called Connal. One day she said to me, “you do realise daddy that Connal isn’t real.” But we set places for him and everything, so it’s an imagination thing really.

What I loved about this is what you could explore in a very safe environment, this emotional relationship. When as adults, and children, you buy into a concept; you buy in at an emotional level because there is resonance between what you’re feeling and what you’re actually seeing. That’s important and I felt that. It really struck a cord.

What excites you about this project?

What was masterful about the project was the decision that we made very early on to support it with music that would be more appropriate to an adult audience. It’s a pre-school show and in television, I don’t think anyone has produced for that age group with an adult sound. We tried to find this Ben Howard kind of vibe to the music which has worked extremely well and which broadcasters love. It's interesting because when I said that was what I wanted, my contemporaries in the studio went “whoa, you cant do that, it’s got to be right for the age group.” But what is right for the age group? Are you telling me that four-year-old children don’t listen to their parent’s music, and enjoy it and sing along to it? Yes they do. So why not?

When my kids where growing up, that’s one of the things I hated about children’s shows. The music used to drive me insane. I’m not saying it’s appropriate across the board but the whole point of this production is that if we’re going to develop the themes around emotional content based in strong visual storytelling, the music becomes the narrator. We have no narration in the show. We’ve been very careful to focus the dialogue so the dialogue isn’t limited, but it’s focused onto the age group. We’re using language that will be very familiar so that when children are listening to that, it plays to them on their level. But they are viewing with parents and that’s why the more sophisticated music becomes more important.

It’s a watch-a-long show. We’ve got this lovely balance between the two things. Every episode has a different themed song that is written around that episode. We’ve got 52 episodes and 52 songs. That’s an awful lot of content. But then, if we’re going to be cynical about that as well, it’s an important revenue stream because we buy out the music. It’s owned by the production company. It’s a much-overlooked area of income.

When licensing was peaking, everyone was beginning to look to licensing and merchandising as providing the magic numbers to support production. The profits in children’s television in the last few years have always centred around merchandise. But that’s been to the detriment of other revenue streams and music is a terribly important revenue stream. With a sale on acquisition to the BBC, however much you make off that acquisition, you can make a multiplier of that revenue stream from the music if you own the music rights. But so many producers take the easy route and they don’t commission their music and instead buy it as library music. This means someone else is getting their revenue stream.

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Will a soundtrack be a key part of selling products based on Boy and the Dinosaur?

Not necessarily so much as soundtrack but after the first broadcast into the second season, what does become important is theatrical content and that’s taking a live show to the marketplace. For that, you need really good music and it’s already there. That in itself supports merchandise sales.

You can take something like a tour of Postman Pat or something and pack a theatre with between 2,000 and 5,000 people. That’s becoming quite an important staple for regional theatre, especially towards Christmas. Regional theatres are relying more and more on those regional shows and it’s a growing marketplace as there’s a move away from old fashioned pantomime style programming to something more relevant to the audience. That’s one of the things I have my eye on for the future. We have a stage show in the planning, and that had to be done form the outset.

You don’t just make a TV show. These days it’s far more sophisticated than that. You have to have considered all of your options for income for the future for what you’re going to produce. That’s coming at it from the position of an executive producer, a creator is generally not thinking like that. They are thinking about the actual creative content and the design and what have you, which is important too, but you have to balance these things out. You have to think, when we take this to the marketplace, where’s the value in the content and how can we fully exploit that? I’m sure that, generally speaking, people in my position do that, though I have to say I rarely have this conversation with my contemporaries.

There is a tendency is still to look at production almost at face value. I’m talking about the global response to children’s perspective and from a global perspective, there’s an awful lot of stuff that should never have got into production.. When you see the amount of dross that is produced which is just television fodder and not serving a purpose and you then see those production companies jumping on the bandwagon of how they will generate further income from their productions. You look at them and you just know it’s a complete waste of time, money and energy. Why even go there in the first instance. It’s beyond me and I feel quite strongly about it. It makes it harder for the rest of us. Especially when a lot of them are chasing co-production finance. That’s the other difference between the way that we work, and the way that a lot of other production companies operate. We don’t rely on co-production finance from broadcasters.

Boy and the Dinosaur Promo from Jason Harding on Vimeo.

Has the process of adding value to a property changed in the ten years since you were last directly involved in TV?

It’s changed completely. I was in the very early stages of when licensing was beginning to take off and when TV was still almost a cottage industry in the UK. As we began to realise that we could extend the life of a property outside of television into the wider marketplace. Then we started to think about the guts of the show and whether we were going to get that right.

A number of producers did cynically exploit the market early on and that did create an anomalous bubble so the licensing industry grew up overnight. I was at the first licensing show in the UK. It was at the NEC in Birmingham and then moved down to London. That first show was just an add-on to the Gift Fair. It was just a room on the side with no more than 15 or 20 of us. Within the space of a few years, it became a show in its own right and moved to London and it was massive.

Had it not been for the collapse of certain key retailers, the question is: would we have continued to be able to support its exponential growth like that? I don’t know the market could stand it. But when certain key retailers disappeared from the High Street, Woolworths being an important one, that’s when you realise that the market was overstretched. There were too many big people swimming in a very small pond and it all collapsed. Some big companies went under very quickly because they couldn’t support their overheads.

"It doesn’t matter if it’s IP, or brands, or clothing: digital is changing the whole landscape fundamentally forever. It’s not going to go back. The difference is fundamental, and if you don’t get that, it’s probably time to hang up your hat, retire to the south of France and write your memoir. You’ll be left behind."
Russell Dever, 1461 Ltd

Have you been surprised at how different the industry you are returning to is, to what it was back then?

I’d never quite got off the horse; I was just leading it very slowly across the brook. I still kept in touch with all the international agents and I kept my ear to the ground.

From an active point of view when I stepped back into the arena again, the landscape has changed completely. A lot of rules have changed and what has happened in that time is a digital revolution. That is taking the market into a completely different and such an exciting direction. It’s opening up new horizons and new opportunities that weren’t there before. The whole business stalled at a given point in time and it stalled because High Street retail faltered. There wasn’t anything underneath that to support anything else. Then very quickly following behind this we’ve seen exponential growth in online sales and online opportunities.

In some industries, retail is not that important anymore. That’s why big companies like HMV were brought to the absolute brink. Amazon is like the global catalogue of everything. It’s new opportunities and a new way of interacting with your marketplace. Whereas, historically, producers and owners of IP were at arms length from our real customers. That doesn’t necessarily have to be the case anymore. You can work directly with your clients, with the people buying your end product. But if you’re going to stick your head in sand and hope it just goes away, it’s not. It doesn’t matter if it’s children’s IP, or brands, or clothing, the whole landscape is changing fundamentally forever. It’s not going to go back. It’s the difference between going to market in medieval England and buying something in Oxford Street. The difference is that fundamental, and if you don’t get that, it’s probably time to hang up your hat, retire to the south of France and write your memoir. You’ll be left behind.

For some of us of a certain age, it can be daunting. I’m an analogue child. I started my career at a time before computers. The year I started work was the same year that the pocket calculator was invented and in the office we still used slide rules. Remain open-minded and just accept the opportunities as they come. But determining which way to go can sometimes be tricky.

When we made our very first show, we decided we would not use traditional animation techniques of back painted cells. This meant 28 cells back painted and hand painted per second. It was a vast amount of work and required almost a factory-amount of people to do it. At that time, Cambridge Animo had been launched and it was the very first computerised animation system. And for us, it was incredibly sophisticated. The best it could do was basically move eyes from one side to another. You couldn’t do full on animation but the market went from there to being able to produce Disney Pixar movies within the space of four years.

We invested heavily into this system which cost us something like just under half a million pounds on one computer system. But it could do the work of 30 people. This meant we needed a handful of people and produced our first animation, which we sold directly to Disney at our first show. When I got involved in TV, started it in 1995 and delivered it in 1996, that’s how quickly the market has changed. From that to a producer being able to create something like Avatar. Now you can barely distinguish between what is CGI and what is real. Sometimes I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or bad thing, but again, it comes down to the story content. If it’s a lousy story, it doesn’t matter how good it is: it’s a lousy story.

How is the licensing programming shaping up for The Boy and the Dinosaur?

The important thing is that the structure, that supports the licensing programme, is in place, and that’s in place.

We have a master licensing agent in Lisle International. With them, we have appointed international agents in all the main territories. Their job at the moment is to start alerting the marketplace and letting them know what’s coming. Slowly drip feeding them with little precious nuggets and getting that ready so that when we broadcast in each of those territories, it doesn’t come as a big surprise. So it’s not like it’s come from nowhere and everyone is scrambling around trying to catch up. But it’s not a good idea to sign licenses before you’re broadcast because otherwise, your licensees will be disappointed. This is because there has to be an expectation that the kids and parents are going to buy into it and that takes time. They don’t necessarily do that on the first pass.

It’s more about ensuring that the creative work will ultimately support a licensing programme and being able to identify what those things are. Take for instance, there’s a sequence where the dinosaur has upset Boy and is trying to cheer him up. The dinosaur has broken the garden slide. Boy had been putting things down the slide, it’s experimental which ties back into early years education. Some things will slide down; some things won’t slide down, some things go fast, some things go slow. It’s all about an experiment. Ultimately, Boy makes dinosaur go down the slow and of course he gets on it in trepidation and flattens the slide. Boy is devastated as it’s his favourite slide. The dinosaur then tries to amuse him by getting a garden gnome and doing keepie uppies and it lands on his head and slides down his back. This gives Boy an idea that dinosaur would make a great slide. So the dinosaur ends up becoming the garden slide. It’s a really charming piece. The whole point of that is ultimately that there is a piece of merchandise there that is a garden slide shaped like dinosaur. That piece of kit has already been fitted into the show. I know that some people would maybe find that inappropriate but it’s not really. Ultimately, it’s about being able to extend that emotional relationship between your viewer and your property. If they can buy into because they get things that are Boy and the Dinosaur related, all the better for them and all the better for your programme. It supports your merchandising, it supports the toy companies and everybody is happy. But that has to be done now.

You can’t go back having produced all of this and go ‘we should’ve included a whatever’ because it’s already done and it costs hundreds of thousands of pounds to make changes. You’ve got to have all of that done at the outset. The thinking process is during storyboarding, which we’re doing now. It has to be build into the script and all of those items have to be found in the storyboard. We work closely with licensing agents in the UK and overseas to give them an opportunity to feedback into the production process. It means they are able to say right now, ‘we love what you’ve done with that but if you change that, it would open up a vista of opportunity with licenses you haven’t even thought of.’

"Merchandise has to be built into the script. We work closely with licensing agents in the UK and overseas to give them an opportunity to feedback into the production process. It means they are able to say, ‘we love what you’ve done with that but if you change that, it would open up a vista of opportunity with licenses you haven’t even thought of.’
Russell Dever, 1461 Ltd

Does that solve the issue of people thinking elements of the show are in there purely to sell toys and merchandise as it’s not just a product with a sticker slapped on? The products heading to shelves have been integral to the story.

Yes, and that shows how far the whole industry has moved. It used to be a case of ‘oh, you want to license something? Just slap on an image of it.’ You’d have a generic toy product but you’ll put a sticker on and it becomes a licensed product. I suppose it did because it helped sell the item but it was only a generic item. You can’t do that now and I’ve never supported that ever. Even with our early licensing programme, we’ve always been very careful to make sure we didn’t disappoint our audience. Otherwise, it’s cheating.

Little Monsters did well globally back in the nineties. What does a property need to make it successful in many different territories?

Luck plays a big part. I’m not going to pretend otherwise. It was be disingenuous to say we knew exactly what we were doing from the outset. But, you can moderate that risk. You know what does work and what doesn’t work. I come from a publishing background, I was a children’s publisher. I did it for a long time so I understand the mind-set of my marketplace which does help. Also, I worked at the younger end of publishing with a lot of visual images and I understood what the expectations of different territories were. There are big differences. Take for instance, Scandinavia and Spain. From a design perspective, in Spain they like characters and images to have big round eyes. Scandanavians hate that. All their designs have little pinprick dots. There are one or two exceptions to that rule, Barbapapa is one of them, but for the most part that’s the way they like it. Once you begin to understand that, you can make those adjustments or determine that there are territories where you know you’ll never do well or take off. That’s a business decision you make from the outside. What would I rather do: sell to five million Norwegians or loads more Spanish speaking people around the world? Where is the marketplace?

Publishing is a different kettle of fish because you can produce in much smaller numbers. Whereas, with this, you’ve got to consider the whole market. So there is a strong element of luck involved, but you can mitigate some of that. I think we did that extremely well with Little Monsters. We’ve had more than 25m books in print worldwide, we’ve sold that property on every continent, we’ve had 23 language versions: so it has been hugely successful.

Are there plans to revisit Little Monsters?

Yes, Little Monsters is going through a bit of a makeover right now. We’re relaunching the property this year. It’s a soft launch because we don’t need to go back into the market with all guns blazing because everybody remembers it anyway. We’re giving it a retro-fresh image. This is about being aware of the wider marketplace of what is current and contemporary design, looks and where are they going.

For instance, a dirty word in the furniture industry up until the last 18 months would have been the name Ercol because Ercol would’ve been a brand that your grandmother would’ve probably bought into with Ercol furniture in the late fifties and early sixties. Now, you can’t get your hands on Ercol furniture because you can’t afford it anymore because current design trends are going back to that post-war, post-austerity era. Bold colours, simple lines, Bauhaus feel. That’s where we are re-positioning Little Monsters. That’s why we’ve chosen this description of retro-fresh. It will look like a retro property with a whole fresh image. When you look at that with the wider design concepts, which are coming from London, Paris and Berlin right now, it looks very contemporary to the market.

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What will this retro-fresh look involve?

It’s the way that the original material is redesigned and packaged and a redesign of the original TV show. It will have a completely different look and feel to what it looked like originally. I don’t make any pretence about the fact that when we first went to the marketplace with Little Monsters, we were looking over our shoulder all the time at Mr Men. The reason for that was that I was very much involved in the publishing of Mr Men for a good few years at Gutenberghus Press which became Egmont. Egmont didn’t have the rights at the time to Mr Men but I rediscovered them in New York at a publishing house called Duttons. I brought them back to the UK because I remembered them from when I was young and Egmont bought the rights and did extremely well with the relaunch of that property.

Originally Mr Men when it first launched in the UK hadn’t been that successful. Mr Hargreaves who created it, his estate sold the rights on and they had been sitting with a succession of different publishers. So when we brought that back, there had been a break in publishing in the UK for a few years, seven or eight, and then we came back into the marketplace really strongly. Because Egmont had mass market distribution which the original publisher didn’t have, they only had trade distribution, it meant we flooded the marketplace. It has been with Egmont ever since and has been the backbone of their business in the UK for years. I looked at that and thought there’s an opportunity there.

After Hargreaves died, his family understandably didn’t want to make any changes to his work so it became something of an homage to his memory. Though the covers were brightened up a lot, the internal artwork is still the original hand drawn magic marker artwork. So we though there was an opportunity and that was the genesis of Little Monsters.

It was also that case that kids had become more sophisticated and were becoming 'older younger'. That opened up some opportunities for us with Little Monsters. When we first conceived the idea, it was only ever going to be a series of six books and then it became 12, and then it became 24 and it ended up being 60. That’s when I moved from publishing into TV and animation.

We had a bit of a break with Little Monsters from the outset because there was an option agreement for television with another company and we had to wait for that option agreement to expire. While we were waiting, we launched our first TV show Microscopic Milton and that’s the one we sold to the Disney Channel. It didn’t seem terribly difficult at the time so when it came to the TV series for Little Monsters we said yeah let’s go for it.

We had publishing, which we controlled, we had the television, which we controlled so the next stage was who is going to handle the licensing and merchandise. I’d hoped that an agency in London would take on the merchandising rights for Little Monsters but they also had a competing product so they were unhappy to be involved. So we thought we’ll do it ourselves. And we did. We’ve always had full control, right the way through from publishing to licensing and merchandising.

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Is that quite a rare feat in the industry?

I suppose it is really. Some of my contemporaries who did that potentially made the mistake of throwing too much money at it and not keeping an eye on the cost structure. This is an expensive business. It costs a lot of money to make a TV series. You’ve got be sure that you’re going to recoup it for your investors. That’s the difference between the way we work and the way some producers work. Most producers work in co-production with their broadcasters because they know they have the majority of their funding in place. We don’t do that. We self fund all of our production. That means we have 100 per cent control over the merchandising whereas other people don’t because they have partners. If you’ve got five different broadcasters in five different territories all who have put money into a production, they all think their channel and market is the most important. They make demands on you creatively and this is why some shows end up being a bit dull and boring because everything gets diluted by different channels. Whereas, all broadcasters have an acquisitions budget which is separate from their co-production budget. They have to still buy new shows. They can’t afford to co-produce everything. If you sell to them through their acquisition budget, it’s simply a case of take it or leave it. And frankly, I’m not bothered because I only produce top quality shows. We put a lot of time, effort and money into them and we know what we do is good and consequently we know someone is going to buy it. Maybe it’s not the premium broadcaster in any particular territory but we’ll still sell it and it’ll be broadcast widely enough to support a licensing and merchandising programme in that territory.

Does a history with one channel count for anything when you are touting a new project?

You’re never as good as your last show; you’re only ever as good as the current one that you put in front of them. So it doesn’t really matter. And I think that’s probably a very good. It always means that everyone is going in on a level playing field. I’m not saying that some broadcasters don’t have their favourites, they most certainly have, but it still doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get a broadcast. That’s quite good really.

When is The Boy and The Dinosaur coming to TV?

I can tell you the lead broadcaster is Disney. It’s coming July next year. That’s the delivery of the first 13.

And Disney is a good fit for the show?

Totally. It’s an amazing imprimatur. What other broadcaster in the world can turn round to me and give me any critique of a show that Disney has taken. What does that make you, better than Disney? There are two really important marks that you want to have attached to your show, either Disney or the BBC.

I work with a boutique distributor in Santa Barbara called Foothill Entertainment and they are fantastic. I’ve worked with them for years, Jo Kavanagh-Payne and her husband Greg Payne. They give everything for your show and that what you want. We could go with much bigger distributors but we are then just one show in a whole catalogue of shows. You’re only ever as good as whoever else they’ve got at the time and I’ve seen how the bigger distributors present at the markets and it’s like a catalogue with 25 shows in. That’s not the way to develop a marketing plan. We do have strong personal relationships and that’s important to me. That’s why I can operate a little bit below the radar as well. The people who are important to me know who I am. It’s why I don’t have a business card. I make it my business to know them.

"In this industry, you can’t predict success. All you can do is try and take on board all the different circumstances, look at the parameters of your show and make sure you’ve developed well with inside those and that you’re meeting all the main criteria people are looking for. If you do that, do it well and don’t lose sight of the humour, which is really important, then you’re probably going to do it."
Russell Dever, 1461 Ltd.

Can the Boy and the Dinosaur match the success of Little Monsters?

It would be really grand of me to express an opinion about that. All you can do is hope you’ve got it right. Everybody wants to be able to predict a success but you can’t and anybody that says they can is a fool. In this industry, you can’t predict success. All you can do is try and take on board all the different circumstances, look at the parameters of your show and make sure you’ve developed well with inside those and that you’re meeting all the main criteria people are looking for. If you do that, do it well and don’t lose sight of the humour, which is really important, then you’re probably going to do it. But you can never tell, it could fall flat on its backside and if it does, we’ll do something else instead. We’ve got plenty coming up behind it.

So you keep a string on projects in the pipeline?

I do now. I didn’t used to. I used to break between productions and projects. What I feel now is that it’s a mistake because it takes longer and longer to get things into production so you need to start planning where you want to be some years ahead. Financing plan for 52 x 11 minutes shows can take two to three years to come together. Maybe I’m seeing that start to speed up now, with the new tax breaks coming into force, but it still takes a long time. The production period for something like 52 x 11 minutes isn’t less than 18 months and ideally two years. I deliver in blocks of 13 episodes.

Technology is moving at such a pace too. Everything has apps and virtual reality is becoming increasingly important. We’re not too far away from being able to afford to print 3D objects in your own home. The cost is coming down so by the time toy shops have got involved in that, people will be able to afford to do it in their own home anyway. I’ve seen it work and it is mind-blowing. It’s crazy. We’re all going to hell in a handcart.

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